As I discussed yesterday, my OBU education was vital preparation for graduate school--my success has been built upon the foundation that I learned at OBU. Through theological education at OBU and Princeton Theological Seminary I engaged two of the interrelated worlds that Jacob has been discussing this week, Baptist and Christian higher education. As I discovered my Baptist identity at OBU, I also discovered that the once-prominent Southern Baptist seminaries (Southwestern and Southern in particular) were overtaken by fundamentalists and no longer viable academic options. This led me to join a growing number of OBU graduates attending Princeton and building up OBU's reputation there. However, the path that OBU is taking now is leading to the loss of its prestige and academic vitality, a path that has already marginalized SBC seminaries to the periphery of the evangelical renaissance.
The other relationship that we have been discussing recently at Save OBU is between OBU and the wider Shawnee community. As Jacob has made clear, OBU's vitality is essential to Shawnee. While attending OBU, I served as a youth minister for three churches--one in northwest Oklahoma, the church of my youth in East Texas (there, I served as youth intern), and finally at University Baptist Church, on Kickapoo across from Thurmond Hall and the Wood Science Building. I served at UBC from April of 2005 (my junior year) to August of 2006 (when I left to attend graduate school). Since that time, I led an interdenominational worship team in Glacier National Park for two summers and worked with the Christian education and social justice ministries at Metro Baptist Church in Hell's Kitchen of New York City. Currently, I am continuing my ministry through teaching high school English and offering Christian education classes in the church where my wife serves as the associate pastor in Northwest Montana.
The question to ask is--one of the same questions that School of Christian Service asked in evaluating its graduates--how well did OBU prepare me for ministry? The short answer, of course, is very well.
One of my primary struggles as an undergraduate, both as a person and as a minister, was to integrate my faith and my learning.
This duality was evident in my choice of majors--philosophy and
biblical languages. I had a choice: I could either compartmentalize my
mind and attend OBU on weekdays and church on Sundays, or I could bring
my learning at OBU and my faith in God into a stronger equilibration.
This new alloy strengthened both my commitment to Christianity (and the
Baptist identity in particular) and God's truth as revealed through
philosophy, history, and the other liberal arts.
On a more practical level, OBU taught me to read and understand the Bible. While I had read from Genesis to Revelation before coming to Bison Hill, I did not understand it. I could recall the bare facts of the sacrifice of Jephthah's unnamed daughter or Job scraping himself with a potsherd, but I saw them as intriguing trivialities in biblical history. I could not place them within the history of Israel's faith or my own. Yet, quickly, I began to see as if for the first time the call to discipleship that Jesus makes in the gospel according to Mark. I explored the nature of Hebrew wisdom and learned to ask the same questions of myself that the texts demanded their communities wrestle with.
As a minister, I challenged myself to bring what I learned at OBU into the local congregations I was serving. My goal has been to emulate the great Baptist statesman E. Y. Mullins--to be a man of the books as well as of the people. These insights and
experiences of God immediately made their way into my ministry as I
attempted to integrate faith and learning.
Retention among college-age students is a critical challenge facing the church today. The issue is complex, but I believed then (as I do now) that a fundamental cause is that the church too often treats what happens in the classroom as unnecessary (or even hostile) to a relationship with God. Yet, OBU taught me that these separate spheres are in fact two aspects of a united whole, and my professors modeled this integration. So as a minister, I sought to model this for my students and my congregations. I worked to be open about the struggles of faith--refusing easy answers to the problems of biblical interpretation and philosophical inquiry. I strove to create spaces for fellow pilgrims to enter into an authentic, radically honest relationships with God while still guiding them through the wilderness of faith.
In short, I have aimed to offer them what OBU offered me--the genuine experience of our priesthood as believers.
Whether working with persons struggling with homelessness in Hell's Kitchen or middle and high schoolers in Shawnee, I can only offer so much. Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith. As a minister, OBU taught me to step out of the way while at the same time to encourage radically honest relationships with God, relationships that are built upon God's truth in the Bible and wherever else it be found. This is our common pilgrimage as Jesus' disciples.
A second question, then, must be asked: What does all this mean for the Shawnee community? The churches are an essential part of the city, and OBU supplies a number of the youth ministers and interns serving in Shawnee, Meeker, Tecumseh, McLoud and the surrounding area. Many are Baptist, and some are not. At UBC, in particular, the youth ministers before and after me were both current OBU students. OBU's preparation of its students for ministry profoundly affects the lives of middle and high school youth in Shawnee and the neighboring communities.
It should also be recognized that the OBU that I attended emphasized the need to engage the local community with love and generosity modeled on the ministry of Jesus. Rather than the withdrawal from the world both theologically and practically that is characteristic of fundamentalism, OBU integrated sociology, economic theory, and the gospel to advocate that Christians engage the world with love and justice. Certainly, Bison Hill has been rightly accused of being a bubble in a city and state struggling economically, but were it not for OBU, I would not have spent my time in Shawnee working with the homeless or area teens in need of friendship and community. Freedom from the BGCO's fundamentalist, escapist theology can only broaden OBU's engagement with the city.
Additionally, enrollment statistics on OBU's own website indicate that in the 2009-2010 academic year 61% of OBU's students came from 66 of the 77 counties in Oklahoma. With the encroachment of fundamentalism and the loss of academic respectability, it is difficult to predict how enrollment will respond. Yet, given OBU's role in launching the careers of highly regarded scholars from Oklahoma (several students from my class are pursuing a Ph.D. at universities leading their fields, including Cambridge and Notre Dame) as well as its excellent programs in nursing and music among others, it is becoming increasingly clear that the university's decline is a loss of opportunity for Oklahomans.
For years, OBU has provided an education par excellence--preparing well students such as myself for both graduate school and Christian ministry. In truth, it has taken me years to understand what I learned at OBU--what I am still learning. The university has been as vital to me as it is to the Shawnee community and Oklahoma.