My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part IV): From Religious Service Provider to Agent of Awakening

Friday, September 18th, 2020

Read Part I of my convocation address here.
Read Part II of my convocation address here.
Read Part III of my convocation address here.

Paradigm Shift #3: Moving from Being a Religious Service Provider to an Agent of Awakening

The third storm, the COVID-19 pandemic, has disrupted one of the key features of Christian, and, indeed, human identity; namely, the life-giving power of gathered, human community reflecting the very nature of the communal nature of our triune God. On the one hand, we fully understand and embrace that the wearing of masks and keeping social distance is an expression of compassion for one another, and, in particular, our more vulnerable citizens as well as the well-being of our health care workers who serve on the front lines in this pandemic. Let me repeat, we affirm and resonate with this message. But, it is not the only message that Christians need to hear. Safety is a good value, but, for the Christian, it is not the ultimate value for us or, in our view, for a healthy society.

A culture that takes down diving boards from swimming pools because someone might get hurt is also a culture that will never send a man or woman to the moon. A culture that shines ultra-violet light on the bedsheets of 5-star hotels to show us what is lurking there is a culture that has lost touch with the real sufferings of this world. The church must get its hands dirty in the world. As I tell our new students every year, we are called to be street lights, not sanctuary lights. Millions around the world, and in our own land, struggle against what African theologian Akintude Akinade has called the “multi-headed Hydra” of poverty, illiteracy, ethnic tensions, colonialism, dictatorship, illness, disenfranchisement, and suffering. As a Christian, if my wife and I were to accept the prevailing culture’s hierarchy of values we would never have sent our daughter to live among the Alagwa in central Tanzania. She is five hours from any health care and even if she managed to get there, the clinic often has no attending staff and only meager medical supplies. It’s just too risky to bring the gospel to an unreached people’s group. As Christians we must understand that our culture is driven to make safety the highest good precisely because of their loss of the Eschaton and any eternal hope beyond the grave. If all you have is this life and the farthest extent of your vision is ninety years, then it is an expression of perfect cultural logic to end up where we are today as a society.

But our vision goes beyond the grave. Death has been defeated. We are an eschatological people. The early church understood, even in the face of immense dangers, that they stood in a sacred space, which is Jesus Christ. When Jesus saw the leper, he did not step back in fear, though it was the most infectious and transmittable disease of his day. He stepped forward, and touched the leper. COVID-19 is a call for us to reclaim the power of the gospel . . . not just the doctrines of it, but the spirit of it—to reoccupy that sacred space as we walk in confidence through the world, even as we wear masks and keep social distance. Fear is not a Christian virtue. We are not a people of fear, but of joy. For us, joy is an act of corporate resistance against despair. We walk through a COVID-19 world knowing that Jesus has the final word. He has defeated death, with all of its signatures: fear, disease, poverty, racism, etc. The world is a dangerous, risky place where we as Christians must learn again to walk into daily trusting the providence of God.

COVID-19 is, as noted earlier, a strangely wrapped gift of disruptive grace. It could be the very change agent to move us toward several important changes in how we understand ecclesiology. First, we should accept as a gift that we need to move from facility-focused ministry models to smaller, community-based churches. For too long we have nurtured and even promoted the idea of Christians commuting out of their own communities to attend large churches, many of whom have no meaningful connection to the communities they are in. For too long we have touted the size of a church as a measure of its health: the church with the most programs to meet our needs wins. However, what if COVID-19, racial unrest, and economic fragility call us to move toward smaller, community-based churches that serve as the primary agent of healing for the communities they are in? Second, what if COVID-19 breaks us from a Sunday-based ministry and gives way to a full-week engagement of the church in the world? Sunday morning gatherings for worship are wonderful, but we are not the church if our faith only finds a home one day a week. The church has always thrived the most when its members saw themselves as the church as they walked through the whole week in all of their various contexts. We must recapture our public witness, not just our private faith. Third, COVID-19 could have a transformative impact on how we understand seminary education. We have long lived and operated on the university model, which functions as a separate institution of learning that often is insulated from the churches we are pledged to serve. One of the most exciting ways Asbury is meeting this challenge is the launch of Asbury Global, which brings together our hybrid learning model, our online education, and our contextual sites that meet in local churches. It is not intended to replace our vibrant residential model, which emphasizes embodied communities of learning, but it supplements it by the whole of Asbury being reminded that we exist to serve the church and the church is a vital partner in the future of theological education.

