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I Got Rhythm!

Photo by Paulo Evangelista on Unsplash

No one has ever accused me of having rhythm. I don’t sway in time with the beat very long before I am completely out of sync. I can’t clap along in a song without eventually becoming a distraction to others. 

I love singing and usually go around with a song in my head throughout the day. I remember lyrics like nobody’s business. I often wake up with music playing in my head. Granted, it’s most likely classic rock, but rhythm? I’m lucky to spell it correctly two times in a row (I’m thankful for spell check—that’s one thing my editors don’t have to worry with)!

Long ago (1930), the Gershwin Brothers, George and Ira, composed the words and the music for which Wikipedia tells me became a jazz standard: I Got Rhythm.Honestly? I know little to nothing about jazz. And while there is a tempo and progression to that style of music, it completely eludes me. Frankly, it bores me to tears.

And before you get all worked up about a perceived attack on your favorite kind of music, please understand I’m just using the song title to introduce what I lack in so many ways.


I wrestle with keeping a work rhythm. I face a massive struggle to maintain some kind of rudimentary writing rhythm. I am hit and miss at being the husband, father, friend, and minister I should be. And heaven help me, having a rhythm that sees my creative ideas flow into quantitative, observable results? It’s like watching what I think, dream, or imagine slide off into a huge black hole never again to see the light of day!

But nowhere in my rhythm-less existence do I see the absence more detrimentally than in my spiritual life.

I have no idea how many Bible reading plans I have started over the years. Let’s use a teeny, tiny bit of hyperbole and say the number is astronomical… I have failed to complete most of them. I have also committed over and over again to specific times of personal prayer and devotion. Each recommittal recognizes a previous failure. I always have good intentions—I always want to grow closer to God and be that better husband, father, friend, and minister. But somehow, a proscribed routine always finds me lacking. 

The end result of all those failures finds me feeling like one. (I have always known those folks who seemed to make these kinds of rhythms look easy and if feeling like a failure could be turned up a notch, that’ll do it for sure). Not to mention the accumulation of guilt engendered by my numerous failures.

So, at this point it would be laughable for me to recommend a new plan, point you to a different kind of schedule, or somehow chide you for that which I lack.

But, if you are a fellow traveler on the struggling freeway of spiritual rhythms, I’ll tell you where I am and what I am doing… let me warn you, compared to those who seemingly have it altogether, I am a kindergartner surrounded by PhD candidates! My erstwhile flaws both betray and portray me…

What can I offer you? First of all, my transparency and the certain knowledge that you are not alone if this is your struggle too. Secondly, I am not going to give you another plan that we can both fail together in. And third, an introduction to an English author and blogger by the name of Sheridan Voysey. 

Understand, I’ve never met the guy. I don’t know everything he believes or even what tribe of Christianity he identifies with. But what I do know is he has given me hope that I can develop a greater spiritual rhythm without devolving into the frustration of failure.

In his blog article A Simple Rhythm for a Profound Spiritual Life, Voysey invokes Mark 3:13-15,

“Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” (NIV11)

In his words, “the call of Jesus is a call to a two-beat rhythm of life:

            Being withhim in prayer and devotion.

            Being sentfrom him into the world in action.”

He goes on to say, “being with, being sent—that’s Jesus’ rhythm of life.”[1]

I struggle to get up at the same time every day. When I do wake up, my head is often not in the game. Life gets in my way and whatever discipline I can muster is usually not enough. The best metric for my spiritual rhythm of life is found in the old African American Spiritual, “Give Me Jesus.”

            In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus…

Yes, I want to do better at having a more dedicated prayer life. I’d like to be able to live my days around ordered times of scripture and devotion. But in my weak flesh, I’m going to strive to be with Jesus and go where he sends–that’s the spiritual rhythm I hope to live best! 

Somehow, I think we can do this together!

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Madison/ Oxford, MS


     Most Americans love their summer road trips, and I am one of them. I fondly remember the trips with Mom and Dad when they packed six noisy, squirming kids into the back of the old 1956 Ford Fairlane station wagon and headed out to another “Einstein” vacation (it’s all relative—with aunts, uncles, and cousins aplenty). Perhaps because I was born on old Route 66, the rhythms of the road have always been a tonic to my spirits.

            The travel bug is embedded in our species and in other species too. Birds, butterflies, and bison move around a lot, and so do humans. There’s something mysteriously powerful in the journey. For millennia, believers have found spiritual meaning in road trips. In Scripture, God’s people—Abraham, the Israelites, Jesus, and Paul—always seem to be “on the road.”

