This month: 190 - Legalism & Progressivism
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Naomi Walters

Naomi Walters lives in Princeton (NJ) with her husband (Jamey) and their toddler son (Simon). She grew up in Syracuse (NY), graduated in 2007 from Rochester College (MI) with a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies, and received her M.Div. from Abilene Christian University (TX) in 2010. She is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry from Lipscomb University (TN). A product of Churches of Christ from a young age, Naomi enjoys reading Scripture with others, and imagining the kingdom of God described therein, a passion she is able to use as the Assistant Minister at the Stamford Church of Christ in CT (a job that includes preaching, teaching, social media, and a variety of other things) and as an adjunct Bible Instructor for Abilene Christian University. Naomi loves reading, running, playing soccer, listening to music, and watching TV and movies. She prefers salty snacks to sweet, white wine to red, and coffee to tea. The clothes in her closet are organized by color, then sleeve-length. In addition to Scripture and homiletics, her academic interests include thinking about TV, movies, and music theologically; and the lectionary/liturgical calendar.

Homepage: http://naomiwalters.com

This book review is a significantly shortened and edited version of work for my most recent (February) Doctor of Ministry residency at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. For more information on their program, click here.

Summary
In The Bible Made Impossible Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, challenges the constellation of evangelical assumptions about the Bible that fall under the heading of “biblicism.” His book contains two parts, the first describes the problem with biblicism and the second describes his proposed way forward. Smith is sure to emphasize throughout the book that he agrees that the Bible is a divine word that has authority for Christian faith and practice. However, he sees biblicism as unable to defend the authority and relevance of scripture. For Smith, biblicism is not just wrong; it is impossible and incoherent, even taken on its own terms.

Chapter One goes on to list ten reference points for biblicism. Smith also provides numerous examples of this composite picture of biblicism, from popular level sayings, t-shirts, and billboards to institutional statements of faith. With this definition of biblicism in mind, Smith then lays out its fatal flaw: “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” That is, the fact that the Bible “gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest.” (17) Even among biblicists, there is a lack of interpretive agreement.

Chapter Two provides further evidence of the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism. Biblicists explain away the diversity of possible interpretation through a variety of strategies – such as blaming deficient or damaged readers or the translational distance from the original manuscripts. But within the biblicist paradigm, these strategies should not be allowed, and using them is self-defeating.

Chapter Three briefly explains the history of biblicism, which finds its basis in Scottish commonsense realism (which should be familiar for Restoration Movement folks), Baconian science, and a picture theory of language. Each of these viewpoints have since fallen out of favor in their own disciplines, but are being held on to by biblicists, even in the face of pervasive interpretive pluralism (“proof” that biblicism is untenable). Smith also reviews a few sociological principles that might explain why biblicists hold on to their approach to scripture despite the fact that it is impossible (such as “homophily,” or the love the familiar).

Chapter Four contains a few additional nails in biblicism’s coffin. It relates types of biblical texts that are problematic for various reasons. For instance, there are texts biblicists ignore (greeting each other with a kiss), texts they declare culturally relative for arbitrary reasons (not wearing sandals when you evangelize), and texts that are just plain strange (Cretans are liars). This chapter also discusses the trouble of “biblical self-attestation,” that is, the fact that the Bible does not claim or command biblicism (but biblicism claims that all its beliefs have their authority in the Bible). The weight of this first half of the book is that biblicism inherently “dies the death of a thousand qualifications” (endnote p. 217, from p.81)

In the second part of the book, Smith proposes a reading of scripture that he believes is more truly evangelical, arguing that leaving biblicism behind strengthens evangelical readings of scripture. Chapter Five proposes the recovery of the Christocentric hermeneutical key, from the theology of Karl Barth. Barth argued that the Bible is not the central revelation of God; Jesus is. Therefore, the Bible’s job is to point to Jesus, not to speak to every-day issues that we experience. The Bible exists to attest to what God will do (Old Testament) and has done (New Testament) in Jesus. The Bible is not a “how to” but a “Here is Who” book.

Within this worldview, Chapter Six argues that we must accept the Bible that God gave us, with all its complexity and ambiguity. Biblicists, on the other hand, try to turn the Bible we have into a Bible that answers all their questions. By so doing they reject the gift of the Bible as God gave it. Biblicists have trouble accepting the ambiguity of scripture because of how influenced they are by modernity, especially modern epistemology. We need to break from modern epistemological foundationalism.

