Bach at Advent: A Conversation with Timothy George

Recently, one of my heroes among historical theologians, Timothy George, invited me to discuss the value of listening to the works of J. S. Bach in conjunction with the seasons and celebrations that Christians observe throughout the year, such as Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This conversation stemmed from a short piece I wrote in April, “Welcoming Bach Among the Theologians”.

You can listen to the podcast at the link below as well as read the transcript provided by Beeson Divinity School.


“Bach Among the Theologians” – Beeson Podcast
Timothy George & Jason G. Duesing
December 19, 2017

Also available at iTunes.


Beeson Podcast Transcript, Episode 371
December 19, 2017

Announcer: Welcome to the Beeson podcast, coming to you from Beeson Divinity School on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Now your host, Timothy George.

Timothy George: Welcome to today’s Beeson podcast. The year was 1685. The place was Germany, and there was a new baby boy in town. His name, Johann Sebastian Bach. Undoubtedly, in my humble but accurate opinion, as my friend Charles Carter says, the greatest composer in the history of music. We’re going to listen to some Bach today, as well as talk about Bach with a very special guest I’ll introduce in just a moment. Right now, let’s go to Johann Sebastian Bach. Whatever you’re doing, if you’re driving down the road, maybe you’re at home, you just mowed the lawn. Whatever you’re doing, take a few minutes off and listen to this great, great music by Bach.

[Music playing.]

Wow. Wasn’t that great? Well, you can hear all kinds of great Bach music in many different forms. We’re going to talk about Bach today. Bach is, of course, a wonderful composer, one of the great leading lights in the history of music and musicology. Our focus today is Bach among the theologians. I got the idea for this podcast by reading an article by a friend of mine, Dr. Jason Duesing. Dr. Duesing, Jason, is the provost of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which is in Kansas City, Missouri. He’s written a very interesting post, or blog, called, “As a new semester begins: Welcoming Bach among the theologians.” It got me thinking, “Wow. We need to do a Beeson podcast episode connecting Bach and theology.” Who better to introduce it to us than Jason Duesing, who has felt so deeply about this himself? So, Jason, welcome to the Beeson podcast.

Jason Duesing: Thank you so much for having me. It’s truly a joy to be here and to talk about these things.

Timothy George: Now, in your article, what really grabbed my attention was a little autobiographical vignette you had there about when you were a graduate student, how you used to listen to Bach and how that actually helped you in some ways in your studies, as you were deep into important ideas. I might tell people, by the way, that you’re a church historian by training, written a wonderful biography, biographical theological study of Henry Jessey, one of the most important of the early English Baptist pastors and theologians. That was your field. As you were working on Jessey and other things, I suppose, you were listening to Bach. Let me ask you this question. Why Bach?

Jason Duesing: To continue the autobiographical strain, we all go through journeys in our Christian life, and of course, while our minds are renewed, once we place our faith in Christ and have the Holy Spirit indwell us, but lots of our personality and other interests are renewed and changed as well. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, as a pretty typical Generation X kid and had no interest much in music, much less this type of music, the type of music my own children call the kind without words. I didn’t have much … if you’d had said I would one day be here talking about this, I would have been most surprised. Over the years I just grew to have a fascination with, and especially the personalities behind the music, namely Bach himself, his theology and some of these things. Once you learn more about the man it causes you to appreciate the music itself.

I found him to be a very helpful companion through years of intense academic study. As I, then, continuing in the academic profession even now, academic ministry, he is a regular constant companion. Dr. George, I’m a night person, not a morning person, and so often in the wee hours of the night it’s me and Bach sitting there working and writing and things like this. I discovered a few years ago a wonderful program that you can access online. Anyone around the world can. It’s a part of the BBC Radio 3. They have an episode called “Through the Night.” It’s six hours of uninterrupted music, the time that we’re talking. Bach is regularly featured there. Oftentimes, in the evenings, that was my path as I was, as you say, working on dissertation and other academic endeavors.

Timothy George: That’s a wonderful recommendation: “Through the Night.” I know Billy Graham used to have a program called “Songs in the Night,” and that was probably a little different kind of music, but “Through the Night” is made available through the British Broadcasting Company. I guess it’s available online, right?

Jason Duesing: It is, and you don’t have to listen to it at 1:00 a.m. if you don’t want to. You can listen to it at any point in time. One of the most beautiful things about it is there are no commercials. It’s six hours of straight, the type of music that’s helpful to really think to and work through and things like this.

Timothy George: Those British know how to do great music and great programming on radio. I listen to some of it myself. You’re a Baptist theologian as I am, and I don’t know exactly what kind of church experience you had growing up. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. Actually a Southern Baptist/Independent Baptist church. We were kind of borderline. We listened to a lot of music, but it was not Bach. It was Stamps Baxter, it was … and below that, if you can think of it. It was great music in its own way, and I still love some of that music today, but it was a very different genre. However, I know that Bach is often played in music, in churches, as a part of the music. What was your experience growing up in the church and Bach?

Jason Duesing: In the suburbs of North Houston, I’m sure I heard some Bach as we were … I was reared Episcopalian and mainline Episcopalian all through my teenage and high school years. In that setting it was far more theologically liberal and therefore, sadly, I don’t recall ever hearing the good news about Jesus in terms of how it related to me personally in any way. I didn’t trust Christ. I wouldn’t mark my conversion until my freshman year in college. In many ways you could say that I had a very silent upbringing in regards to sacred music or church music, especially the likes of Bach, but really any of the delightful pieces that you mentioned that you enjoyed. I had to actually relearn hymnody for the first time as a college, and really not until seminary did I really even learn the great hymns of the faith.

Timothy George: Yes. That’s one of the passions that I have, is hymnody. It seems to me that we’ve lost a lot of that in the church. Of course, Bach wrote hymns. He wrote musical pieces that have been made into hymns. We still sing some of those in the church today, and a lot of other great hymns. I’m not against praise choruses. I’m not against contemporary music if it’s done well and it has content. The Lord can use it and be glorified by it, but we lose something when we cut ourselves off from that great musical tradition of which Bach is maybe the greatest representative.

Jason Duesing: Along the way, one of the things I came across was … and part of the field in which we work, historical theology and church history, I had heard of the great historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, and had read many of his works just through the course of my studies and own interest, the great Yale scholar. I stumbled across a book that he wrote in 1986 called, “Bach among the Theologians.” Pelikan, of course, as you know and know much better than I, was a Lutheran before he made the journey to orthodoxy, so he had an interest in Bach and wrote a wonderful little book called, “Bach among the Theologians” that’s just full of all kinds of treasures and things. It was through the reading of that book really that sort of inspired me to put some simple thoughts down in this blog article.

