Reflections on 24 years of teaching at Briercrest
The end of this academic year marks the completion of 24 years of teaching theology at Briercrest College and Seminary. On June 1, 2017, I will begin in Ottawa as executive vice-president and resident theologian at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
As is a common story at Briercrest, I did not arrive in Caronport intending to stay this long.
When my wife, Maureen, and I arrived at Briercrest Seminary in spring 1993, we both thought our time here would be a brief stop on the way to pastoral ministry, but God’s plans were not our plans! Even though I ultimately did not enter pastoral ministry in the local church, I have always thought of my role as a teacher of theology at Briercrest primarily as pastoral. Theology, after all, is always and only (or at least, should be) in service of God and to aid the Church in her mission.
As I now review the years of teaching theology in both our College and Seminary, I’ve been pondering: What’s stayed the same? And of course, What’s changed? And what are the challenges facing us in the future?
The Memorial Stone…
Sometimes in the Old Testament, biblical patriarchs (e.g., Jacob in Gen 35) would set up piles of stones as memorials to God’s faithfulness in the past and a reminder to future generations.
Alumni undoubtedly remember the “tombstone” (as it has been affectionately known) at the entrance to the campus. When I first arrived as a college student back in 1985, I was greeted with that big concrete slab upon which was written, “The word of our God shall stand forever” (Isa 40:8). Over the years, that stone has functioned for me almost like one of those patriarchs' memorial stones which reminded me of the past and situated me for the future.
Today, that big old Briercrest tombstone is gone, and has now been replaced with a new memorial in a new location, but thankfully with the same scriptural motto. To me, that stone so aptly represents both constancy and change at Briercrest. Although the landscape is different (definitely more trees!), and most of the original buildings are now gone (with a great sigh of relief from our fire crew!), what I have most appreciated about Briercrest has been its steadfast commitment to the message of the Gospel as revealed to us in Holy Scripture.
In this regard, I thank God for our leaders—our Hildebrands, our Budds, our Barkmans, our Magnuses, our Uglems, and our Pawelkes—who never wavered in their commitment to ensuring that Briercrest is a place where the Bible is more than just a textbook. Thank God that they not only taught Scripture’s authority, but actually sought to examine our beliefs and practices against Scripture’s standard. For that, I simply say “thank you” to Briercrest—its board, its leadership, its faculty, its staff—for the example so many played in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity (Cf. 1 Tim 4:12).
Today I am also deeply moved by the overall commitment of our students to God’s Word. They have many educational options and yet they chose Briercrest. I love seeing our Bible classes brimming. I love observing students reading the Bible together or off in a corner by themselves. I love how the Bible is read and preached publically in our chapels and exposited in our classes. But I’m also moved by how committed our students are to figuring out what it truly means to live “biblically.” Their concerns for matters of justice, mercy, discipleship, and mission remain as strong, if not stronger, today as when I first came. Maybe it is just that I don’t have as much energy as I used to have, but I sometimes envy the youthful zeal for discipleship which our students so widely exhibit. Indeed, I think the thing I will most miss about not being at Briercrest is hanging around with students. They kept this “older guy”—I’m not quite yet “old”!—feeling younger than he really was!
But what has changed? And what are our challenges?
Undoubtedly, I could list dozens of things that have changed at Briercrest—staff, students, programs, and facilities. These are all expected and normal in the course of an organization’s history. But I believe the more important changes are those broader societal changes that have occurred both within and outside the Church since I started in the early 1990s here at Briercrest.
So, here are, from the perspective of a theologian and teacher, what I believe are my “top three diagnoses” of what I believe has happened in our broader Christian culture in past decades and which I believe are both causes for concern and yet openings of opportunity for Briercrest into the future.
1) Hearing Loss: Declining Bible Engagement
I begin with an observation that is definitely larger than the Briercrest context itself. In 2014, a national Canadian study on Bible engagement patterns alarmingly revealed that the way in which self-identified Christians read and use the Bible in their everyday lives is basically no different than the Canadian population in general! (See http://www.bibleengagementstudy.ca/ for the whole report).
I’ve already noted: I believe Briercrest’s emphasis on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture has not waned, and I believe we continue to impress upon our students the crucial task of considering the claims of Scripture upon their lives. That said, I concur that as a general rule of thumb (with notable exceptions), I find that more and more students come to Briercrest with a minimal understanding of the content of the Bible. Indeed, less and less arrive with a working understanding of the overarching biblical story of God’s works of creation, reconciliation and redemption, and there is greater confusion than ever on what it means for the Bible to function as an authority in a Christian’s personal and communal life. We still have our work cut out for us!