            The stunning revival of religious pilgrimages in our day attests to the enduring relevance of the journey. Who would have supposed a generation ago that more than 300,000 people would annually make the journey through Spain along the Camino de Santiago, the “way of St. James,” to the traditional burial site of St. James the Apostle? Several of my friends have made this journey—none of them Catholic. Why does the journey appeal to all types? I think there’s something innately spiritual at work.

            Whether it’s a holy pilgrimage or an ordinary, “secular” road trip, I believe there is nourishment and spiritual meaning for any traveler willing to leave behind the ordinary and the day to day in order to search for something new and fulfilling. Indeed, the journey can remind us that life itself is a pilgrimage, and you don’t have to change your latitude or longitude to make the trip: “Blessed are those . . . who have set their hearts on pilgrimage,” declares the Psalmist (84:5, NIV).  “Seek and ye shall find,” said Jesus. It’s not hard to discern spiritual themes in almost any kind of journey. Here are a few that come to mind.

            Rule 1: Unplug. You can’t drive safely when the cell phone is ringing and text messages are flashing. To remain tethered to work and daily routines, whether through our tech devices or in other ways, upends the very purpose of the trip, which is to savor the delicious gift of freedom from the manic, driven life. Anne Lamott is right: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Until you lock up the computer and turn off the phone, you’re not really on the road.

            Rule 2: Read the signs. A road trip does something extraordinary. It prompts travelers to notice things in a fresh way—to look up, out, and about. There are the road signs, of course, to keep you on track and to help you arrive at your destination in a safe and timely way. But there are other important “sacramental” signs awaiting your notice: the spectacular vistas of forest, field, mountain, sky, and seashore. And there are the people in your life as well—the family members you’ve neglected and the new people waiting to meet along the way. All of these can awaken you to the divine, the true, and the eternal in the things and the people about you.

            The road trip is especially good if it reminds you of what you have been overlooking at home. The cloud formations in the sky above your house are just as spectacular as those above the seashore or just beyond the castle across the sea, but you’ve missed this obvious point because at home you’ve been too busy doing “important” work. In her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver intently studies a grasshopper in a field near her home, then says:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

The trick is to pay attention, to stroll, to kneel, to be idle. This kind of close attention is a kind of prayer.

         Emily Dickinson once wrote that the only commandment she never broke was Jesus’ directive to “Consider the lilies of the field.” Frederick Buechner observed: “[Dickinson] could have done a lot worse. Consider the lilies is the sine qua non of art and religion both.” Let the journey prompt you to “Consider the lilies of the field.”

            Rule 3: Slow down! This principle is corollary to Rule 2 because it’s really hard to pay attention when you’re racing down the highway. Speed kills. You know this. The breakneck velocity of our lives is, well, breaking our necks and a whole lot more. It’s fraying precious relationships and crushing our souls. Driving in the slow lane on the state highway is a deliciously subversive act. Try it. It’s even more radical to travel slowly on the highway of life. I dare you.

            Rule 4: Love the desert. We have been taught to fear and dread the dry and wasted places in our lives, the places that feel silent, isolated, or empty. Yet the desert is often exactly where God finds and renews us. “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it,” writes Simone Weil. Reconsider the desert spaces in your life. Might your time in the wilderness serve as spring cleaning so that there’s room again for Him to enter in to the closet of your heart? Taste and see that God is in the empty spaces too.

            Rule 5: Recalculate often. Wrong turns can be scary, but sometimes they can be delightful. You may discover a lovely part of the country when you take the road not intended. When the wrong turn proves to be a dead end, all is not lost. Just recalculate. Scripture and history are replete with stories of people (Moses, Jonah, Peter, and Saul of Tarsus, to name a few) who take wrong turns, but who end up at the right destinatioin because they recalculate. Wise pilgrims are not afraid to execute a u-turn (it’s known as repentance). A journey involving many recalculations is the path to wholeness, even sainthood.

            Rule 6: Don’t fear the fog. Seasoned travelers know what it’s like to drive with poor visibility. Sometimes they have to trust their innate sense of direction, their instinct or their gut, and they are not afraid to rely on their companions for guidance. Even then, as Thomas Merton wisely understood, sometimes you still can’t know for sure you’re on the right path. He prayed:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Merton seems to be saying, “We drive by faith, not by sight.” Paragraph

          Rule 7: Trust grace as you go. Faithfulness does not mean knowing the right path with certainty and executing it with perfection. Rather, faithfulness means unplugging from distractions, slowing down, paying attention, recalculating often, moving forward even in the dark, and trusting. True pilgrims trust in Grace, the ultimate GPS (God’s Positioning System):

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,

I have already come;

‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

# # #

This is *not* me!

