“Theologians, write for the church not just the guild

The second day of the conference I attended in Wheaton featured several excellent papers, not the least of which was Scot McKnight’s. I could comment on any number of his points (and I very well might next week), but for now allow me a few remarks on his thoughts regarding the publishing habits of Christian academics and his call for theologians to write for the church and not just for the academic guild.

Most of you write things no one but specialists can understand. Most of the people in your church, and probably more than most, aren’t reading the sorts of things professors write these days. Some professors think they are writing popular theology because they don’t overload their books with footnotes. Instead, they’ve only got about 100 footnotes in a 200 page book. That’s not popular theology. […]

The need here is so great that one is tempted to call a moratorium on evangelical theologians writing for the guild, or at least reducing their guild writing and require each theologian, each biblical expert and each church historian to write one book for the church – for ordinary lay people with enough snap to it to make it genuinely readable, pleasurable and inspiring – before they can write academic pieces. […]

Now let me do some fingerpointing: Don’t complain about what the ordinary evangelical knows and believes until you are willing to speak to them, in their words, and in ways that compel belief and memory.

Scot is entirely right, and I followed up with the following comment and question. As much as I want to be that kind of theologian, nothing in my professional training has equipped me for it – in fact, much of my training in how to write academic prose actually works against my ability to connect and inspire the average, non-specialist reader! So where do young theologians go to be equipped for this kind of work? How do we unlearn our bad habits and develop the writing skills that will enable us to flourish in the engaging prose McKnight calls us to inhabit? McKnight’s answer was straightforward: read good writers.

The issue is compounded by promotional tracks in most educational institutions that work against Scot’s call for theologians to broaden their writing beyond the guild. Getting tenure at Huntington has nothing to do with writing for the average laymen; I am evaluated by my scholarship within the academy, and this is entirely the norm within higher education.

Do you know where I would be this summer if I didn’t have two academic manuscripts in the works (crying for my attention!)? I would be in Marylinne Robinson’s writing seminar for young theologians at the Center for Theological Inquiry. Check it out here if you don’t have summer plans.

21 thoughts on ““Theologians, write for the church not just the guild

  1. If academics began relaying what they have learned to lay people, I wonder how many of them would stop attending services and even maybe lose faith.

    Or perhaps begin drawing lines in the sand, rallying the troops and trying to get the poor profs fired or at the very least get immediate stop payment orders put on checks already written to the schools…


  2. Kent,

    thank you for this post. I think McKnight is raising a significant issue and your comments are right on. Two thoughts to share…

    First, things will not change until evangelical schools find other ways of rewarding profs with tenure than based on a number of academic books and articles they have written. We need school administrators who are first and foremost shepherds at heart who have a capacity to detect and nurture vocational callings of their flock, i.e. faculty.

    Second, Eugene Peterson is a prime example of a sharp mind that set up his classroom in the midst of a local parish. He pastored the same church for 30 years before moving to teaching at Regent College. He writes out of his encyclopedic knowledge and with wit and zest. See my post on a “Vocation of a Theologian” based on his writings.

    Great blog. Thank you.


    • Bacho, I also suspect we need to start thinking outside the box concerning our seminary programs. If we are serious about this (or at least might become serious about this) then we should add a standard writing course for all seminary tracks that would give pastors and scholars basic writing training – and I don’t mean training in academic writing, I mean training in the kind of clear, engaging prose Scot is advocating for.

  3. Kent, thanks for this post. I was also at the conference and appreciated Scot’s paper. However, I’m still trying sort out a few issues and would appreciate additional insights.

    On the one hand, I think that Scot’s categories are a little too simplistic. Can we easily distinguish between writing for the guild and writing for the church? And it seems that the way these are defined are by whether they can be understood by the church or not. Is this fair? What if a scholar writes a fine introduction to the theology of Bavinck but no one in the church wants to read it? Has he/she written a book for specialists alone? Hardly! What if it just so happens the church no longer cares for biblical/theological studies and only wants to read “fluff”? Then should we write fluff so that they’ll read it?