However, Chapter Seven argues that we must do so “without sliding into a problematic postmodernism.” (149) Smith suggests critical realist epistemology as a third way. Regarding authority, this enables us to approach the Bible as it is, rather than beginning with questions of inspiration and reading the stories through that lens.

Review
Smith’s book is well written, easy to follow, and helpfully organized. His sociologist’s approach to a theological topic is a refreshing change of pace from the usual arguments, and enables an interdisciplinary approach that weaves together relevant sociology, theology, and history, and epistemology.

Although I agree with ideas underlying his reintroduction of the Christocentric hermeneutic key, I would also have liked him to suggest something like “pneumatological guidance” and “communal accountability.” The role of the Holy Spirit in leading Christians to faithful interpretation receives little attention in this book. Also, the importance of reading scripture in community rather than individually (another fault, in my opinion, of evangelical biblicism) is not discussed. That being said, the idea that scripture does not point to itself or to our world but to the mission of God through Christ is central for reframing this conversation.

The view of the Bible that Smith represents or proposes came as such a relief to me when I first began to think of it this way. It was as if something suddenly clicked, I realized that the Bible could not be the main thing if the first century church (who Churches of Christ were trying to hard to imitate) lived without “the Bible” as we know it. But I have had difficulty when teaching undergraduate courses in helping students see the Bible in a different way. I never know if it is best to tackle their assumptions head on (say by assigning this book, or summarizing its content, or lecturing content similar to this) and then display a hermeneutic that replaces it, or just to model that new hermeneutic and hope some of them get it. Addressing the issue “head on” seems to raise people’s defenses and lose my hearing. But hoping that a few keen students will recognize a new view in action and leaving the rest to their devices makes me feel like I am not doing my job. I continue to wonder how to approach this.

This August issue of Wineskins is centered on the theme of passion: “what Christians can and should be truly passionate about” or what it looks like to “have a passion for God” (from Matt Dabbs’ editorial introduction). This passion is based on the fact that we all have been impacted by the same gospel; we are all a part of “a story worth telling.”

I suppose I should begin by saying that I don’t think all Christians need to be passionate about the same things. Or, put another way, we are all a part of the same story but we are also all going to tell (and perceive and live) that story in a variety of ways. And this is part of what it means to be created in the image of God, because diversity is who God is. So, in short, I guess I would say that Christians should be passionate about whatever God has created you to be passionate about.

And for me, that’s people. This is different than an introvert/extrovert thing. I’m not saying that being around others is “energizing” or “life-giving” to me (although that is true); I am saying that the way I “love God” or “connect with God” best is through other people. Although one can certainly have a mixture of ways to connect with God, for the sake of explaining what I mean by loving God through other people, this is “in contrast with” those who connect best with God through learning, or through activism/service, or through worship, or through nature, etc. (See “Appendix” at the end if this is of interest to you.)

For me, what it means to be passionate about people in the presence of God is that I am both challenged and encouraged by my relationships with others, and am passionate about fostering relationships between other people where they can be challenged and encouraged as well. Although many people might say that they need to take time away from being with others so that they can spend time with God, this dichotomy does not make any sense to me.

Now, I know that even Jesus did this (tried to get away to mountains to pray, etc.), so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not saying that there is no such thing for any person as “time alone with God.” I am only saying that, for me, those things aren’t separate. I am passionate about spending time with other people because, in so doing, I am acutely aware that I am also spending time with God. (And Jesus did this too, otherwise he never would have chosen disciples in the first place, and would have said something more like, “Get the little children away from me.” So, again, baby, bathwater: both important.)

Martin Laird uses the metaphor of a wheel with spokes centered on a single hub to describe this method of connecting with or centering on God: “The more we journey towards the Center the closer we are both to God and to each other. The problem of feeling isolated from both God and others is overcome in the experience of the Center.” (Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, [Oxford: 2006], 12)

So, for me, what it looks like have passion for God is to have passion for people – eating, playing, crying, walking, praying, talking, sweating, singing, sitting, and living with people. That’s what revives my spirit.

Appendix/Side Note
I was first exposed to the idea of spiritual temperaments (sort of like “love languages for God”) through Gary Thomas’ Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) and Myra Perrine’s What’s Your God Language? Connecting with God through Your Unique Spiritual Temperament (Tyndale, 2007), which is based on Thomas’ earlier book.

