Two Ministers, One Mission (an interview with Rubel Shelly and John York)

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Mark A. Matson, interviewer

MARK A. MATSON: Rubel and John, in a nutshell, how would you describe the Family of God at Woodmont Hills?

RUBEL SHELLY: We use the name The Family of God at Woodmont Hills to reflect and to stimulate our seeing ourselves in a particular way: as a body of the people of God. We’re not a business, we’re not a corporation; we’re a family.

The Alcoholics Anonymous model offers a comparison. In AA you do not get membership by any virtue, by applying, or by being screened. There’s one requirement for membership in AA: you have to want to get sober. You don’t have to be sober, and you may have liquor on your breath at the first meeting you attend. Church ought to be much more like that and much less like a corporation or a club.

JOHN YORK: At many churches it is important to project yourself a certain way to find acceptance there. Our church makes no such demands or claims. It wants to be a place, I think genuinely a safe place, for any and all people with all of their stuff, whatever that stuff is.

Someone once told me Woodmont Hills is a place where you couldn’t just be normal anymore. And I began to puzzle over the definition of “normal.” Because what that really meant, I realized, is if you just want to go to a church someplace with your game face on and look like you have the perfect life, Woodmont Hills isn’t a very attractive place. Because we want and expect and offer the opportunity for full disclosure. This is the place you go to be honest with your life.

In your book, The Jesus Proposal, you actually propose a “relational” approach to church as opposed to an “institutional” approach to church. What is at issue?

YORK: I think one of the things at the heart of us being a relational church is we believe you start with the language of acceptance and what we hold in common, rather than starting with the language of differentiation and what’s not right. It is viewing Jesus himself as someone who leads with acceptance and that acceptance caused people to repent, rather than the call of repentance demanding that you change so that you can be accepted. I think that’s at the heart of much of what we try accomplish here.

SHELLY: The language of exclusion creates models in our minds where you decide who’s in and who’s out based on some list. We’re very anticreedal in churches of Christ and Christian churches, meaning we won’t publish that list; we are more insidious in that we have unpublished lists of what lets you be “in” or “out” of our local churches. That’s simply wrongheaded.

The church in the New Testament had a much greater diversity than most of our churches could allow today. And the only way that could happen was to include others by virtue of a movement toward Christ; we are encouraged to embrace everyone headed in the same direction.

What we’re trying to say in this church experience is that Christ is all-important, and while the other things are important, they are not the things that determine whether you can experience fellowship and affirmation. One of the things we argue in the book is that salvation is much less an event than a process; or perhaps more correctly, it is a series of events over time. You can’t number those and require they occur in a certain order. The diagram in the book about movement toward or away from the cross was a willingness to confess faith and love for Christ as really the criteria for fellowship and acclamation. It’s something we take very seriously.

We don’t have a formal membership role in this church. We talk about people joining the journey of this church, the spiritual pilgrimage of this church, at whatever point they are. And of God moving in at the pace he chooses to.

What I am hearing is a very Restorationist plea: “No creed but Christ.” Is that correct?

SHELLY: I think what we are doing here is more nearly the ideal of the early American Restoration Movement concept and experience than what I was born into. The church I was born to did not embrace “Christians only but not the only Christians.” I was explicitly taught that only those who were in the a cappella, amillennial, “x-y-z” fellowship that I was in were Christians.

When I began thinking my way through some of those ideas and was about to publish a book, I talked to my dad within weeks before he died and explained my ideas to him. And when I got through explaining it and asked his reaction, it was essentially this, almost verbatim: “When I was young, that’s what we always said, and I wondered why we quit saying it.”

So it’s not a new idea. It is the recapturing of an idea that really is foundational to American Restoration Movement ideas about “Christians, although not the only Christians.”

YORK: And I think we are being very true to what was going on in the early 19th century where everybody was leaving behind those names, and everybody was in search of just being Christian. And yet naming has a power of control to it. And so even in my lifetime, as we talked about being nondenominational or undenominational, we understood, “You don’t mess with a sign, you don’t mess with a name, and you don’t mess with the practices.” All of these were quite antithetic, it seems to me, from where we started 200 years ago.

And what excites me about the world in which we find ourselves now is that people are really tired of that differentiation stuff. And they want to discover again what holds us in common and find our identity in what holds us together, rather than what distinguishes us.

Tell me a little bit about how this relational idea actually works in your ministry at Woodmont Hills. How do you see your roles as ministers, as preachers?

SHELLY: I see our teaching model principally encouraging people to think for themselves, not to try to guarantee the conclusions. We do try to give people the clear idea of how Scripture functions, that Scripture stands as a corpus pointing to a person, rather than standing as the end product of what that person has told us. And that’s a fundamental paradigm shift for doing church. It does move you out of the institutional and distinctional and exclusional mode, and into the relational and inclusional mode. So we sometimes in our dialogue preaching will deliberately choose to highlight in a given text a point that we interpret differently in order to model to people that if you think differently from the received interpretations of things you do not get excluded or drummed out.

YORK: We probably should speak about how it was received when it was announced that I would start sharing the preaching, because people expect in church settings that the lead guy be the lead guy. And so when Rubel said, “Somebody else is going to be preaching alongside me here, we’re going to divide the services up, and sometimes we’ll do dialogues,” you might imagine the reactions. “Well, what service are you preaching Rubel? That’s who I came here for.”

And so Rubel designed a pretty devious plan actually, which was that we will never announce who’s preaching what service. You will choose the time that you want to come; you will not choose the person you want to listen to.

SHELLY: The precedent was that the gospel would be preached at every service, but the messenger will vary in a random fashion.

YORK: It’s been very healthy for the church in general, because people have just come to expect that they will hear preaching on Sunday. People will come up after Rubel or I have preached a given service and they’ll say, “Is the other one preaching the next service? We’d like to hear what he says too.”

SHELLY: Our intention was to not have a church of John and a church of Rubel. It was going to be Christ’s community within which we would play roles as thinkers and teachers and stimuli to others’ thinking, but not build on personalities.

One of the striking things about your worship service is your dialogue sermon you’ve already mentioned. Could you talk about what you do in these occasional dialogue sermons, how you go about preparing them, and why you do them?

SHELLY: It is much harder than preaching individually. We have to start earlier in the week, and we have to swap those manuscripts back and forth. Somebody has to write first and leave some open spaces and then go back, and so it’s much more work to do it that way.

So why in the world do it that way if it requires more of you? Part of it is what we’ve already mentioned. We want to model several things: Number one, that this pulpit doesn’t belong to any one person. It is a place where Christ will be preached. The focus of the pulpit is Christ, not the messenger.

Number two, we deliberately model the friendship, fellowship, and partnership we have as brothers. We therefore focus, not every time we do a dialogue but we focus occasionally, on the fact that in preaching a given text, he reads that text a little differently than I read it, or coming out of that text he might see this and I might see something different. And rather than being threatened by that, we say, “My, doesn’t that affirm the richness and the depth of Scripture?” We very seldom actually say that, but we believe people pick up on the idea.

It’s just part of a larger attempt to model to the church how Christianity is relationship before it is shared understandings and exegetical things. And besides all this, dialogue sermons are different, fresh.

YORK: Part of it is actually recapturing something that’s very biblical, which says this is a give-and-take. So, if we believe that faith and spiritual development and all that is a conversation, not a monologue, then there’s a real important moment going on up here in which the congregation is invited into the conversation with us. I think that really does change the dynamic for a lot of people.



Mark A. Matson is vice president for academic affairs and dean of Milligan College in Tennessee.

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