Archive for ‘Church’

Knowing Your Neighborhood

0 Commentsby   |  12.15.17  |  ACU, Alumni, Christianity, Church, Gospel, Hospitality, Ministry, Mission of God, Worship

Knowing Your Neighborhood

Part 1 of 3

One Sunday morning, years ago, a refugee family showed up at church and they kept coming back. I walked out of the office one afternoon, made my way up the street, and knocked on the front door of where the refugees were living. The door opened and the gift of hospitality was extended. Over coffee, I learned of their story. I also learned this family was deeply committed to the life of Christ.

Over the next several months I would continue to unexpectedly drop in. One day the matriarch of the family said something similar to the following:

Seeing you at our front door reminds me of our church back home. Back home the preacher was the priest who made daily visits to the neighbors. The neighborhood knew the priest and the priest knew the neighborhood. But it seems, in North America, the neighborhood doesn’t know the priest and the priest doesn’t know the neighborhood.

Ethnography of the Neighborhood

A common refrain by those engaged in the missional church conversation is that the church does not have a mission, but the mission of God has a church. Those leading the conversation then help churches discover the avenues in which churches can join God already in His mission. However, often what is lacking in these conversations is knowledge of the neighborhood we are sent too (Luke 10:1-12). If we are going to be communities of faith announcing the nearness of God’s kingdom while we heal, cast out demons, and receive hospitality by the strangers, I wonder if one of the first steps we must take is to know the neighborhood to which we are being sent.

One afternoon, the leaders of a local church plant called me asking if we could meet for a coffee and I agreed. I had heard of this church plant from those living in the neighborhood as the church plant was door knocking, offering free movie nights, and promoting their talented musicians who were the lead worship ministers in a successful church plant years prior.

We meet for a coffee and they tell the story of the church plant and their desire to be missional. The leaders continue the conversation by describing their upbeat, highly polished worship service. They admit their struggles: people within the neighborhood are not responding to the gospel. I sit sipping my steaming black coffee when the question is posed, “Could you tell us about your worship service?”

I answer them:

Well, it’s really traditional. We mostly sing hymns from the 17th and 18th centuries, and some Sundays the singing can be really good while other Sundays it can be really bad. Sometimes, we have people read Scripture but because of their disabilities we can never understand a word they say. Some Sundays the kids are running around and I feel there is hardly any praise to God, just a bunch of screaming kids.

The leaders of the church plant sat with a look of shock.

“But you’re growing numerically?”


“But your worship seems lacking!”

“Yes. But it’s not always about what we offer in worship. Those who are concerned about the worship service are mostly attractional model churches. What matters is if you love the neighborhood and if you do, the neighborhood will put up with less than stellar worship services because they know you are willing to give your life for them.”

The leaders of the church plant left the coffee shop promising to keep in touch. I left our conversation frustrated because of the unasked questions: Who lives in this neighborhood? What is the DNA of this neighborhood? What are the strengths of this neighborhood? What are the areas of concern residents of this neighborhood might have?

These questions, and other ethnographic questions, are becoming necessary for churches that are seeking to live out the Christian story. They also help churches become ones that follow the promptings of the Spirit that is at work to break down barriers and to create communities of reconciliation. These questions are needed because the gospel is not something we simply give intellectual consent to; the gospel is a way of life. The gospel is connected to the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is God’s rule and reign “on earth as it is in heaven.” We are communities of faith living as witnesses to what God’s rule and reign might look like and this witness might look different depending on what neighborhood we are living in. Thus, we must know our neighborhoods.

Reflecting on my coffee with the leaders of the church plant, I again am reminded of the need to make the switch from being churches living at the center of power (Constantine churches) to churches living on the margins (exilic churches). Exilic churches will become practitioners of the neighborhood with intentions not on attracting people to our churches but being churches that know how to give up our lives for the neighborhood. Exilic churches will understand how each neighborhood will require the Christian community “to carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus is revealed” (2 Cor. 4:10) in ways that reflect the life of the neighborhood. The inner city church in downtown Chicago will embody the gospel in ways that look very different from the church situated at the one major intersection of a small rural town whose population is predominantly seniors. Knowing the neighborhood determines how we live as witnesses to the nearness of God’s kingdom.

Honestly, maybe it’s time for us to stop polishing our worship services and maybe it’s time we stop worrying about how to attract people to our worship services. Instead, let’s require the ministry staff and others to spend time walking the neighborhood where our churches are situated. Maybe it’s time we require the staff of the church to become the priests of the neighborhood rather than caretakers of the religious establishment.

Check back soon for part 2!

About the author: Nathan Pickard lives in Newmarket, Ontario with his wife Katie and two boys, Caleb and Eli. He loves to spend his time playing hockey with the kids and has a passion for the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. Nathan has been serving as the minister for Newmarket Church of Christ for the past 13 years. He holds a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Abilene Christian University. Most recently, Nathan wrote a small book called Praying for the Neighborhood and also contributed a chapter to the book called Along the Way (edited by Ron Bruner and Dana Pemberton).

Alumni Spotlight- Nathan Pickard

0 Commentsby   |  12.14.17  |  ACU, Alumni, Church, Evangelism, Ministry, Mission, Professors, Students, Theology

Meet GST Alum, Nathan Pickard!

Nathan lives in Newmarket, Ontario with his wife Katie and two boys, Caleb and Eli. He enjoys spending his time playing hockey with the kids. He also has a love for the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. He received a Master of Divinity and a Doctorate of Ministry from ACU. Most recently, he wrote a small book called Praying for the Neighborhood and also contributed a chapter to the book called Along the Way which was edited by Ron Bruner and Dana Pemberton. He also writes for our GST Blog.


1) Where are you currently working & what is your role?

I am the minister at Newmarket Church of Christ (a small city 40 minutes north of Toronto). I have been serving this congregation for just over 13 years. 

2) Do you feel like the GST prepared you for your current role? If so, how?

GST prepared me by asking ecclesiological and missiological questions that no one asked me to answer before. They also helped develop my theology of church and mission. This training has allowed me to serve a congregation that is multi-cultural and also on the cutting edge of living within a very a post-Christendom culture.

Interacting with faculty on a regular basis also helped me develop a love for communities of faith. Seeing my professors love the church (when its easy to grow dissatisfied) has helped me become a minister who cares deeply about longevity with a congregation. GST also prepared me by being a place where I could develop friendships; friendships that help sustain my theological interests and work.

I remember eating breakfast with Dr. James Thompson one morning and asking him why there isn’t a lot of “text” classes. Thompson responded with words similar to, “It’s important to teach you how to read Scripture rather than specifically teach you certain texts. If you can learn how to read Scripture you can read the texts with your community of faith.” What Thompson said can easily be translated to other areas of study. GST helped me learn what it means to be a student of theology, ethnography, eccelesiology, etc., and because of this, GST has given me the tools to think deeply about the life of the church.

3) What is something you are currently most excited about in your ministry?

