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How Seminary Matters

Feb 07 2012

Have you ever canoed down the Shenandoah River and allowed the current take control, just to experience being present in the moment?  Have you ever hiked to the top of a mountain in the middle of the night to catch the glory of a sunrise?  Do you know the satisfaction of grease and butter “enriched” biscuits and gravy?  How about the peace experienced in a cool and soft breeze, running across your face while swaying on a swinging porch bench?  Softly closing your eyes and being still and at peace in the inescapable reality of being finite in comparison to the grandeur of creation. Do you know the joy of spending time with family or friends and sharing the enduring memories that illustrate yourself?  These are my favorite things about my heritage which I have brought with me into my journey here at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Contrary to some skeptical pessimists, seminary does not rob future church leaders of their common values with Christians who believe in the church.  In my opinion, those clergy who do appear to be of one mindset have either allowed themselves to be trapped in a narrow paradigm in accordance with one or a few members of a seminary or they’re empowered by the Holy Spirit and should be tested by their fruits.  My experience at Wesley so far has equipped me to wrestle with God’s promises in a way which critically examines the positive and negative aspects of the church’s past, present, and future condition in consideration of differing perspectives.  Seminary has allowed me to hear the Gospel once more in a way that I believe will equip us as future church leaders and theologians to resurrect the body of Christ together with the people of the church, once more.     

Being a first year student, it wasn’t that long ago when I wondered if the drastic shift from living in rural areas for most of my life to life in the city would completely change me.  Surely, a culture such as the cosmopolitan Washington DC would have a significant impact on me.  As put in one of my favorite movies, “Some things will never change…and some things do.”  Life at Wesley hasn’t changed me per se.  If anything, it’s challenged me to bring out the best of my abilities which I already possessed.  Namely, my interest in analyzing history, theology, culture, and church politics has been developed quite significantly.  Here at Wesley, I have been invited to develop myself as a theologian through the seminarian lifestyle of engaging various books and hearing the interpretations of classmates and professors on ideas that I quite possibly would have never considered.  In my experience, this type of learning primarily occurs through class assignments and reflecting on the main points of a lecture and applying them to the reality of the church in the current American and post-Christendom context.  The question of how the lessons of seminary apply to my participation in the resurrection of Christ’s body and church within the world is of the upmost importance.

If my earlier flaunting of the term “post-Christendom” lost you, perhaps “church as it is today” is more appropriate in describing what many seminarians and Christians wonder about and struggle with.  The reality of the declining church and the national shift towards a centralized belief in God without the church is what burdens my heart and mind; and I think I’m not alone.  For what it’s worth, I think that it is appropriate for Christians to admit that the church is in the wilderness, similar to how the Israelites experienced being in the wilderness in the Exodus account.  To say the very least, there is a sense within the church that we have departed from a long rich history of faith and tradition.  Many see the Christendom era as the golden age, a time when the church was not worried about church closures and disappearing denominations to the extent which the church is today.  A significant belief which I’ve encountered in my various experiences in churches and church based organizations is that the Christendom church needs to be recaptivated or replicated in some fashion.  While I can appreciate the value of learning from the past, I find a more fulfilling response in our Biblical history within the Exodus narrative.  The Israelites also longed for their “golden era” during their exodus from Egypt (see Ex. 16:3 for reference) and I can imagine they were anxious about their survival.  As narrative unfolds, the chosen tribes of God go through a series of kings and judges who either earn or lose God’s favor.   I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will point out the major fallacy of King Solomon, the “wisest king of them all.”  In constructing the temple, whether it was out of reverence for Yahweh or consolidating governance with the religious authority,  Solomon made a timeless error in believing God’s will would take residence in the temple.  And so we have built our temples today and the people have stopped attending.  There are a multitude of reasons for why people do not attend church as they once did, but it remains clear that we have become dependent on having churches and that our Great Commission of evangelism has become abandoned.

   I think it is quite natural for humanity to long for a sense of continuity from the past into the present. The popular adage, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” captures this sentiment of wanting to be forever present in the traditions of the past.  But just as God is throughout the Bible a seemingly mysterious God who cannot quite be identified by the prophets or even Jesus Himself, the church would be served well to remember that our commission is a tumultuous one riddled with adversity and trials.  Throughout history the call for Christians is to empty themselves and seek the experience and presence God’s restoring grace for the church in the world which we live in.  In other words, despite the treacherous journey of reaching the “mountain-top” of resurrection within the church, we have a great guide that cannot be stopped and cannot be defeated.  Not even fear nor death can stop the creator in which all things begin and end throughout time.   

As I mentioned in the beginning of this blog, my favorite part of my rural Virginian heritage is the unchanging presence of God which simultaneously eludes our comprehension, which is intertwined with my experience of God through the church.   All one can do in the mercy of God’s grace is to allow the current to take you, while steering your vessel to avoid the rapids which promise entanglement and distraction from the goal at hand.  In comparison with the information I’ve been given at Wesley, my heritage provides a perspective which affects how to interpret the post-Christendom situation in consideration of the perspectives of those within Wesley.   As the discussion or lack of discussion continues around the topic of how to revitalize the church, remember to seek God in the embodiment of love above the nearsightedness of worldly wisdom.

-Jeremy Koontz
Masters of Divinity, 1st year

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