As with any work that divides people into personality or spiritual types, the danger is that when one learns one’s “type” they will feel limited or constrained to interact with God or the world in that specific way. Also, no “type” perfectly describes any individual. However, I have always found research regarding personality/spiritual types to be profoundly helpful in understanding why I perceive the world and the church the way I do. Knowing my type(s) gives me permission to be who I am – aware of my strengths and weaknesses – and to allow others to do the same.

What follows is a combined/condensed version of bulletin articles I wrote in February for the Stamford Church of Christ (where I work), when our church was about to start up new small groups, as an attempt to frame theologically what our leadership team hopes small groups will contribute to our context. Those hopes center around three themes: Intimacy, Service, and Diversity. The leadership team decided to call our small groups “Life Circles,” so that is the name that is used throughout this article

Intimacy
The primary purpose of Life Circles is to build community. The importance of community is found throughout scripture. Community is an intrinsic human need; it is part of who God made us to be. God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone and created a companion and coworker for him (Gen. 2:18). Also, we are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27) and God is “community.” In other words, God is Trinity, three in one, working and living together, in mutual love and submission, exemplifying within God’s very being the idea of “unity in diversity.” The nation of Israel in the Old Testament hardly had any sense of individualism; they are the people of God. Their people-hood (community) is set apart by a special story (of God’s redemption of them in the exodus) and special rules (Leviticus).

Jesus knew community was important and surrounded himself with a small group of disciples to minister together with him. And the New Testament is filled with “one another” passages, that is, passages that use a particular Greek word (allelon – “one another”) to describe characteristics of mutual Christian community. Followers of Christ should be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10), honor one another (Rom. 12:10), live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16), love one another (Rom. 13:8), build up one another (Rom. 14:19), accept one another (Rom. 15:7), serve one another (Gal. 5:13), bear with one another (Eph. 4:2), be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32), submit to one another (Eph. 5:22), forgive one another (Col. 3:13), encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18), spur one another on toward love (Heb. 10:24), pray for one another (Jam. 5:16), confess our sins to one another (Jam. 5:16), offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet. 4:9), fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7)…and that is only a small sampling!

Life Circles provide a valuable opportunity to connect with each other outside of Sunday morning worship. Acts 2:46 (in the midst of a section describing what life among early believers was like) says, “Day by day, as they continued meeting together in the temple, they (also) broke bread in their homes and ate their food with glad and sincere hearts, praising God.” This seems to hint that very early on, Christians knew that there was something important about both corporate worship and intimate relationships based on hospitality. Based on the image of these early believers breaking bread together in homes, we are hoping that Life Circles will be more than just a program or ministry. We hope that Life Circles become a way of life, extending our Sunday-morning relationships beyond our time together on Sunday morning and outside the walls of our building.

As smaller groups of Christians who already have the larger congregation in common, Life Circles have the potential to be a springboard for even deeper relationships. Smaller groups are a safe space for vulnerability, honesty, curiosity, support, encouragement, forgiveness, laughter, accountability, transformation, connection, and a whole host of other things that – although certainly possible in the larger, worship setting – are not necessarily easy to do in a big crowd. Life Circles are a chance to mentor and be mentored, pray and be prayed for, teach and be taught, laugh and be laughed at, cry and be cried with, a chance to connect with a smaller group of people over months and years, in order to become more like Christ.

Service
One aspect of the membership of Stamford that is somewhat unique to us is our regional distribution. That is, we are a “commuter” church – many of us travel longer-than-usual distances to be together. So when the leadership team was thinking about starting Life Circles again, the regional organization addressed a logistical need: People may not want to travel back into Stamford for a second or third time. Life Circles arranged regionally shorten the distance people would need to travel.

But also, more importantly, we think that Life Circles arranged regionally provide an opportunity for each group to join together in service to its respective community. The group knows best the needs of the community it works and lives throughout the week. Each group can connect with social service agencies or volunteer opportunities in its area. We are hoping this will happen organically, that is, that each group will find a service project or volunteer opportunity that is a good fit for the members of its group. Maybe a member has a neighbor in need of babysitting, or yard work. Maybe a member has a child with a sporting event that the Life Circle can attend to support that child. Maybe a member has a friend, coworker, or neighbor who is intimidated by “institutional church” but would connect well with a smaller group of people. Again, we are hoping that this happens organically, that your Life Circle’s unique passions and opportunities will become obvious to its members, and that you’ll act on those impulses.

