Archive for April, 2010

The Gift of Hope

by   |  04.28.10  |  Church, Hope, Ministry, Ministry Assessment, Students

Tim Sensing, DMIN, PHD - Director of Academic Services
Associate, Professor of Ministry, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Tim Sensing, DMIN, PHD - Director of Academic Services, Professor of Ministry, ACU Graduate School of Theology


Profiles of Ministry is an assessment given to all first year students who are enrolled in one of ACU Graduate School of Theology’s formation degrees (MDiv, MACM, MAMI). The assessment asks the participants to read several case scenarios and to respond according to how they think they would act in a particular situation. Afterwards, the participants are asked a series of questions orally that give them a chance to nuance their answers. For example, a case scenario might ask about a particular issue common in ministry. The students choose one of the items listed. It might not be the exact description of their preferred ministerial action, but it is the best one available. The audio interview allows the participants to elaborate about various areas of ministry through open-ended questions.

Over 40 areas are covered in the assessment measuring the students’ perceptions of ministry. For example, one of the indicators measures how balanced the students’ perspectives are regarding “world mission.” The item is measuring how likely the students are to choose between teaching the gospel and trying to meet a particular social or economic need. In other words, will they give a cup of water to quench someone’s thirst or are they more likely to open the Bible and share the gospel? ACU GST students consistently score “very likely” to be balanced. They are just as inclined to give a cup of cold water, as they are to “preach the gospel.” They discern on a case-by-case basis the best approach in each situation.

After listening to students answer questions and examining the results of the written reports for over 11 years, my hope for the future of the church grows. Let me offer two illustrations. One of the indicators measures “denominational collegiality.” Most of the GST students score “likely.” This is good news. If they scored, “very likely,” then we would wonder how realistic they are. They would need to remove the proverbial rose-colored glasses and realize that institutions are flawed and we all struggle to be what God has designed. Alternatively, if they were to score lower than “likely,” then we would question why they are considering ministry in the first place. Our students both love and are committed to the church. They are not looking to go elsewhere. They are not disenchanted or cynical. Other questions confirm this finding. Students are encouraged to be part of God’s family and consider the church as a healthy place for them to serve. Good news indeed.

The second example is similar. The last question of the interview asks about their perceptions of the future. Students express confidence in the people of God acting in ways that will serve others and honor God in significant ways. More importantly, they trust that God not only protects the church but also is active in achieving God’s will and purposes in the present and in the future.

I have the great joy of listening to future ministers’ perceptions of ministry and the church. These students bless me with the gift of hope.

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 3)

by   |  04.22.10  |  Bible, Church, Ministry, Mission, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Ours is a time in which all the old truths have seemed questionable, all the old habits indefensible, and all the old passions unthinkable.  Since Christianity is no longer a new religion and since Christians are often leaders in the power systems of the world and therefore often implicated in its evils, many men and women ask us whether Christianity, and thus the Gospel, makes any sense.  They ask, to put things very bluntly, if Christianity is good for you.  Does following the way of Jesus make you a better person?  Does the church help people live in community in better ways?  If there is a God, is this God good?  Critics of Christianity such as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens tell us that God is not great, and that religion (at least they don’t just try to finger us!) is the source of all the evil in the world.

Now a lot of their rhetoric is nonsense.  Let’s be clear about that.  Many of the critiques are ill informed about all sorts of things.  They set up straw people to knock down.  They pit the most ignorant Christians and against the best informed non-Christians.  So there is much of the noise we can safely ignore as the last rantings of a publicity-seeking, sensationalistic media and public.

But is that all there is to the brouhaha?  Surely it is fair to say that many of us Christians (and other religious people) are confused about what our faith really teaches.  We adjust to a series of compromises with worldly structures and react out of fear when we should act out of hope.  The critics have a point there.  To provide a real answer to the intellectual challenges facing us, then, Christians have to be clear about a few things that our faith actually teaches.  Here are some:

1. There really is only one God, and we are not it!  The great Christian confessions such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed, to say nothing of the Bible, are organized around the confession of the supremacy, transcendent goodness, and honor of God.  The center of the faith is not the faith itself, much less any laws, practices, ideas, doctrines, etc. deriving from the faith.  God is God, and we are all seekers in need of redemption.

2. The human approach to God comes through radical submission to the way of love.  Christians vigorously pursue nonviolence in all we do.  We join in the criticism of the relentless pursuit of money and power.  We strongly question any human system that turns people into commodities.  We disdain privilege in all its forms.  We believe that God calls us to love all our neighbors as ourselves.

3. We also believe that all human systems are flawed, some very deeply.  Some Christians call this original sin, and of course we debate just how deeply flawed humans are.  Surely the evidence is complex.  But it is also incontrovertible.  When St. Paul said that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, he was simply stating the obvious.  It follows from this fact that no human system can command our final, unquestioning loyalty (not a nation, not an economic system, not even a way of doing family).

4. We Christians think that vigorous pursuit of truth is a worthwhile goal, and that we have nothing to fear from honest inquiry.  We think that our congregations should be places in which such inquiry occurs.

5. Our faith is deeply intertwined with hope.  Our critics misunderstand what we mean by hope, and frankly many Christians do too.  We seem to see heaven as an escape from this world, as a kind of ace up God’s sleeve to make everything right.  But that’s not what Scripture says.  It talks instead about living lives that participate in God’s work of redeeming humanity.  It talks about a God who can balance mercy and justice just right so as to bring about the final elimination of evil (something we can just barely conceive of).  That’s a different view than the one attributed to us, and it’s different than the one we sometimes hear in church.