I’m excited about our work in the neighborhood. We have a community garden, summer camp, neighborhood meals, street BBQ’s. We’ve recently partnered with the Town so that a bike trail and a neighborhood parkette could be built as part of the Town’s development. I’m also really excited about conversations where we as a community of faith are exploring the development of a hospitality house where we will invite individuals to live inside the neighborhood and help connect church and neighborhood in deeper ways, while also building upon the work we’ve been engaged in over the years. This conversation is one of the most significant conversations we have undertaken. I look forward to continuing this conversation. (See Nathan’s blog about working in his neighborhood here

4) Tell us about a GST professor or two that inspired you. Feel free to use a story, or just explain why and how they impacted your life.

There were two professors that inspired me. First was Dr. Tim Sensing. I was Tim’s Graduate Assistant and so had to spend a lot of time with him. His stories of church and family, his quiet demeanor, steadfastness and friendship helped shaped me into who I am today. The second was Dr. Mark Love. It was Mark’s class on evangelism that helped me see the kingdom of God in new ways. It was also Mark who introduced me to the missio Dei and as a result, has shaped my eccelesiology and way of ministry.

The Church as Refuge

by   |  11.02.17  |  Christianity, Church, Evangelism, Ministry, Students

The Church as Refuge

Two weeks ago, I made the decision to ask a young man to leave our church, and it has left me with a sense of unease. This severing of ties wasn’t due to doctrinal or theological differences, personality conflicts or any of the causes we might immediately consider. It was because he shot up heroin in our bathroom.

We had done the best we knew how to welcome Cameron (1) into the atmosphere of worship and fellowship on Sunday. We made sure that people were actively trying to connect with him. We ignored his outward appearance and looked for the best way to extend grace. We made space to bring him into a table full of people and food during our fellowship meal. At some point, he left those things behind and locked himself in a stall. As I struggled to communicate with him through the high, as I tried to creatively figure out how I was going to dispose of the paraphernalia littering the tile floor, as I did most of this with my 4 -year old daughter at my side, I found myself a minister divided. The part of me aching for Cameron, not wanting to see him turned away, had to contend with the part of me that is already serving many people at Shelbourne Street, including my own family, and my desire to keep them from harm.

A tent city in the shadow of the largest mainline Protestant church in Victoria.

We are not a particularly urban church, but we are becoming more familiar each year with a growing number of addicts and homeless that are immigrating to Victoria, BC. We occupy one of the warmest areas of Canada, and like much of the Pacific Northwest, we have become a year-round haven for people that are endangered or without resources. We are also the seat for the Provincial Government, a distinction that has led to many protests and the creation of “tent-cities” to serve as both shelter and statement in the public eye about the need to address the growing homeless and addicted populations (2).

Into this dry tinderbox, the drug Fentanyl has dropped like a lit match. In 2016, BC Health attributed this refined form of opiate to being the lead cause in a spike of overdose deaths that topped 900 in the province. New reports this May estimate the death toll for 2017 to rise over 1,400 (3). Two of those deaths belong to children of folks in our congregation. Our small, seemingly safe suburban church world is being flipped on its ear by the changes of our community, and the challenge to become a place of refuge.

God as refuge is an idea intertwined with what it means to be Israel; their very namesake has his origins as one on the run from vengeance who runs into God on the way. Israel’s consummate example of an anointed king spends both his early years and his later ones as a fugitive driven to the caves and valleys of the wilderness, who speaks of God as “my hiding place” (Ps.32:7). Yet the idea of Israel as a bringer of refuge is just as prevalent. In a culture where refugees, widows, orphans, and endangered people of all walks were left discarded and defenseless, God wove into Israel’s identity the role of invitation and responsibility.

One example of this is the establishment of the cities of refuge in the Torah and in Joshua 20. Among the inheritance of Levi, the forty-eight cities given to maintain the life of the priests and the knowledge of God, six are designated as cities of refuge. Exodus 21:14 points to the idea that for anyone under the threat of vengeance and death, the altar of God is the primary place of asylum, and many a person in the Davidic Dynasty is found clinging to its horns to avoid slaughter (4).  Yet there is also an establishment of these cities, ringing Jerusalem, that have that same connotation; where the priests of God are, God’s refuge exists as well.

I believe that when God had these cities established, God had more in mind than just providing a place where people involved in an accidental death could go for protection. It was to affirm God’s desire for justice to be tempered with mercy in a merciless world (5). It was to provide Israel with a vivid image of their role as God’s people. It was to tie their identity as people in God’s refuge to actions as God’s refuge.

I wonder if the people of Hebron or Kedesh ever got tired of the folks showing up at their gates.

People who are running for their lives are often pretty messy. They have baggage, not the least of which is destruction coming on their heels. I wonder if the people in those cities struggled with the tension between their role as givers of refuge, and their desire to feel secure within their own walls. I wonder if the leaders of the city ever made hasty judgements, or dismissed people who were in need, because there were just too many other things to think about.

“In a shame or honour based society, there truly isn’t anything we can do to be included in society again. It is at the discretion of society as to whether they welcome us back in (6) .”

Many of us have accepted the awareness that Christianity is moving to the margins of western culture, particularly in North America. We feel this acutely in the city of Victoria, the capitol of the province with the lowest Christian affiliation of any type in Canada. At best, we are usually viewed as a positive oddity, perhaps even “quaint”. Many churches are at a crossroads as to whether we will continue to attempt to reclaim a piece of our influence of old, or whether we will seek a new voice in the margins. What we are finding there is that the margins are actually full of folks who need to seek a holy asylum.

We are also seeing the growing need for the Gospel we proclaim to be one of freedom from shame as well as guilt. The homeless I talk to in our city feel adrift; my colleagues in ministry who make it their calling to intersect the lives of the homeless and the addict talk to me of a great weight of shame pursuing them. Their identity, it seems, has become flawed, intertwined with destruction. The vengeance follows them from shelter to park, soup kitchen to safe injection site, until it runs them down.

The question Shelbourne Street wrestles with in response to what we see is this; “What might it look like for the church to be a people that would abandon, at least in part, our natural discretion in order to  be able to welcome in the name of Jesus those who seek His asylum?” I believe this is not a question for our church alone, but for churches everywhere. What is the picture of church as refuge going to look like? How will we balance the care we give to those within the security of the family of God  against the growing call of those who need that same adoption we possess? And what will we do when Cameron, or the next Cameron, comes back?


About the author:

Travis Hutchinson serves on the ministry staff at the Shelbourne Street Church of Christ in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. He completed his undergraduate and MACM at Abilene, and is currently pursuing an MDiv Equivalency in preparation for doctoral studies. He has been married to his incredible wife, Nicole, for 17 years and is the father of 5 fantastic children.





  1. Not his real name.
  2. Brian Hutchinson, ‘I Chose to Be Homeless’: Victoria’s Notorious Tent City Shrinks as Deadline for Dismantling Approaches, (National Post, August 5, 2016).
  3. Scott Brown, B.C. Opiod Crisis; Province on Pace for more than 1,400 Overdose Deaths in 2017 (Vancouver Sun, May 31, 2017).
  4. Feinberg, Charles Lee, The Cities of Refuge (Bibliotheca Sacra, 104 no. 413): 37.
  5. Ibid, p.46
  6. This was a quote from Maggie Goode, in the discourse of our current class with Dr. Chris Flanders on “Witness in Global Contexts.”