Diversity
I mentioned above the importance of “trinitarian theology” (that is, the idea that God is Trinity, three in one, working and living together, in mutual love and submission) for community. Trinitarian theology exemplifies community because within God’s very being there is “unity in diversity.” In that article, it was the “oneness” of God that was important. But the “three-ness” of God is also important; the fact that within God’s being there is “unity in diversity.” So when humans are in relationship with others who are different than them, they imitate the image of God by imitating diversity.

But we humans have a tendency to gravitate toward people who are most like us. There are aspects of this tendency that are beneficial – it is easier to begin a friendship based on things you have in common. Trust and jokes and the other things that make up a relationship come more quickly when you have similarities to draw on. Various aspects of church life lend themselves naturally to “friendship in similarity.” For instance, Bible Classes are arranged by age group, and these age-specific ministries are important. These are all good things! But once potential drawback of “friendship in similarity” is that people are so similar that they do not challenge each other. People see the world in such similar ways, that they are not aware of the ways they may be excluding others.

It is also important for members of the congregation to have relationships with people from different age groups. Growing up, the time that I felt the most connected to the church I attended is when my best friend and I (when we were in high school) started a Girl’s Bible Study for the middle school girls just entering the youth group. Or when another good friend and I started a Skit Troupe for the elementary age kids over the course of a Bible Class quarter. Since there was no youth minister at that church when I was in the youth group, the church arranged youth mentors, pairing each member of the youth group with an adult (who was not their parent). Each of these things is an example of intergenerational connection, giving members a chance to serve and be served, to connect, with people not in their age group.

Life Circles are another way to connect people of different ages, placing them in smaller groups alongside each other, where they can work together and learn from each other. And Life Circles connect people with other kinds of diversity too. Often, Life Circles that are not “assigned” end up developing along homogenous lines. (For instance, “Young Adults,” “Married with Children,” “Golden Oldies.”) The leadership hopes that arranging Life Circles regionally will put us all in relationship with people that we may or may not have been naturally drawn to, people who are different from us, who challenge us, who help us to think about things in different ways. And this “friendship in diversity” makes us more like God, who has “diversity” built into God’s very being.

April has been a very busy month for this over-committed preacher/student/teacher/writer/mother/wife, so I wasn’t able to write something new for this month’s issue of “Being Church” like I had hoped. Instead, I’ve included below the text of my talk from the Sunday that the Stamford Church of Christ announced that I was going to start working there as an Assistant Ministry (July 7, 2013). This text already exists on the web at Gal328, and the audio can be heard on Stamford’s sermon player if you scroll down far enough.

I’m including it as part of this issue of Wineskins because it does begin to get at an aspect of “what it means to be church” that is important to me, which is “staying put.” It is *very* important that you understand that I am not saying that *all* people ought to stay in Churches of Christ specifically, although that is the decision I have made. I am only speaking personally: for me, being church means staying put in the tradition that raised me even though that has not always been easy. And for others, I think being church means at least listening to the voices of those who may experience church differently than you, regardless of whether you agree with them. For that reason, I think this (but more importantly, the other “voices of experience” available at Gal328), are an important part of an issue on the topic of “Being Church.”

My call to ministry has been less like a Burning Bush or a Damascus Road situation, and more like an awareness of personal skills and life situations that make a particular path a good fit. My path is made up of steps that, only in retrospect, show that God was leading me to ministry, to what turns out to be this moment. Dale has already given you a sketch, but I’d like to share more with you about a few of those formative moments.

I was raised in the Church of Christ. My parents gave me a love of church. We were there Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Saturday youth group, summer church camp, potlucks (though we called them fellowship meals), small groups, picnics, work days…you name it, we did it. And church wasn’t just somewhere we went, it was what we did and who we were – you can go to a building, that is something you can do, but you can’t go to church ’cause the church is you – you know. My parents’ best friends were from church and my best friends were their kids. We lived in community. Churches of Christ were my people. And these were the people who gave me a love of Scripture: reading it, studying it, memorizing it, Bible Bowling it – even teaching it (to other girls and in children’s church, of course).

When I was deciding where to go for college, I only considered Church of Christ schools; I chose Rochester College (in Michigan). I started out as an English major, then became a Bible major because those were the classes I was most excited to attend. But I was intentionally “just” a Biblical Studies major, decidedly not a ministry major. My intention was to go on to get a PhD and teach college Bible courses. But even Biblical Studies majors have to take a preaching course, which I put off literally as long as I could, until my Senior year. And in that class I discovered that I loved preaching, that I was good at it even. But at this point, I didn’t think it was worth fighting over or fighting for. Upon graduation, I planned to pursue the M.Div., but, again, for the purpose of going on to a PhD and teaching college Bible courses.