    On the other hand, I heartily agree with Scot that scholars shouldn’t spend their entire careers “only” (sorry, I don’t know how to do italics) writings books that roughly 30 people in the world can understand. While I don’t believe that works of specialization are a result of wasted time (I don’t think Scot would say this either), more time does need to be spent writing for the church. But what kind of books? Books they will read, or books that will help them in some way?

  4. Kent,
    I agree that theologians need to write theology that appeals not just to the academy, but to the Church as well. At the same time, I sometimes think the Church needs to be a bit more academic.

    Do you think there needs to be an adjustment on both sides?

    • Yes, but I can’t imagine what it would look like for the church to gain momentum in that direction. We at least need pastors willing to challenge their congregations with meaty sermons, and that requires them to be reading more than The Shack. Like I said, I can’t imagine what it would look like to get things moving that direction. I’m not as pessimistic as that last remark sounds, its just that I have been a pastor, and I know the weekly challenges the vocation provides.

  5. Sorry, one other thought – when should scholars be writing for the church? Right out of their PhD? I just read a comment by Wright, Scot’s ideal example, who writes “Because I’ve done all that historical work, my view of the gospel and how it works out in the real world has been deepened and enriched in all kinds of ways that I would have never guessed 25 years ago when I was starting out writing about Jesus.”

    • Jordan, I feel the tension acutely. In fact, I had a conversation after Scot’s paper about precisely this with an editor from Baker. Honestly, I don’t feel ready to tackle the kinds of projects Scot is calling Christian theologians to write; I need another five to ten years teaching, researching, and living life before I have the wisdom sufficient for it. That’s just me though, and I wouldn’t begin to make it a rule. Some exceptional young scholars are writing today, I just don’t think I will be in the kind of place where I can do those projects (and I have dreams for several!) until I have a few more years under my belt.

  6. Kent

    Thanks for the post. I didn’t act promptly and the Conference was completely filled. The point Scot made is very spot on but your comments also point out the high tension that exists. I used to have this debate with my friends in college back in the ancient days before computers, who were studying speech philosophy (existential phenomenology) and would send me their papers. I’m not sure we ever came up with anything close to an answer but your point on the need for academic publication was the major force behind their writing.

    I think Andrew has a point but I am not confident the church can become more academic per se though I tend to think some form of a catechesis is essential.

    I just finished Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. My daughter just graduated from Westmont College and that text was highlighted in the college magazine.

  7. Kent,

    A good post and a vital point. As one who has lived in both worlds, I am saddened by the great gulf that separates the church and the academy.

    And it works both ways. We need more scholar-pastors or pastor theologians, what we once called a learned ministry. The CTI program has been trying to do this.

    And at the same time we need academics who love the church, and bring their substantial gifts to its life. There are many who do this; may their tribe increase.

    Sadly, the politics of both church and academy mitigate against this. I never got a cent more as a pastor for getting a doctorate or doing three academic research sabbaticals. My congregation was proud of me, but thought of theology more as a hobby than a necessary part of any minister’s tools.

    And scholars, as an earlier commentator mentioned, don’t get tenure for writing lay-friendly catechetical works. In fact, such works will label them as popular and not serious.

    The whole church suffers because this. The bright spots are the Tom Wrights, Richard Bauckhams, George Hunsingers, Gabe Fackres, Donald Bloesches and their ilk who love the church, and keep writing and speaking “in season and out of season” for its theological health and well being. But all have tenure, which I guess proves the point of the problem.


    Rick Floyd

  8. Kent:

    I think that if you go with your rational side – “come, let us reason together”; the “mind” of Christ – you’ll also do well enough as a scholar, if you chose.

    • I am not entirely sure what you mean, “go with your rational side.” What would it look like to do this, and what would be the alternative, some kind of non-rational study of theology (is there such a thing)?

      And hasn’t the overemphasis of the “rational” and “mind” led to the separation of head from heart, theory from practice, and science from wisdom that makes the study of theology seem to so many in the church only a dead science or quaint hobby? Shouldn’t our approach in theological education be to bring together head and heart, theory and practice, science and wisdom?

  9. Why is the academic guild not the church? Why is the church functioning as a synonym for laymen? Don’t we always write for a narrow audience?

