Billy Sunday, the famous American evangelist of the 1900s, was a colorful character. He once said: “If I had a million dollars, I’d give $999,999 to the church and $1 to education.” Sunday made no pretense of being a learned man. On another occasion, he boasted: “Billy Sunday does not know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit knows about ping pong.”
Billy Sunday had an impactful ministry, largely due to his undeniable charisma, great organizational skills, and entertaining preaching style—yet he downplayed education and theology.1 One may ask whether Sunday’s sneering at the life of the mind is not being emulated by some pastors today. The reality is that there are ministers who consider learning to be incompatible with a Spirit-led ministry and theology to be irrelevant to the needs of the congregation.
In an ideological climate that thrives on sentimentality while disavowing mental rigor, many are tempted to equate fiery zeal with authentic spirituality and link reflection and thought to cold, dead religion. To make matters worse, today’s obsession with entertainment and the spectacle can prompt ministers to focus more on style than content, reducing the ministry to a performance rather than an act of service.
This opposition between the life of the mind and the life of action is unbiblical and unhealthy. It presupposes that the acquirement of knowledge is detrimental to spirituality and that willful ignorance is equivalent to Christian humility. If it is true that unsanctified knowledge leads to intellectual arrogance, it is equally true that God’s sovereignty in any form of Christian service is no substitute for a sloppy mind. The Reformers, for instance, never assumed that robust thinking about the Word and the world was antagonistic to true worship and service. Ellen G. White, a contemporary of Billy Sunday, made it absolutely clear: “God does not want us to be content with lazy, undisciplined minds, dull thoughts, and loose memories.”2
Don’t get me wrong! I am not promoting intellectual elitism in the pulpit. I am simply arguing that thought, affection, and action need to blend harmoniously in ministry because God calls us to fully love Him with heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). I submit that both heedless activists and dry intellectuals do a great disservice to the body of Christ. Unmindful activists turn church life into a series of programs, while ivory-tower theologians find pleasure only in abstract thinking, often to the detriment of those who sit in the pews. The truth is that zeal needs to be according to knowledge (Rom. 10:2)—both fire and reason, zeal and thought are necessary. Zeal needs to be intellectually nourished, and the intellect needs to be constantly set on fire by truth under the lordship of Christ.
How can this be done? I want to suggest that we first put reason in its right perspective; we should neither deify nor despise it. Second, we need to understand that all truth is God’s truth. Acknowledging God as the Source of all truth, the cultivation of the mind necessarily takes place in total dependence upon Him. Third, we must cherish a spirit of humility, recognizing that, in fact, we know very little about anything. How can we go about this quest in practical terms? We should start by keeping the Bible foundational and central to all study, reminding ourselves that the Word of God enlightens the mind, broadens the imagination, and softens the heart for service. In addition, we must develop a healthy habit of cultivating our minds. Good books are more available than ever before, and online platforms can also give easy access to excellent resources. Last the fruitful exchange of ideas with fellow ministers and other conversational partners can be an excellent avenue to sharpening our thinking and fulfilling our calling.
Dear readers, mental culture is important to an effective ministry. May the publication you have in your hands be a great way to cultivate your mind for greater service.
- See Robert F. Martin, Hero of the Heartland: Billy Sunday and the Transformation of American Society, 1862–1935 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002).
- Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2002), 224.