For my M.Div., I chose another Church of Christ school, Abilene Christian University. This was the first time I had female classmates who wanted to minister in Churches of Christ; at Rochester the only other female Biblical Studies major was also “in it for academics” – at least at the time. So my first passion regarding gender justice in Churches of Christ was advocacy-based. It wasn’t for me; it was for my friends. Again, I put off taking the required preaching course until my last semester. Again, I found that I loved it. And again, it was confirmed that I was good at it. But this time around, I also found that I wanted to do it, that it was worth fighting for. What had started out as advocacy had turned into hope. Abilene is also where I met and married Jamey, who was planning to do a PhD and teach Bible at the college level.

These two factors led me to reconsider my long-held plan of doing a PhD: First, since it is unlikely that Jamey and I would receive tenure-track teaching positions at the same university in the same department. But second, and mostly, because I was ready to admit that my plans to teach were at least partially denial. (I was also able to teach a few undergraduate courses at ACU, and found that to be something that I enjoy and have skill in as well, so this is not to say that teaching is nowhere in my future; just that I was hiding behind it.) I was afraid that being honest, with myself and with others, about my desire to preach would open the floodgates, that it would consume my life and make it impossible for me to both be faithful to who God had made me to be and to continue to love God’s people. It turns out there was good reason for this fear. My initial steps toward speaking out for gender justice in Churches of Christ were met with anger, resentment, condemnation, judgment, disappointment, and confusion – by complete strangers and, more painfully, by some very close to me.

It was in the midst of this that we moved to Princeton for my husband’s PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary. In this time of transition, as we searched for a church home, I thought of leaving Churches of Christ so that I could more easily find work in a church. In fact many people suggested that I do just that – some suggested it to get rid of me, others suggested it out of concern for my spiritual health. I thought of it, but I never really considered it. I could no more leave Churches of Christ as I could leave my family. Just as I will always be my parents’ daughter, I will always be Church of Christ. Even if I stopped attending a Church of Christ and attended another church, Churches of Christ would not stop being my people. They are the tribe that formed me, that instilled in me the very gifts I now want to use for ministry. Although I am certainly not what my church intended or could ever have imagined, the fact remains that it made me who I am.

And, again, there’s the question of advocacy. I have other female friends who want to preach. I have nieces. I have friends with daughters. Maybe someday Jamey and I will have a daughter. There are women, young and old, many of whom I have never met, who have been silenced and ignored. If everyone who wants Churches of Christ to change leaves, what will become of them? I felt – I still feel – that as long as God gives me the strength to stay, in fact even on the days that I’m not so sure I have that strength, Churches of Christ are where I’ll be.

This commitment is what brought us here to Stamford, even though it is a two-hour drive from Princeton. I had heard about Stamford in undergrad at Rochester from my friend and fellow soccer player, Hudney Piquant, who attended here. I had heard about Stamford while at ACU, that it was one of the few Churches of Christ in the country who had welcomed women into its pulpit. I had heard about Stamford from Justin and Kat Burton, who Jamey knew in undergrad. So we visited, and we could tell from just one Sunday that things were different here. This is the type of church that we wanted to attend. In fact, this is the type of church that I wanted to work for and work with in embodying the mission of God in the world.

Those are the steps that brought me here. Like Jonah, I ran and hid and denied a little bit along the way; I’ll even admit that I have cursed my share of leafy trees. But it is clear to me looking back on my story so far that God was shaping me – through parents who modeled community life and gave me a love of church, through a community that encouraged in me a love of Scripture, through preaching classes I did not want to take, through professors and mentors, and through a hundred other people, skills, and situations – to minister to God’s people.

And it’s clear to me from Dale’s story that God was shaping you to be the kind of church that would provide space for me to minister – though it may be risky socially for all of us, though it may be costly monetarily for all of us, though it is always difficult to commit to live together in community.

So, as I stand here today, I have many emotions. I am excited. I am grateful. I’m a bit scared. But I’m confident that God will use you in this next year to shape and challenge me in ministry, and I’m hopeful that God can use me to shape and challenge you as well. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like, but I can’t wait to see what the God who clears a path through roaring waters, who reveals a way in the wilderness, who makes a stream in the dessert, and who provides a ministry position in Churches of Christ for a woman (!) will do among us in the next year.

It was hard for many to imagine this day would come. But, to the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory in the church – in this church, in you, and in me – to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen!

