Intellectual Discipleship Is Essential for Christian Flourishing
It was an idyllic summer day on the verdant grounds of Glen Eyrie Castle in Colorado Springs. In the shadow of the castle’s picturesque stone facade, five academics—all women—gathered to cast a vision born of a shared longing for Christian intellectual community. They commiserated over the lack of options at their respective home churches, none of which offered opportunities for focused learning in subjects integral to twenty-first-century discipleship and evangelism—areas such as philosophy, apologetics, literature, and the arts. They had encountered still others, particularly women, who lamented this deficiency and desired more than what typical ministries offer.
Thus, over the course of a few days, foundational plans were laid for an organization that would bring together Christian women for collective learning and camaraderie. The founders envisioned a society that would champion the life of the Christian mind by facilitating scholarly collaboration and offering mentorship to women of all ages and educational backgrounds. Perhaps it would also inspire ministry leaders to create and champion opportunities for quality intellectual discipleship in their respective church communities to help men and women alike develop stronger, more integrated minds for the good of the Kingdom.
The Mind Matters
Intellectual weakness within the church is not a recent phenomenon. As the modern world developed and presented the church with new challenges, many Christians began to withdraw from academic spheres. Particularly since the Enlightenment, there has been a steady secularization of the academy and marginalization of Christianity in the public square. One ramification of this has been a tendency for some Christians to compartmentalize—to erect a partition between their professional life and their spiritual life. Others have simply retreated into an insular world where they can comfortably avoid engaging with the tidal wave of false ideologies crashing over contemporary culture. Meanwhile, the growth of mass entertainment has provided a widely available substitute for intellectual development. To avoid facing the skepticism and ideological confusion, many opt to withdraw from the conversation and distract themselves with constant amusement.
The central problem with intellectual withdrawal is that it is impossible; to be human is to think, and thus our options are to think well or think poorly. In his exhortation to Wheaton College at the dedication of the Billy Graham Center, Ambassador Charles Malik, former President of the United Nations, reminded Evangelicals that “We are arguing and reasoning with one another all the time. Indeed every sentence and every discourse is a product of reason.”1 To be human is to think, and as thinking creatures, we have a God-given hunger for knowledge. As Aristotle observed, “All men desire to know.”
When the church fails to intellectually disciple her people, a fundamental human need remains unmet, and this has disastrous consequences. If minds are not nourished with rich, sustaining truth, the resulting vacuum will instead be filled with the flotsam and jetsam of feel-good platitudes and culturally celebrated beliefs antithetical to the Christian worldview. Like the root system of a tree, the mind will grow; the only question is how: toward the nourishing wisdom born of goodness, truth, and beauty or away from it?
Made for More
Socrates insisted that “the unexamined life is not worth living,”2 because the exercise of our rational capacity is as necessary to human happiness as flight is to birds and swimming to fish. We are purpose-driven creatures, and we experience deep happiness by exercising our faculties in accordance with their God-given purpose. This is the joy of running, dancing, feasting, loving, laughing, creating—and thinking. We were made for it, and we enjoy God’s pleasure in it. The cruelty of low expectations in the church and in the school robs people of this divine purpose and pleasure. Year after year as a Great Books teacher, I (Annie) have earned my students’ respect, not by dumbing down philosophy and literature but by believing all of them capable of receiving their cultural inheritance: active participation in the great human conversation about the fundamental questions of life.
Adults also respond eagerly to intellectual engagement. As the multiple crises of 2020 unfolded, many in my community were desperate for a way to make sense of the confusion and conflict. Frustrated by small groups that emphasized emotional and relational support to the neglect of scriptural, theological, and philosophical development, my husband and I started our own rogue small group initially centered around Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
Alternating book discussion with prayer meetings, we built a community around loving God and each other with all our heart, strength, and mind. Most members of our group have shared repeatedly that this integration of intellectual development, prayer, and relationship is a large part of why they are still at church despite the conflict and emotional strain of the past few years. People generally abandon what they don’t understand; if the church doesn’t help people develop a historical, philosophical, theological, and cultural understanding of Christianity, most won’t cling to a faith that no longer makes sense.
While intellectual disengagement stifles both the inward and outward growth of our churches, it is not the only problem related to deficiencies in discipleship. Particularly in affluent areas, churches have highly educated men and women, but many of them live compartmentalized lives in which spiritual and theological matters seem irrelevant to their profession, or to the literature, film, and television that fills their leisure time.
This point was brought home to me (Melissa) twice over the past year. Last spring, I gave a guest lecture at a theologically orthodox mega-church in my community. My topic was the imaginative apologetics of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and much of the feedback I received indicated the attendees had never thought much about story as a vehicle for profound biblical truths. The following Sunday, a gentleman who had attended the talk approached me to say that it had been an epiphany for him. A lifelong fan of fantasy and science fiction, he now has the concepts and words for expressing why goodness, truth, and beauty are what make great stories great and where those transcendentals come from in the first place. His mind is more Christianized than before, as he now sees the cosmic connection between mythos and Logos.