I really dislike dancing. I have no rhythm and I feel like everyone is looking at me. Why do I feel like people are looking? Refer to the first two points.

I assure you, if I ever danced around you, you would watch…more like a train wreck fascination than a thing of beauty.

At the end of Matthew Jesus teaches us a rhythm. He teaches us a dance…not just going through the motions…but feeling the music of his words and acting them out on life’s stage in real time.

Here is the song…we need to re-familiarize ourselves with the beat.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

Go and make disciples.


Baptizing them…and teaching them to obey everything I commanded.

Jesus commanded his disciples to make disciples. When they do what Jesus said to do in the Great Commission they are going to teach the disciples they make to obey the great commission, for that next iteration, to also make disciples of others because Jesus commanded it and commanded the next group obey his teachings.

This is the rhythm of the Commission. It has a cycle. It goes around and around and around…

Until it doesn’t.

Somewhere along the way the song stopped playing. It came to a screeching halt. Instead of making disciples we started converting people. That is a completely different dance with a completely different, 5 step, rhythm.

Conversion doesn’t often require discipling. The beginning of discipling is conversion. We have confused the start of the race for the race itself and hung many people out to dry.

Our default discipling process is hope they attend Bible class. As long as they attend they must be okay. But that is not okay.

What do you say to a newly baptized person? Have you ever showed them next steps? If so, I imagine you are exceptional. Or do you, like me far too often, tell them you love them, support them and are here for them. How many of them ever took you up on that offer of support later?

Is this working?

We stopped singing the same song Jesus was singing. We lost the rhythm of the song and the discipleship dance that went along with it was lost as well. We could still remember a few notes of the song – baptizing – but lost much of the rest of it. It has plagued us ever since.

Let’s get back to the full song of Matthew 28:18-20 and make some disciples! It is a dance we all must learn and you will have the time of your life doing it, even if it feels a little weird at first.

JUNE 2019 E-NEWS   One Thing Never Changes!
In a time when things are changing rapidly, the one thing that brings order in the chaos is the thing that does not change. The challenge for church leaders is that we can often mistake what that one thing is!

Instinctively, we all resist change. No one enjoys finding a new dentist, moving your favorite chair to a new place in your living room or taking on a new set of responsibilities at work. Yet the inevitability of change is very much a part of human experience. When it comes to church, we are not any different. Things have changed in most of our churches over the past 20 years. For example, many of our churches are now smaller and older than they used to be! We may sing different songs or offer different sorts of ministries. Yet how do we navigate what might need to change about the way we live out our Christian faith?

Here is the rub: we are more likely to allow change in our church contexts when the change we are considering does not really threaten long-held practices or beliefs. We are less likely to advocate for a change that might stir up folks or feel threatening. In our churches, we often make decisions about change based on whether (or not!) it will ruffle feathers. Our criteria becomes, “How do we keep the most people happy?” Sadly, I don’t think the Christian faith is particularly interested in keeping people happy.

I want to highlight a different way to navigate change: working with the one thing that does not change. I could name this one thing in a number of ways. I could follow the witness of Hebrews 13: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Or perhaps it might be useful to say it this way: God began something in Jesus Christ – to restore all persons. God commissioned the church to be the agency for this redemptive work in the world. The church is on a mission to embody God’s invitation to the world!

That mission has not changed, and for leaders who understand their calling, that mission is the foundational principle by which all other things are evaluated. The mission matters!

As your church wrestles with next steps – whatever they may be in your context – consider beginning the discernment process by asking, “How do we extend God’s mission to our community?” Without that essential question on the table, any discussion about next steps will quickly devolve into keeping people happy.

I suppose, if we really thought about it, the best way to foster true happiness (or joy) might be to illuminate once again the remarkable calling the church has to bear witness to Jesus – for the sake of the world!