Timothy George: I’m glad you mentioned that book. I’m holding it in my hands right now. “Bach among the Theologians” by Jaroslav Pelikan, published by Fortress Press. I don’t know if it’s still in print. Probably not, but maybe you can get it somehow in out of print books or something. It’s a wonderful little book. One of the points he makes in that book is a comparison of Bach and Vivaldi. Vivaldi was, of course, a contemporary, a little older contemporary of Bach, and Bach learned a great deal, according to Pelikan, from Vivaldi in terms of style and form. The point of comparison that Pelikan makes in his book is “The Four Seasons,” the most famous, maybe, of Vivaldi’s compositions. He wrote many. He compares that to Bach’s “Four Seasons,” and they’re very different. For Vivaldi it’s summer, fall, winter, spring, the seasons of the year, whereas for Bach, it’s the seasons of the Christian year. Advent, Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. He says his whole life and his musical formation was geared around following Jesus Christ throughout the year, through the liturgical seasons of the year. What do you think about that?

Jason Duesing: I think it’s a real instructive way and a really helpful way, almost catechetical in the sense that it’s helping us to appreciate the music along with a liturgical format so that we can understand the pieces in which he composed and how they might align up with some of these celebrations, whether it be Christmas and Advent, or Easter, along those lines. I remember reading … That’s right. Early in the book, I remember reading that chapter and it was very instructive for me, again, helping to kind of piece together some things.

Timothy George: Now, we are both theologians. We spend a lot of our time talking and bantering about ideas and doctrines and teachings of the church and of the Scriptures as they’ve informed the church. How has theology, Bach’s music in particular, shaped your theology?

Jason Duesing: Well, one of the pieces that was recommended to me early, it’s certainly highlighted in this book by Pelikan, I remember coming across, in other articles it being recommended, is Bach’s Mass in B Minor. It’s, of course, a beautiful piece to listen to, but even listening to it and understanding why he composed it the way he did, again, I’m not a musicologist or even really can even carry a tune, so I’m well in over my head in a lot of this discussion, but as a layman, if you will, working through this, it helped me to, as he’s crafting or composing this music to come alongside worship. I would say more than anything, it’s really helped in my doxology as much as my theology, in terms of shaping, stirring my heart and things like this.

[Music playing.]

Pelikan in the book, he even mentions it one time, he said that talking about Bach, the highest activity of the human spirit was the praise of God, that such praise involved the total activity of the spirit. For Bach, clearly his music was worship. It really helped me find another way in which to worship God through listening to some of these things.

[Music playing.]

Timothy George: Pelikan quotes a scholar named Jacob Spitta and I want to disagree with Spitta as he is quoted by Pelikan, saying that Bach’s work captures the bold spirit of native vigor which called the German Reformation into being. I don’t think that’s Pelikan speaking. He’s quoting Jacob Spitta there. When I think about the music of Bach, I would not say it’s the bold spirit of native vigor that called the German Reformation into being. If that were the case then we would be worshiping Thor and Wuotan, not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was the gospel that Luther recovered in the Reformation and that Bach gave such great musical setting to in his work. Of course there’s vigor, there’s dynamism in this music, but it’s something deeper than that. There is a content involved here. It’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t want to give a presentation of Bach that kind of sidelined that the way this scholar seems to do.

Jason Duesing: Yes. I couldn’t agree more. Pelikan, of course, doesn’t dwell there that much anyway as he stays somewhere else. He really moves on to even categorizing a lot of what Bach composes, especially even that Mass in B Minor is something he calls evangelical Catholicity. I think there, in that term, you get more to the root of this celebration of the gospel. Later in the book he does even go at lengths to define what he means by that term. He talks about it in terms of using the phrase the re-discovery of the gospel in the Reformation and the renewal of the church and things that follow the Reformation itself on into Bach’s own era.

[Music playing.]

Timothy George: You know, we could talk about our favorite Bach pieces probably longer than we have time to on the Beeson podcast, but I think his St. John’s Passion is just tremendous. You’ve mentioned the Mass in B Minor. That’s also, some say, the greatest piece of music in the world. Then there’s this wonderful Magnificat, the Christmas setting.

[Music playing.]

He was a Christmas and Easter kind of composer, just like Luther was a Christmas and Easter kind of theologian, I believe.

Jason Duesing: I agree completely. Among Bach devotees, I think there’s a greater number of us among theologians than perhaps we realize. Perhaps we should start our own sort of … I don’t know what you do these days. A Facebook group or something.

Timothy George: I could hear a new session of the Evangelical Theological Society being born right here on the Beeson podcast. Dr. Duesing has called for a new association of theologians who love Bach. Count me as member number two after you.

Jason Duesing: Among my friends that are this way, periodically going back to the Four Seasons throughout the year, we’ll sort of remind each other of what we’re listening to, trying to listen to some of these Bach compositions at the time of the liturgical calendar in which he wrote them. At Christmastime, listening to certain pieces, or Easter, and things like that. That’s another thing I recommend in terms of an annual participation and appreciation of Bach’s music, listening to them at the time of year he intended for them to be played.

Timothy George: You know, so much of this music is, as you were pointing out with your reference to the “Through the Night” program on BBC, it’s widely available. You can just go to YouTube and put in J.S. Bach and you’ll get hundreds of possibilities of varying quality, yes, in terms of the music, but powerful, powerful music that’s easily available to listen to as you work, as you were doing as a student, as you drive down the road, or whatever it is you’re doing, and you’re listening to this kind of music. It will shape your life. It’s not just entertainment. It’s formative in a significant way.

Jason Duesing: One question I wanted to ask you, if I could, was I was curious if you had a favorite cellist, one of those who, many of the cellists, it’s a rite of passage to perform the works of Bach, particularly the Cello Suites. I didn’t know if you had a particular favorite.
Timothy George: Yes, I do. That’s not a hard question. Yo-Yo Ma.

[Music playing.]

There are many other great ones, but I don’t know any greater than him who are living today. There are some in the past that might rank up there. I would say Yo-Yo Ma. What about yourself?

Jason Duesing: Well, I like Yo-Yo Ma, and again, I don’t know that I could honestly tell you the difference, but the one that I prefer to listen to is Mstislav Rostropovich.

Timothy George: Oh, wow. He’s a classic.

Jason Duesing: Yes. You know, Russian cellist.

[Music playing.]

It’s a little bit off track, but I think the reason why I’m drawn to him is you may have heard Rostropovich was tasked with playing, actually not Bach, but a piece by Dvorak, the Czech composer, in 1968 as a part of the BBC Proms. He was asked, this is a Russian cellist playing a Czech piece, and he was asked actually to play it on the day that the Russians were invading Prague. As the story goes, he’s playing this piece, and he plays it through tears almost the whole piece, crying, because of what’s happening between the two countries. I remember coming across that story and digging deeper, and realizing and seeing him playing all these Bach pieces. Any time I can hear Rostropovich play anything of Bach, you’ve got a ready listener.

Timothy George: And it shows how Bach touches us in the very depths of our experiences as human beings, as believers in Christ. You’re in a moment of national and even civilizational crisis, he’s being played and speaking into that.

[Music playing.]

Now, we’re almost out of time, Jason, but you bring this out in your article, that Bach routinely ended his musical compositions with two different abbreviations, two different sets of abbreviations. One, J.J., and the other, S.D.G. You often see these just written in abbreviations on Bach’s scores. J.J., S.D.G. Tell us what those letters stand for and what they mean.

