Should Churches ‘Keep the Cookies on the Lower Shelf’?
We have to encourage one another to set our sights much higher.
“I try to keep the cookies on the lower shelf.” I keep hearing pastors saying that. It bothers me.
Oh, I get it, to a certain extent. The idea is keep sermons accessible. Everyone should be able to keep up with what’s being taught, no matter how short a time they’ve been in the faith, and no matter how little education they might have had.
It makes sense in a way, but still pastors must ask: Who are we reaching that way, and who aren’t we? What are we communicating about the faith, intentionally and unintentionally? And what does the Bible say about lower-shelf teaching?
Think of the complexities preachers have to deal with as communicators. No one else faces such a diverse audience week after week.
I really do understand why lower-shelf teaching makes sense — up to a certain point. Think of the complexities preachers have to deal with as communicators. No one else faces such a diverse audience week after week. They’ve got parishioners of every age, every capacity, every level of schooling; beginners in the faith and people who’ve been following Christ for decades.
It’s impossible to dial it in so it’s just right for everyone. So where does a preacher target his message? The only way he can make it understandable for everyone is, well, by making it understandable for everyone.
Lower Shelf Christianity
But there’s a trap there. A consistent diet of lower-shelf teaching can only produce lower-shelf disciples following a lower-shelf religion.
Lower-shelf messages may meet some people’s needs for a while, but many believers — the ones with the greatest potential — are certain to get tired of sugar and butter. And milk — for if the cookies are on the lower shelf, the milk’s probably there, too.
I mention that because the writer to the Hebrews had milk in mind when he chastised his readers for being lazy about learning. He had just been reminding them of Melchizedek, the man with the strange-sounding name who was a priest long before God established the priesthood under Moses.
Taking Believers to Task
Apparently they knew as little about him as most of us do. You’d think that would be understandable, right? Wrong. The writer takes them to task for it (Hebrews 5:11-14):
About this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.
Ouch. No punches pulled there! My guess, though, is that he’d tell us the same thing, for he went on to say,
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word.
It was a need they should not have been proud of — yet he could as easily have said, “You need your pastor to keep teaching you the lower-shelf principles.”
They ought to have been further along. We ought to be progressing, too. It’s not that we should leave the basics behind — they don’t go obsolete, by any means — but we should be building on them, learning much more.
You need milk, not solid food; for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.
Believers who reach maturity get there by eating solid food, not by snacking every Sunday on easy-to-reach cookies.
The Meat of the Faith Leads to Maturity and Real Witness
Just think how we could glorify Christ in the arts, sciences, business, the professions, public policy and more
What kind of solid food, you ask? Certainly it includes a thorough, comprehensive knowledge of Scripture. That’s absolutely essential.
I believe there’s more to it than that, though. Just think how we could glorify Christ in the arts, sciences, business, the professions, public policy and more, if we called every believer to the top of his or her game — the top shelf, as it were.
Or consider the problems we need to solve in this world. It’s going to take top-shelf thinkers and leaders to make any kind of Christ-honoring dent there.
Yes, churches have a responsibility to meet people where they are, to serve them what they can handle. But we still have to encourage one another to set our sights much higher.
Maybe there’s a good reason to start at the bottom shelf. But there’s no good reason not to urge each other to climb as high as we can from there.
(Next time I’ll suggest practical ways churches and individual Christians can get started on climbing up off floor level — or raising the level of the floor — while still meeting the real needs of newer and younger members. Update: see here for that follow-up.)
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.