A Year in the Life of the Siburt Institute
We are excited to release our 2018-19 Year in Review. The publication traces our team’s pursuit of the Siburt Institute’s mission through the four major practices of formation, resourcing, networking and reflection. Read highlights from the past year, including reflections from Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative and Ministers’ Support Network participants, new blog and web resources and highlights from ACU’s 112th Summit and other events. We cherish the numerous opportunities to connect with and serve alongside so many of you throughout the world as we seek to serve and equip church leaders and other Christ-followers for God’s mission in the world.

Finding Faith in an Anxious World
Congregational transitions are not the only kind of change that creates anxiety among Christ-followers today. As we struggle to keep up with the latest technologies, political news and cultural trends, some have suggested that our core fears and anxieties have remained remarkably consistent. In his latest Mosaic article, Dr. Jason Locke (’93 M.S.), preaching minister for the College Church of Christ in Fresno, California, reflects on faith, fear and the Christian life. 

Lunch and Learn: Why Courage Matters!
Save the date for this year’s Lunch and Learn event with Dr. Jerry Taylor, who will speak on “Why Courage Matters!” Taylor is associate professor of Bible, missions and ministry at ACU and the founding executive director of the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action.

The seminar will take place in ACU’s Hunter Welcome Center from 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Aug. 29. Cost is $15, and registration will open soon.

Siburt Institute Team Transitions
Our team recently entered into a period of transition. At the end of May, we said goodbye to our friend and associate director Curtis King, who has been an integral part of the institute since its founding in 2012. After much prayer and discernment, Curtis decided to pursue a new call to nonprofit work in the Dallas/Fort Worth community. We already miss him!

Beginning this month, assistant director Karissa Herchenroeder will serve as editor of our monthly e-newsletters, so please contact her if you have any questions. Additionally, events coordinator Renee Paul and administrative coordinator Ola Mae Bulkley are increasing their involvement with minister transition resources, frontline communication and more. Visit our website for updated contact information and bios. 

Special Student Series at Summit 2019
Mo Isom is the New York Times best-selling author of Wreck My Life: Journeying from Broken to Bold and Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot. She is a nationally sought-after speaker, a popular faith-based blogger, a former All-American soccer goalkeeper and the first female to have trained with and tried out for an SEC men’s football team.

She is widely recognized as a powerful female voice for her generation and her unique personal story and athletic endeavors provide her with a platform to challenge, encourage, and equip others to live boldly, despite their circumstances. Having faced great personal tragedy, including battling an eating disorder, overcoming the suicide of her father and surviving a horrific car accident, Isom is passionate about speaking on a variety of topics and is able to connect with men and women of all ages and demographics.

In a special series for students, Isom will speak on Sunday, Sept. 15 at 8 p.m. and Monday, Sept. 16 at 11 a.m. Join us for these and many other incredible sessions at Summit 2019! MARK YOUR CALENDARS Summer Seminar, Aug. 9-10Lunch and Learn with Dr. Jerry Taylor, Aug. 29ACU’s 113th Summit, Sept. 15-18Ministers’ Support Network Retreat, Sept. 19-22Contemplative Ministers’ Initiative Retreat, Oct. 7-10 PARTNER WITH US Our work in the Siburt Institute is made possible by the generosity of friends like you who support and share our mission to serve church leaders and other Christ-followers.

Give to the Siburt Institute.

Chances are, your minster won’t tell you what I’m about to.  In no particular order, eventually, I want to share some insights with you into the inner world of being in ministry.  

Before I get started, let me say, I’ve been preaching for over 25 years and I love the church and I enjoy the role I have in ministering.  I can’t think of anything more rewarding than ministry. The road I’m on has been bumpy at times, smooth and extremely blessed at other times.  I have no axe to grind here, but I do want raise your awareness on some areas we usually remain silent on.

Why do I want to articulate this?  Congregations all across the nation are faltering, but one key component to a healthy church is stable leadership.  The longer most preachers remain in a congregation, the greater their influence in the community can be. I simply want to help out here, and help you know what goes on in the mind of the minister so that maybe you can understand us a little better, and maybe something good can come from these points.  

This is not a rant, I’m not angry, and I do not think negatively of the church. I simply hope to help you minister to your minster more effectively than perhaps you have in the past.

“But, aren’t we all ministers, aren’t we a priesthood of believers?”  If this is really your first question, I hope you’ll keep reading. When I write “minister” I’m referring to someone who has dedicated their time and energy to full-time church work and occupationally they earn their bread from ministering in a local congregation.