GST Faculty Update 2017

by   |  10.11.17  |  ACU, Church, Ministry

I am continually amazed how our GST faculty engage in local church ministry. Of course, there are the obvious activities that everyone sees including church consultations and seminars, interim ministries, Elderlink, writing curriculum, and publishing articles and books that serve the life of the church. Yet, there are also those week-to-week engagements with local churches working as elders, Bible class teachers, and ministry leaders. For example, Fred Aquino can be found most Sunday mornings preaching at the Avenue B Church of Christ in Ballinger. Chris Flanders is often found these days preaching at the Maryneal Church of Christ. Mindi Thompson is a frequent Bible adult class teacher at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene. And the list continues.

For the past four years, Jeff and Linda Childers were High School Huddle leaders for the Highland Church of Christ. Jeff recently told me, “Having the same batch of teenagers into our home every week during their high school years has been a highlight. From the silly to the sublime and the very serious, my wife Linda and I have been privileged to walk alongside an extraordinary group of youngsters on their journey into young adulthood.”

Mark Hamilton talked with me about his work as an elder at University Church of Christ. While being an elder at a church has many demands, he shared with me one part of the work he found especially joyful.  “Samjung and I have served with the campus ministry at UCC, spending a lot of time with students, mentoring some, teaching as needed, and trying to encourage our various campus ministers. We met with those students every Sunday evening for over five years. Last year was a transitional year for us as we stepped back from campus ministry (though we ran a small group chapel on campus on Thursdays for about a dozen UCC students and their friends).  We transitioned to the 20-somethings group, which Bradley Steele [GST alum] is leading.”

I appreciate working with world-class scholars. Spending time with them on a weekly basis for twenty years has shaped my thinking about God and the church in profound ways. More importantly, I am blessed to watch how they integrate the life of the mind with their daily walk with God and the church. I hear them pray and watch them pastor others. I am a witness to how my fellow GST faculty commit themselves to academic pursuits and the vocation of scholarship as a service to the church. How much more so is that service blessed as they also serve the church with their hearts and hands.


Tim Sensing

GST Author Highlight

by   |  10.09.17  |  ACU, Alumni, Bible, Church, College of Biblical Studies, Ministry, Professors, Theology

The Graduate School of Theology has many gifted authors who are using their talents to minister to the church & the world. Below are four books that have recently been published by either GST faculty or alumni. We hope they will be an inspiration to you.


Meditations for the Lone Traveler written by Mark Hamilton

“In writing this book, I wanted to speak to those who feel alone in their faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Faith is not purely intellectual, but comprehensive in its impact on life. In the pursuit of faith, we are not alone.”

These twenty-two meditations on the songs, prayers, and stories of the Bible invite readers to imagine themselves as part of a world in which human beings may fully live into their sufferings and joys as part of a vibrant while still critically searching faith in God. Here we see prophets and  poets, as well as ordinary men and women, embrace the realities of life without apology or fear. For more information, click here.


The Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology edited by Fred Aquino

This volume brings together leading scholars in the fields of theology and epistemology to examine and articulate what can be categorized as appropriate epistemic evaluation in theology. Part one focuses on some of the epistemic concepts that have been traditionally employed in theology, such as  knowledge of God, revelation and scripture, reason and faith, experience, and tradition. Part two concentrates on concepts that have received significant attention in contemporary epistemology and can be related to theology, such as understanding, wisdom, testimony, virtue, evidence, foundationalism, realism/antirealism, scepticism, and disagreement. Part three offers examples from key figures in the Christian tradition and investigates the relevant epistemological issues and insights in these writers, as well as recognizing the challenges of connecting insights from contemporary epistemology with the subject of theology proper, namely, God. Part four centers on five emerging areas that warrant further epistemological consideration: Liberation Theology, Continental Philosophy, modern Orthodox writers, Feminism, and Pentecostalism. Learn more here.


Among the Early Evangelicals written by James Gorman 

Among the Early Evangelicals charts a new path showing convincingly that the earliest leaders of this Movement cannot be understood apart from a robust evangelical and missionary culture that traces its roots back to the eighteenth century. Leaders, including such luminaries as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, borrowed freely from the outlook, strategies, and methodologies of this transatlantic culture. More than simple Christians with a unique message shaped by frontier democratization, the adherents in the Stone-Campbell Movement were active participants in a broadly networked, uniquely evangelical enterprise. Find more information here.


Pray Like You Breathe: Exploring the Practice of Breath Prayer written by Houston Heflin

Pray Like You Breathe: Exploring the Practice of Breath Prayer chronicles the history and practice of this unique spiritual discipline focusing primarily on the Psalms as a reservoir of language for prayer. The book can be used as a 28-day experience of prayer for individuals or it can also be used as curriculum for small groups and Bible classes. Purchase your own copy on Amazon here

The Carmichael-Walling Lectures-2017

by   |  10.09.17  |  Announcements, Church, Theology





The 2017 Carmichael-Walling Lectures will take place on Thursday, November 9. Our lecturer will be Dr. Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke University.“How Well Do They Know Each Other?”

Dr. Goodacre will speak on the relationship between John and the other New Testament Gospels. The first lecture, entitled John’s Dramatic Transformation of the Synoptics, deals with John’s knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels as revealed in the way he dramatizes their narratives. In John’s Christological Transformation of the Synoptics, Dr. Goodacre addresses the understated similarities in the Christology of the Synoptic Gospels and that of the Gospel of John. In short, they know one another better than some interpreters of the New Testament have allowed.

The Lectures will occur at 4:00 and 7:00 in room 114 of the Biblical Studies Building on the ACU campus. They are free and open to the public.




Summit Review 2017

by   |  10.06.17  |  ACU, Bible, Church, Ministry, Theology

ACU Summit 2017, “Ancient Scripture, Future Church: The Choices We Make and the God We Serve,”  focused on Deuteronomy, the ways this ancient text informs the future of the church and the choices we make as we strive to serve God. Approximately twenty eight GST faculty, staff, current students, and alumni spoke at this year’s Summit lecture series! People traveled from all over the world to attend the lectures and to a partake in many valuable conversations. Below are four all day tracks where GST faculty, staff, students or alumni spoke about throughout the week.


Ancient- Future Bible:

The Word of God is living and active, and it has been so for millennia. The rich heritage we have from our predecessors in the faith, from manuscripts to art and from reflection to action, can be a profound source of spiritual strength today. This track, hosted by Curt Niccum, empowers Christians to engage God and his creation in new ways by going back to the future. Those who spoke on this topic were Wendell Willis, Jeff Childers, Glenn Pemberton, David Kneip and Curt Niccum. Our speakers shed light on topic such as recovering the Words of Jesus, interpreting the text about Jonah and the war over women in the Word.

Congregational Leadership:

With today’s complexities of congregational leadership, church leaders must seek wisdom as they navigate the winds of change. This track, hosted by Eric Gentry, will explore healthy leadership practices, pastoral ministry, spiritual discernment, and future

imagination for congregational leaders. Speakers included Colin & Barry Packer, Kasey McCollum, Jovan Barrington and Chess Cavitt. Topics explored included congregational grief and loss, what the church’s purpose is in this new era and leadership models for God’s Mission.

