Conversations at the end of sermons can go lots of directions. I have forgotten most, but a few stand out. I remember one that took place some thirty years ago. I was just into my first Senior Pastorate, having worked my way through the ranks of Youth Pastor and Associate Pastor. I was still in the process of completing my Ph.D. in Systematic Theology, having acquired Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees. Nonetheless, I felt overwhelmed and woefully inadequate. I felt very much a novice at preaching, pastoral care, and board leadership. The idea that I would be accountable for souls at judgment terrified me–still does.
On this one Sunday, a young man, a machinist by trade, came up and offered to cover the pulpit in case I needed a weekend off. I remember his words, “I’d like to give it a spin. Who knows?”
What? Give it a spin? I remember thinking, “Are you taking me seriously? Did you pause to consider I had just spent some twenty-five hours of my week parsing Greek verbs and outlining sentences, looking at grammatical structures and how they function, analyzing theological themes, working through historical and contextual issues, making sure my hermeneutics were sound, checking to see that the homiletical outline reflected the exegetical outline, thinking hard about the application and how this truth conveys the gospel, and praying deeply for the moving of the Spirit in the transformation of lives? And pleading for God’s mercy!” I recall a rather limp reply, saying, “Thanks for the offer.”
I think the conversation would be different today. It might be more condescending. We live in a day that no longer gives much respect for one’s proficiency in a subject. This is underscored in Tom Nichols’ new book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. It is his conviction that we have become proud of not knowing things. Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, the undisciplined nature of conversation on social media, and the demands of the twenty-four hour news cycle, everyone appears to be as smart as everyone else. But as Nichols puts it, “We couldn’t be more wrong.”
At every turn, the author builds the case that never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have become so resistant to learning anything. We are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise. Our culture demands that each person’s opinion about anything must be as equal as everyone else’s. The death of expertise might even be a sign of progress.
The fear expressed in this book is that indifference to established knowledge is shifting to hostility. People wear their rejection of expert advice as a badge of cultural sophistication. I have sometimes picked this up at pastor’s conferences, where more than one keynote speaker has expressed his disdain for formal seminary education. This has generally been met with smiles and affirming nods.
Maybe I am a bit sensitive here. Having given much of my life to practical theology, I sense today that more and more potential students are exchanging the disciplines of the academy for on the job training. “Who needs a course on pastoral care and leadership when I can read a couple of books on my own and make pastoral visits with my pastor?” But then, lots of pastors no longer have the time for visits. Is it possible there is a profound theology to be understood before administering the sacraments, preaching a sermon, or stepping into a hospital room? Could it be the years of pastoral rigor, mixed with theological reflection, matters? Maybe not.
Do young ministers really think they can wing a memorial service for someone who has just been murdered—or lead a critical meeting wrestling with church discipline—or engage in the Word absent of any acquired theological and exegetical skills? Maybe so.
I am aware this post could be misunderstood. It could come across as arrogance, or worse–resentment. It is true that there is no shortage of “experts” who have gotten things terribly wrong. At numerous points, Nichols acknowledges that too much deference has been paid to experts in the past. Donald Trump has tapped into this alienation, inflaming a certain disgust against the elites. Little wonder Thom Rainer, in his recent article “Eight Major Changes in Churches The Past Ten Years,” lists “Ministry Degree Optional” as one of them.
Still, we do demand specialists. I do not want a doctor who chose to earn her degree on the Internet (or a pilot who took a crash course in Aeronautics). I need a shepherd of my soul who has studied human behavior and has far more than a superficial understanding of God’s Word. I’m sorry if this offends, but I want someone who knows more on the subject than most of the rest. I want someone who has submitted to the demands of a rigorous education, lived through a certain amount of experience, demonstrates an obvious skill, learned from his or her mistakes, been affirmed and rebuked by one’s peers, and recognizes that knowing a little bit about something is not the same as expertise.
In a world where critical thinking is hard to come by, where university education has become a client-centered experience catering to adolescents who demand that their feelings override every other consideration, and the Internet has become a parking lot filled with countless dumpsters of nonsense, Nichols’ book stands as a needed corrective. You might want to give it a spin.