I want to close with a story from my own family. My sixth great-grandfather was William Tennent. He was born in Scotland in 1673, went to the University of Edinburgh, as I later did, and migrated to the new world in 1718. In 1727 he founded a theological college known as the Log College, which provided pastors for the First Great Awakening (1730–1740). The Log College eventually became renamed the College of New Jersey and finally it was relocated in the first town that each merchant in the town would put up twenty dollars to support the university. A little town name Princeton rose to the challenge, and the rest is history.

William Tennent’s children all became part of what was known at that time as the New Lights, as opposed to the Old Lights. These were Great Awakening preachers and they were denouncing religious formalism, promoting revival, conversion experiences, direct experience with God, and pietism. These, of course, are themes we are familiar in the ministry of John Wesley, another one of the great streams of the Great Awakening.

William Tennent Jr. (my fifth great-grandfather) had just graduated from the Log College and was preparing to take his ordination exams. In those days, it was a deeply classical training and he was conversing in Latin with his theological tutor when suddenly, with a big heave and cry, he collapsed to the ground and died, though he was only twenty-six years old. In the eighteenth century there were four main ways to determine if someone was dead, and you are probably familiar with all four of these: pulse, death pallor, death dew, and rigor mortis.

William Tennent Jr. experienced all of this and so he was pronounced dead and the funeral was set for the next day. Later that day, another doctor came and examined the body and thought he felt a slight warmth underneath his armpits, so he called in another doctor. The other doctor examined him and couldn’t feel any warmth at all. This was a time before such things as EKGs, so he used the methods he had: no pulse, death pallor, stiff as a board . . . again, declared dead for the second time. The next day was the day of the funeral. People gathered for the funeral and just minutes before they were going to close the casket and bring him out for burial, another doctor said he wanted to examine him again. William Sr. (his father) and Gilbert (his brother) didn’t want to allow for it, because everyone had already gathered for the funeral and William Jr. had now been officially declared dead by two different doctors. But, there was a fifth test that was done—that was to shine a very bright light into someone’s eyes and see if their pupils restricted. They did this and the pupils remained dilated, but he saw at the last minute a little shimmer of the eye, and for just a second William Tennent’s body shivered, then fell dead again. They called off the funeral, took him out of the casket, wrapped the body in warm towels, and eventually he came to. He could not speak. He had to learn everything all over again over the next two years, though his Latin came back before his English. I am alive this morning because William Tennent woke up! Praise God. I was less than ten to fifteen minutes from not existing! If William Tennent Jr. had not woken up, I would not be here today, because he went on to get married, have a family (including my fourth great-grandfather), and serve a church for the next forty-three years until his actual death. I am here this morning five generations later because William Tennent Jr. woke up.

“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you”

The culture has declared the church dead and has already called for our funeral service, but the God of resurrection is still at work. The culture is ready to close the casket on the church and declare that the Christian gospel is irrelevant to the needs of this world, but the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation and our God is still on the throne! The culture sees the church not as the solution to the culture’s dilemma, but part of the problem, but Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” This is our great hope. God is not finished with us and He has called us into the world, with all of its dangers and frightening problems that all seem unsurmountable. Be the agent of healing for our communities. Never forget the distinctive voice of God’s revelation to us. And, remember, even though Nebuchadnezzar heats up his furnace seven times hotter, God still has his Meshacks, Shadracks, and Abenegos who will not bow to the idols of this world. So, wake up, O church, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! Get out of your caskets and get into the world—that’s why Asbury Seminary exists. Let us awaken to a new great awakening! Amen.

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