    • Mike, yes of course the academic guild “might” very well be described as the church (depending on which academic guild we are talking about). However, if you look back to the post you will notice that I describe “church” (as it appears in the post’s title) as “the average, non-specialist reader.” See my point?

  10. How can theologians even begin to write for the church.

    Which church?

    There are hundreds (even thousands) of Christian sects, and over 2 billion individual Christians on the planet.

    Many of these sects violently disagree with the doctrines and beliefs of other sects. And contradict each other too.

    Does a peasant Coptic Christian in Ethiopia have any points of similarity with what you promote, or how you live?

    Besides which the “church” is an abstract entity–and you cant write to, or communicate with an abstract entity. But ONLY with individual Christians one at a time, who then may or may not change their actions on the basis of what they have understood.

    Plus it takes much much more than mere left-brained “theology” to cause people to change at the feeling-heart.

    The world is quite literally groaning under the weight of all of the theology that now exists. More people are doing/writing theology than ever before. And reading and studying it too.

    Christian propaganda, both printed and via electronic media, is flooding the planet.

    And yet the world altogether IS becoming more insane every day.

  11. Kent,
    This is one of the finest topics to blog on. I am grateful to read everyone’s stories here. I’ll add some of mine.

    I was admitted to the graduate program at my seminary before concluding the MDiv: but, my wife and I both realized that marriage and parenting called us with a greater strength than pursuing the PhD at that season of life. And, I have enjoyed more than 15 years of ministry.

    Now that we’re an empty nest, I am making the long, arcing return toward graduate studies in theology.

    I mention this background, as I have received plenty of affirmation about returning for the PhD, yet most people have remained silent or have not initiated with me regarding what I perceive to follow completion of the PhD. I don’t expect that I’ll end up in the academy: but, I am keeping myself open to that surprise. I do understand, however, that the kind of writing expected has a much smaller cultural orbit, and extends itself to those within the academy.

    Having said this, I noticed- as have many other commentators- that there is strange slogan getting bandied about, and this about your topic: “theology done in service of the church.” This slogan, with many variations, deserves some careful parsing when used by faculty or in promotional material of various media from graduate departments in theology.

    Perhaps- and if I understand your post- this slogan really aims itself toward the educating of clergy, or at least the weight of such a slogan bends in that direction. But, rarely does it translate toward the building up of the saints: in that case, such writing always gets mediated through the clergy. And often, that is a very good thing. But, bulk of such a writing orientation targets pastors, seminarians, and other theological educators.

    I want to include myself among those who need to learn to write for the folks in the pew, who serve and worship, and in general, remain committed to Christ through the local church and its mission. Such learning will require some genuine humility, and trial and error. I suppose I would add, that some different models of education for the laity, as opposed to the pastor as talking head, might also contribute toward the theological education of those in the pew and in the mission.

    • Well said Mike. I would encourage you to remember (as I am sure you already know) that your PhD work is not intended for the average, non-specialist reader and trying to accomplish that end with your postgraduate degree will only make the process harder and less fruitful. It is your work that later comes out of your thinking and research that can be – according to this post should be – directed to the average, nonspecialist reader as well as the academy, or the pastor.

      • Kent, your last comment made me begin to wonder: are there any specific resources on how to begin thinking through these issues? I’ll be starting a PhD in the Fall and can tell that I’m already continuing to wrestle with these questions and would greatly appreciate some guidance.

  12. I am a theologian trained in a Kenyan college rearing to take on the great commission ; Currently I do not have a specific church that can hire me ; Advise on what I can do

  13. I heartily agree with you MikeK. My own belief is that theologians should be trained with depth and understanding as a scholar, but should be taught how to to relay that information to the non-scholar in “Layman’s terms”. As a writer, I see the validity of both academic theology and practical theology, my concern however, is the gulf that separates the two. Paul E. Little wrote two of my favorite books; “Know What You Believe” and “Know Why You Believe”, he was both scholarly and easy to understand. We should never forsake teaching the “meat of the Word” so the general populus will find it entertaining, but we should be able to share it with language that they understand. It is a fine line but difficult as it may seem, it has been done before and it is our responsibility to continue in that vein and style of writing. Love the posts and God bless

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