Enter the Pastor-Theologian

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J. Roswell and Alice Reynolds Flower, ca. 1950

There is no better place for doing theology than in the life of the local church. It is in the local church that the rubber hits the road and one’s attempts at careful theological reflection need to be applied to the life of God’s work in the world. Where there can be no mere hypothesizing, but praxis is called for if one desires to be a faithful minister and disciple.
Andy, over at Hopeful Realism, has just posted a couple of articles on the pastor-theologian in the mega-church and in the small church. His introduction to the topic offers several strengths to each context.
Certainly the complexities of pastoral ministry, whether in a mega-church or small church, can seem enough of a challenge without attempting to be a so-called “pastor-theologian”. However, the responsibilities of caring for Christ’s church should demand that we take up the charge to study to show ourselves approved unto God in every way. This is not a day for leaving the work of careful theological reflection to those who do not serve in the context of the pastorate.
We NEED more pastors committing to applying themselves to intensive study of the Scriptures (original languages, hermeneutics, homiletics, etc.) and theology (historical, contemporary, systematic, biblical, etc). Our churches NEED ministers who will vigorously study and apply what is studied to writing, preaching, counseling, and pastoral care. And will do this all in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is a HUGE task, but it is one that is essential to the overall health of the community of believers (locally and globally).  We need more women and men committed to the task. We need more Augustines, Teresas, Calvins, Wesleys, and Alice Reynolds and J. Roswell Flowers. Will you give yourself wholly to the work set before you?
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Originally posted by myself at bluechippastor.org on April 25, 2013.

What Is Your Story?

My StoryI don’t know about your church, but in mine we typically have an open testimony time (hey, we are Pentecostal after all). We like to tell our stories and that sure works well (sometimes not so much) in a post-modern personal narrative obsessed culture.
What I’m thinking of, though, is your story of first knowingly encountering Christ. Do you recall what he has done in your life? Do you remember a moment (or perhaps a longer time period) of the dawning of your need for him? It is a powerful reminder to think on your own story of encountering the resurrected Jesus in the power of his Spirit. We need to remind ourselves as those tasked with leading the church of this (ongoing) story and remind ourselves of where we’ve been led personally and congregationally. We need to allow our churches to share and relive their own stories, even as they continue to encounter Jesus in new ways in their lives. To re-awaken that first transformative love for Christ and his work in the world is to re-awaken ourselves to sharing the good news of Jesus with others.
I was reminded of my own story the other day (which I won’t share here and now) as I was listening to another pastor share his own story of being set free from a life of selfishness, drugs, and sex (his own words). A life being destroyed by sin. And then he shared his wife’s story of coming to faith as a six year old raised in a Christian home. The thing is: both stories are radically invigorating to hear and he admitted as much. After all, what isn’t amazing about the dead being raised to life? Neither story is about simple reform of sinners. Both are about those once dead in their sins who are now raised to new life in Christ. That is the amazing wonder of a regenerating encounter with the Lord and Giver of Life.
So my question is: Do you allow for folks in your church community to share their stories of encounter with the Lord and his redemptive work? When was the last time you shared yours?
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Edited from an original post by me at bluechippastor.org from March 6, 2013.

A Brief Snake Handling Journey

I visited Tennessee this week to meet with my PhD supervisor (who is based in Cleveland even though my school is Bangor University, Wales). I had decided this visit that since I was “in the neighborhood” of the origins of the “serpent handler” churches, I’d like to visit the original site: Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following (you know its fun when a church name is that long).
As it happens, I also do a lecture on the origin and theology of snake handling for an undergraduate course I teach every Spring–Pentecostal Heritage. In part, I do this lecture as my final lecture of the semester in order to assure students will show up on the last day of class. I also do it because…well…its just plain fascinating to me and thus a fun way to end the course.
A Brief History of the Founder
The “founder” of snake handling churches, George Hensley, had been a moonshiner who came to the Lord at special meetings held by Homer Tomlinson just north of Cleveland, TN. Hensley took to preaching himself around Owl Hollow (eventually joining the Church of God Cleveland TN for a time) and was doing so on Mark 16:17-20, but some of his former moonshining buddies thought to scare off the meeting by tossing a box of poisonous snakes into their midst. While the congregation fled in terror, Hensley snatched up the snakes “like a boy would gather stovewood in his arms to carry into the house” (Tomlinson p. 41). This was apparently the beginning of Hensley handling serpents, but appears to have created quite a sensation throughout the region gaining the attention of A. J. Tomlinson. Of note is an invitation in 1914 by A. J. Tomlinson to Hensley to the General Assembly of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) in order to demonstrate the handling of serpents. Hensley apparently had a difficult time in life as he was married four times and went back and forth preaching and handling snakes to making moonshine even spending time jailed for both practices (Olsen p.24). A not-so-surprising end, he died on July 24, 1955 as the result of a snake bite for which he denied medical care and was declared to have committed “suicide”.

