Thinking Is Worship

For whatever reason, numerous Christians have a certain aversion towards thinking. I was reminded of this recently in our church, where we have created “Village University.”  We have finally made a statement that, along with worship and community, we need a robust educational ministry.  We are attempting to raise the bar, provide classes ranging from theological to biblical to practical issues, with teachers ranging from scientists at secular universities to seminary grads, doctors, nurses and businessmen.  It’s long overdue.  But with this challenge has been a “concern” (a word often used in church circles) that the church is turning intellectual on us, succumbing to rationalism and worse.

The reality is, our tendency to not think so deeply is a key factor in our inability as evangelicals to impact culture.  And it has become, in Mark Noll’s words, a scandal. An occasional journey into Christian radio and its advertising underscores what I sometimes fear most—that too many Christians are gullible and superficial. It helps explain why authors like John Piper have written recent books to address this.  In his book Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, Piper challenges evangelicals who tend to be ruled by pragmatism, pietists who glory in their anti-intellectualism, and certain Pentecostals who are suspicious of the mind, to think.  I still remember meeting a Pentecostal minister during my days as a seminary student, who feared I would never be used powerfully of the Spirit until I emptied my brain of all of this theological “stuff” that had been fed into it (after all, wasn’t it Paul who declared that God has made foolish the wisdom of the world?-I Cor 1:20).

Piper describes his book as “a plea to reject either-or-thinking when it comes to head and heart, thinking and feeling, reason and faith, theology and doxology, mental labor and the ministry of love.  It is a plea to see thinking as a necessary, God-ordained means of knowing God.”  He is right.  Sometimes, we have this strange assumption that heartfelt belief and scholarship are contrary to one another.  They are not.  Piper, describing his own journey, notes

I have never been one of those who found the heart to shrivel as God and His Word are known better.  Putting more knowledge in my head about God and His ways was like throwing wood in the furnace of my worship.

This is not to say that a certain suspicion towards thinking is groundless.  I have been to enough academic conferences to know that knowledge does have a tendency to puff up.  Some of the most arrogant people I have met are Christian scholars.  Thinking without prayer, without the Spirit, without obedience, and without a compassion for those you share it with can destroy (I Cor 8:1). Some do retreat into their books and crowd out the Spirit.  Some do give more weight to intellectualism than to a personal walk with Christ. And true, some have, in the pursuit of learning, turned away from God.

One of the vows a number of us going to seminary had to make from the start is that the Bible cannot end up as a textbook.  We must never be afraid of truth.  Truth can stand on its own. Sermons cannot be measured by how much knowledge is crammed into them.  Thinking should not come at the expense of heartfelt, experiential, emotional, passionate delivery—just as passionate worship should not come at the expense of thinking.  We are all called to love God with all of our heart and all of our minds (Matt 22:37).

Piper’s closing fourfold plea is worth pondering:

1. Make all your thinking a partner in God’s ultimate purpose to magnify His glory

2. Continually humble yourself under the mighty hand of God

3. Confess your absolute dependence on Christ

4. Make all of your thinking an act of love

I hope, by God’s grace, the reason I pour 15-20 hours in preparing a sermon each week is not to impress my congregation with my insights, but to think as deeply as I can out of my love for God and love for them.  If we do this University right, we just might equip people to engage in this confused world with thoughtful, insightful, God glorifying wisdom.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.

9 thoughts on “Thinking Is Worship

  1. Christians are often inclined not only toward suspicion of thinking, but also to apathy toward thinking. One could direct his attention to the plethora of weak, theologically vapid small group plans, and study guides that are being pumped out. It is not that these lack anything good, but that they keep congregates locked into first principals without growing.

    My wife and I have been working through a Methodist Catechism from the 1850’s so that we can make the appropriate changes to teach it to our daughter as she is growing up. Most of the changes that we felt were needed were with the language, where the words, which we understood, are no longer a part of the wider vocabulary of the church. This was especially the case with the catechetical proofs and arguments. Could even such stock phrases as sacrament, sanctification, and justification be used from most modern pulpits without accompanying parenthetical definitions?

    I would be remiss to suggest that one cannot be a good Christian without a good education, but it is doubtful how deep, beyond first doctrines–the very milk of Christianity, one is able without more purposeful and indepth thinking (cf. Hebrew 6:1-3).

    Propter Sanguinem Agni,

    1. “One could direct his attention to the plethora of weak, theologically vapid small group plans, and study guides that are being pumped out. It is not that these lack anything good, but that they keep congregates locked into first principals without growing.”

      I could not agree more with this statement! In the last couple years I have just begun to interact with some of these curricula put out by major Christian publishers, and I have been very discouraged by what I have seen. I could not quite place my finger on why I was upset, because MOST of the time they were not saying anything WRONG, but something was missing. I felt like they cycled between a handful of different life lessons, just attaching different texts and illustrations onto them in order to get their point across. I think you have hit the nail on the head with this observation: “they keep congregates locked into first principals without growing.” Great thoughts

  2. How about a realistic kids program? Anybody got one? Next week I’m supposed to teach the school-agers about “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” (Theodicy), centering on Job 42:10-13: “Job had a very bad day, but in the end it was OK because God was with him.” I think I feel a call to be subversive….

    A lot of popular teaching seems to this young Christian to be about how to ignore the obvious in Bible texts. (…And a lot of “intellectual” teaching seems to be about doing the same for working pastors.) I think catechisms would be all very well if we looked at them as supplying good questions rather than rote answers.

  3. I came across this quote from Francis Bacon:

    “Let no man think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word or in the book of God’s works, but rather let man endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both.”

    I came across the quote at the beginning of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”.

  4. John,
    Having been a student in your class in what is now many years past, I greatly appreciated this article because it strikes an important chord with me. I was wondering if you might be interested in reading a book that I wrote that was recently published regarding this topic? I’d be happy to send you a copy and would appreciate your feedback and insight.
    Here is the back matter to the book:

    Recovering Our Lost Theology: ‘The Sovereign Grace of God’

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