Later in the year, I taught a twelve-week apologetics course at the same church. Quite a few of the attendees were highly credentialed professionals in fields as diverse as geophysics, psychiatry, petroleum engineering, and law. Two were a mother and father eager to equip themselves to articulate and defend Christianity after witnessing the faith-deconstruction of their adult son, who had recently completed a Ph.D. in a STEM field. Both were clearly intellectuals. What they needed was instruction on how to integrate the Christian faith with other aspects of intellectual life—the philosophical, scientific, and even imaginative dimensions. After all, the project of evangelistic apologetics is to show that the Christian worldview makes the best sense of every facet of reality.
Hands to the Plows
Since its founding meeting in 2021, the Society for Women of Letters (SWL) has been steadily fulfilling its mission of helping women develop stronger Christian minds. With members all over the country, SWL offers Zoom-based guest interviews and interactive group discussions of essays, book excerpts, short stories, and poetry. As in-person gatherings are the ideal, however, SWL hosts an annual symposium at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina. This capstone event is designed to cultivate mind, body, and spirit through lectures, book discussions, fireside poetry readings, and devotional excursions along the beautiful hiking trails. The 2022 symposium, which sold out, brought together university faculty, ministry leaders, classical educators, homeschooling mothers, students, and grandmothers interested in cultivating a stronger mind for their own sakes and for the edification of their local circles.
There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done in terms of intellectual discipleship of both men and women. In our consumer-oriented culture, pastors and teachers are tempted to “keep it simple” so congregants and students will not be put off by challenging material. Such sales-based approaches focus on the immediate feelings of the potential buyer, but churches and schools are called to save and develop the soul, not boost the bottom line. Avoiding intellectual development caters to fear and sloth. It drives away hungry seekers and weakens the faithful.3 Yes, we want to preach a gospel simple enough for all God’s people to understand, but we also want to preach a gospel great and glorious enough to answer the deepest questions and the highest longings of the human mind and heart.
Don’t be afraid. All truth is God’s truth. Our faith is not feeble; it doesn’t require the protection of withdrawal or compartmentalization. The need for intellectual engagement in this postmodern era is absolutely critical, and the exhortation of Scripture is clear. Jesus commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”4 Paul exhorts us to “ take every thought captive to obey Christ.”5 Proverbs repeatedly challenges us to “get wisdom,” and even “though it cost you all you have, get understanding.”6 The rewards of an intellectually developed life of faith are immense and eternal. The people are hungry; let us feed them.
1. Charles Malik, The Two Tasks (Cornerstone Books, 1980), 26.
2. Plato’s Apology (38a5–6)
3. A 2011 survey by the Barna Group summarized the top six reasons why young people are leaving the church, and every single reason is rooted in intellectual weakness in the church. Young people see the church as anti-scientific, shallow, afraid of questions, and unable to defend culturally challenged doctrines. A 2018 Pew Research poll revealed similar findings.
4. Matthew 22:37.
5. 2 Corinthians 10:4–5.
6. Proverbs 4:5,7.
Those who already appreciate the necessity and joys of a robust Christian mind typically tap into the wealth of online learning resources. The urgent task that remains is to reach the majority, who are unaware of the need or don’t know where to begin. As work and education increasingly force many to spend all day in front of a screen, ministry leaders should encourage congregants toward edifying, in-person learning communities. Even a few basic strategies can make a big difference:
1. Offer higher-level classes and seminars regularly. Partner with local schools and ministries or online organizations to access curricula and credentialed instructors. (A list of suggested resources can be found at: societyforwomenofletters.com/resources.)
2. Add a “Going Deeper” section to sermon guides and church newsletters with a supplementary reading list and study questions.
3. Preach in such a way as to connect the fundamentals of the gospel to broader contexts. Reference historical figures, events, and authors you want congregants to consider reading.
4. Create and regularly promote a church library—even a small library will incarnate the value of learning.
5. Encourage book discussion groups. Empower and encourage church members who have an interest in leading them.Annie Brownell Crawford
Annie Crawford is a cultural apologist and classical educator with a Master of Arts in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University. She teaches apologetics and humanities courses and is co-founder of The Society for Women of Letters. She has written for The Blyth Institute, American Thinker, Circe Institute, The Worldview Bulletin, Classical Academic Press, and An Unexpected Journal, where she is a founding editor and writer.Get Salvo in your inbox! Melissa Cain Travis
holds a Ph.D. in Humanities (Philosophy) and a Master of Arts in Science and Religion. In addition to teaching graduate courses at Colorado Christian University, she is the author of Thinking God’s Thoughts and Science and the Mind of the Maker. She is part of the core writers team at Worldview Bulletin and a Fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Her website is www.melissacaintravis.com.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #64, Spring 2023 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo64/mind-your-mind