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Snake handling service held in Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky at the Pentecostal Church of God, September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration, photo by Russell Lee)

My Surprises
I set up my visit to see the site of the Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following (Hensley’s church which was torn down decades ago). Church of God historian Dr. David Roebuck kindly arranged the trip north a half hour to Owl Hollow and Dolly Pond. As it turned out he had asked Bishop Wade Phillips to guide us. Bishop Phillips had just published the first volume of a series on the history of the Church of God and I was familiar with his work. This was a pleasant surprise tour guide.
We arrived at the site (where now a Church of God of Prophecy stands nearby) and saw something laying on what appeared to be the foundation of the Dolly Pond church we were looking for. It was a sloughed snake skin. A delightful find indeed. Especially as it was not a live snake. 🙂
 
 
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Sloughed snake skin on the “foundation” of the location of the Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following.

Naturally we posed with the serpent remains.
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Bishop Wade H. Phillips, Dr. David G. Roebuck, and myself (holding the sloughed snake skin we found)

While wandering around the site, Phillips mentioned that he had been told (some 20 years prior by a nearby neighbor) that there was a small gathering of graves up on a hill near where the church had stood. We climbed the hill in search of the graves of potential members of the Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following and were again delighted by our find. We found a grave of one “Minnie L. Harden” (maiden name of Parker) buried near her parents Ben and Maggie Parker.
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Minnie L. (Parker) Harden’s grave on the hill just up from the Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following

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Picture from W.H. Phillips, “Quest to Restore God’s House” p. 356.

As it turned out Minnie had been pictured in Phillips’ book Quest to Restore God’s House: A Theological History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) Volume 1, 1886-1923, where she has a rattlesnake draped across her forehead with the sign “The Dolley [sic] Pond Church of God With Signs Following” just over her shoulder.
While I know this is not a typical trip (for anyone), it was a fun historical adventure reminding me of locating historical figures and movements in their times and contexts. It also reminds me that even when I vehemently oppose a practice I can still appreciate the sense of experiencing the stories of others and how they may have handled issues of faith and practice.
Works Cited
Olsen, Ted. “They Shall Take Up Serpents,” Christian History 17.2 (May 1998): p.24.
Phillips, Wade H. Quest to Restore God’s House: A Theological History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) Volume 1, 1886-1923. Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2014.
Tomlinson, Homer A. “It Came to Pass in Those Days”: The Shout of a King. Queens Village, N.Y.: Church of God, U.S.A. Headquarters, 1968.
 

Testimony as Embedded Proclamation

testimonyHere is a bit from one of my graduate students (used by Matt Payne with permission) on engaging postmodernism as a Pentecostal church and preacher. How does one engage those who, at best, question the notion of the meta-narrative? How does one do so while pointing to the story of God’s redemption in Christ and testified to by the Spirit? Through testimony.

I would like to suggest that honest, theologically-sound testimony is essentially embedded proclamation, specifically as it bears witness to the ongoing work of Christ, proclaimed orally, in writing, graphically or otherwise. Furthermore, I would suggest that embedded proclamation constitutes a form of preaching (witness), though itself not found .[1] The activity of Christ, communicated faithfully by the witnessing community, performs the same function that liturgically embedded preaching does: it forms theology by communicating (as witness) what Christ has done and (prophetically) what can be expected of Christ in the future.[2]
To that end, Walter Brueggemann suggests that the essence of prophecy is “a sustained effort to imagine the world as though YHWH were a real character and the defining agent in the life of the world.”[3] Testimony performs the same function, though more concretely and in the past tense, much like Scripture.[4] If God heals someone, or delivers them miraculously from an addiction, it would stand to reason that those actions re-presented as testimony would serve as witness to the ontic reality of God’s presence, nature, mission, and proximity to humanity. Testimony is at once recollection of the deeds of God and prophecy of what He will do in the future, whether that’s healing, deliverance, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, salvation, etc.