Repeat after me: “Social media is neutral.”

The image above (the source of which I am having trouble locating; I can’t remember where I first saw it floating around the Internet) is a humorous reminder that our knee-jerk reactions to new technology are often found – in hindsight – to be unnecessarily alarmist.

It is particularly ironic that I am writing this because, as my husband (or really, anyone who knows me) will tell you, I have an immediate negative reaction to change. Every time an app updates, or Facebook changes its layout, or I install the new OS on my iPhone or laptop, I insist that I hate it, that it’s ugly, that I don’t need all these newfangled features. In college, before I had a cell phone, I soap-boxed about how pointless they were. Once I got a phone but before I had texting, I ranted about how silly it was: “Use AOL Instant Messenger on your computer, or just call them!” I said. (This is particularly ironic now, since I honestly could not tell you the last time I used my iPhone to make a phone call.) Before I had a smart phone, I waxed eloquent about how it seemed unnecessary: Since I already have a laptop and a phone, why would I need a “worse” version of both of those things? Just this week I was complaining about Instagram: I don’t see what it gets me that I don’t already have on Facebook and Twitter…and by saying that, I prove that I never learn my lesson. See y’all on Instagram in a year.

To my husband’s endless entertainment, I am a “late adopter” (well, technically, I’m probably the “early majority” – check out the technology adoption lifecycle). I miss the way things used to be…and then I get over it. Eventually. It is my tendency to see the negative aspects of change before the positive.

And certainly, there are some bad things about social media/new technology.

  • Depersonalization – We have all seen, if not participated in, a comment thread or Twitter exchange gone terribly wrong. Somehow, on social media, people speak to each other and react in ways that we never would if we were speaking face-to-face. It is all too easy to “other” the commenter, to see them as a battle to be won rather than an embodied person.
  • Distraction – As social media and technology intertwine (that is, as our technology makes our social media increasingly easy to access) it becomes more difficult to maintain separation from social media. Again, I think we have all been eaten lunch with someone who was checking their phone (by which I mean actively texting or looking at Facebook, not just “keeping an eye on their phone in case the kids call”) the entire time we were talking. In fact, we have probably all been that person. We text while we talk, play games while we watch TV, check email while we walk down the street; our brains (hearts, selves) are constantly in two places at once. But of course, we’re not fully in either place.
  • Deception – (Okay, that is more harsh a term than I would usually use, but I’m on a roll with D-words.) What I mean is that people portray their best selves on social media. We post pictures of our children being sweet and cute (or, occasionally, pictures of them misbehaving, if it is funny) but rarely post updates about parenting on the days that we aren’t sure if we can stand our kids for another minute. We post updates when we are offered a scholarship to our school of choice, accept a new job, get pregnant/have a baby, but rarely post about our rejection letters, flopped interviews, or miscarriages. For some people, this makes it difficult to even participate in social media, since everyone else’s life seems to be so easy when your life seems so hard.
  • Decreased Intelligence – The Internet is making people “dumber.” (I’ll stop with the D-words now; I promise.) In my experience grading college students’ written work over the last five years, the grammatical and stylistic competence has decreased. It is not just that they are not proofreading (although that is certainly true) but that, even when they do proofread, they are so unfamiliar with the edited written word that they do not know they are making mistakes. More importantly, their critical thinking skills seem to have decreased. People’s ability to discern and distinguish (Oops! More D-words!) between valid and invalid sources of information, to weigh input and synthesize a response, seems to have decreased. Whatever is in the top three Google search results wins.

But, having made it through my initial resistance phase, I can now see that social media also has significant positive potential. For instance:

  • Connection – I have the unique experience of ministering at a church that is two hours away from where I live. Certainly, this is not ideal. However, this is the best fit both for me and for the church right now, and social media has made it possible for me to connect with people in that community throughout the week when I am not there. Through Facebook and Twitter, I am able to show up on Sunday morning with some idea what has been going on in the lives of church members (and vice versa), which would previously have been impossible.  You’ll rarely hear any complaints about social media from grandparents with younger grandchildren who live far away. And I am frequently “friended” on Facebook by people I have not met in person. Sometimes, these are people with whom I have friends in common, so it is simply an extending of the network. But more often, for me at least, these are younger women in Churches of Christ thinking of pursuing ministry who are in search of support or advice. I imagine the beginning of my journey down this path would have been easier if I had someone to walk alongside me. I could go on about the connections that social media makes possible: increased access to advocacy, guidance, inspiration, encouragement, etc.
  • Globalization – Social media has the potential to enlarge our perspective. Just as much as social media can distract us from “real life” (that is, from the people that right in front of us) it can also connect us to “real life” (that is, to what life is like for the majority of people). The Twitter hashtag “#FirstWorldProblems” (when taken seriously) has the potential to remind us that the things we complain about are generally unimportant. The Twitter Revolutions of 2009-2011 not only enlarged our Western perspective, but also made possible some real change in the Middle East.
  • Access to Information – Similarly, although there may be work to do in terms of discernment, social media and technology mean increased access to more diverse information. Again, we have a ways to go, but the world in which the winners write the history and minority voices are completely wiped from the record is becoming more and more difficult to maintain, which can only be a good thing.