Jason Duesing: This in particular was what really prompted me to see the listening of Bach as almost a devotional exercise, in that as Pelikan says, and there’s a few others that pick up on this as well, is that throughout Bach’s handwritten compositions, you’ll see that J.J. usually at the top of a piece, and then S.D.G. near the end. The J.J. stands for Jesus help, or “Jesu, juva”. He’d start each piece in a posture of submission before the Lord asking for the help of Christ Jesus, almost in the sense of John 15, apart from you I can do nothing. Then the piece is composed and played, and then at the end the S.D.G. is of course the famous, really imprint of the Reformation, “Soli Deo Gloria”, to the glory of God, and so alone. That piece sort of concludes his work. It’s this statement of whatever I’ve done here, as much as man may say this is brilliant, I’ve done it in submission to Christ, relying upon his help and anything that is good that comes from it is to God’s glory. I thought what a fitting exercise, even for thinking about our own lives and days, that we start each morning “Jesu, juva” and we end each day, “Soli Deo Gloria,” much like as Bach did with his own pieces.

Timothy George: Beautiful. Jesus help, to God alone be the glory. A prayer and a confession. That roots us right back into the great faith of the Reformation that we’re celebrating this year in 2017 in lots of different ways. One more question, and we’ve covered this, but I wonder if you want to add anything else. You’re speaking now to pastors, to students, to lay persons all across the world, really, that listen on this internet. What would you say to folks like this, in general, about Bach and his importance as a great musician of the Christian faith?

Jason Duesing: He, as I say, I think the primary importance for anyone who is not a regular listener to him is that it can be a very stretching and helpful exercise to increase your devotion to God and allow you to, as you’re listening, truly to worship and appreciate. Even on a greater level, you’re talking about, as you say at the beginning, one of the greatest composers and musical geniuses of all time. To see this great world renowned work of art done in service to God is truly an act of worship and something from which we can all benefit and grow from. Even if you were, or are, like I was, not really fond of music without words, perhaps starting with Bach and moving in a journey of greater appreciation of this great composer.

Timothy George: My guest today on the Beeson podcast has been Dr. Jason Duesing. He is the provost of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. A fine church historian, a scholar whose work has enriched our understanding of the Baptist tradition and the Christian tradition. Today we’ve been talking not about church history in general, but about Johann Sebastian Bach, the great composer who was born in 1685 and died in 1750. He music is living still. It can enrich your life. We’re going to listen to some of it right now. We’re going to listen to this chorale on “Ein feste Burg,” Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Thank you, Jason, for this wonderful conversation.

Jason Duesing: Thank you.

[Music playing.]

Announcer: You’ve been listening to the Beeson podcast with host Timothy George. You can subscribe to the Beeson podcast at our website, Beeson Divinity School is an interdenominational evangelical divinity school training men and women in the service of Jesus Christ. We pray that this podcast will aid and encourage your work, and we hope you will listen to each upcoming edition of the Beeson podcast.


Throw them Overboard: Why & How I Help Students Improve in Writing

The waters were all about me even to my throat,

the abyss encompassed me.

The seaweed was wrapped about my head

at the roots of the mountains.

I went down into the countries beneath the earth,

unto the peoples of the past.

But you raised up my life from the pit,

Yahweh, my God.

— J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of Jonah 2:6-7[1]

At some points in the semester, I am sure my students feel like Jonah.

Thrown overboard and weighed down by multiple writing assignments, they find themselves unsure how they are progressing at the graduate level and eager to find rescue from the end of the term lifeboat, though that, too, seems out of reach.

Yet, I am okay for them to feel this way–at points. The key, though, is that they not end there for there is a purpose to the time spent sinking in the depths of academic research and writing. Indeed, I aim to be the one to throw them overboard.

For my Baptist History course, students first write a 1,200 word critical book review on their choice of two volumes I presented to them at the start of the semester. The second writing assignment is a 10 page (minimum) theological biography research paper due at the end of the semester.[2]

While not connected in any way in terms of content or parameters, I have linked these two writing assignments in one specific way, namely, that the first serves the second in helping the student to gain skill in writing.

While the process may feel like “seaweed wrapped around their heads” the end result, if I do my job right, will be a overall improvement (and hopefully enjoyment, though not required) in the writing task for each student.

Why do I do this?

As I explain on the first day of class, one of the side effects of a journey with me as professor is that, whether one hopes for it or not, I use my courses to help improve writing skills. In the ministry assignments to which most of the students in my classes will go, the ability to communicate clearly their thoughts will prove crucial for their own efforts of building trust, strengthening relationships, resolving conflicts, organizing and casting visionary leadership, and, most importantly, communicating the gospel message well (Col 4:4). For those who find themselves set apart for the ministry of the Word in preaching, the ability to convey their message in written word only helps insure they will do even better verbally.

Further, as was the case with me, many seminary students come not having a strong liberal arts undergraduate experience. Many were called to the ministry while they were pursuing medicine, or engineering, or business, and the like. They have not written a paper or a book review since high school, if even then.

However, rather than lower expectations, I aim to raise the bar high and then design my course in such a way as to help the students reach that bar, if not exceed it, by the end of the semester. In order for this plan to work, the high expectations set for the multiple writing assignments play a key part.

Like I said, this approach is not at all what many students signed up for or even expect from a church history course, and truthfully, along the way, many may wonder why they did. But, as with all things worthwhile, this is a part of rigid preparation required for a marathon of ministry service.

Regularly, I try to remind students that the semester is 15 weeks long, and everything we do in the course serves an intentional and specific purpose, and that there are no wasted assignments or lectures. Thus, some things will not make sense and likely appreciation for the challenge will not come until the semester is over. And for, some, it will not come until years after.

While I seek to teach and shepherd students in a gracious and edifying way, I am not concerned with my current or week-to-week approval rating. Indeed, I hope that for some, they will not think about or appreciate some of what I am doing until six or seven years from now when they are serving with their young family on the streets of Moscow or in the wilderness of Africa–for that is when they will need it the most. [3]

I confess that while I do not want to be known as the hardest professor who teaches the toughest classes, I do want to be in that conversation simply because I want students, especially at the start of the semester, to feel like they cannot take any shortcuts when it comes to my class.

I intentionally start with these high expectations and then as the semester progresses and students are feeling stretched, regularly offer opportunities for grace (as well as a generous but intensive opportunity for extra credit). If I start with low demands that are too laid back, I can never ratchet up the demands to provide correction that will have any lasting effect. Now hopefully, I balance all of this with worthwhile lectures and interpersonal time and attention so that the students know I see my role as an investment in their life and ministry and one that I take equally as serious, if not more so, that what I am asking of them.

The truth is, I have had very few students fail my classes and if someone has done poorly usually it is because they simply failed to do the work or prepare for their quizzes and exams. So while many students, at times during the term, might feel their semester is over and hope for a high grade is lost, the reality is that is the furthest thing from the truth.

For them, in many ways, the semester is just beginning and as they persevere they find they are on their way to dry ground, raised from the pit, and seeing and learning anew the faithfulness of God.