Ministering in the Small Church:

Although there is no official number that makes a congregation “small” or “large,” there are definite and noticeable differences between the two.  Most books, lectures, conversations, etc. are geared toward larger congregations. This track, hosted by Shawn D. Johnson, is intended to provide encouragement, guidance, and lessons specifically for small (but equally important) churches and those who minister to them. Tim Sensing, Shawn D. Johnson, Wes Horn and Trent Tanaro spoke wisdom about this topic throughout the week. These speakers explored conversations about size and location in relations to Churches of Christ, ministry in small towns and finding treasure in the big but also small things.

Business and Mission:

Sometimes, the mission field looks like a foreign country. Other times, it looks like the world of business. Tuesday of Summit, Dodd Roberts will host an all-day track examining “Business and Mission,” a track that will hopefully provide inspiration for potential Christian business-owners and employees as well as encouragement for those already operating as Christians in the world of business. A variety of speakers came to speak about Business and Mission in our world, which included Walter Cunningham, Chi-Ming Chien, Jarrod Brown, Gary Ginter, Lauren McAfree, Jan Martinez, Julie Sullivan, Don Simmons, Jason Fisher, Bill Job, Courtney MIlls, Matthew Rohrs and Mats Tunehag. Topics these guests spoke on included things such as “Business and Missions Abroad”, “Advancing the Kingdom of God in the Marketplace” and “From Non-Profit to For Profit.”

Download MP3 files of all the lectures for free on itunes!

Small Churches by Kester Smith

by   |  08.06.15  |  Church, Ministry

Ninety percent of churches in the world have fewer than 200 people. Eighty percent have fewer than 100. Of the two billion Christians in the world, half of them attend small churches. Yet, the vast majority of blogs, books, conferences, and websites made available as ministerial resources are designed for doing ministry in a big church context.

Which is why Christianity Today is introducing “Pivot,” a new blog by Karl Vaters, dedicated to equipping and inspiring ministers in small churches. GST faculty’s hope is that it will be a challenge and encouragement to any and all of you working in ministry, and especially those who serve in a small church context.

The Church according to Paul

by   |  06.02.15  |  Church, Ministry

thompson-bookJames Thompson continues his excellent series with The Church according to Paul. On May 26, 2015 it received the 2015 Book of the Year Award from the Academy of Parish Clergy. Read more here.

All three books are significant contributions to the field of ministerial and ecclesial formation. Dr. Thompson has always excelled in combining rigorous academic research and ministerial sensitivities. His love for the church is most evident in this latest work.

The other books in the series are Pastoral Ministry according to Paul and Moral Formation according to Paul. 

Questions that Matter Most by Matt Hale

by   |  04.21.15  |  Church, Ministry, Uncategorized

HaleThere is a genre of stories told among Church of Christ ministers (and occasionally graduate students) that goes something like this:

“I was teaching a class/preaching a sermon/leading a devo, and the subject was controversial topic x. While everyone was milling about afterwards, an old person came up to me and asked why I said A about x when the Bible clearly says B. I tried to explain to her what the Bible really says about x, but you know how it is.”

The conventional audience response is an empathetic eye-roll, a shaking of the head, and another story about how those old-school folks can really get us down. The unspoken upshot of these conversations is that “one glad morning” when their “life is o’er”, we’ll “fly away” from their irrational, conservative restrictions and sing praise hymns accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a fog machine, and preach about whatever we like behind a very small, transparent lectern. We will have to endure these trials for a time, and then the church will be ours.

Having worked mostly in small-town, rural, conservative churches, I have had some experiences like these, more than a few. They can be very frustrating. Recently, however, I have begun to wonder if the attitude of dismissiveness is the only possible option. And I have wondered if I have misplaced blame for these experiences. I would like to blame their close-mindedness, or their lack of access to the kind of theological education I have received. But when I am honest, I admit the blame must lie with me, because I would rather be dismissive than take on the loving, patient, and careful work of explaining my position to them in a way they can accept, or at least understand.

If I want to console myself a bit, I can remember that it is very tempting to dismiss those with whom we disagree, particularly when they are naïve, ignorant, and inarticulate. Why take the time to truly engage with them, to give ear to their questions and answer them properly, when I can call them “uneducated”, “conservative”, “patriarchal”, “heternormative”, “reactionary’, “nationalistic”, or “old-school”? Of course, this is even easier and more tempting if all I am really good at is deconstructing a position, but have never done the hard work of constructing something better.

This temptation, however, must be resisted. I am beginning to wonder whether, paradoxically, it is not the “progressive” young-folk who are asking the most subversive and important questions, but rather the old lady who wonders why the communion table has been moved to the back of the church? Or perhaps it is the octogenarian who wants to know if the preacher really think scripture is inspired, a question he is not ready to answer even though he should be. Maybe it is the grumpy old man who says he doesn’t like instrumental music because of the Bible, but it is really because it makes him feel left out of the worship because he can’t hear his own voice over the practiced praise-team and drums. Though their questions can reflect some unsophisticated assumptions, they are questions that demand answers. And maybe this frustrates me because it isn’t their lack of reflection that is revealed when they ask these questions. Maybe it is mine, my unpreparedness and inability to directly answer their concerns, carefully leading them through the morass to deeper spiritual nourishment like a good teacher must.

Soon, these “old-school” folks will be gone, and while we will lose their “literalism” and “legalism”, we will also lose their invaluable questions. But we will lose more than that. We will also lose their love of scripture, their unhesitating generosity, their commitment to truth, and their faith. When I have lost my most irritating interlocutor, who will drive a dozen hungry neighborhood kids to church twice a week in a wood-paneled van? When inane scripture wars finally end, who will take potato salad and casseroles to the bereaved, and the Lord’s Supper to the shut-ins? When they are gone, these will be the troubling questions posed to us, their final subversive inquisition. Once again, they will have unmasked us, and rightly so.

I encourage you, then, to cherish these questions, questions that catch us off guard, and do not dismiss them simply because they are based on conservative assumptions you’ve left behind. For perhaps it is not their limitations that are being revealed, but yours.

Matt Hale is a third year Theology M.A. student and preacher at Cottonwood Church of Christ in Cottonwood, TX.

African American Preaching

by   |  10.08.13  |  Church, Preaching

Recently, two resources directly related to black preaching were developed in order to serve churches.

  • Black Preachers Archived at Duke Chapel provides audio examples of some of the best of black preaching and is located here. Duke University press release is located here.
  • The African American Lectionary is a resource that provides commentary, cultural aids, and liturgical resources that address particular needs of the African American community. Link

Together, both resources provide an abundance of wealth that will enrich any ministry and sustain healthy practices.

@ see also my bibliography under the sidebar link to resources or sidebar link to articles.

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 4)

by   |  05.06.12  |  Bible, Church, Learning

This post concludes the series on why we love the Bible, even when we also struggle with it. Thank you for reading and thinking along with me.