This has certainly been only a cursory survey of the potential of social media for good or not-so-good. What do I recommend? Ultimately, I can’t say that my advice about social media is all that different from my advice about life in general:

  • Be hospitable. See others as made in the image of God (Genesis 1-2). Interact with others as if you are interacting with Christ (Matthew 25). Don’t forget that behind every comment is a person. Well, unless that comment says something like “very nice put up, i certainly love this website, keep on it.” Then it’s probably a computer trying to sound like a person, and you can ignore it.
  • Be discerning. Think before you speak. This is only more important because what you put on social media is visible to the public and there forever.
  • Be realistic. Social media is limited. Be realistic about what it can/cannot do. It might bring some new people to your church, but it is not going to change your target demographic. It is going to change the world (has already), but it is not going to change human nature.
  • Be present. Be where you are. (Credit where credit is due, I can’t separate my use of this phrase from this great blog and the product it inspired) If you are with people face-to-face, put down your phone and be with those people. And if you’re on Facebook, great; make connections there. But don’t do both at the same time.

Maybe you see more bad than good in social media, or maybe you think that my saying there is anything bad about it makes me old-fashioned. But when it comes to social media, there is at least one thing upon which we can all agree: Ain’t nobody on Google Plus.

An article regarding people who shaped my faith cannot begin anywhere but at the beginning: that is, with my parents. Both my mother and father were the first people in their families to become Christians. As such, they worked out together what it meant to raise my younger brother and me in a Christian home. Similarly, the preacher at the church where I grew up, who was also the youth minister during my time in youth group, modeled commitment to scripture as instructive for daily life.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention Sara Barton, who was my minister, my mentor, and my boss while I was at Rochester College, and is now my friend and my colleague in the D. Min. program at Lipscomb. It seems strange to write an article about a fellow author, so I will just say that Sara is the person who first modeled for me engagement with scripture as the story of God’s work in the world.

Myriad professors both at Rochester and at ACU should also be mentioned, and I could write an article about how each of them has directed and influenced me for the better, without whom I may not have ended up on my current path: David Fleer, Greg Stevenson, Ken Cukrowski, Doug and Linda Foster, Stephen Johnson, Brady Bryce, Rodney Ashlock, and others. Each of these professors hold in common the ministry of presence; they took the time to talk, or more accurately, to listen.

But no one has modeled the ministry of presence for me more than Eric and Natalie Magnusson. My last two years of college were difficult (or seemed to be at the time, which might not be any different) for a variety of reasons. It was during this time that I met Eric and Natalie, who both worked at Rochester. Their friendship and support was invaluable. They gave me a place to sleep off-campus when I just needed to get away, a listening ear for my confusion and venting, an appropriate amount of probing and challenging, and they had the discernment to know which to offer at any given time. They were the tangible presence of Christ for me.

When my core group of friends and I began to realize that we were about to graduate and go our separate ways, we didn’t feel like the spiritual level of our relationship was as formed as the social level. We felt that, in order to continue our relationships, we needed to put some serious effort into forming our spiritual connections. We approached Eric and Natalie and, essentially, made them start a small group for us. I’m not sure how they would have said no, but the grace with which they said yes was another example of their ministry of presence – especially since they had just had their first child. (Now that Jamey and I have a baby, I think they might have been crazy to be as hospitable to us as they were!)

In this small group, Eric and Natalie brought our spiritual lives into conversation with each other, facilitating our relationships with wisdom, laughter, and coffee. That year, my spiritually was in “recovery mode” and was based mostly in that small group. I began to feel God’s presence again in community. Since my relationship with God had recovered in that group, when I graduated, I was nervous (scared, sad, etc.) about leaving that group – and Eric and Natalie – behind. On the drive from Rochester to Abilene, Eric texted me: “There is no end, but addition.” These words were timely and thoughtful, as Eric and Natalie’s words always are.