Here are the specifics of how I use the two writing assignments in tandem to affect the class learning experience as a whole:

(1) A directed Book Review with clear expectations.

  • I select books I have read and know well and believe will substantially support and supplement the aims and goals of my lectures. Also, I assign books for which I want to read reviews. If the professor enjoys reading the assignment, the professor wins, and the students win as well. No one likes receiving a paper back from an unhappy professor.
  • I schedule the due date for the book review assignment during the first half of the semester to get the students writing early before their assignments are due for their other classes. Also, in order for the feedback from this assignment to be of any benefit to aid them in their final writing assignment, they need to get it back sooner rather than later.
  • The first assignment gets graded twice. In my larger classes, I use a graduate assistant to grade first all the reviews for style and grammar issues. Then I grade them for content and assign the final grades. This is a significant investment of time, but it is an investment that pays off immediately with regard to in-semester improvement in what the student produces in their final research paper.

(2) As a part of their final research paper, I require a preliminary Prospectus and Bibliography assignment.

  • This is a short assignment where the student, well in advance of the due date for the final paper, submits a paragraph summary of what they intend to write, including a draft thesis statement, along with a snapshot bibliography of their research at that point.
  • I tell the students that I require this assignment because I needed it required of me. Essentially, this forces the student to engage their paper at an early point in the semester and not at the last minute when resources are scarce and clear thinking is hard to find. Further, it allows me to provide immediate feedback and guide their research to ensure they get on the right track and read the right sources.

(3) A doable and hopefully intriguing research paper.

  • Much like the book reviews, I assign the type of research paper that I enjoy writing and reading. In my history classes, this typically is a “theological biography” paper of fixed length and prescribed structure.

By the time I am grading the final paper (like I am finishing this week), I begin to see enjoyable results. Regularly do students rise to the challenge and attempt to write the very best paper they have ever attempted in all their schooling, and it shows. Students who despised history are now spending time in deep research and reading.

Sound too good to be true? Well, this does not happen with every student, but it does regularly happen with many students. This transformation process alone is why the teaching the same courses semester after semester never grows old. The semester long journey with students overboard in the water and back to dry ground makes it new and rewarding, to the glory and praise of God.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Book of Jonah” in The Journal of Inkling Studies 4:2 (Oct 2014), 5-10.

[2] In addition, they read and are quizzed over 1,300 pages of reading and have a cumulative final exam, among other assignments.

[3] Certainly, there remains much room for improvement in my approach and planning. In the 12 years I have been teaching at this level, I have learned something new each semester and have made many adjustments along the way. Also, I am the product of hopefully the best of my professors. That said, all shortcomings and inconsistencies in my approach are alone certainly mine.

5 Crucial Terms to Know for the Task of Global Evangelism

Baseball has long been my sport of choice. In my school age years, I played other sports with friends in their yards or driveways, but only pursued baseball at a competitive level. As a result, it was not until college that I learned the rules of how to play basketball and football.

I can remember several weeks where my roommates and I were playing basketball and aside from knowing I needed to hustle and “get open,” I had no clue what was happening. My teammates would tell me to “run the court” or “block out” or “set a pick,” and I stumbled and faked my way along until I could learn how to play the game. I was eager to play hard and help my team to win, but I lacked an understanding of the terms for playing.

When it comes to considering the work and needs of missions, many of us would be helped to acknowledge that we need a greater understanding of the terms. We know the Great Commission, support and practice evangelism, and even advocate for the missionary task. Yet, often “missions” to us is like a game we enjoy watching but don’t know how to play.

So, during this time when many churches are focusing on their annual Global Missions giving, I present here some basic definitions of 5 crucial missiological terms. Some of these are elementary and well-known, but for the exercise of building a team where everyone knows the terms and how to play together, I hope you will find this review helpful.

1. Missionary. John Piper provides a helpful classification of two types of missionaries found in the Bible: the Timothy-type missionary and the Paul-type missionary. He explains, “We call Timothy a missionary because he left home (Lystra, Acts 16:1), joined a traveling team of missionaries, crossed cultures, and ended up overseeing the younger church in Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3) far from his homeland.”[1]

The Timothy-type missionary, however, stays on the mission field in the same location even after churches are started and established.

The Paul-type missionary “was driven by a passion to make God’s name known among all the unreached peoples of the world. He never stayed in a place long, once the church was established.”[2] The pursuit of traveling to places where there is no or little knowledge of Jesus Christ (Rom 15:20) distinguishes this type of missionary.

Whether they stay in one place or continue onward to other frontier areas, a missionary is one who crosses cultures to share the gospel.

2. Nations. The Bible records that nations were first created by God in response to the construction of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). Previously having one language, the people were dispersed throughout the earth with distinct languages. The nations, both the Jewish nation and all Gentile nations, continue as central entities in the plan of God to display His glory and work out salvation and judgment.

It was to the nation of Israel that God sent his son, Jesus Christ, as Messiah to “suffer and rise from the dead the third day, that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (Lk 24:47, emphasis mine). It is the commission of Christian churches (Mt 16:18) to continue the task of taking the message of God’s plan of salvation (Rom 10:14-15) to those nations who have not heard (Rom 15:21).

This message will be proclaimed by God’s children to the nations until the end of the world (Mt 24:14). At that time, the Messiah will return to the earth and all nations will submit to his rule and reign (Phil 2:10-11). People from every nation will worship him (Rev 7:9).[3]

Piper helps us again here by reminding that the task of missions is “not just reaching more and more people but more and more peoples—tribes, tongues, peoples, nations.”[4] When we understand this biblical definition of the nations (and the prescribed task to reach them) we are encouraged to know that the task of reaching all nations is finishable, for  “the task is finishable because while the number of individual people keeps growing and changing, the number of people groups (by and large) does not.”[5]

3. Reached and Unreached. In Romans 15:19, Paul says, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” In 15:23, he explains that he no longer has “any room for work in these regions.” What Paul is essentially saying is, “The furthest east I have ever been is Jerusalem, and the furthest west I have ever been is Illyricum. And everywhere in between—in all the places I have been—the ministry has been fulfilled.” He has fully preached the gospel of Christ.

The idea here is not that every person in that region, as big as it is, is now a Christian. We know that is not the case. But he is saying that all the people in this region now have access to the gospel. He has sown seeds, and churches have sprouted up, and there are preachers there who will continue the work so that everyone in this huge region now has access to the gospel. The gospel has been preached here, the ministry has been fulfilled, and it’s now self-sustaining. In our language today we would call this region “reached” and “no longer unreached.”[6]

In missions, most define a people group as reached when “there is an indigenous church able to evangelize the group.”[7] However, there is ongoing discussion about at what point an indigenous church is “able.” That is, what percentage of the population of the people group is needed eventually to achieve the status of reached? Missiologists Zane Pratt, David Sills, and Jeff Walters, in Introduction to Global Missions, follow the common classification of a people group being reached when evangelicals consists of more than 2% of the population.[8]

However, former missionary and fellow missiologist Robin Hadaway recently argued that setting the reached line at 2% is too low and hinders the healthy establishment of churches in a newly-reached area. He recommends raising the threshold back to 10-20%, and along with that, sending more missionaries to these areas previously thought of as reached.[9] While that is a fruitful and important discussion, there is agreement at least that people groups with less than 2% evangelicals are clearly “unreached.”[10]

4. The 10/40 Window. Unreached people groups exist in just about every country of the world, but they are most concentrated in what’s been called the 10/40 Window. Here’s a brief explanation of that term:

The 10/40 Window is an imaginary box that encloses an area of the globe from 10 degrees north of the equator to 40 degrees north of the equator, and from Northwest Africa to East Asia. Not only does this rectangle contain the majority of the world’s unreached lost; it is also home to three major religious blocs: Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism; as well as areas of greatest poverty. [11]

The 10/40 Window[12]

As this region represents such a high concentration of unreached peoples, churches and missionaries rightly focus on the 10/40 Window for preaching the gospel to “those who have never been told” of Jesus (Romans 15:21).

