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Neglecting Intellect

What do you do more in church: think or feel?

What about the sermon—does it appeal to one more than the other?

And the worship? Do the songs—because that’s generally the sum total of corporate worship in America—aim to engage you intellectually or emotionally?

I would hazard a guess and say that most churches are shooting at the heart more than the head, and this, gentle reader, this is a problem. Just look at the state of theology in our nation (and our churches) to see that an increasing number of people don’t understand the gospel.

Disclaimer & Caution

Before I explain our problem, let me offer a disclaimer and a caution. First of all, I’m imbalanced. I am way more intellectually-driven than emotionally. Part of that is from being a Western-born man and part of this is arrogance.

Secondly, as a caution, please don’t read on, come to the conclusion that your church is out of balance, and then swing the pendulum past the point of a balance and end up on the other end of the spectrum. The heart is important. We cannot cut it out, but neither can we let it dominate the head.

Emotion vs. Intellect

I first thought of writing this article after listening to Ravi Zacharais’ answer to a question on this Q/A episode of Just Thinking.1 The question was about the growth of the Church overseas, and Ravi made the interesting point that the American Church has become far too focussed with the emotional elements of their faith to the neglect of the intellect of their congregations.

Can I take a moment to pause and reemphasize my disclaimer and offer some teaching to clarify it further? We are human beings, created in the image of God. Yes, the image has been damaged by the ravages of sin, but we can still see some of the original design. God has both emotion and intellect—do we think that He allows one to reign over the other or are we of the opinion that God is a being who is in complete, balance within and without? In fact, when we say that we are “out of balance,” what are we using as a comparison to determine what balance is? Personally, my balance is Jesus. He displayed emotion: anger (Matthew 21:18-19, Mark 3:5, Luke 9:41, John 2:13-22); sadness, grief, despair (Luke 22, John 11:35). And yet, Jesus taught with such wisdom and authority, conviction and intelligence, that His contemporaries were amazed: (Matthew 7:28-29, Matthew 22:41-46, Luke 2:46-47). Jesus presented both emotion and intellect. Both are gifts to us from God; neither should be neglected in favor of the other.

Now, the contention at hand is that many churches have neglected intellect for emotion. Before we go too much further, let’s give ourselves a few questions to answer that can serve as our outline.

How can we know if a local church (or the American Church, at large) has neglected the intellect in favor of the emotion?

What are the consequences of a church neglecting the intellect?

How can we regain a balanced approach of appealing to the heart and the head?

With these questions as our guide, we’ll press on.

How can we know if a local church (or the American Church, at large) has neglected the intellect in favor of the emotion?

With a post like this, asking questions like this, I run the risk of over-generalization. For that, I’m sorry. At the same time, I also risk missing some important items, so please don’t treat this as an exhaustive list or even a truly diagnostic list. Take this list a “first step,” as checking WebMD before you call the doctor. I’m not your doctor.

A church that neglects the intellect for the emotional will most likely…

1) place a greater emphasis on prayer and worship than the sharing of the World. I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and I have been in services where we felt the presence of God so deeply during our times of worship that we pressed on in worship and prayer, foregoing the sermon. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as that is the exception. When a church makes this it’s regular practice, there’s a problem. Worship is vital, seriously. We were created to glorify God, but the issue isn’t worship, in reality. The issue is with our definition of “worship.” Worship should not be defined as singing. Worship is so much more.2 In fact, the Apostle Paul taught that anything we do for God’s glory is done as worship, which would mean that the sermon, properly done, is worship. A balanced view of worship would then have both the corporate time of singing and the sermon equally represented. It’s also worth noting that so many who over-emphasize corporate singing as the sum total of worship are woefully lacking in times of individual worship/singing. Corporate worship, meaning the entirety of the Sunday gathering, should be seen as the capstone to the individual’s worship carried out throughout the week.

