If you’re an African American parent and you haven’t already done so, put this article on pause, and check out LZ Granderson’s take on why he is.
No, really. Do it now. I’ll wait.
Because here’s the thing. This sentiment is good and true, and if it’s true for African Americans in general, it’s ESPECIALLY true for believers in Christ, especially when it comes to the church.
We need more nerds in the church.
Let me explain.
More Mathletes, Fewer Athletes
Granderson’s thesis is that children these days, especially Black children, need more positive reinforcement when it comes to pursuing academic achievement compared to athletic achievement, because our society’s broader American culture does a better job of celebrating sports than it does celebrating academics.
And if it’s true today, it was way more true in New Testament times. After all, there is a reason why the apostle Paul tended to use athletic competition as a metaphor for spiritual living.
On one level, this is good for us — and by us, I mean the average, churchgoing Black person who, let’s be honest, probably needs more physical activity than just doin’ a little shoutin’ dance one a week during church.
Since the obesity epidemic has a stronghold deep inside the church, and considering the fact that children have been affected so deeply, and considering for some young folks, sports programs are the best thing keeping them off the street and out of trouble (it’s cliché, but it’s true), I heartily affirm the need for kids — and adults — to participate in sports. Sports are a good thing for people of all ages, because keeping active is an important part of overall wellness.
(*cue my Stephen A. Smith voice*)
The pendulum needs to start swinging the other way.
In 1 Timothy 4:8, the apostle Paul points out the obvious — physical training has a measure of value, but godliness is valuable across every facet of life. So the whole reason why Paul used the example of physical training is because, in the time and culture of his day (influenced by the Aristotelian values of ancient Greece), athletic competition was assumed to be the dominant form of celebrated excellence. Paul made his appeal in the context of those values and was challenging his people to turn their attention to something of greater value.
This cultural preoccupation with athletics continues today, and if you’re not sure if that’s true or not, consider the global influence of one of the most dominant sports brands today, named after the Greek goddess of victory.
This is why Granderson wrote what he did.
Musicians: Icons of the Black Church
For Black folks in the church, the officially sanctioned sacred pursuit is not athletic, but musical. For a variety of reasons, music — specifically, gospel music — has been the lifeblood of the African American church experience. And on balance, this is a good thing.
But just like athletes in the broader popular culture, it’s gotten out of balance. In many church communities, musicianship is more of a valued commodity than biblical literacy.
So what we need are more Bible nerds, so to speak. We need people who get excited about textual exegesis just as much as rhythms and chords. We need people whose commentary collections are broader and more balanced than their music collections.
After all, there’s a reason why Paul told Timothy to “study and show yourself approved;” the flock needs to be protected from false teaching. And unfortunately, false teaching is a common side effect when we elevate gifted musicians to the status of spiritual leaders, as tends to be the case with high-profile musicians in the church. That’s not to say that there are no gifted musicians who are worthy of spiritual leadership — indeed, there are many, and we ought to thank God for them and honor them. But we can’t turn a blind eye to character issues or lack of training when it comes to handling the word of God just because a person is blessed with the ability to sing or play an instrument.
People are watching, y’all.
Granderson pointed out the fact that kids can tell what we really value by the way we revere athletes and make fun of spelling-bee contestants.
This dynamic is so, so true in the church. And if you’re a church leader and you doubt what I’m saying, then hold an intensive Bible training conference on the same day as a big time gospel music concert, and see how many of your people you get to show up.
We have to get it together in this area and fast, because our ability to do God’s work is at least partially dependent upon what we believe about Him, and when we prioritize high production values and strong musicality over solid biblical teaching, either as leaders or as followers, we give our watching neighbors the unintended message that music is what saves people, and not God.
No wonder so many musicians have left the church … if music is what saves, then who needs God?
Ministry: Theology in Action
Christian ministry is simply Christian theology in action. So if we don’t pay attention to our theology, then our ministry will miss the mark, no matter how good it sounds coming through our speakers.
I stress this point only because I also don’t want to give the impression that the nerd path is, itself, a path to salvation. Being a nerd is no more intrinsically holy than being an athlete or a singer. The point is not to simply acquire a wealth of knowledge and expertise, because sometimes the only thing knowledge does is make your head bigger. The point is to live out one’s calling as effectively and wholeheartedly as possible.
That’s why you have voices like Efrem Smith, challenging the role of Reformed theology in holy hip-hop. Not because he doesn’t like holy hip-hop or Reformed theologians, but because, in his estimation, that particular theological strain is insufficient in providing a complete foundation from which to make a long-term impact. And Christian emcees like Lecrae and Flame wouldn’t do what they do if they weren’t interested in making an impact.
So let’s get out there and make our God known. Let’s put him on display by giving him our minds as well as our bodies. And if, in the process of doing so, we risk being labeled as nerds or geeks or whatever, then so be it. When Paul said he would be all things to all people, I’m sure nerds would’ve been included in that list, if, y’know, that terminology would’ve been popular then.
But since it wasn’t then, I’m saying it now.
We need more nerds for the gospel.