5. The Global South. In the later part of the 20th century, the largest populations of evangelicals around the world started from the historic West to shift South. The church is growing rapidly in Latin America, Africa, and Parts of Asia. “More Christians live there than in the United States, and they send out more missionaries than the United States and Western Europe.”[13] As a result, churches and missionaries in the 21st century are having to increasingly adjust their thinking of the West as “reached.”

Certainly, there are more evangelicals still in the West compared to the 10/40 Window, but the rise of nominal Christianity and the uncertain commitments of the children and grandchildren of evangelicals mean that one day soon, if not already, the churches of the Global South will have need to send missionaries to the West.

As we gather in our churches and families to pray for the ongoing global work of the Great Commission, I hope this refesher of these basic and crucial terms will aid you in this biblically designed team task of seeing the earth filled with “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14).

At this time of year, the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention are focusing on their annual Global Missions Offering called the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. [14] All gifts given toward this goal of $160 million go directly to missionaries serving on the field. Here is a helpful video and invitation from Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Seminary, about this offering.

This article is an adaptation of a portion of my chapter, “Pastor as Missionary,” that was my assignment in the new book edited by Jason K. Allen, Portraits of a Pastor (Moody Press, 2017). Here is more information about this new book:

Portraits of a Pastor: The 9 Essential Roles of a Church Leader

Jason K. Allen, General Editor
Moody Press, 2017.




[1] John Piper, Brothers. We Are Not Professionals (B&H, 2013), 223.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This paragraph is adapted from my forthcoming entry in the Worldview Study Bible (B&H, 2018).

[4] Piper, Brothers, 223.

[5] Ibid.

[6] This paragraph is adapted from Jason G. Duesing’s, “A Plea for Ambitious Evangelicals,” in Union University Pulpit, (2013): 43-51.

[7] Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! 3rd ed. (Baker, 2010), 217.

[8] Zane Pratt, M. David Sills, and Jeff K. Walters, Introduction to Global Missions (B&H, 2014), 27-30.

[9] Robin D. Hadaway, “A Course Correction in Missions: Rethinking the Two-Percent Threshold,” in SWJT 57:1 (Fall 2014).

[10] In fact, Pratt, Sills, and Walters, Introduction, 27-30, argue that for greatest accuracy, the term “unreached” needs further refinement into “unengaged unreached people groups” (UUPG) and “uncontacted unreached people groups” (UUUPG). The UUPGs are those groups with populations with less than 2% evangelicals and where no church planting has taken place among them for the last two years, and the UUUPGs are those groups hidden, hostile, or isolated with whom no contact has ever been made for gospel advance.

[11] Pratt, Sills, and Walters, Introduction, 30.

[12] The 10/40 Window, By Danthemankhan at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

[13] Pratt, Sills, and Walters, Introduction,, 32.

[14] See also David Brady’s helpful article on the history of the LCMO.

Content with Carrying the Pegs

And the appointed guard duty of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories; all the service connected with these; also the pillars around the court, with their bases and pegs [pins] and cords. (Numbers 3:36-37 ESV)

Focusing on the detailed description of this Levite clan, Andrew Bonar (1810-1892), pastor in Scotland, mentor of Robert Murray McCheyne, crafted a sermon titled, “The Pins of the Tabernacle.”

Therein, Bonar reflects on God’s design and plan for the designation of someone specific to carry the pins (or pegs) during the days of the Israelites wanderings. A potential source of discontent, Bonar sees where the sons of Merari might say, “Why do our brethren the Kohathites carry the Ark while we carry the pins?” Bonar’s response:

Because God said it; that is all. He that serves most is the greatest in the kingdom. He who carries the pins may get the greatest reward …. Do not say, ‘I want to get out of the rut into another place.’ If you get out of the rut of carrying pins when God put you there, you will not be blessed. Are we in the camp with God? That is the great thing.[1]

Decades earlier, another Scot, Claudius Buchanan (1766-1815), faithfully lived out the kind of service Bonar would describe. Though largely forgotten today, Buchanan was a friend of William Carey who carried the “Tabernacle pins” of missions advocacy among his contemporaries to the degree that historian Wilbert Shenk noted Buchanan’s influence in “playing the decisive role in opening India to Christian missions in the early years of the nineteenth century.”[2]

Through his memoirs, field reports, and sermon collections, Buchanan labored persistently to inspire others to the task of global evangelization. Yet, while he made a number of significant contributions in his own lifetime toward the expansion of the missionary task, it was a single sermon, an ordinary “Tabernacle pin,” if you will, that God used to direct the heart and mind of the pioneer American missionary, Adoniram Judson at a time when he needed a word from God the most.

After Judson’s dramatic conversion culminated in 1808 while at Andover Theological Seminary, Judson began to “reflect on the personal duty of devoting his life to the cause of missions.”[3] The idea of consecrating his life to go to the ends of the earth, though perhaps an abrupt concept for his family, was not a novel development in 1809 New England.

Jonathan Edwards’ Diary and Journal of David Brainerd appeared on the reading list for all students, and, in New England, especially among evangelicals, there existed a wide following of William Carey. Judson’s reading of Brainerd and awareness of Carey prepared him to respond to a sermon he read in September 1809 by Claudius Buchanan.

On February 26, 1809, Claudius Buchanan, preached the sermon The Star in the East, in Bristol, England on Matthew 2:2, “For we have seen His Star in the East, and are come to worship Him.”[4] In his biographical essay, Shenk relates that Buchanan, an Anglican priest and a chaplain in the East India Company, was first discipled by John Newton and later Charles Simeon while a student a Cambridge. Following Cambridge he served in India in the chaplaincy. There Buchanan met William Carey and soon his passion became missions and missionary strategy.[5]

While Buchanan and Carey’s tedious labor of Scripture translation could be compared to the carrying of “Tabernacle pins,” so also could Buchanan’s service as a publicist. Shenk tells of Buchanan’s persistence, often during times of ill health, of writing and finding ways of “stimulating others to write in support of the cause of missions.”[6] This started in journeys throughout India to gather research on the state of Christianity in various regions and concluded in the publication of his sermons upon his return to England. Buchanan would die at age 49 in 1815. One of his most widely read sermons was The Star in the East.