Here are some insights into the mind of the minister for your consideration:

We are more introverted than you assume.  It’s hard to imagine how a life of study and hours of reading wouldn’t attract introverted individuals.  Yet, many members are surprised when we confess our introverted leanings — but since there’s a stigma attached to being introverted, we mainly keep quiet about it.  We aren’t shy. It’s not that we don’t love people, and we aren’t hermits, it’s just that an overexposure to people leaves us sapped and drains our emotions and our ability to be creative.  We are recharged and energized when experience the blessings of solitude. We relish the time we have to study quietly. I wish I could’ve been like Marvin Phillips, but that’s not how I’m built and more than likely, neither is your minister.  

Often, we feel alienated and misunderstood.  When we went to Bible college and Seminary, we were surrounded with “like minded” people who deeply shared our passion and our goals.  Serving in a congregation, we are surrounded by people who have full time obligations like raising kids, working jobs, and commitments that stretch beyond the church.  We don’t always make the transition into the local church without carrying this tension of being between two worlds as well as we should, and sometimes this keeps us from forming deeper personal relationships with you.  

We frequently worry about how ministry impacts our family.  There’s a memorable song from another generation that goes something like, “The only one who could ever reach me, was the son of a preacher man…” Worry about the stresses and strains of vocational ministry and its impact on your home go far beyond being concerned “will our children rebel?”  The “fish bowl” analogy is real but it pales to the notion that the church expects far more from the minister’s family than it does most of the rest of her families. What we’d like to say is, “You ‘hired’ me, not my family,” but we don’t want to rock the boat too much. We need help guarding our family at home more than we let on.  

We aren’t experts, but we have special skills you should utilize.  It can be awkward having a room full of volunteers deciding your next pay raise, but it’s extremely frustrating when your ideas are neglected on a whim because someone doesn’t like to change.  Forget that you’ve had a few courses on the subject and the time to study it out, and the good fortune to meet with other church leaders who’ve implemented the idea. Hear us out, we only want what’s best for the Kingdom.

We have real financial needs.  Sadly, the average preacher spends more time in school than in the pulpit.  The last statistic I read concerning this said preachers quit ministry before their fourth year.  Yet, many of us rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt to get the training we need to serve.  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the saying, “We keep’m poor to keep’m humble,” but still many ministers languish with lower than usual salaries.  Ministers would like to be ample providers for their families too. No, we don’t go into ministry to get rich, but we don’t pursue the ministry to struggle either.

We are workaholics.  Unfortunately, we suffer from burnout long before anyone notices.  We need, not want, but need sabbaticals. When the average person goes home from work, they leave their responsibilities at the office.  Not us. We are on call 24/7, we “work” most holidays, and even when we are not in person-present serving, our minds never shut down. Every four or five years, beyond our vacation time, bless us with a month or two off to recuperate, the dividends that would pay are immeasurable.  

There’s probably more I could add, but please think on this: Your minister needs to be ministered as much as anyone else in the congregation.  We are constantly trying to feed the flock, and sometimes we end up malnutritioned ourselves. No one wins when that happens. For the sake of the Kingdom, if you haven’t already I hope you’ll consider meeting the needs of those who minister to you and mutually blessing each other.  

My relationship with God has changed over the years. At first, he was someone I could only worship on Sundays and Wednesdays at a designated time and place. He always seemed just out of reach and unapproachable, unless I had the right words and I didn’t. He was inconsistent and appeared angry. I would guard my prayers, so afraid I would mess them up or accidentally say the wrong thing. Scripture was read through the lens of fear knowing I couldn’t understand it but too afraid to ask many questions. I learned early on that a “good, Christian girl” doesn’t ask many questions anyway. As I spent more time with him and his people, that view, thankfully, begin to change.  

Several years ago, I taught a class of preteen girls. We talked about Father God and what our relationship with him should look like. We spent several class times talking about what a father was, how he should love his wife, children, neighbor, and enemy, and how he should influence his children to love others, as well.

Everyone in class had a dad story. Some had good fathers. Some didn’t. I told them about my dad and how he was a young preacher from Benton, Arkansas and barely out of Croley’s Ridge College when I was born. We talked about how my small family traveled around for a few years before settling in Western Kentucky. I told them how I couldn’t remember much about him.

I have a hard time with memories. Some seem made up; others too blurry to recall details. Trauma has a way of keeping our past just out of our reach. When I think of my dad, I think of that small church building in Heath, KY. I usually don’t think of the preacher’s home where we lived for a few years or the nursing home where he spent the remainder of his young life.

