‘Evangelical fission’, anti-intellectualism in the Church and why Christian journalism matters: Mark Woods talks to Catalyst Live

Christian Today Contributing Editor Mark Woods talks to BMS about Christian journalism and hosting Catalyst Live.

Christian Staff Photos 2014

Is the UK Church engaged enough intellectually, or is there an anti-intellectual stream as one might see in the US?

I think it’s quite dangerous to generalise about anti-intellectualism in the US Church, just because the US is such a huge country and the Church there is so incredibly diverse.
There is a tendency sometimes, in evangelical churches particularly, to focus on what the Bible says. And that’s great, because we need to be going back to the Bible all the time. But as well as reading the Bible, we have to be able to read other books. We need to read the Bible through the lenses of what experts in society, culture and economics have to say, and read what these experts say through the lens of the Bible. And the danger is that if we take out the dialogue between them, then we end up with a very lame approach to and understanding of culture and how the world works.

So is there an anti-intellectualism in the Church? I think there is always that risk, because we end up talking to ourselves about ourselves, about our own concerns, and we don’t hear the wider conversation. So yes, there is a danger.

As a journalist, you have not shied away from controversial stories, for which you have received a certain amount of flack. How important is good, critical journalism for the Church?

I think it’s hugely important. I think of some of the stories I’ve worked on where I have been personally criticised. I’ve looked into my heart and thought: “should I have written this? Was this a useful thing to do for the kingdom of God?” And invariably I’ve come back to the view that it’s the job of a journalist to bring things into the light which people might prefer were hidden.
It’s easy I think for [Christian] journalists and the Church in general to want to sweep things under the carpet to a degree, because they think it doesn’t reflect well on the Church. And I think that’s a completely indefensible way of looking at things, to be honest. Because we are about truth and we’re about light. Nobody wants to wallow in the Church’s failings, and nobody wants to gratuitously do our dirty washing in public, but if there is wrongdoing, if there are questions that need to be answered, then we just need to be honest enough and brave enough to face up to these things.

You’re going to host BMS World Mission’s Catalyst Live events this year. What do you like most about them?

The Catalyst Live events I’ve been to previously I’ve found enormously stimulating, in that they bring people together to hear top-class teaching and really challenging, exciting speakers. We talked earlier about whether there was an anti-intellectual current in evangelicalism. Well, I think events like Catalyst Live really give the lie to that, because hundreds of people come together to be stretched ‒ they want to be challenged, they want to have their minds opened and helped to think. And I think that’s really important.

Catalyst Live has a strong World Church element this year. How important is it to talk to as well as about the World Church?

I think it’s extremely important. One of the things that the Church in Europe and North America has not come to terms with is the extent to which the centre of gravity of Christianity is shifting and has actually shifted. And the corollary to that is that talking to the World Church does not mean that we can simply import the methods and the culture from churches in other parts of the world into our western European culture and expect it to work here as it works over there. It’s very easy to see mega churches in the US, South Korea, Latin America and parts of Africa and say, ‘Wow, if only we would do things here as they do things there, then we too would have our mega churches, we too would have massive outbreaks of revival.’ It’s not that simple.

I think the World Church ‒ to use that shorthand ‒ has had to learn quite slowly that it has to do things its own way ‒ it can’t just think in the categories of western Christianity. It has to have its own ways of thinking, its own ways of doing things. And it has to cut itself free from that colonial church mentality.

And the same works in the other direction. We have to do things our own way as well. We have to find ways of speaking to our own culture in our own language. And we are failing, quite obviously, to do that.

I don’t believe that the Church in Western Europe is finished by any means, but what’s clear is that we are failing to talk to a generation which thinks that it can do pretty well without the Church. There are huge challenges that we have to face, and we can learn from the World Church, but we must not imitate the World Church.

Learning from the World Church is harder when many in it find much of western Christianity’s theology and social liberalism problematic. The Church of England has been dealing with this for years, but I’m not sure evangelicals have had to engage much with this.

I think that this is one of the big problems which is coming down the highway at a considerable rate at the moment. I think particularly views on sexuality. There is a big question, not just on that but on other things as well, as to how you define an evangelical and how big the evangelical tent can be.
For some evangelicals it’s very big indeed. Others, they want to draw the boundaries very, very firmly in thick black crayon and define an evangelical in terms of not just an approach to Scripture, but an approach to social questions and ethical questions in a way that I personally do not find very helpful. I find it sad when evangelicals want to dis-fellowship each other over secondary questions. But what we will always have to ask is what are the secondary questions and what are the primary questions? There are no easy answers to this and it is difficult to see a way in which everybody who claims the name of evangelical can be held together in some overarching evangelical umbrella. I think we have to get used to the idea that we’re not going to be able to speak with a common voice, that there is going to be fission as well as fusion. That there are going to be rows and that nothing is going to be tidy.

Mark Woods was talking to Jonathan Langley. To see Mark at Catalyst Live 2016 book your tickets today.