2) train their pastor to preach anecdotally using proof texts3 and three-point sermons. Pastors want to preach the Word, but they aren’t machines. If a church body refuses to respond to an intellectual—but not emotionless—appeal, pastors will change their approach. It’s human nature. This process is exacerbated when congregants complain to their pastor, or about him to others, that his messages aren’t emotional enough. For some reason—and I will have to explore this topic further at another time—Christians have come to believe that emotional appeals are more spiritual. Honestly, this is the heart of this issue, the “why” of the “what,” and I just don’t have time to get into it.

3) focus more on what happens in the service as opposed to what changes come spring up in their lives. This could be turned on its head and applied to a church that was all intellect and no heart, but I doubt such a church exists, at least in the US. A church that over-emphasizes emotion often falls into emotionalism, which tends to be demonstrated in church gatherings where emotional responses are equated with God’s presence. By this, I mean that crying, chills, etc. are taken to the preeminent signs of God’s presence/moving in a church service and, as such, they are sought out experiences. Now, I’m not saying that these aren’t signs of God’s presence. No, it’s when we seek these experiences that we get off track. Jesus hasn’t saved us so that we can get chills when a certain song is sung in church or whatever. We’ve been saved for His purposes and His glory, and He is most glorified in us when we allow Him to make us more like Him. You aren’t being transformed into the likeness of Christ just because you’re crying at the altar. You can’t measure your increase in holiness by the number of tissues you went through in a single time of prayer. We are, of course, going to respond emotionally/physically to God’s presence, but those responses are not the end. The end goal isn’t an emotionally moving time at the altar; the end goal is God being glorified as we are made to be more like Him, a process that takes place mostly outside of church gatherings.

4) become unbalanced in other areas. Emotions are crucial, indescribably important elements of our daily live. Oftentimes, our emotions can help to tell us when we’re off track in our relationship with God. However, it is our intellect that is most often responsible for telling us where we are off track and how to get back on track. Of course, this argument only serves to support what I haven already said that we need a balance of emotion and intellect to be wholly human and that we will find greater intimacy with God Himself in a holy balance between the two.

I would argue that the American Church, by and large, has become and overly-emotional church, whether your local church has or not is between you, your pastor, and God. Beyond this list here, I would add as evidence the disparity between the number of women, on average, who attend church when compared to men. Overly emotional churches don’t appeal to most men, who are more likely to be reached with a more intellectual appeal.4

What are the consequences of a church neglecting the intellect?

The consequences can be stated with a simple link: The State of Theology.

The average Christian’s knowledge and understanding incredibly low considering the wealth of tools and resources made available to him or her. It’s frightening, really, when you consider how much bad theology is being presented using that same abundance of resources. Now, some might wonder why it matters what Christians believe. To them I would ask this, “Suppose a medical doctor ceases believe in a certain medicine. He’s still a ‘doctor,’ right? Well, now, he’s ceased to believe in all medicine. Is he still a ‘doctor’? Perhaps. What if he no longer believes in medicine or surgery, no longer believes in the reality of illness or injury, seeing them both as delusion, and no longer regularly reports to the hospital. Is he still a ‘doctor’?” Maybe that’s a weak analogy, but my point is fairly simple and strong: when it comes to faith, what you are (Christian, Buddhist, atheist, etc.) is based upon what you believe. Sure, there are some open-handed religious issues in the theological gray area between Christian denominations, but there is a grand and glorious core of closed-handed issues that make up the essence of what a Christian believes. Should the individual Christian begin to neglect, due to a lack of sound doctrine and over-emphasized emotionalism, these core beliefs, a whole host of other beliefs will take their place. Atheists don’t believe in “nothing.” They have very strong beliefs, and one of them is that their is no God. Christians who neglect or reject the core beliefs of their faith will eventually replace them with other, non-Christian beliefs. I’ll close this section by saying idols aren’t just “false gods” but also false conceptions or constructions we have of the true God.

How can we regain a balanced approach of appealing to the heart and the head?

This section, of all of them, could be a blog post or a series of posts all on its own, but since I’m unlikely to write that post soon, I’ll offer there quick suggestions for bringing balance because, remember, we don’t want to remove emotion. We want to balance the heart and the head, having unity in the whole of our humanity.

