Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Colleges seeking to make degrees more relevant-what about churches?

I recovering from a nose job that I had last week. Ha, ha. :) Actually, I had surgery to correct a deviated septum. They removed my stints today-yikes! I hope to be back to full strength in a few days. Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and prayers.

I really have been trying to rest, but I came across an article today in the New York Times entitled, Making College Relevant. The article cites various examples of colleges increasingly seeking to be directly "relevant" in the majors that they offer. The University of Louisiana, for instance, is eliminating their philosophy major, and the University of Michigan is eliminating American Studies and Classics majors. The reasons? Decline of students majoring in these fields.

Increasingly, students--and their parents who are paying exorbitant tuition rates--are asking, how will this major help me get a job? No one can afford $100,000 to get a degree in Sand Script and then work at StarBucks. The loans cost too much. So economic reality is driving this shift in part.

However, there is another cultural force driving this shift--the collapse of Western thought and the rise of pragmatism. Western philosophy was built upon thinkers such as Rene Descartes. Descartes doubted everything until he could find the one thing which he could not doubt--that he thought. Upon this absolute foundation, he then built additional thoughts and conclusions. This led to the rise of "foundationalism," deduction, and rational thought.

In case you had not noticed, no one is buying anyone else's deductions these days. Deductions are viewed to be a way of manipulating and controlling arguments. Not only is there skepticism of the deducers, but we are moving into a post-literate, narrative, image based society where deduction and logic are rarely the primary forms of communication.

For instance, when was the last time you saw a TV show or movie where the form was people making statements and then seeking to prove them? Purely deductive sermons--once the norm in churches--are now death for communication. No speaker comes in to an audience--even a Christian audience--with enough clout to pull this off consistently. People are already skeptical.

At the same time, people are skeptical of induction to form conclusions as well. Science claims to be inductive, based upon emperical evidence. But as the recent scandal on global warming shows, data can and is often manipulated by humans--whether scientists or other mere mortals--to fit pre-conceived conclusions.

What are we left with, then, if both deduction and induction are viewed skeptically today? Pragmatism. What really works. People don't have time or patience for theories or knowledge for knowledge's sake. Give me something that works, and that I can see that works.

This has huge implications for "how we do church."

  • Sermons need to have practical application and inspire people to actually take action.
  • Bible classes need to be much less about knowledge--which can be found anywhere on the Internet--and more about real life issues - marriage, relationships, child raising, friendship, Christianity in the workplace, how to reach out. And because people are dealing with different issues, we need all kinds of "classes" in all kinds of places.
  • Elders need to spiritual life coaches, not board of directors. Younger people are dying for mentors, role models, marriage examples, and people who care about them.

People today say, don't tell me about the doctrine of grace. Tell me how grace can help me forgive my wife or husband. Or make me not beat myself up. Or be kind to my children when they are acting like little rebels!

Many college administrators are bemoaning the fact that college students are not that interested in philosophy and are so pragmatic. They want college students to receive a broad based foundation that goes beyond an immediate job and helps them learn how to think. There is value in this. But if no one signs up--whether for a major or for something church related--then this thinking does no good. A more integrated "curriculum" that provides broad based thinking while emphasizing practical application may be a necessity for today's pragmatic society.

And, after all, shouldn't Christianity "work?"

What do you think of the pragmatic emphasis in culture? How should this be applied in the church? What should be avoided? What is good about this?


Kevin M said...

Good thoughts but I'm not totally sold on the pragmatic approach. In the technology industry (in which I work) there are many people that get "certifications" on different technologies but have no clue how to implement them. They want to know only what is needed for their job but what they don't have is any understanding of the bigger picture. They end up being low end employees that only do "their" job. In these times that is a death sentence in a job market. You MUST be able to think and move outside of your job description to be successful.

Offering classes that meet specific needs are good for members but, to me, churches need to make sure that leaders have a more advanced understanding of the subjects addressed. Even lay member leaders need this advanced understanding to make sure they can accurately teach or discuss subjects.

My wish is that classic education would come back. I wish at some point in my education I would have had some antiquities or Latin or Greek classes.

James Nored said...


I certainly understand the problem of people who only know how to do one job. An essential in today's ever-changing world is continued learning, whether for people in the workplace or for ministers.

There are obvious concerns with an overly pragmatic approach. However, could we teach people how to learn (and not just content) while at the same time teaching people how to apply their learning?

Your point on leaders is well taken. Somewhere in the church we certainly need scholars and those with a deep understanding of God's word! I wonder if we have, however, tried to make everyone into scholars, when knowledge and learning is not their gift.

Your thoughts?

Kevin M said...

All good points. I just can't shake the feeling that we lose something when making ideas too reachable. Not enough stretching.

I just finished the book Theology of the Reformers (thanks for the loan) and in the part on Menno Simmons it talks about the uneducated members of the Anabaptist movement knowing the scriptures better than the learned people putting them on trial. I wonder if a main problem with many Christians today is a lack of bible knowledge. Just plain old scripture and verse. I'm certainly in that category. I've read lot's of stuff about the Bible but don't have a great grasp on recalling scriptures when needed. If talking to people I can talk around what the Bible says but rarely can I point them to an actual passage that they can then go to and see for themselves.

walterrsmith said...


You've referenced a number of threads related to an important topic...here's a few snap reactions:

1. Pragmatism is silent on ends. "What works" begs the question of "what is your goal?". It also raises questions of "how do you know (a) what works, and (b) what your goals are." Answers to these questions would vary depending on the nature of your assumptions & worldview.

2. We live in interesting times regarding our ability to know (epistemology). Modernism's naively optimistic rationalism ("I can know everything exhaustively" and "right knowledge inexorably leads to right action") has been eclipsed by postmodernism's pessimistic subjectivism ("I can't know anything" and "all understandings and actions are contextual, relative, and grounded in an ongoing narrative"). Neither extreme reflects a Biblical understanding of our ability to know and act, or of how the two are intertwined (see I Cor. 1-2, for example).

3. Regarding sermons....I'm not clear on how to separate an understanding of grace, for example, (as grounded in Christ's sacrifice and communicated via the Bible in both narrative and proposition) from a practical living out of grace. "How to" is necessary, but needs to be grounded in understandings that empower an individual to act effectively across a broad range of contexts. And, a living out of those principles yields a deeper understanding of their beauty and wisdom.

4. A more fundamental question than "does it work" is "is it true?". I hasten to add that I'm using "true" in the Biblical sense, not in the modern sense or the postmodern sense. Some folks seem to struggle with epistemology when it comes to knowing "what's true", but it seems to me that the same kinds of issues arise in knowing "what works", as I mentioned above.

5. One Biblical ideal concerning knowledge that I find inspiring is Psalms 119...it's not a dry slice-and-dice rationalistic list of concepts, nor is it a list of "how to" items, or a subjective narrative...instead, it's a celebration of the beauty and wisdom of God's verbal communication to us in all of its literary forms.

BTW, I attend BRCC, know Lawrence V., and am looking forward to your seminar. At a more conceptual level, I would be curious to hear your opinion of Don Carson's discussion of these cultural currents in "Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church."