     Why, then, do Christians love the Bible?  In prior posts in this series, we considered some reasons for not loving it, perhaps even for rejecting it.  Some of those reasons are more interesting or challenging than others.  How one answers them does not change the fact that many reasonable, thoughtful, even kind and gracious people love the Bible and are willing to sacrifice comfort, success, and even their own lives to carry out their understandings of its basic message.  Why?

            The answers probably vary with the lover.  For some, the sheer literary artistry of the book dazzles and fascinates.  Stories and poems, proverbs and songs, laments and thanksgivings all grace the pages of the Good Book.  Who can easily forget David and Bathsheba or Daniel in the lion’s den or Mary Magdalene at the tomb?  The Bible’s ability to surface the voices of the powerless, even when the authors themselves bore some bit of power as they sometimes did, compels admiration.  Anybody with any literary sensibility at all can see that.

            But there is something more to the love than just artistic appreciation, though that is real and noteworthy.  The larger point is that we love the Bible because it talks about the human love for God, our deep longing not to be alone, and our profound awareness that we are not and cannot be.  It is a book of hope, which one must carefully distinguish from wishful thinking.  Far too gritty and realistic a book to offer false hopes or easy solutions to complex problems – unlike some of its defenders and alleged fans – the Bible nevertheless assumes the highest possible things about the nature and destiny of the human race.  Made in God’s image, accountable, redeemable, resurrect-able, capable of great good as well as great evil, human beings appear in Scripture in ways that are both honest and hope-filled.  Not an easy trick to pull off, for authors of books or any of the rest of us.

            The greatest interpreters of the Bible, whether technical scholars or preachers or artists, have understood the coherence of its ideas about human beings.  Thus Handel ends his great oratorio “Messiah,” the libretto of which consists entirely of biblical passages, with the great hymn of the angels in Revelation: “Worthy is the lamb who was slain….”  And then the Amen.  Death and pain do not get the last word; there is a resurrection in every graveyard.  Or think of the joyous opening of Haydn’s “Creation” with the word “Light” sung again and again in joy.  Darkness has its place – we need it in some ways – but it does not win in the end.  Or more recently Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the glorious resolution of all the storm and stress in Hinneh mah tov umana’im shevet achim gam yachad (“How good and how pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity”).  Humans can live together and that still unrealized possibility is worth aspiring toward.  There is something in the Bible, then, that speaks to the full resolution and restoration of all things.  Peace.  Wholeness.  Shalom.  And that is why we love the Bible.  We are not naïve about its challenges.  Not at all.  But we know that inside its riddles, past its dark paths and hidden traps lie a deeper truth.  That truth is that God is making all things new.  Who couldn’t love that?

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 3)

by   |  04.29.12  |  Bible, Christianity, Church, Identity

            In the previous post, I talked about objections that many people lodge against the Bible and thus against those of us who understand it as a book representing in some fashion a window onto the true character, practices, and convictions of God.  Obviously, the discussion here can only hint at some of the depths of the issues.  For some of them, you might consider the profound new book by Feldmeier and Spieckermann, The God of the Living (Baylor University Press, 2011).  It’s not an easy read, but is well worth the effort.

            The final two objections I noted consisted of the claims that the Bible advocates the mistreatment of various groups of vulnerable people, most notoriously the Canaanites but also women.  Let me briefly think about those issues.

            First, the Canaanites.  A number of biblical texts seem to advocate the eradication of the aboriginal settlers in Palestine.  The Bible never advocates ethnic cleansing of anyone else, indicating that the writers considered the Canaanites a special case.  The authors of Deuteronomy and the texts influenced by it (notably, Joshua) were concerned lest the local people persuade Israel to practice idolatry, or at least those are their stated reasons.

            Does the fact that the Canaanites present a special case reduce the horrible level of immorality associated with their extermination, if it actually happened?  No, of course not.  Can we reasonably argue that, well, they were uniquely horrible human beings and so their removal was justified, much as some people believe capital punishment for heinous criminals is justified?  Doubtful, since it is hard to imagine an entire population, including women and children, so sunk into depravity that execution was the only way to prevent the spread of their contaminating influence.

            There is, we must admit, not easy way to deal with the case of the Canaanites.  Christians who take seriously Jesus’ calls to love or the earlier prophets’ call to justice will find it impossible to work toward a fully convincing defense of the anti-Canaanite texts.  There are a few qualifications to be made, however:

  1. The ethnic cleansing never happened.  There is no archaeological evidence of mass destructions of the pre-Israelite population.
  2. In fact, the Canaanites survived as a recognizable population for centuries after the birth of Israel.  Solomon impressed them into forced labor, for example.  They were “the other” for much of this time, but were not eliminated.
  3. The texts advocating their elimination seem to be much later than the events they purport to describe.  The first few chapters of Deuteronomy, for example, assume settlement in the land and arguably even exile and deportation for Israel and Judah (scholars debate this point).  That is, the call for elimination seems to be a sort of historical fiction retrojected into the past in order to show how things went off the rails.  (Remember what I said last time about how texts may not be what they seem at first.)
  4. This means that the texts about the Canaanites aren’t really about them at all, but about the desire for a sort of national purity.  Still a problematic idea, perhaps, but not the same as massacre and mayhem.
  5. And, yes, the Bible does contain some apparently old stories about how various Canaanite individuals and groups became integral parts of Israel.  Think of Rahab, the ancestor of David, and also the Gibeonites.  There must have been many others, and probably a DNA test of these ancient people, if such a thing were possible (which it is not), would have found lots of Canaanite ancestors for some Israelites at least.  This is not very surprising, by the way.  You may have seen the recent study of the gene pool in Scotland, which found lots of folks with Moorish, Asian, Corsican, and other gene markers in people with unobjectionable Scottish names like Hamilton, McDonald, and Stewart.

There is more to say here – much more – but maybe this suffices for now.

            But what about the women, to paraphrase Abigail Adams?  We have to acknowledge two things: (1) ancient texts assume a world of limited choices for many people, including women; and (2) Christianity has a very mixed record of validating the lives of women.  Here a good bit of history would help us.  We would learn that the history of women’s roles in Christianity has been very complex.  On the one hand, Christianity made space for women to be something other than a commodity under the control of a father or husband.  The creation of monastic life for men and women in the Middle Ages made space for a new way of living that made gender roles worked out in the dominant culture far less important.  Many of the modern moves toward full equality have their foundations in this earlier period.

            Moreover, it should be clear that much of the contemporary religious defense of sharply delineated gender roles has little real backing in the Bible itself.  For example, conservative Christians often speak of male headship and the need for women to have a primary responsibility in the home while men work outside it.  Both of these are simply bogus ideas.  Or at least they are greatly oversimplified.  Male headship is not a biblical term or concept in any meaningful sense.  It is a ghost idea, a misreading of texts.  And the situation in which home and workplace are sharply differentiated is a product of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not the first.  Much of the current discussion in church thus seems to reflect a fairly gross ignorance of history.  It is almost as deep as the ignorance outside the church.