Dad died when he was thirty of ALS. Mom struggled with mental illness and addictions for years until her death a decade later. My brother and I became orphans while we were teenagers. Parentless, or so we thought, before God made it abundantly clear that he had been and always will be our Father.    

I know my dad wasn’t perfect but it’s easy to hold him to that standard especially since we only had a few years together and three of those were watching him struggle with a terminal illness. When I think of the short time I had with my parents, two stories come to mind first. My parents loved other people and weren’t afraid to meet them where they were. When a lonely hiker was found dead thousands of miles from Kentucky, all the authorities had to identify him with was my father’s church business card. The man had passed through our area a few days earlier and Dad had been able to connect with him while he was here.

When my twenty-something, single mother had barely any money to her name, she took out her last twenty dollar bill and gave it to another struggling preacher’s wife. My parents loved people, not perfectly since none of us can, but persistently despite their pain.

The rhythm of this world is one of drama, chaos, and brokenness. Many dance to the brutal and painful tune well. It is all too familiar for some. It was and always has been a part of my life. The spiritual rhythms of God, however, have always been around, too and have constantly moved me closer to God and his people.

God is always willing and available to lift us out of the darkness and offer a stable hand. He is a constant reminder that life isn’t about our own glory. It’s about his. He allows us to see him in the lives of the poor, the grieving, the humble, those who desire justice, those who are merciful, those whose hearts are inclined to good, the peacemakers, those persecuted for doing what’s right, and those who are mistreated. He beckons us to love him by loving and serving them.

I was able to see this holy rhythm in the lives of my parents.  I encourage you this week to see it in those around you. Resist the urge of the world to flee from what God is doing in your life. Give in to his grace, his mercy, and the relationship he is calling you to, not only with him but with his people. Give in to the rhythm of God.

From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley

The Odd History of the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ

Part 3, Bible Deism Valley

By Leonard Allen

Bible Deism Valley

An important force in the triumph of the “Word only” view was a book published in 1919, The Spirit and the Word, by a preacher named Z. T. Sweeney. The book went through many printings in the twentieth century. Sweeney argued that the Holy Spirit was a “private and peculiar” gift to the twelve for their one-time work of establishing the foundations of the church and producing inspired writings. Once this work of the Spirit was completed through the original apostles, “no man has been guided, shown and directed personally by him since.” “God does no unnecessary work, and the work of the Paraclete is not necessary now. His work remains [only] in the teachings and lives of the apostles.”

            This assumption led Sweeney to conclude that scores of New Testament’s statements and admonitions regarding the Spirit simply no longer apply to Christians. Here are a few examples he listed:

You were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance. (Eph. 1:13, 14)

[B]e filled with the Spirit . . . (Eph. 5:18)

He saved us through the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit . . . (Titus 3:5)

He has given us of his Spirit. (1 John 4:13)

All of these verses and a long list of others apply only to first-century believers in whom God was “manifesting his presence by supernatural demonstrations”; but now that God works only through the words of Scripture, all these texts “lack meaning” for Christians since that era.[i]

Two other powerful voices in the early twentieth century advocating Bible deism were R. L. Whiteside and Foy Wallace Jr. Whiteside has been called the “systematic theologian of Churches of Christ” and was likely the one most responsible for the doctrinal consensus that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s.[ii] Whiteside asserted, “Peter affirmed that we have in the Bible everything that pertains to life and godliness,” so “to pray for a power or means of godliness or spiritual life separate or apart from the Bible” was to charge God’s Word with insufficiency. Whiteside could speak interchangeably of the “fruit of the Word” and the “fruit of the Spirit” which he viewed as one and the same.[iii] Foy Wallace Jr., who was appointed editor of the Gospel Advocate in 1930, looked to Whiteside as his “mentor and model.”

A good example of the deep entrenchment of this symbolic view of the Spirit occurred in 1966 when several speakers at the annual Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures began to call for a renewed emphasis on the dynamic (though “non-miraculous”) influence of the Spirit in the Christian life. One said that “our lack of spiritual emphasis has dried up for many the spring of living water provided by the Holy Spirit, and people are thirsty.” “One of the greatest weaknesses in our fellowship,” said another, “has been our lack of understanding of the Holy Spirit.”[iv]

            This raising of the “Spirit question” quickly touched a nerve, provoking an outburst of reaction that continued for a couple of years.