As with many mentors, our relationship transitioned over time to a friendship – and weaves back and forth between those two categories as needed. I hope and seek to pass on this ministry of presence (and wisdom, laughter, and coffee – of course).

There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hours,
While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
Years of living among the breakage
Of what was believed in as the most reliable-
And therefore the fittest for renunciation
~T. S. Eliot – Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages, II

I grew up in Restoration Movement churches in Upstate New York. During my “pre-memory” years (0-5 years old) my family attended a Church of Christ. I have only the vaguest impressions of this church: a basement with flaky-paint, cinder block walls; a kitchen with leftover grape juice shots; and a cappella songs in minor keys (“We Are One in the Spirit,” “The Lord Is in His Holy Temple,” etc.).

Around the time I started kindergarten, we began to attend a Christian Church, where I was baptized at age 9, and where we stayed until sometime in mid-elementary school (age 10 or 11, so 5th or 6th grade). Again, I don’t remember much about this church, except that it was instrumental (which did not strike me as either odd or exciting), and that they had children’s concerts and plays for me to perform in (which struck me as very exciting).

Then my family began attending a Church of Christ again – not the cinder-block basement church, but a traditional, “upside-down boat auditorium” church. I attended here through high school and on breaks throughout college. This is the church that raised me, taught me, shaped me, challenged me, and kept me accountable and faithful through the awkward and challenging middle and high school years. It was where I felt most at home. In this church, I learned about true community: the members of the youth group were my friends, the adults were my mentors and examples, and the younger children provided me opportunities for leadership and service. In this church, I learned to love and engage the Bible.

I have attended CofC-affiliated schools for undergrad (Rochester), graduate school (ACU), and now doctoral work (Lipscomb). My education has always been informed by Restoration Movement beliefs and values. Even as some of my opinions, beliefs, and perspectives changed, they did so in the context of Churches of Christ, which were the churches I attended throughout my education, and the churches I had in mind for my future ministry. My relationship with Restoration Movement churches is long and complicated, but committed. These are my people (whether they want me or not).

Of course, I have also always had meaningful relationships with non-CofC Christians. (“If there is such a thing,” says a voice from my past, a voice I deny but still hear.) At the beginning of fourth grade, I began to attend a private, non-denominational Christian school instead of public school. At this school, I learned and worshiped with students from many other denominations. So, very early I had to ask myself whether I really thought that the children on the playground with me were not saved just because they were not baptized (as an “adult,” for the purpose of remission of sins – although I would hardly call my nine-year old self an adult).

Throughout high school, I found myself needing to explain Churches of Christ to my other Christian friends. This is a position in which Jamey and I now regularly find ourselves, since we live in a community (Princeton Theological Seminary) made up of primarily high church (Presbyterian and Lutheran) folks.

If you have never tried to talk about Churches of Christ with “outsiders,” you should prepare yourself for a number of confused, befuddled, perplexed looks. Our friends understand how certain CofC practices result from the specific values and goals of the Restoration Movement. Their confusion comes one step before that: Why are those the values and goals? Why would you want to restore the New Testament church? These conversations are always in the spirit of seeking understanding. No one is trying to convince us to leave and join their tribe; they’re just trying to understand why we stay, especially given the fact that standard practice and belief in Churches of Christ creates vocational difficulty for me.

Nonetheless, these conversations always conclude with me saying something like: Restoring the New Testament church is not necessarily a goal of mine. But I stay in Churches of Christ because this is the church that raised me. I would be “Church of Christ” regardless of where I attended. We may not always get along, but I cannot deny that this is my family (any more than they can exclude me by denying that I am their family). I want to use my gifts to serve the church that shaped them. I know the minefields here, and would have to learn them anew in another group.

Really, the primary reason(s) I stay is because there are strengths here. There are aspects of the Restoration Movement that I love, that I think are healthy, that I think have the potential to facilitate communities of people that are joining God’s mission of reconciliation as exemplified most perfectly in Jesus. To name a few: congregational autonomy, priesthood of all believers, emphasis on scripture (although I’d like us to think a little different about what scripture is doing, but that’s another subject altogether), a cappella worship, and weekly (or at least consistent and frequent) participation in the Lord’s Supper. For these reasons, and others, I like it here! These are the aspects of the Restoration Movement that I wholeheartedly embrace.