1) Preach to the head, challenge the heart, and God will change the spirit. If you’re not preaching an intelligent, reasonable message with a heartfelt, pastoral appeal for Spirit-powered life-change, start now! Stop cherry-picking verses to match your points. Go to God in prayer. Pick up the Word. Let the Holy Spirit draw you to a passage or a series of passages and allow the Spirit to reveal to you the meaning, in context. God has both intellect and emotion, and His written Word has something to say to us as whole humans, heart and head. It’s your job to let Him first preach it to you so that you can preach it to your church.

2) Add some teaching time—even at the costs of some preaching time.
In 2013, I transitioned from working with students to serving as my church’s discipleship pastor. As a part of this process, we reformatted our Wednesday night programming. We removed our “Wednesday night Bible study” and the two or three struggling life stages classes that were still hanging around after having out-lived their efficacy. In fact, the Bible study had effectively just become our Sunday PM Worship Part 2, while some of the life stages classes had become social clubs. In removing these programs, started a new system wherein we have six-to-eight week classes with rotating topics and teachers. This has allowed us to begin offering increasingly deeper doctrinal classes while also offering practical classes, designed to help Christians apply doctrine to their marriages, to parenting, to managing their lives and time. There have been some bumps and some lessons learned, but overall, the change has been a huge success.

And yet, it cost us some classes that some people enjoyed and a Wednesday night sermon. Preaching is important but so is teaching. Teaching provides the doctrinal foundation according to which the preaching holds you accountable. To poorly paraphrase Josh McDowell, “If more sermons were going to work, there wouldn’t have been a problem to begin with.”

3) Recommend (strongly) some old, time-tested books (And some really good newer ones.)
If you’re only reading current/new books, you’re stuck in the crowd. You’re learning, and therefore, thinking the same as everyone else. That’s why I suggest reading books that are older. They are often better placed to give you some teaching that society is currently neglecting. At the same time, there many good books that have been written in the past two decades. Don’t judge a book (or a person) because of its age. However, be aware that newer books haven’t always been around long enough to have been fully vetted or discredited by orthodox theologians and teachers.

Here are some books that I have already recommended to my church:

The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren
Just Like Jesus by Max Lucado
Come Thirsty by Max Lucado
In the Grip of Grace by Max Lucado
Simply Christian by NT Wright
The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee
The Pursuit of God by AW Tozer
Radical by David Platt
Crazy Love by Francis Chan
Lucky by Glenn Packiam
Secondhand Jesus by Glenn Packiam
Story by Steven James
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning
The Holiness of God by RC Sproul
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (Look for an updated/modern translation)

This is in no way an exhaustive post, though I am exhausted from writing it. I’m not done with this topic, but I’m done for today.

Do you agree with the case I’ve presented?

Is your church out of balance between the head and the heart?

  1. The question comes at around the 7:16 mark. 

  2. Ravi Zacharias is definition of worship found in this quote from Archbishop William Temple: “Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.” 

  3. A “proof text” is a verse or small passage of Scripture pulled out of context to support a theological or moral point. Using this approach, is not considered to be good scholarship, meaning that it doesn’t accurately present what is being said in Scripture. 

  4. Again, this is a generalization, based upon gender roles instead of my perceptions of churches. That’s why I didn’t include it in the list. Furthermore, there are many men who wouldn’t consider themselves “intellectual,” but I would still argue that men, on the whole, respond better to an appeal to their reason and rationality than to their emotions. And I hope it would go without saying, though I know it doesn’t, that none of this is to say that women aren’t intelligent or intellectual. My point is only that, on average, women appreciate/respond to an emotional approach more readily than men. 

2 replies on “Neglecting Intellect”

“Preach to the head, challenge the heart, and God will change the spirit”. Very true, I also liked the point of “preaching is important, but so is teaching”.

Thanks, Amy! I really apprciate the comment! I think sometimes we forget that Jesus modeled both preaching and teaching.

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