            After a wave of critical attack and defense of the “Word only” doctrine, J. D. Thomas, of the ACC Bible faculty, noted the unacceptable world view implied in such a doctrine of the Spirit: “We must discount the idea of ‘biblical Deism,’ which assumes that God started the Christian system and left the Bible down here to do what it could, but meanwhile, He, Christ, and the Spirit have all retired to heaven and have nothing to do with the world until the end, when they will come back and check up to see how it all worked out.”[v] Thomas proceeded to lay out a very cautious treatment of the Spirit in the life of the Christian, affirming the Spirit’s personal, actual indwelling and firmly rejecting any “miraculous” activity of the Spirit.

            Yet even so cautious an exposition provoked alarmed response from prominent leaders. One writer insisted that the Spirit works only in “an indirect, mediate, natural, understandable manner,” and set forth the remarkable conclusion that both the Spirit and Satan no longer affect us supernaturally but are both “restricted to the use of ‘natural means.’” Foy Wallace Jr., long a leading defender of the “Word alone” theory, entered the fray and starkly restated Campbell’s (and Fanning’s and Sweeney’s) position: “Apart from the inspiration of the apostles and prophets, it is impossible for spirit to communicate with spirit except through words. God and Christ never personally occupied anyone; and for the same reason the Holy Spirit does not personally occupy anyone.”[vi]

            The fact that in 1966 an extremely cautious treatment of the Spirit’s indwelling could call forth such alarmed refutation provides a telling sign of the road taken by Churches of Christ—a road that began shortly after Cane Ridge and ended up in Bible deism valley. Certainly a modest lineage of leaders had affirmed a personal, immediate indwelling of the Spirit—twentieth-century leaders like James A. Harding, David Lipscomb, R. H. Boll, J. N. Armstrong, G. C. Brewer, K. C. Moser, Gus Nichols, and J. D. Thomas. That too is part of this odd history, but for much of the twentieth century it was not the dominant or consensus view among Churches of Christ.


In my typology of five major Spirit traditions in Christian history, I placed Churches of Christ in the Modernist tradition.[vii] That of course is deeply ironic for a movement claiming to be nothing more or less than “New Testament Christians.” Modernist views of the Spirit arose in response to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the sharp strictures it began to impose on how one determines what is real. Stress fell more and more upon the “reasonableness of Christianity” (John Locke)  as measured by the new scientific empiricism. Campbell partook of this spirit and wove it into the fabric of the Restoration movement. It is the garment in which we were clothed. But after modernity it doesn’t wear so well.

            For a good many years now this dominant view of the Spirit has been playing itself out as more and more believers have restlessly renewed the search for a more personal and immediate relationship with God. To recover a biblical “grammar” of the Holy Spirit is to recover the language enabling us to talk properly about life in the Spirit.

Leonard Allen serves as dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University in Nashville. He taught theology, ethics, and philosophy for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary and Abilene Christian University. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God (2018).

[i] Z. T. Sweeney, The Spirit and the Word: A Treatise on the Holy Spirit in Light of a Rational Interpretation of the Word of Truth (1919; reprint ed., Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1950), 67–79, 95–97, 99.

[ii] Robert P. Valentine Jr., “Robertson Lafayette Whiteside: Systematic Theologian for the Churches of Christ” (Guided Research Paper, Harding University Graduate School of Religion, 2001).

[iii] C. R. Nichol and R. L. Whiteside, Sound Doctrine (Clifton, TX: Nichol Publishing, 1924), 4:107-108; Whiteside, “Doctrinal Discourses: The Uses of Scripture,” Gospel Advocate 74 (February 4, 1932), 138. Cited by Hicks and Valentine, Kingdom Come, 72.

[iv]Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures, 1966 (Abilene, TX: ACC Bookstore, 1966), 175-76, 185.

[v] J. D. Thomas, The Spirit and Spirituality (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press), 19.

[vi]Reuel Lemmons, Firm Foundation 83, 722; ibid., 757; Foy Wallace, Jr., The Mission and Medium of the Holy Spirit (Nashville, TN: Wallace Publications, 1967), 7.

[vii] Leonard Allen, Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2018), 35-54.

            We love in a culture of evaluation. From birth our height, weight, and developmental steps are monitored. In school we face standardized tests. One the job we have frequent evaluations. Constant self-improvement, from good to great to excellent, is our goal.

            As a recovering legalist, I find this cultural obsession with evaluation can even affect how I practice spiritual disciplines. Am I improving in prayer and meditation? Are my disciplines advanced? Am I closer to God? Or at least am I ahead of other Christians who do not have the discipline I have?

