The Reverend Billy Graham recently made what I consider to be one of the most profound confessions I have ever heard. In James Emery White's book A Mind For God, (p.9), Graham is quoted as saying "I've preached too much, and studied too little."
If Billy Graham, one of the most respected, admired, and successful Christian men in modern history, can look back over his life and make such a statement, we would do well to re-evaluate our views and commitments to his assertion.
Our dedication to study needs to be more "intentional." To his eternal credit, I think this is a realization that Billy Graham has come to late in his life. The culture in which he began his ministry is not the same culture as the one in which it ended.I do not mean this in a derogatory way, but I imagine that for someone as gifted and eloquent as Billy Graham, delivering an effective sermon may have become somewhat mechanical. Though it may have taken much courage and preparation when he began his ministry, after several deliveries the project must have become old hat. After several thousand times, he could probably have done it in his sleep.
I do not begin to question the fact that Billy Graham addressed many audiences in unique ways and in situations to which very few were privy. But, having heard him speak at large evangelistic events twice, I can safely say that his message was not an intellectual appeal to the veracity of Christianity. It was based on Biblical truth, but it was not in-depth or intellectually challenging. It was powerful, but its power came from its ability to move us emotionally. I believe that, in part, this is why Graham was so successful. He was a master at hitting his contemporary audiences in the gut, not in the head. Our culture is emoto-centric. Our feelings drive us. For many, our feelings are our primary means of determining what we believe ... and that is dangerous.
We live in a culture that condones the flippant use of art and language, twisting both to the point where they can no longer be identified with wisdom or beauty; to a point where words no longer have meaning; to a place where “is” no longer means “is.” It is a culture that has sabotaged the concept formerly known as shame. It is a culture where tolerance now means endorsement, virtue has been supplanted by audacity, and personal responsibility has morphed into the right to blame anyone but yourself. Above all, it is a culture that denies the absolute claims of objective truth and is instead enamored with: the superiority of sincerity, the prominence of personal opinion, and the first rights of feelings. And, because of this trait, it is a culture that will lead us, with all good intentions, happy thoughts, and pleasant feelings, right to our own destruction.
We need to be cognizant of that fact and prepare ourselves to meet it head on. Make no mistake – all of us are affected by this culture. It is easy to see it in our co-workers and neighbors but we would be naïve to think it has not also infiltrated our congregations and the methods we use to nurture them. We cannot allow ourselves to be seduced by the tendency this culture breeds to construct our evangelistic efforts around a first move toward self-esteem or by offering a theology of answering felt needs. These should be the desired by-products of the growth of the kingdom, not the primary objectives.
We need to give our congregations: reasons for believing, tools for defending, and confidence in sharing, the hope inherent in our faith. Peter told us as much. And Paul told us where to start such a transformation – with the renewing of our minds.
Look around you. Everything you see – Space Shuttles, computers, DVDs, church buildings, automobiles – the materials needed to create all those things has always been with us right there in the earth. It’s simply existed in a different form . . .
- Noah could have built an aircraft carrier
- Joshua could have used his cell phone to let the boys in Jericho know their time was up
- Paul could have emailed his letters to the churches at Ephesus and Corinth
. . . The potential existed for each of these characters to have done each of these things. They just never imagined they could. None of those things was made manifest until it first popped into the mind of someone just like you . . . as a thought.
Thoughts are powerful things. They are the fountainhead of human creativity. But, more importantly, they are also the forms that mold the center of our being. And the way our core being is molded becomes the character from which we act. Nothing can become reality – not cell phones and not character traits – until we first capture it in our minds. So what have the individual members of the church been taught to think? What’s been molding their character? Too often, we have allowed the molding cast to be the society around us – a culture that devalues thinking and cultivates a slothful mind.
Recently, USA Today drove this point home in a report about children’s reading proficiency wherein researcher Kylene Beers of Yale University found that 80% of graduating high school seniors proclaim that "they will never again voluntarily read another book."
Folks, Johnny won’t read because it’s too hard and takes too much time. And if Johnny doesn’t want to read, or engage his brain, for school or work or pleasure, why would we expect him to read and engage his brain for church? Is it any wonder that those same high school seniors have thoughtlessly come to accept the culture’s proclamation that religion is all about subjective feelings, sincere motives, personal piety, and blind faith?
We have to convince these kids, just as we have to remind their parents, that faith cannot be blind, and that "spiritual" does not mean mindless.
Paul told us that we should "take every thought captive" so that we may "demolish the arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God." The practice of a faithful Christian life begins in our minds where we know what we believe and why we believe it.
Challenging the church to a stimulating and critical intellectual consideration of its faith will be an uphill battle in this culture. But it is a battle we must fight. Powerful, well-researched, hard-hitting sermons will help -- but only if they exhort their audiences to personal intellectual engagement. The Biblical agape love that constitutes the core of our faith -- and the person of our God -- is not a feel-good emotion. It is a call to action from a Creator who wants us to love Him with all our mind.