But perhaps even more troubling is that the decline of Bible engagement pointed out by the study is not simply a problem for youth or young adults; it is a problem which extends across generations. My generation, my parents’ generation, and my grandparents’ generation are all now less likely than ever to be reading, discussing, and applying the Bible to themselves—and this is despite the fact that we have more translations than ever, and ever-present virtual copies of Scripture on our phones and computers.
Fortunately, the Bible Engagement Study also made this important conclusion: “Those who have conversations about the Bible at least once a week have more robust Bible engagement and religious commitment profiles than any other factor we looked at.” This, of course, reveals why I continue to firmly believe that Briercrest, and schools like it, can play a critical role in reigniting a hearing of the Word of God in our land. As we continue to call our students “to be shaped profoundly by the Scriptures” (as our mission statement puts it), and to listen to, read, study, discuss, and apply the Bible day after day and week after week, it is my prayer that we may yet, in our generation, recover from our national hearing loss.
2) Verbal Laryngitis: The Loss of Christian Speech
William Willimon once observed something remarkable about the people in the book of Acts: “These are Christians and they talk a lot, go public, talk to anyone who will listen, talk even when their talk brings out the worst in their neighbors, talk even when no one listens.”
I’ve mentioned to some of my colleagues that a significant change I have witnessed in my years of teaching has been how silent, relatively speaking, my classrooms have become. What I mean by this is not that I have less to say (indeed, it seems like I rarely have enough time to say all I want to say!), but how little many of my students have to say. Or to be more accurate to what I think is going on, I am concerned about how little many of the students are willing to speak—vocally!—their thoughts about Scripture, about theology, and what Scripture and theology might have to say about the social and ethical issues our society is facing.
I have distinct memories of when I began teaching in the early 1990s how often I had to struggle to get my students to stop talking! I could say something about what a particular Scripture meant—especially some of the more difficult passages—and I would have discussions, and often, heated debates erupting. Today, that experience is, unfortunately, a rarity.
Now the lack of heated exchange may sound like a blessing and a sign of an orderly and respectful class. In that regard, it is true that by and large my students are polite and respectful (or as some may say, it is a sign they are mostly good Canadians!). But in my estimation, students who are increasingly hesitant to state an opinion, to answer a question, or even to challenge an assumption could also be a sign of something larger—something beyond themselves—that has gone awry. What has happened?
I’m sure the explanations for this relative silence are manifold. I’m sure the prevalence of social media as a preferred method of communication (e.g., texting, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.), the increased societal emphasis on “politically correct speech,” and the onslaught of information overload has contributed to this relative silencing. (Or, do I simply have to admit that I’ve failed to keep up pedagogically with where students are at these days and simply haven’t figured out how to get them talking? Maybe…) But whatever its ultimate causes, I believe that what I observe in the classroom has less to say about our students, and more to say about the kind of age in which we live. That is, the silence in my classroom is only symptomatic of the larger reality that Christians’ ability to speak confidently and with conviction about the Gospel—Christian speech!—has been seriously eroded and discouraged in the public square. For all the give and take of ideas that we supposedly support in our multi-cultural, multi-religious country, Christian speech is commonly squelched.
The silencing of Christian speech also manifests itself in our classrooms, churches, and workplaces when we fail to sound qualitatively different from the rest of the world. That is, we know our speech has failed to be distinctively Christian when the way we talk sounds pretty much like everybody else. When our political critiques, our calls for environmental and social justice, our soft acceptance of fundamentally altered sexual and familial definition, our justification of our own sins and failures, and our philosophies of how we manage our businesses and bank accounts sounds pretty much like everyone else, it is then that we have failed to speak Christianly.
This loss of distinctive Christian speech is alarming, and I for one, am trying to figure out ways that Christians can learn, once again, to speak with clarity and conviction about the God who saves, about the Christ who forgives, and about the Spirit who leads. But how do we do it in a world where such speech—Christian speech—is already deemed to be offensive, or even violent? How do we speak when Christian speech is often expected to be kept behind closed doors or restricted to the church sanctuary?
In this regard, I pray that there will be a revival not only of the hearing of the Word of God in our land, but also a loosing of our tongues to speak Christian speech both in our churches and in the public square. That isn’t to say that speaking out as a follower of Jesus today is easy; it never has been, nor should we expect that it ever will be. But speak out we must. “You are my witnesses,” Jesus says. And my prayer is that Briercrest will continue to send out graduates who talk—and talk a lot—about God’s redemptive plans for this world. True, words can be empty. But even Christian actions without words are finally ambiguous and indistinguishable from some of the best that society has to offer. It is only as we learn to speak of the mighty acts of God in our history, in our world, and in our lives that we can truly say we are Gospel heralds—Good News’ers” as some have called it.