            Having said all that, on the other hand, we should not pretend that the Bible is really a modern feminist tract very cleverly disguised.  Rather, I would argue that the Bible reports gender roles of past eras without necessarily endorsing them, and that, more importantly, it shows how real human beings work toward general principles of dignity and honor for all within the realities that they face.  Today we face different realities, but we still seek the dignity of human beings before God just as our ancient forebears did.  We could simply reject that history and the texts that came from it, but as the historian Simon Schama put it once in an interview on Dutch television (which you can see on Youtube), to be ignorant of the past is to be locked inside the mind of a small child aware neither of where we come from nor where we might go.  So we do not ignore this history or dismiss this book simply because it does not reflect our own historically conditioned, flawed, and temporary perspectives.  Rather, we seek to find behind the surface appearance of things the ideas that really matter.  When we do, we learn that all human beings are made in the image of God and are worthy of the fullest consideration.

Next time, Part 4 of 4 will appear!  We will return to the original topic of why we Christians love the Bible, in spite of all the difficulties we can name, of which we are all certainly aware.

Renewing worship: Lessons from the Prophets (Part 3)

by   |  07.13.10  |  Bible, Change, Christianity, Church, Contextual Theology, Hope, Justice, Prophets, Worship

This Sunday, I’m supposed to preach a sermon on Isaiah 41, a gorgeous text inviting Israel to come to God, not in fear but in trust and hope.  It’s a powerful text, and in many ways an easy one to preach.  But it’s got me to thinking about a couple of things.

First, notice what the text says: “I the Lord am your God, who grasped your right hand, who says to you, ‘Do not be afraid; I will help you’.”  This is a text about the mercy of God.

This leads to a broad observation: the key to Christian theology is the confession that God has mercy on the world — on all of us collectively, and on each of us individually.  God knows we need mercy, as anyone can recognize.  Our history weirdly mixes together tragedy and irony, salted with just enough comedy to make it all bearable.

Christians always struggle with a tragic view of life because we know too well the power of sin.  We suffer under no illusions, so much so that our honesty often gets us killed (hence Christianity’s history as a community of martyrs).  But in our struggle we must never allow the tragic sense to overwhelm us.  Because we, in the final analysis, do not believe that the world is a place of tragedy.  Because God is merciful, hope is possible.

Then my second thought, also a bit random.  In preparing to preach I always listen to music.  Channeling my inner nerd, I think that means classical music for me.  And this time it meant Bach’s “B Minor Mass,” which opens with about 10 minutes (10 minutes!) on the two Greek words “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”).  On and on it goes.  Why?  Undoubtedly our ancestors had longer attention spans than we do (which wouldn’t be hard).  But more importantly they knew they needed God’s mercy, and that they would get it because of who God is, and that as recipients of mercy, they should properly worship God.

So, to tie these thoughts together, I think a focus on God’s mercy on us would get us out of the phony worship discussions some of us seem stuck in, in which we must choose between legalism and entertainment/personal fulfillment as frames of reference.  What if we thought of worship as the assembly of those in need of mercy and grace?  What if we joined those who cry out to God in doing so?  Would that make a difference?

I’ll let you know how the sermon went (unless it’s a disaster).  But let me know how the reframing of worship as the search of mercy might make a difference in your context.  I’d like to hear from you.

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

Renewing worship: Lessons from the Prophets (part 2)

by   |  07.06.10  |  Baseball, Bible, Caregiving, Christianity, Church, Hospitality, Prophets, Theology, Worship

This overly long post — overly long because of too little time to make it shorter — tries to pull together two difference experiences to comment on a third.  Perhaps you can make it all make sense.

First an allegory from baseball: Last week, my family and I were sitting in the Ballpark in Arlington during a two and a half hour rain delay.  It was misting a little (okay, a lot), but still was enjoyable enough.  People played everywhere, with kids and parents enjoying time out together.  On the whole, it was a beautiful time, and it reminded us of the grace that meets us everywhere if we are still long enough to notice it.

But as we sat talking, I started to think about the people around me, and being a theological educator, began to muse a bit about what the experience might say about worship, which after all is a human event (to which the Holy Spirit puts in an appearance, to be sure).  The ritual of baseball, with its numerology, focus on proper administration of rules, and appropriate acknowledgment of the keepers of the story (umpires and sportscasters and wise old players) inevitably reminded me of worship.  But that’s an old story, and there are lots of books on the theology (or Zen or whatever) of baseball.  So that’s not worth pursuing much here.

What is interesting is how much pleasure we all took in a game that is steeped in ritual and has been performed countless times before.  We did not know the precise outcome, though we did know that after nine innings or so, someone would win and would do so in a way that has been done before, maybe many times.  There is comfort in that mix of predictability and unpredictability.

So it is with Christian worship.  Some things are expected, and we know that the meaning of what we do lies not in our own volition or desire but in something far older and deeper and more beautiful.  And yet within the context of a tradition, a set of practices by a community over time, lies room for the unexpected and even the startling.  In worship, we become better people because we learn to care for things that matter, and thus for each other.

Watching families at the ballpark teaches you something else about worship, the importance of caring for one another.  I got to explain to my daughter about triples and infield flies, just as on Sunday I can initiate her in the far deeper and more holy experiences of God’s grace.  Care for the other before God figures prominently in Christian worship.  It is part of how that experience makes us better.

Second, a citation from a delightful article:  In the current issue of Harvard Magazine (, the anthropologist Arthur Kleinman talks about his life with his wife Joan, formerly a leading scholar of classical Chinese, now stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.  He writes about his experiences, “… caregiving is a foundational component of moral experience.  By this I mean that we envision caregiving as an existential quality of what it is to be a human being.  We give care as part of the flow of everyday lived values and emotions that make up moral experience.  Here collective values and social emotions are as influential as individual ones.  Within these local moral worlds — family, network, institution, community — caregiving is one of those things that really matters, but usually not the only thing.”

For me, this call to give care in order to be fully human (which, for Christians, means made in the image of God) clarifies what worship is about too.  It is prayer for those in need, whether Christian or not.  It is proclamation of God’s tender care for the least of us.  It is celebration of our togetherness.  It is defiance of the silences that cripple lives and keep us from each other.  Worship knits together the insecure and lonely teenager with the widow who has no one to talk with.  Worship humbles the proud and exalts the humble because it allows us to see ourselves, to some extent, as God sees us, neither more nor less.  It is thus the ultimate act of caregiving.  Often it is painful, often it is difficult, but always it is an experience that pushes us from our comfortable seat and allows us to slow down enough to find grace.

Next time, worship as a means of grace.  Your comments to this post, meandering as it is, would be appreciated!

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

Renewing worship: Lessons from the Prophets (part 1)

by   |  06.29.10  |  Bible, Christianity, Church, Justice, Prophets, Theology, Worship

There’s a set of texts in the Minor Prophets I’ve been thinking about.  The following comments are part of a curriculum I wrote for a great church in Arlington, Texas.  Maybe it’ll be of use to others.  To preface it, let me say that I think much of our discussion of worship — and by “our,” I mean every religious group in America — misses the point.  Recall the acid comments of an Amos who has God saying “I hate, I despise your feasts.  (And that’s just for starters.)    Here’s a conversation we need to have.