In The Star in the East, Buchanan took the account of Jesus’ birth and emphasized the uniqueness of the Gentile visitors, the wise men following a star, as “representatives of the whole heathen world.”[7] The star’s eastern location, Buchanan noted, is significant because “millions of the human race inhabit that portion of the globe.” Therefore, just as in the day of the arrival of God’s Son, the East once again was bearing witness to the Messiah, “not indeed by the shining of a Star, but by affording luminous evidence of the divine origin of the Christian Faith.”[8] Buchanan then proceeded to give evidence for the spread of Christianity in the East and the need for men to take the gospel to that region of the world.

A copy of The Star in the East appeared in the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazine in September 1809 just at the time of Judson’s missionary reflections. [9] The result of Buchanan’s influential sermon was a decision finally by Judson to break with home and country and set out with the gospel for Burma. Since that day, Judson has been held in memory for two centuries and Buchanan has been forgotten. Yet, Buchanan’s faithfulness to carry his Tabernacle pin served Judson and thousands more.

For most of us, our life and calling will be that of the Merari and Buchanan—contentedly carrying the pegs of the Tabernacle in historical obscurity while others carefully and prominently carry the “Ark of God.” For the shared task of world evangelization both are vital, and only in eternity will we see how God used us or even just one of our sermons. That we get to serve Him and walk with Him as we do is the greatest reward. For as Bonar reminds and teaches us the secret of contentment (Phil 4:11-12),

“Are we in the camp with God? That is the great thing.”


[1] Andrew Bonar, “The Pins of the Tabernacle,” in Marjory Bonar, ed., Reminisces of Andrew A. Bonar, D. D. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1895), 287-88.

[2] Wilbert R. Shenk, “The Legacy of Claudius Buchanan,” in IBMR (April 1994): 78.

[3] Francis Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, D.D. (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1853), 1:29.

[4] Claudius Buchanan, The Star in the East (New York, NY: Williams & Whiting, 1809). For further context for this and other of Buchanan’s sermons see Karen Chancey, “The Star in the East: The Controversy Over Christian Missions to India, 1805-1813,” in Historian (Spring 1998).

[5] Shenk, “The Legacy,” 78-79.

[6] Shenk, “The Legacy,” 80.

[7] Buchanan, The Star in the East, 4.

[8] Ibid., 5-6.

[9] See Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazine (Sept 1809): 202-206.

The Value of the Reformation Anabaptists

One man’s noise is another man’s symphony.

Indeed, the Anabaptists are more often thought of as clanging nuisances of history many have sought to mute or dismiss—sounds of history that are more noise than melody, more cacophony than symphony. In the years following Martin Luther’s first strides toward reformation, the sirens of the Anabaptists concussed in strident discord to Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformer’s idea of a Magisterial Reformation.

Often these and later Baptists were thus stamped with the label of Münster revolutionaries, a mischievous sect, who many solemnly swore were up to no good. Yet, as William Estep argued, “Anabaptism might well be, outside the Reformation itself, the most influential movement the sixteenth century spawned” for religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

G. H. Williams identified three groups of Anabaptists: revolutionary, contemplative, and evangelical—with the latter most theologically close to the Magisterial Reformers in terms of their doctrines of the sole authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone.

Herein, then, lies the value of the Reformation Anabaptists for contemporary Baptists. The Reformation Anabaptists show how one can hold gospel unity with the rest of the Protestants while pushing for further reformation in local church doctrine and practice.

>>Read the rest of “What do Reformation Anabaptists have to do with Contemporary Baptists?” published October 2, 2017 in the Texan.

Is this a dream? No, it’s worse … and better

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this (and all is mended)
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear.

–Puck’s Epilogue, A Midsummer’s Night Dream

It was only a dream.

This is how Shakespeare decided to reconcile the chaos he created in the wonderfully entertaining tale of a different kind of star-crossed lovers in A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

In his play, devious fairies deceive and manipulate a cast of would-be spouses causing confusion and mayhem—and the tumult is what makes this a comedy. Just when you think it cannot get any worse, it does. With so much upheaval, the reader wonders how, of if ever, restoration of order will occur.

In the end, order does come, but not through careful exposition or reconciliation, but rather through Shakespeare pressing a literary reset button—it was all just a dream.

In our day, as we watch as our culture disintegrates into what David Brooks calls, in Shakespearean fashion, weaponized buffoonery, we know that this tumult doesn’t come with any reset button. We may hope and wish that it is all just a dream, but it isn’t and that kind of hope is always misplaced.

Believers in Christ Jesus, however, need not ever wring our hands and wish to dream away reality. Instead of escaping, we are to engage, and not with louder rhetoric or weaponized trivialities, but rather with hope rooted in truth.

In the midst of the physical destruction of Jerusalem, centuries ago, the author of Lamentations rightly lamented with sorrow the turning upside down the city of the people of God.  Yet, at the core of his somber despair, he remembers what is true, and that ray of sunshine in the darkness makes all the difference.

Just before Lamentations gives us the hymn-worthy and life-giving words of the greatness of God’s faithfulness and the constancy of daily grace and mercy from Him (Lam 3:22-24), the author explains that his hope amid destruction exists because he remembers these things that are true about God:

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” (Lam 3:21)

God, then, as now, is and was the same (Heb 13:8). He does not change (Jam 1:17).

Yet, the same is true of humanity and the culture we inhabit. Without the intersection and intervention of God’s new mercies, both redemptive and restraining, we are desperately sick (Jer 17:9) and prone to wander and to war. The nations will always rage and plot (Ps 2). Yet, God still laughs—and we should too.

Into these days, Christians should speak truth. These are times for crafting and signing statements. These are days for determining what it means to stand first with brothers and sisters in Christ (Gal 6:10) and our culture of comforts second. As heirs of Carl F. H. Henry, our consciences should remain uneasy, and not content, as we carry out this confronting work.

Yet, even Henry, seventy years ago now, as he called evangelicals to lament the downgrade of society, he thought they should do so with a smile:

“The message for a decadent modern civilization must ring with the present tense. We must confront the world now with an ethics to make it tremble, and with a dynamic to give it hope.[i]

We live In dark and uncertain days, where Mr. Shakespeare’s literary reset button does not exist. Yes, the world is wrong-side up and our hearts naturally along with it. But, as we lament these things, we should also call this to mind: God has not changed and his mercies are still new every morning even as we await our Blessed Hope, the Lord Jesus, who gave himself to redeem us (Titus 2:13-14). Believer’s in Christ uniquely and always have this message to share.

So as we find ourselves asking, “Is all this a dream?” We need to smile more as we say “No, it is far worse … and better.”

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

[i] Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Wheaton: Crossway, [1947], 2003), 53-55.





Rich Mullins and the Gospel Preached to Abraham

September 19, 2017 marks the twentieth anniversary of the untimely death of one of the 20th century’s finest poets, Rich Mullins. As a college student, and new believer in Christ, the words to his songs helped personalize my faith and provide a guide for how to express my gratitude to God in worship, both corporate and private.

