The modern Church is malnourished, says New Testament scholar and Christian Thinkers Society (CTS) founder Dr. Jeremiah Johnston. Many Christians are biblically illiterate and theologically shallow, which has led to the tragic consequence of mass deconversion across all denominations. The most fragile group, 18-34 year-olds, is abandoning the faith at alarming levels. But there is hope, says Dr. Johnston, because people are hungry for substantive answers to their questions and doubts.
Dr. Johnston joined HBU as an associate professor of early Christianity in July, adding still more firepower to the already formidable cadre of professors in the School of Christian Thought. In addition, HBU and Christian Thinkers Society have an exclusive agreement to work together on strategic initiatives to engage both believers and unbelievers with the historic truths of the Bible.
“Dr. Jeremiah Johnston has joined the exceptional group of scholars in our School of Christian Thought. HBU has entered into a collaboration agreement with Dr. Johnston’s apologetic ministry, Christian Thinkers Society, and we look forward to the many benefits this partnership will bring not only to our students and our apologetic program but also to our community. [The additional text here is from the July 3, 2014 HBU Press Release entitled, “Christian Thinkers Society Founder Joins Faculty of Houston Baptist University] Together, HBU and CTS will conduct conferences around the world featuring prominent culture influencers, Christian leaders, and scholars, several of whom are HBU professors. HBU and CTS will also make apologetic resources and tools available to pastors and laity on trans-media platforms, including branded flash drives, an Internet subscription service, iTunes U, books, podcasts, and streaming video. Dr. Johnston is a leader in the translation of academic discussions, especially in philosophical, theological, and historical areas, into public media spaces.”
— Dr. Robert B. Sloan Jr.
Houston Baptist University
Teaching Christians to Become Thinkers and Thinkers to Become Christians
An Interview with Dr. Jeremiah Johnston
What convinced you of the need for a ministry like Christian Thinkers Society (CTS)?
I was a teaching pastor in a large, vibrant church for ten years. After awhile, I began to notice that sincere Christians who attended church week after week, listening to sermon after sermon, did not understand their faith well enough to explain what and why they believed. As a consequence, the Church is ill equipped to provide the answers that seekers and objectors need. In short, CTS aims to teach Dr. Craig Evans give a presentation on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was the first time I heard someone base their lecture on extra-biblical sources such as archaeology, coinage, and historical inscriptions to support the Bible. It was a seminal moment for me because I saw the power these different portals to the past can have for faith, especially in our postmodern, post-Christian culture. What makes CTS different from other ministries with similar goals? Several things. First, we want people to interact with us at our events. I don’t want to be just another talking head at the front of the room. People text questions and comments to us from their phones Christians to become thinkers and thinkers to become Christians.
So is CTS essentially an apologetics ministry?
Yes, but I really don’t like to use the term “apologetics” in nonacademic settings. The second I stand up and use that word I’ve lost 80% of the room because they think it’s the science of how to apologize for something. I prefer to explain that we are helping Christians follow Jesus’ command in Matthew 22:37 to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind. We also want to challenge people to doubt their doubts. We do that by commending the faith inside the Church and defending it outside the Church
Some Christians believe we should teach and defend the faith using only the text of the Bible. Your academic background includes a focus on studying extra-biblical sources in addition to the Bible. Why do you feel those sources are important?
When I was getting my Master of Divinity degree at Midwestern Seminary, I heard Dr. Craig Evans give a presentation on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was the first time I heard someone base their lecture on extra-biblical sources such as archaeology, coinage, and historical inscriptions to support the Bible. It was a seminal moment for me because I saw the power these different portals to the past can have for faith, especially in our postmodern, post-Christian culture.
What makes CTS different from other ministries with similar goals?
Several things. First, we want people to interact with us at our events. I don’t want to be just another talking head at the front of the room. People text questions and comments to us from their phones or computers during events and we try to address them. Second, we choose topics that everyday people are interested in. For example, the theme of one of our events was “Do Ghosts Exist? The Truth Behind Mediums and Psychic Phenomena.” Of course we also address traditional topics such as the evidence for Christ’s resurrection. Third, I bring in leading scholars and experts to dialogue with and answer questions. Fourth, we create an environ – ment where atheists, agnostics, seekers, and believers alike feel safe to ask ques – tions. We make it fun and interesting; we don’t use “Christianese” language; and we are respectful to everyone. I think one of the big problems with some apologetics ministries is that they can come across as very condescending, even though that isn’t their intent.
What kinds of questions do people ask during live events?
One of the first questions I was ever asked was “If God created everything in the world and called it ‘good,’ then why can’t I smoke pot?” People loved that. The next question might be something really serious, like whether a relative who just committed suicide is condemned to hell. Then someone might ask why people say “God bless you” after you sneeze. The feedback we’ve had is that people really appreciate the freedom to ask any question that is on their mind.
What has surprised you most since you launched CTS?
Frankly, I’ve been overwhelmed with the response. I expected fewer than 100 people at our first event in Kansas City in 2011. When more than 1,000 people showed up, I was shocked. In addition, people from more than 40 countries were also stream – ing the event online. The response has only grown since then. Another thing I’m so pleasantly surprised about—and God gets all the glory for this— is that publishers are contacting me and saying we want to partner with you. One of them told me they have been producing lots of Christian “fluff” over the years because that was what the market demanded. The popular response to CTS has proven to publishers that a lot of Christians really are interested in meaty, theologically-sound content.
CTS developed a strong following within a short time all on its own. Why partner with HBU?
The center of credibility in our post – modern, post-Christian culture is the university, so being a resident institute at a vibrant liberal arts university like HBU gives us a layer of credibility that many apologetics ministries simply don’t have. In addition, when I do debates and engage in dialogue, I don’t want to be like Tim Tebow without a football team. I’m a Bible scholar, and I need to be on faculty somewhere for accountability and to have colleagues who help keep my scholarship vibrant and fresh. Being affiliated with a university also allows CTS to straddle academia and a popular audience in a way that is distinctive.
Tell us more about the events HBU and CTS are lining up.
Plans are in the works for a multi-city conference tour over the next several years. Each event will address different issues of faith and culture and will feature prominent Christian leaders, culture influencers, and scholars. As always, people will be able to ask questions and be part of the dialogue. In the near-term we have two exciting on-campus events coming in November.
What other projects can we look forward to from the HBU/CTS collaboration?
We just signed an agreement with LifeWay to produce a six-week group Bible study series called “How Do You Explain That?” It will be available in November 2015. This study will address the most common themes from the more than 4,000 ques – tions we’ve received during our live events. Topics will include questions about the Bible, Christ’s resurrection, evil and suffering, post-traumatic stress and other mental issues, and paranormal phenomena. I’m most excited about the Certificate of Christian Studies we are developing in conjunction with Logos Bible Software.
I have a heart for all of the airline pilots, schoolteachers, stay-at-home moms, and retirees who have read their Bibles through and want to go deeper, but don’t have the time or resources for a traditional semi – nary education. HBU and CTS are partner – ing to fill this void by providing self-paced, internet-based biblical training that will teach ordinary believers how to answer the top 50 questions used to argue against the Christian faith. HBU professors will help develop a strong curriculum that includes theology, history, Bible study, apologetics, and Christian ethics through interactive, online learning.
There will be two tracks, one for laypeople and one for leaders such as junior high pastors or even senior pastors. Those who successfully complete the course will be invited to come to the HBU campus to take part in a commencement ceremony to honor their completion of advanced biblical studies. The certificate can also be used towards degree course credit at HBU, though we are still working out the details.