To think about worship is to think about many things, including time, space, matter and its uses, the importance of leaders, the relationships between attitudes and actions, and many others.  Worship involves both external phenomena (such as movements and words) and internal realities (the inclinations, passions, longings, and perhaps even fears of the heart).  To worship well is to receive God’s gifts with gratitude and peace to offer to God, not our things or even our works, but our very beings.  Worship is not a transaction or an exchange.  It is our response to God’s overwhelming love and mercy.

The Bible speaks of worship in many ways: response to God’s creation (Job 38; Psalm 84), the response to God’s justice (1 Corinthians 11:17-22), and so on.  The Minor Prophets, in particular, take up two aspects of worship, its focus on the true and living God and its implications for the life of the community come together as one before that God.  The next lesson will focus on the latter theme, and this one on the former.


Like many Psalms and other biblical texts, the prophets call their audience to consider the majesty and generosity of God.  Unlike texts such as Isaiah 40-41, which explore God’s incomparability in detail, Hosea, Amos, and Micah praise God in incidental ways.  Consider some examples.

Hosea talks often of the God who redeemed Israel in the exodus (Hosea 9:10; 11:1; 12:9; 13:4-5).  This God calls human beings to lives of goodness and opposes evil (Hosea 4:1-3).  God does not show favoritism or allow election to be an excuse for oppression and injustice.  Such a God, therefore, cannot be represented by creations of human beings (idols), since any attempt to reduce God to something we understand denies the life-giving power of divine mercy (Hosea 14:8).  Yahweh is worthy of Israel’s worship because of His character.

Amos makes the grandeur of God even more explicit, not only by focusing on divine mercy toward all, by reminding his hearers of the language of the hymns they already know, which point toward divine power over creation and willingness to communicate intentions to human being.  Thus in Amos 4:13, the prophet quotes a hymn that speaks of God’s ability to create a beautiful world (compare Job 38 as well as Genesis 1) and then turns quickly to the phenomenon of prophecy (“and tells his thought to people”; see also Amos 3:7).  It is interesting that prophecy and creation can be mentioned in the same breath, as though they are two examples of the same sort of thing.  Prophecy – revelation of God’s will to people and thus guidance in things that matter permanently – creates something new.  In any case, the poem turns back to creation, speaking this time of God’s ability to undo what we have come to expect as normal and use it for new purposes.  The poem concludes with a reference to another of Yahweh’s names, “the lord of hosts” or “armies,” speaking of God’s mastery of the angelic hosts and thus of a world in which human beings play only a small role.

Amos also contains a second hymn, 9:5-6, which speaks of God’s incomparable power to reverse the normal flow of natural forces.  What is at stake in such a view of God?  Recall that the Bible does not celebrate power for its own sake, even God’s power.  Rather, it always speaks of power as it is used for good ends.  For example, kings use their ability to coerce others in order to end evil and bring about justice.  Parents use their power to train children in the ways they should go.  And God uses more or less unlimited power in order to draw human beings, and especially those in covenant, toward ethical, grace-filled lives.  At the same time, Amos wants to remind his audience of God’s majesty so that they will no longer ignore their commitments as though God were someone they could ignore or treat contemptuously.

Micah, meanwhile, offers many of the same visions of God as a majestic judge.  Chapter 7  opens with a lament (verses 1-6) to which a pious speaker responds, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, and I will wait for my saving God.  My God will hear me.”  This God aids those who humbly wait for deliverance in a troubled time.  Verses 8-13 respond to the lament in a different way by considering the possibility of a reversal of fortune for Israel, a time of healing and the rebuilding of community.  Those who believe Israel’s God cannot deliver the oppressed from their bonds will have a rude awakening.  How, then, does verse 7 connect to what follows it?  The answer seems to be that the book of Micah is designed to encourage the few who do hope in God to remember that God’s power and graciousness are complementary realities.  Power will be used for the good of humankind.


Two reflections are in order at this point.  First, notice that the prophets use an image of God with which many of us are very uncomfortable: God as judge.  Our discomfort comes from the way the image has sometimes been used.  Some Christians have made God into a judgmental figure, the “all-seeing eye watching you,” who takes note of every infraction and punishes without fail.  This understanding of God as judge is not what the prophets have in mind.  Their image is of a God of supreme mercy whose indignation is at injustice, not at petty violations, but at gross abuses of power and mistreatment of the vulnerable.  God the judge is God the vindicator: these are one and the same role.

Second, the prophets assume (as does the rest of the Bible) that those who are think deeply about the majesty of God will be better people than those who do not.  Awe before God leads to humility, graciousness, forgiveness, generosity, and other virtues that profoundly shape a life.  A vibrant, growing faith leads one to think of others as God’s children and thus as objects of our care as well.  (to be continued)

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

Assigned Seating

by   |  05.20.10  |  Church, Hospitality, Ministry, Mission of God, Society, Worship

The other day I was reading the Didascalia Apostolorum (DA), like people do on a bright May morning. Chapter 12.4 has an instruction for bishops in the worship service:

If, after you are seated, some other man or woman should arrive who is honored in the world, whether from the same region or another congregation, you should not leave off your ministry of the word—whether you are speaking it or hearing it or reading it—in order to show them to a place. Instead, remain as you are and do not interrupt the word.

For those who may not know, DA is an anonymous manual of church order, written largely in the 3rd century. Originally composed in Greek, it survives today mainly in Syriac. Though not especially well studied yet, DA gives us fascinating glimpses into early church life before Constantine’s time.

In this passage, DA counsels church leaders not to do what would come naturally. In the ancient world, when people of worldly dignity show up, it would be normal to drop what you are doing and receive them amidst the pomp and circumstance that fits their status. Not to do so would be rude and politically unwise, since surviving and thriving in that society depended so much on playing long-established games of patronage and preferment. From a worldly perspective, one would expect that the ranking “dignitary” of the congregation, the bishop, would be quick to court the favor of local luminaries and visiting VIPs by privileging their position in the church assembly. In public gatherings, the seating chart was a primary way of making and reinforcing a person’s significance in society. But here DA encourages the bishop to recognize that attending to the word is more important than attending to worldly status—and that in the eyes of God a minister of the Gospel outranks those whom society would privilege on account of wealth and power. Like it or not, any bigwig who walked in expecting special treatment would get hit squarely with a different set of values than he or she was accustomed to outside the church.

Later in the chapter (12.6), DA gives bishops further advice about seating arrangements:

But if a poor man or woman should arrive, whether from the same region or another congregation, especially if they are elderly, and if they have no place, then you, bishop, should act for them from your heart, even if it means sitting on the ground yourself. There should be no respect of persons with you, but you should please God through your ministry.

The arrangements are deliciously ironic: When big-shots show up, yanking the minister’s chain to receive attention and trying to impose their privileged status on the congregation, ignore them. But when someone arrives whom the world would naturally place last, someone poor or feeble and insignificant, quickly move to find them a place—even the place of highest honor, the bishop’s own seat! By subverting the toxic norms of a sick society, the minister’s seating chart becomes a pointer to the Kingdom.