One example of how this poet helped me was where, in his song “Sometimes by Step,” he said,

Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit for me

I can remember thinking about those 15 words for an extended time and asking, “Is there a connection from Abraham to me?” And, even more, had God known about me long before I knew about Him and my need of Him? Following that, then, what about those throughout the earth who have not yet heard of Him?

As I would come to discover, these questions have glorious answers for, as in just one verse, the Bible declares,

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8 ESV)

Here, Paul explains that God has always had our salvation and the salvation of the nations in mind. From the beginning, he conveyed to Abraham his plan. In what is often called the centerpiece of the first five books of the Bible, God says to Abraham,

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3 ESV)

At the age of 75, Abraham obeyed God, and he and his wife left their country. After a period of travel and time, God met with Abraham, took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6 ESV)

After Abraham believed, God made a covenant with him promising that he would be “the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:3). Now, Paul tells us in Galatians 3:8 that in this event—Abraham looking to the stars—the gospel was preached to Abraham. Yet, we are still right to wrestle with this as we might think, “How is this possible, as the name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned?”

What, then, was the gospel preached to Abraham? In short, the gospel preached to Abraham was God’s promise to him that through Abraham and his offspring, all the nations would be blessed. Or, simply that Gentiles, non-Israelites, will be justified by faith.

In Romans 4, Paul explains that “the purpose was to make him the father of all who believe” and that “the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:11, 23-25).

The gospel has always had the doctrine of justification at its center. Reconciliation of sinful humanity to a holy God, and the removal of his just condemnation, is the core of gospel truth. Yet, to be gospel-centered is to recognize that the gospel was intended for Abraham in the Old Testament-past all the way to you and me in post-New Testament future.

Again, Paul explains that the gospel was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son” (Romans 1:2-3). Or, as Rich Mullins put it in that way that helped me,

Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit for me

Yet, Mullins’s words should drive us to see the larger point of Galatians 3:8 as well. Not only are we connected to Abraham by faith, we should remember that, as with Abraham, the gospel has always contained an intrinsic element of blessing the nations.[3]

Rich Mullins came to perform at our campus in Rudder Auditorium at Texas A&M University in 1996. and I am glad I saw him then, for he would die just a year later. More that that, though, I am grateful that his words remain and still prove helpful for pointing us to the Bible and then to God in worship. As we think about Mullins’ legacy and influence, may his words propel many to the nations, so those who have not heard the good news about Jesus Christ can join in praising God and worshiping him in thought and song too (Ps 67).



This article is an adaptation of a portion of my chapter, “Pastor as Missionary,” that was my assignment in the new book edited by Jason K. Allen, Portraits of a Pastor (Moody Press, 2017). My hope in my chapter is to make one thing clear: The pastor as missionary is the pastor centered on the gospel. The pastor as missionary is not another garment or tool or lens he wears or uses, but rather is the natural, healthy outworking of what it means to have a gospel-centered focus. To explain further what I mean by this, in the chapter I seek to answer these three questions:

  1. What does a pastor need to know about missions?
  2. Why should the pastor be a missionary?
  3. How can the pastor most faithfully be a missionary?

Here is more information about this new book:

Portraits of a Pastor: The 9 Essential Roles of a Church Leader

Jason K. Allen, General Editor
Moody Press, 2017.



Foreword – Thom S. Rainer
Introduction – Jason K. Allen
Pastor as Shepherd – Jared C. Wilson
Pastor as Husband and Father – Daniel L. Akin
Pastor as Preacher – Jason K. Allen
Pastor as Theologian – Owen D. Strachan
Pastor as Church Historian – Christian T. George
Pastor as Evangelist – John Mark Yeats
Pastor as Missionary – Jason G. Duesing
Pastor as Leader – Ronnie W. Floyd
Pastor as Man of God – Donald S. Whitney
Conclusion – Jason K. Allen

Thanks to Moody Press, you can read a complimentary copy of Jared C. Wilson’s chapter, “Pastor as Shepherd,” here.

[1] Rich Mullins and Beaker, “Sometimes By Step” (Edward Grant, Inc., 1991).

[3] Because of this, we can say that Muslims and Jews are not the true successors to Abraham. Salvation only comes through the One, namely Jesus, in whom this faith is placed and through whom we are justified. John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad!, 3rd ed. (Baker, 2010), 191-192, explains, “What we may conclude from the wording of Genesis 12:3 and its use in the New Testament is that God’s purpose for the world is that the blessing of Abraham, namely, the salvation achieved through Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham, would reach to all ethnic groups of the world. This would happen as people in each group put their faith in Christ and thus become ‘sons of Abraham’ (Gal 3:7) and heirs of the promise (Gal 3:29). This even of individual salvation as persons trust Christ will happen among ‘all the nations.’”




Why I Stopped Worrying About In Class Media Use

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.

⁃C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

In the 1980s, one of my television heroes was the debonair Alex P. Keaton. My admiration for APK centered not just for his quick wit and conservative politics, but mostly because he had a watch that was also a calculator. I don’t recall at what age I first acquired the same watch, but when I did I remember some anxiety about whether my teachers would allow me to wear it to school or in class–lest they think I was covertly doing pre-calculus on my wrist.

How to handle media use in the classroom has been a topic of discussion among educators at all levels for the better part of the last two decades, or more. And, when our culture entered an era of annual technological upgrades and the condensing of multiple devices into fewer things to carry, the collective academic fretting only increased.

When I first started teaching and was not much older than the students, I resisted the trend of allowing more and more devices and sought to control and limit all use of non-class-related technology by professorial fiat. However, some time ago, I changed my thinking and chose instead to embrace this brave new world and try my best to redeem it for constructive (or at least entertaining) purposes.

Usually a few times a year, in academic journals or other outlets, the discussion resumes with various studies drawing conclusions related to the effects of media use in the classroom. In 2013, the Journal of Media Educationreported the findings of the survey, “Digital Distractions in the Classroom: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes.” The conclusion: almost 92% of the 777 student respondents indicate that they have or do use a digital device during class for non-classroom related activities.

Since then, there have been thoughtful arguments for how to address these diversions, some that even go so far as making a case for banning laptops from the classroom. Depending the grade level and maturity of the students taught and the institutional mission and setting, I think there is some merit to these ideas, but in the end, I still think it comes down to the professor leading the class and what he or she does with the time and students before them.

The students I teach are adults in a seminary setting. Over the years, I have found it far more enjoyable and productive to treat them like adults and then expect them to act in like manner. Plus, given the fact that I have a propensity to serve as a cause, though unintentional, for campus-wide chatter (i.e. ask about the time I fainted in class and started quoting Ronald Reagan jokes), I find it easier to go along and enjoy whatever social media attention may come rather than build the reputation of “The Gloomy Professor.”

What I have found is that appropriate balance has settled to serve as the norm. Yes, there are always some students who sit in the back of a large class that are hard to reach and seek distraction whether paper or digital. But, overall, my current approach has led to more student engagement and even outside of class interaction. In some cases it has led to the recruitment of students who are considering my school as their virtual observation of in class banter or actual content has helped them see what life is really like on campus. Overall, I would say in my classes we have more fun and less actual distraction than one would think possible in the current technological climate.