It is the very nature of testimony to subtly undermine other counter narratives. It does this by offering another world, as it were, and suggesting the potentiality of others entering that same experience and likewise be transformed.
This is precisely the kind of writing I LOVE to read from my students! I pray our testimonies may do just this!
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[1] Rick Wadholm Jr, “What is Preaching and What Makes it ‘Christian’?” a paper presented to The Socratic Club of Trinity Bible College and Graduate School Thursday, April 23, 2015.
[2] Revelation 19:10.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 132.
[4] It could be argued that much of Scripture is in essence a series of testimonies. When considered in this light, it’s significant how much theology we distill not from explicit commands and propositions, but rather through our witness of God’s interaction with Israel and four author’s observations of Jesus’s earthly ministry.

Cultivating Pastoral Friendships

pastor friendI have discovered that several things seem incredibly important for church and pastoral health…developing relationships with those outside your church. Several things which I’ve seen bear fruit in my own life and ministry might be of help to others.  The following thoughts are random though numbered for convenience (or perhaps for those who really like lists):
1) We all need folks we can talk to and share our lives with.  While it is important to share your life with your congregation, there are simply issues that can arise that need the counsel and ears of someone who can understand.  Enter the pastor-friend.  Of course, we don’t connect with everyone and not everyone should be told your life story, but it is important to be able to have a sounding board, or a sympathetic ear, or someone to say, “Yeah, I’ve done that…don’t do it”.
2) There are other pastors in your community who need you in their life.  They may not even realize it, but they need you.  You are their listening ear and sounding board.  This is a mutually edifying and necessary thing.
3) It stretches us all to have someone else in ministry speak into our lives.  Who knows, you may actually learn a thing or three about life and ministry.
4) We all need friends.
This being a short list that simply skims the surface, what would you add?
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Originally published by me at bluechippastors.org on September 21, 2012.

First Things First – The Doctrine of God or the Bible?

John Calvin
John Calvin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are your thoughts on the foundational grounds of a doctrinal statement? This is where doctrinal statements (and creeds) begin. Is the Church better served by a statement which flows from the doctrine of God as foundational (exemplified by the Gospel Coalition statement) or the doctrine of Scripture as foundational (such as the one adopted by my own fellowship–which is very typical of Evangelical statements as far as initial points go even if it is quite distinct to Pentecostalism in its latter points)?
D.A.Carson and Tim Keller write concerning their approach in developing the Gospel Coalition‘s statement:

“This is significant. The Enlightenment was overconfident about human rationality. Some strands of it assumed it was possible to build systems of thought on unassailable foundations that could be absolutely certain to unaided human reason. Despite their frequent vilification of the Enlightenment, many conservative evangelicals have nevertheless been shaped by it. This can be seen in how many evangelical statements of faith start with the Scripture, not with God. They proceed from Scripture to doctrine through rigorous exegesis in order to build (what they consider) an absolutely sure,
guaranteed-true-to-Scripture theology.
The problem is that this is essentially a foundationalist approach to knowledge. It ignores the degree to which our cultural location affects our interpretation of the Bible, and it assumes a very rigid subject-object distinction. It ignores historical theology, philosophy, and cultural reflection. Starting with the Scripture leads readers to the overconfidence that their exegesis of biblical texts has produced a system of perfect doctrinal truth. This can create pride and rigidity because it may not sufficiently acknowledge the fallenness of human reason.
We believe it is best to start with God, to declare (with John Calvin, Institutes 1.1) that without knowledge of God we cannot know ourselves, our world, or anything else. If there is no God, we would have no reason to trust our reason.”

I, for one, appreciate the greater embracing of the relational nature of doctrine (“subjectivity” in its most positive sense) as foundational and find it to be a better indicator of this thing we call being disciples of Christ. It speaks to the inner relation and being of God (as unity in trinity and trinity in unity) as the grounds of all else. All that can and must be said of God flows from God’s self-revelation in His Word and Spirit. For a terrific reading on how D.A.Carson develops his theology check out the article “D.A.Carson’s Theological Method” by Andrew Naselli in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 29.2 (Autumn 2011): 245-272.