Not everything in DA would naturally be to the liking of the contemporary minister, but here we have a worthy teacher. Following Jesus’ lead in Luke 14:7–11, DA instructs ministers to embody the gospel in ways that will foster the world of God’s new creation.

Is there a need to rearrange some of the seating charts in your context?

Dr. Jeff Childers
Carmichael-Walling Chair of NT and Early Christianity
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 4)

by   |  05.04.10  |  Bible, Change, Christian, Church, Gospel, Hospitality, Identity, Ministry, Society, 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

Does the Gospel sell itself?  That’s how I began this series of posts, and that’s how I’ll end it.  If we are on a road alongside of which are exits to narcissism, self-indulgence, and self-promotion, and the Heavenly City seems further away in our rearview mirrors, then how do we change directions?  (I’ll drop the metaphor there, if you don’t mind!)  I’ve tried to set out some of the interpersonal and intellectual challenges because to reflect theologically and to act on the basis of that reflection, we need to consider several factors.

But here’s the final one, and the decisive one.  What does God want?  Now, I know that this question is tricky and easily hijacked by various sides of any given debate.  If you want change, you point to the God of renewal, and if you don’t want change, you mention the old paths.  Both sets of languages — both descriptions of the nature of God — have biblical warrant.  Which one applies at a given moment depends on several factors, not all of which everyone will agree upon.  Moreover, Christians have a wide range of views of just how specific God intends to be.  Neo-Calvinists assume that the sovereignty of God implies a very high degree of planning of human lives, while most other Christians are content to think of God painting in the cosmic picture in broader, more impressionistic strokes.  I do not say any of this to be cynical, but simply to note that I am aware of the hazards.

Still, as a Christian, I must always ask myself what God wants.  It is not legitimate to try to escape the question, if you want to think in Christian ways.  Here are some things (not everything!) that Scripture, which I believe to be the best indication of God’s will that we have, seems to think God wants from us:

1. Let’s be passionate about the search for God.  Christians should pray a lot and with passion.  If we spent more time on our knees, we might spend less time wringing our hands or shouting.  As Paul said to the Athenians, God has given us evidence of nearness by raising Jesus from the dead.  The search is not an idle quest for an elusive goal, but the pursuit of one lover for another seeking rest together.

2.  Let’s care about the stranger.  I have long been struck by Exodus’s story of the redemption of Israel and the legal conclusions that the text draws from that experience: “you shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).  Perhaps Christians are so hostile to immigrants and other vulnerable people because we have concluded that this land really is our land, not simply a place on loan from God while we move toward our final home.  Have we forgotten that we too are strangers, that we too are redeemed people?

3. Let’s remember that we are in this together.  It is distressing to watch churches split over issues that can only be classified as trivial.  I have always found that praying for those with whom I disagree (which is quite a few people, as it happens!) or whom I found narrow and annoying and petty (also a fairly large group) changes things.  Very few Christians are so alienated from their own calling that we cannot find in them something to cherish.

4. Let’s remember that change can be both good and necessary.  Some folks I know are worried about “change agents.”  I’ve even read journals that argue that all change is to be resisted.  Of course, this is absurd.  Sometimes change is apostasy, true, and that is to be resisted.  But sometimes change is repentance, as when churches quit making one race sit in the balcony while another sat on the pews on the floor.  Sometimes change is simply maturation as when we recognize that our group does not have a monopoly on Christian commitment or understanding.  And sometimes it’s just change, relatively benign and neutral in meaning.  To fear change is to fear life.  The key is to make change rather than suffer it, and to make it with the highest Christian ideals in mind.

5. Finally, let’s remember that to be church is the greatest calling in the world.  We cannot cherish Christ without also cherishing his bride.  The church often needs correction — we are always reforming — but we also need to be loved and to love the magnificent calling we have received to be harbingers of God’s Kingdom, in which no one suffers hunger, no one is alone, no one is disrespected, and all find a place of dignity and honor at the bountiful table of the Lord.

May it always be so!  I’ll start a new series in a few days, after the Pepperdine lectures.  I hope to see you there!

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

Who Do They Think We Are? (The KKK in Abilene)

by   |  03.22.10  |  Christian, Church, Justice, Society, Worship

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

“What kind of a people do they think we are?” Winston Churchill asked in his speech to Congress just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fascist dictators, steeped in notions of blood and land, full of racial pride and therefore racial hatred, believed the democracies to be too weak to survive. They were wrong.

I thought about this line recently when I heard the news that the KKK had moved into Abilene. What kind of a people do they think we are? Why would a group that the FBI calls terrorists believe our city open to their recruiting?

Read my full Abilene Reporter News article on the KKK’s increased activity in Abilene.

ACU Graduate Chapel Sermon (Ben Fike): January 20

by   |  03.17.10  |  Chapel, Church, God with us, Hope, Hospitality, Jesus, Justice, Mission of God, Students

Every Wednesday, we meet for worship together in the Chapel on the Hill. Sometimes students speak. Here is a sermon by one of them, Ben Fike, who is the preacher for the Maryneal, Texas Church of Christ. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Matthew 2:1-12 – Laying our Gifts Before the King

by Ben Fike

“The church has just entered the liturgical season of Epiphany one week ago today. The Feast of Epiphany in the Western tradition is associated with this story of the wise men coming to Jesus, the first gentiles who come to worship the child king. Today we join our sisters and brothers the world over in our hearing and proclaiming of this text in this season.

I can’t read this story without thinking of my mom’s collection of nativity sets. She probably just took them down a week or two ago, but during Christmas they’re all over the house. Just little miniature versions of the birth of Christ spread out all over every bookshelf and table. The raggedy looking shepherds, the docile ox and lamb, the surprisingly calm and serene looking Mary and Joseph, little baby Jesus, no crying he makes, asleep in the manger. Blonde, and looking quite Scandanavian. And of course the wise men, all exotic and strange with enormous headgear and camels and robes and big bushy beards, bearing gifts.

But although this popularized version of the nativity may fly some places, we know better don’t we? We know better than that naive conflation of Matthew and Luke’s gospels bringing together Shepherds and Wise Men and Livestock in an ad hoc, irresponsible kind of way. We know better, that this story of the wise men bowing down to Jesus is not serene and precious and cute. It is, in fact, subversive to the point that it will directly contribute to a vengeful and maniacal king massacring thousands of innocents to squelch the perceived threat of the child born King of the Jews these wise men have come to worship. And we know better homiletically than to cast ourselves as the distant floating observers looking down on the tiny scene as if Jesus were a insect and we were a bear.

No, WE know better than that. This is a story we must enter. This story is in someway our story. More »

The Relevance of the Bible for Life Today: Justice

by   |  03.09.10  |  Behavior, Bible, Church, Justice, Power, Theology, Wealth

What is justice? How can we be more just people, and a more just church? These questions seem acute in our time, as American Christians have access to unprecedented wealth and power while so many of our brothers and sisters sometimes lack even daily bread. As this new series of podcasts tries to show, the Bible offers a profound and eminently workable approach to changing our own lives — our attitudes, behaviors, values, and desires — so as to become more just people. I hope you enjoy this series and welcome your comments or questions.

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