There exists a fairly popular instruction for pastors that when they prepare their sermons, they should strive to "put the cookies on the lower shelf." In other words, the sermon needs to be simple with points easy to grasp by all.
I agree that it is important to communicate clearly. Part of that is to help parishioners by approaching take complex ideas and breaking them up in such a way that they can be apprehended by most of the congregation. However, I fear that the drive to "put the cookies on the lower shelf" has been over emphasized. I've seen many Bible teachers who are afraid of being "too intellectual" or presenting difficult concepts because their congregants may not "get it." As a result, much of the preaching on Sunday mornings have been dumbed-down from what the average church goer would have experienced a century or two ago.
Of course, not all ideas given in the Scriptures are able to be easily digested. God's orchestration of the conquest of Canaan is one example. The role that women play in New Testament churches is another. Concepts such as believers being predestined yet having the freedom to choose to follow Jesus is a third. All of these are directly taken from the scriptures and if one is to take in the whole counsel of God, these ideas must be addressed.
The Intellectual Needs JesusMy concern is not simply liturgical; it is also evangelical. There is real danger in not demonstrating an intellectually robust faith for the intellectuals who are influential in shaping the ideas of a culture. James Davison Hunter makes a salient point:
Imagine, in this regard, a genuine "third great awakening" occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society-the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church-revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture. Imagine further several social reform movements surrounding, say, educational reform and family policy, becoming very well organized and funded, and on top of this, serious Christians being voted into every major office and appointed to a majority of judgeships. Legislation may be passed and judicial rulings may be properly handed down, but legal and political victories will be short-lived or pyrrhic without the broad-based legitimacy that makes the alternatives seem unthinkable.1To support his claim, Hunter points to one of the biggest victories of Evangelicals in the last century – the temperance movement. Christians had both political representation and a significant portion of the voting public behind them to pass a constitutional amendment. However, it proved a miserable failure.
The church must reach out to the intellectual in the academy as well as the builder on the job site. Both need saving. But if we only present Christianity in the most basic idioms, what will be their assumption about the faith? Instead of seeing the robust, historic Christian tradition that birthed the writings of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Pascal, and many others, they see a feeble and childish view of the world.
I don't believe every sermon must feel like a college lecture. But offering one sermon a month that stretches the congregation and tackles some of the more complex ideas within Christendom wouldn't be a bad idea.
In the book of Hebrews, the church is rebuked by the writer for not being able to handle more difficult matters of theology. "For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Heb. 5:13-14). Paul also rebukes the Corinthian church similarly: "But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh" ( Cor. 3:1-3).
How are we reaching the intellectual with the Gospel? How are we growing our church members into mature believers who can digest solid food? Keeping the cookies on the lower shelf may be fun for the congregation, but it might simply mean we're short-changing their intellectual nutrition.