            A portion of the Bible that has spoken to me lately is Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 4:3, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.”

            My temptation is to always be judging myself. Am I good enough? Have I done enough? Is my faith strong enough?

            Being unaware of my failings would be spiritually unhealthy, but always wondering about spiritual health results in religious hypochondria. Paul reminds me that I can be certain of my spiritual health not because of what I do but because I have encountered the Great Physician, Jesus, who healed me once for all.

            So I do not allow the judgment of others or even my own self-judgment to guide my life. Instead I trust in Jesus who did not come to judge but to save (John 3:17). This trust sets me free to love myself and others with the love God has for me.

            This is the secret of the easy yoke that Jesus promised.

It all started with back pain.  At first, it was annoying and I figured it was just part of getting older.  But, as the pain got worse and interfered with my ability to function, we realized that this wasn’t normal.  My wife, Rachel, and I did some research and were surprised to learn that with my kind of back pain, the real root of the problem was a problem with my… breathing. I wasn’t breathing correctly and other muscles in my back and shoulders were trying to compensate.  We learned that attempting strengthening strategies without addressing my breathing wouldn’t fix the problem.  Honestly, it felt embarrassing, laying down on the ground trying to relearn how to breathe and having to admit a lack of competence in that supposedly basic part of being alive.  But after just a few days and weeks of breathing properly, most of my pain and discomfort went away.  I am now a big believer in the importance of breathing correctly!

The breathing process is a helpful analogy to our life in Christ.  Both breathing in and breathing out “are necessary for life; one without the other is indeed problematic.  Breathing out is only possible by breathing in; whereas breathing in is only possible by breathing out.  In this analogy, breathing in is likened to the contemplative, or spiritual communion that fosters a deeper relationship with Christ, as we are being conformed into his image (Rom 8:29).  On the other hand, breathing out is likened to reaching out in mission in the areas to which we are called.” (Finn and Whitfield ed., Spirituality for the Sent: Casting a New Vision for the Missional Church, 173.) 

Another way to frame this topic, is to think about two important words from the Gospel of John.  In his new book, Abide and Go: Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John, Michael Gorman notes that, “John is a gospel of profound spirituality and expansive mission.  It is the gospel whose motto is ‘abide and go’” (26).  He reminds us that, “spirituality and mission are not only related; they are inseparable: the verb ‘abide’ or ‘remain’ … appears eleven times in 15:1-16, and the verbal phrase ‘bear fruit’ … occurs eight times” (96).  These important ideas of abiding and going and inter-connected in John 15.  We can’t have one without the other.

The Gospel of John wants to teach us to breathe well.  We need to “abide” (Breathing in) and “go” (Breathing out).  If we as ministers and those we serve don’t get this right, we will experience more than mere back pain.  Failing to breathe correctly, trying to only breathe in or only breathe out, leads to serious health problems.  When we focus only on abiding in Christ, we can develop an ingrown spirituality.  When we put all our attention on going and doing, we will quickly run out of energy and pass out (as Jesus told us, “apart from me you can do nothing” – John 15:5).  The key is developing the proper pattern of breathing in (abiding) and breathing out (going and bearing fruit) and seeing that as the rhythm of our life in Christ.  It takes practice, especially if we’ve developed bad habits of breathing incorrectly!  The truth is, abiding leads to abounding – bearing fruit only happens when we are connected to Christ.  And being connected to Christ means that we will be people who bear fruit.  May we be a people who learn to breathe well and live well – a life of abiding and going.

Life is full of rhythms. The seasons, your heartbeat, having tummy trouble after a taco bell run and still going back the next time you crave it only to repeat the process again.

Some rhythms are unconscious and consistent. You don’t even think about breathing. You don’t tell your heart to beat. These are parts of our autonomic nervous systems.

Taco bell, however, is a choice.

Other rhythms are forced: reading your Bible each day and the habit of prayer. These are not done automatically or without your awareness (although with enough repetition one might approximate that). They require discipline and attention. One must attend to these things to ensure they continue. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to do this with your heartbeat or breathing? And yet these things can be as essential as a heartbeat or a breath.

This month we will be taking a hard look at developing and maintaining spiritual rhythms. While we attend to these things they are also a grace. It is a grace God allows us to pray. It is a grace God has given us the scriptures to study. Founding this in grace is one of the ways we can encourage ourselves to persist in these things.

Welcome to June!