This is a long blog post.  Thanks for sticking with it.  More next time!

Does the Gospel Sell Itself (part 2)

by   |  04.15.10  |  Bible, Church, Ministry, Mission, Theology

How do we get off the road?  How do we join the earliest disciples in their journey, for which a single change of clothes and the greatest possible trust in God was enough?  How do we do this together, so that we don’t play generations or theological stances or ways of doing church off against each other, adding to the divisions of Christendom?  Let’s try some basic ideas.

First, let’s get some clarity on mission. The Bible talks about the church in many different ways: herald of good tidings, a people sent, an attacking army (remember that line “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”?), the cosmic body of Christ, God’s household, and other things.  The church is not a dispenser of goods and services, but a body of praying and serving people.  We don’t point to ourselves, but to God living in us.   Selling the church as such is almost the worst thing we can do.  We “sell” the story of God’s redemptive work in us and beyond us.

Second, let’s shift from an idea of the church member as consumer to the member as seeker of God. All of us are seekers, and all of us are trying to grow in our love of God, our faith in God’s promises, and our hope for a better life for everyone.  A lot of my friends want us to get rid of the idea of church membership altogether, because they think it’s unbiblical (which, technically, it is) and, more seriously, unhelpful.  It reinforces divisions (insiders and outsiders) that don’t quite make sense.  I’m not sure I think we have to get rid of the language altogether, but my friends have a point.

Third, let’s think small. Now, I’m not criticizing big churches.  That’s not the point.  Healthy big churches work hard on building relationships in small groups, and they use their size to accomplish things that small churches usually can’t pull off.  The problem is not size as such, but anonymity.  Let me give an analogy.  When I was a little kid, I used to love to go to my grandpa’s service station.  It had two gas pumps and a garage for a mechanic.  And it was a gathering place where people had relationships.  If you couldn’t pay for your gas this week, Grandpa Sullivan would put your name in his little book so you could pay next week.  Contrast that with the chains I buy gas at now.  They’re quicker, more efficient, probably more environmentally responsible, and they sell more of the junk food we like on long trips.  But relationships?  Not really.  In our increasingly fragmented world of people bowling alone, churches have to think pretty carefully about community.

Fourth, to tie all this up, let’s talk about stakeholding. In other words, are there people in our churches whose absence we would not miss, whose opinions we do not consult, whose faith we do not consider, and whose wisdom we don’t draw on?  My guess is that the answer is yes.  Think about the incredible waste of that situation.  How do we give more people more of a stake in what happens in our congregations?  This especially applies to the young and the old, but it applies to all of us.

These are some thoughts.  I’d welcome your comments.  Next time, I’ll try to talk about the intellectual/theological issues we face today.

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 1)

by   |  04.09.10  |  Uncategorized

Like many other people, I read the other day about the big church that was giving away cars, big screen tvs, and other spiffy consumer goods to draw folks to their Easter service.

Also like many others, especially smart-alecky professor types, I quickly passed through the stages of theological grief: mockery, dismay, resignation, and sadness.  What are we coming to?

But then a deeper thought: granted, it’s sad to imagine that the news of resurrection from the dead and radical human transformation seems passe to jaded Americans and (even more seriously) the churches that serve them.  But one does not arrive at such a state overnight: like the pilgrims on the Canterbury trail, we all get there one step at a time.  So, I thought, where am I and where are the churches I serve on this road, and how do we get off?

Where we are is fairly clear.  In a consumerist society in which the ultimate value is choice, a message of sacrifice and transformation casts such a dazzling vision of hope as to be totally counter-cultural.  The Christian message is unsafe and so it must be domesticated.  So we think.  And so we do, in many ways, large and small.  When I was a kid, that meant inviting people to marriage seminars in the hopes that they would then, somehow, hear the even better news of the gospel.  I’m not sure that ever worked, but it was honorably, if naively, intended.  It got too easy to come to think that a better marriage was the gospel.  Or, more generally, we can reduce the life of the church to a sort of self-help society for those who are, or would like to be, upwardly mobile.  No sacrifice required, no hope for a totally different world, just a cleaner version of this one.  It’s as though Jesus had hired a p.r. firm to remessage himself.

Diagnosis is easy; cure is much harder.  How do we get off the road?  I’ll take that up in the next posts in more detail.  But for now, let me try three simple ideas from the world of consumerism and p.r. (we might as well take back something from this road we’re on!).  They may seem hokey, but they’re something to talk about, at least.

  1. Product placement.  We all know about the box of Special K on the kitchen counter in sitcoms.  Seinfeld gave us that.  What if the gospel were a product placed in our own lives? Where would we hide it so everyone saw it but no one thought it out of place?
  2. Social media.  The Christian congregation was a radical innovation in the Roman Empire.  It crossed lines of ethnicity, gender, and class so people could hear the bad news of human sin and the good news of divine redemption.  It’s still a radical idea when it’s freed of consumerism, showmanship, and spin.  And it brings real friends, not just the other kind.
  3. Messaging.  And speaking of spin, shouldn’t church be the ultimate no-spin zone?  Could it be a place where we can talk about absolutely anything that really matters in light of Christian teaching?  It’s a radical idea.  Maybe we should try it sometime.

I’ll write more about all these things soon.  Stay tuned.

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word