Here is how I address the matter in my statement from my syllabus on “In Class Media Use”:

Computing devices are permitted during the lecture hour for the purpose of taking notes. Use of these devices to access the Internet, make telephone or video calls, text messaging, updating social network statuses, etc. is discouraged unless something really funny, historic, life changing, or unusual happens in class. If there is an emergency requiring the use of a cell phone, the student may take the call and leave the class, but out of respect for fellow classmates, not return until the break.

In short, as long as a living, breathing student with a mind ready to learn is present, laptops are welcome. Alex P. Keaton and his calculator watch, of course, are welcome too.


Why a National Denomination?

In my Baptist History classes, I am often asked whether denominations really are necessary.

Students, averse to what they perceive as staid institutionalism or red-tape bureaucracy, want to categorize denominations as a generational matter and thus look for something new for the present. These motives are not entirely uninformed or born from ignorance as there are plenty of generational traditions that every new generation discards. We’ve done it and so did our parents and grandparents.

However, in this case it is always a delight to inform students of the primary reason Baptists in this country ever saw the need to form a national denomination.

For at least a century, Baptist churches had cooperated locally and even regionally, but it took a truly unifying purpose to organize at the national level.

Baptists in the nineteenth century were burdened by something they called their “one sacred effort,” that is churches of all sizes cooperating together for the purpose of global missions.

And, I quickly argue, that is the number one reason why we should have, support, build and be proud of a national denomination today.

This question especially comes to mind at this time of year when the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention prepare to gather for their annual meeting. But, it is also relevant because this time of year marks  that start of the first Baptist denomination in America, the Triennial Convention, over 200 years ago.

Formed in May 1814, the Triennial Convention would serve as the forerunner to the Southern Baptist Convention that would originate, sadly, in 1845 over a disagreement among Baptists in the North and South over the tragic and evil practice of slavery–the ramifications of which the SBC is still feeling, but thankfully working though.

The early Baptists officially called their denomination “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America, for Foreign Missions” clearly not yet arriving at the penchant future denominations have for simple and repeatable acronyms. In fact, as this new Convention set out to meet once every three years, the more natural “Triennial Convention” rose as the agreed nomenclature instead of GMCBDUSAFM.

So, why did Baptists first form a national denomination? Here is the actual wording from the Triennial Convention’s first Constitution:

We the delegates from Missionary Societies, and other religious Bodies of the Baptist denomination, in various parts of the United States, met in Convention, in the City of Philadelphia, for the purpose of carrying into effect the benevolent Intentions of our Constituents, by organizing a plan for eliciting, combining, and directing the Energies of the whole Denomination in one sacred effort, for sending the glad tidings of Salvation to the Heathen, and to nations destitute of pure Gospel-light.

Simply put, this shared idea of marshaling the energies of churches “in one sacred effort” to take the Gospel of Christ to “nations destitute of pure Gospel-light” served as the primary motive for early American Baptists to organize and gather on a national level.

As Southern Baptists prepare to meet, some are sure to ask again, “Why a national denomination?” May this cooperative example of early Baptists in America remind that the Great Commission remains a good, right, and needed reason around which churches should still gather to do more together for the glory of God than we could ever do apart.

The Wittenberg Door of American Evangelical Missions

In the summer of 1806, several dedicated young men attending the Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, began to gather regularly to pray and read reports of the burgeoning work of Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and the new Baptist Missionary Society in England.

On one occasion, while meeting in a field adjacent to the college campus, the students, trapped by a thunderstorm, took shelter in a haystack. Haystacks in 1806 were not the manicured and tightly bound variety that are arranged neatly as viewed from the 21st century roadside.

Rather, these were the versions piled as high as a human could assemble with only a pitchfork and a sundown deadline. Thus, like a quickly assembled snow fort, the young men of Williams dove into and carved out a hay-lined shelter to continue their meeting. What they found, though, was far more rewarding than had they discovered a missing needle.

The “Haystack Prayer Meeting” resulted in the dedication of these young men to personal participation in the global missions task, and the ensuing years led to the entry of a formal American participation with the sending of Adoniram and Ann Judson along with several others to the East.

Herein, we can see a dotted line from 1806 to the present, for the Haystack Prayer event is, in many ways, the Wittenberg Door of American evangelicalism’s awakening to the need and universal call for all believers to support, organize, and send many for global gospel proclamation.

Famously, the Judsons would change from Congregationalists to Baptists en route to Burma, and through them and the aid of Luther Rice, the Baptist Board for Foreign Missions was formed. Now mobilized toward sending and supporting world evangelism, Baptists in America saw and had a need to form a national denomination, and did so in 1814, in what would become known as the Triennial Convention.

This is no small point for our denominationally averse age to miss: the reason why Baptist churches sought to cooperate at a national level, with all of its necessary machinery, politics, stresses and strains, was for the purpose of uniting to send the gospel to those who have never heard (Rom 15:21).

Three decades later, due to the tragedy of many Baptists in the South defending the practice of slavery, this national denomination divided in two, and the Southern Baptist Convention began and, eventually, also the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). But, even through tragedy, the connection to the Haystack remained.

Likewise, many other evangelical denominations can trace their entree into global mission advocacy back to that meeting in the fields behind Williams College, and that is what makes that location and that moment in 1806 so meaningful. For, in that sense, it is right to connect the sending today of any American evangelical missionary to those college students praying during a thunderstorm 211 years ago.

Recognizing the significance of that 1806 prayer meeting, later missions supporters dedicated in 1867 The Haystack Prayer Monument on the grounds of Williams College, where it still resides in the College’s Mission Park. [1]

And this week, the Midwestern New England Study Tour convened in Williamstown to see the monument and to reflect on the 1806 event and to consider the idea of the Haystack Prayer Meeting as the Wittenberg Door for Amercian Great Commission engagement.

This year we are rightly remembering the 500th anniversary of the actual Reformation events the door in Wittenberg helped to launch, events that would encourage the later formation of Williams College and many Protestant churches in New England.

Therefore, in the spirit of the Reformation’s gospel recovery, it is good and right also to consider the impact of a group of praying students, heirs of Wittenberg themselves, on the modern missions movement of global gospel proclamation.

Here we stand (and pray) with them.

Photo: Dr. Owen Strachan, Midwestern Seminary, speaks to Midwestern students at Williams College, May 22, 2017.

[1] The monument reads, “The Field is the World. The Birthplace of American Foreign Missions.” The selection of the phrase, “The Field is the World,” is an intriguing one, but not unique given the time and missionary context. Taken from Matthew 13:38 and the Lord Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Weeds, the correlation of the harvest field to the world appears first as merely background information, a description of the stage on which the parable would take place. However, as many would rightly note, the acknowledgement that the boundaries for the proclamation of the gospel are global is good and significant news for all dwellers in time and space distant from the land of Israel in the era of the New Testament. An example of how a missionary minded preacher interpreted and applied Matthew 13 in the mid-nineteenth century is Gardiner Spring (1785-1873), and his sermon “The Extent of the Missionary Enterprise” (1840).