Applied vs. Theoretical Christianity

General George McClellan

Applied vs. Theoretical Christianity

In 1861 President Lincoln gave General George McClellan the responsibility of building and training the Union Army and he did so with excellence.  McClellan was a master of organization and so while he did an admirable job of building the Army and was popular with the troops, he was still removed from command less than a year later.  Why?  Because despite General McClellan’s skill as an organizer, he was described as “ineffective” when commanding the army on the battlefield.  Just as we see in science, where theoretical physics and applied physics are two entirely different fields of study, the theory of battle and the application of that theory can be, and often are, vastly different and require an entirely different mindset.

There is an old military adage that likely dates to a German Field Marshal in the early 1800’s that says, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  And the reason that is true, is because theory and application are always different.  That means that an effective battlefield command must be able to adapt as conditions change, or as members of our Marine Corps often say, “Adapt and overcome.”

In the church, we encounter that same disconnect between theory and application.  Thinking, learning, and teaching about Christianity, are often quite different from the practical reality of living a Christian life or of putting “boots on the ground” and doing the things that we talk about on Sunday.  We see that difference in the hundreds of church growth books that are on the market.  It seems like every year someone else has a new book, with a new formula, that’s sure to grow your church ten percent in the first two months.  But those formulas are what worked for the author, and although there may be lessons that we can use, what worked in their church, in their city, at that time, has no guarantee of being effective in our church, in our city, at the time we decide to act.

But the second disconnect between theory and application is even bigger and it’s been a problem… well, forever.  Jesus called out the Pharisees for it when they criticized his disciples for not washing their hands.  Nowhere in the Law of Moses is handwashing required, only tradition required it.  But the Pharisees, although they knew the law better than anyone, gave gifts to the church but left their parents hungry.  They learned the law, they knew the law, the taught the law but they kept a tradition that broke the law.  There is, and always has been, a gap between knowing what to do, and doing it.

Our challenge, as the followers of Jesus Christ isn’t just to learn about Jesus, but to put “boots on the ground” and do the things that Jesus taught us to do.  It’s one thing to learn, and know, and even teach, about being generous, merciful, kind, forgiving, and loving, but doing those things is often another thing entirely.  We have not been called to be experts in theoretical Christianity, but to actively practice applied Christianity. Our calling isn’t to know things about Jesus, our calling is to be like Jesus.

Because knowing a lot of stuff about Jesus isn’t going to change hearts or grow our church.

But acting a lot like Jesus will.


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