A conversation with Dr. Gordon T. Smith – President of Ambrose University & Seminary
by Peter Biggs
During my research on an article on Worship, some Pastors spoke of their dissatisfaction with the Evangelical ‘liturgy’. Smith’s recent book Evangelical, Sacramental and Pentecostal (Intervarsity Press) is timely. It describes clearly the different approaches to worship. He longs to see these three traditions unite together, and calls for an integration of the three traditions in one faith.
What is your general impression of how the church needs to be responding to our current culture?
First, the whole point of Evangelical, Sacramental and Pentecostal is to stress how vital it is that we learn from one another and not presume that within our own camp we have all the wisdom and grace we need to navigate the complex world of rising secularism. This posture of learning – and humility – also means that we will need to learn how to seek common cause with Christian believers from other theological and spiritual traditions. In our case here at Ambrose University, for example, I am very pleased that we have been able to establish a strong rapport with the local Roman Catholic community. We have our differences, of course; but we have a shared commitment to the ancient truths of the Creeds, and we share common concerns on a whole range of spiritual and ethical issues that directly impact our city and our country.
Second, it is also likely the case that in a secular society we can expect to experience various forms or expression of persecution. However, as 1 Peter stresses, let’s be wise on this and genuinely suffer for the gospel, not for the lack of political or diplomatic skill. We need to be discerning when it comes to which battles we fight and where and when it is more appropriate to not be in constant battle mode.
How is the seminary preparing future Pastors and leaders for the main challenges?
My observation is that in our increasingly secular society there are at least three skills or competencies that need to be cultivated in and with our students – whom we view, of course, to be future leaders of the church in our country and beyond our shores. These are:
1. Preaching for Monday morning. Meaning, of course, that it is not about preaching so that our church grows – getting people into the church – but rather preaching that is focused on equipping and empowering women and men for their service in the world – in business, the arts, education and, indeed, in every sphere and sector of society.
2. Peace-making. A secular society has no real focus or centre; and thus it should not surprise us that the society is marked by very significant levels of conflict. And surely, if we are going to give leadership to the church at such a time as this, the capacity to be an instrument of peace is rather crucial. We need people who are skilled in managing conflict constructively – skilled in conflict resolution and addressing how we can be less polarized within our society. This means, of course, that we need to learn how to address conflict in the church.
3. And third, political savvy. When I was a pastor back in the 1970s, we had little if any civic involvement. But pastors today need political skills – the capacity to engage the social and civic leaders – developing connections, cultivating political capital, advocating for essential causes but all, of course, not in a mind-set of a battle against our culture but as people who are seeking the peace of the city [to use the language of Jeremiah 29].
It is for this reason that I think we need to re-read 1 Peter, which is a New Testament book written to the church “in exile” – well, actually, a diaspora community, and thus one that might be an example to us of what it means to be a minority presence in a culture and society.
Your recent book addresses different worship traditions. It seems your concern is that each actually de-emphasizes either preaching, the sacraments or the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Yes that is true. Take preaching… even the pulpit in some churches has disappeared to be replaced by a coffee table and stool. The ‘preacher’ will have a friendly ‘chat’ with the congregation. This is fine, but only to a point; it is crucial that we not lose sight of the power of the presence of the word, the scriptures, as the authoritative guide and text for the community of faith and that as a church we are formed and re-formed by the word which challenges, encourages and admonishes us.