3) Spiritual Amnesia: The Lapse of Evangelical Memory
I’m glad I’ve never suffered from the malady called “amnesia.” As I understand it, amnesia is not simply a matter of forgetting things we previously remembered. If that is all it was, amnesia would be simply cured by being reminded of all the stuff we’ve forgotten. More critically, amnesia is forgetting the things at the core of who we are! The terror of amnesia is, in other words, the loss of personal identity. It is the terror of not knowing the people, the communities, and the fundamental beliefs and practices which make us who we are. It is not just that we forget our parents’ or children’s names, but that we have forgotten that we are their children or their parents! And “evangelical amnesia” is forgetting, or worse, choosing to ignore, the very good things that historically made evangelicalism the vibrant spiritual movement that it was.
Today, as a self-identified evangelical theologian working in an evangelical college on the cusp of working for a national evangelical association, I am wondering whether we evangelicals have listened far too often to a narrowly construed narrative (often in the voice of opponents and mass media) about who evangelicals are, such that we have started to believe the story. As we believe that story, we thereby become a primary cause of our own memory lapses about who we really are. You see, it is all too easy to paint a picture of evangelicals as a voting bloc, or a backward group of people with an outdated sexual ethic, or even as an intolerant people who are dangerous to the common good of society. On the contrary, I think it will be important for those of us who continue to self-identify as “evangelical Christians” to be careful not simply to react to the popular narratives being told about ourselves. Rather, we need to begin re-narrate our identity on those things that are actually central to who we are: followers of Jesus Christ, readers of the Bible, speakers of the Gospel, and helpers to our neighbors near and far. In fact, it was a Muslim taxi-cab driver in Ottawa who reminded me recently that Christians (and Muslims) too often believe the stories that are told about them in the mass media and that we need to learn to tell our own stories. Let’s not forget, then, that the story about who we are as Christians and as evangelicals comes not from the world, but from God’s own Word and in the person of Jesus Christ Himself.
As I look back over my years of connection to Briercrest, both as a student in the ‘80s and a professor since the early ‘90s, I find embedded within it both the good, and yes, some of the not-so-good, elements of what it has supposedly meant to be evangelical. For some, evangelical meant legalistically “keeping the rules,” while for others it was those rules that helped immature young Christians to mature into a life of holy discipline. For others, evangelical meant practicing ritualistic “devotions”, while for others devotions were only the name we gave to the practice of seeking to pray and hear from God. For some, evangelical meant telling us all the things we weren’t supposed to be doing in our interpersonal and sexual relationships, while for others it meant honoring the God who created us male and female, our sexual and emotional confusions notwithstanding. For some, evangelical meant isolating ourselves from the world in ways that made us irrelevant to the world, while still for others, evangelical meant keeping ourselves from being polluted by the evil still running rampant in the world.
You see, remembering our evangelical heritage all depends on how the narrative is told—and, of course, how the narrative is received.
Perhaps in looking critically and harshly at our own theological and ecclesiological heritage (as we should), we have forgotten also to appreciate and remember the good things God’s Spirit has been, and continues to do, amongst those self-identifying themselves as evangelical.
So, as I leave Briercrest shortly to continue evangelical ministry in a new context, I, for one, will pray that God will continue to bring students to Briercrest—just as their parents and grandparents did—and that this new generation of students would truly recover their deep memory of what it means to be evangelical: to have an authentic experience of God’s presence in their lives as they open their ears to God’s Word; to receive the spiritual comfort and confidence that comes through experiencing Jesus Christ’s forgiveness of theirs sins, their adoption as sons and daughters, and their reconciliation to the Father; to be drawn deeper into the communal fellowship of the Spirit from those around them who are sharing in that same journey; to be convicted of the need to care for the vulnerable, for the lost, for the refugee, for the orphan, for the prisoner, for the oppressed. This, to me, is the best narration and truest meaning of “evangelical” there is, and which we must remember, with gratitude, afresh.
Thank you, Briercrest, for all you’ve done for me, for my family, and for my students. May God bless you and make his face to shine up you and to give you peace. Amen.
David Guretzki, PhD
Professor of Theology, Church, and Public Life
Dean of the Seminary