A New Book from Duke’s Doctorate of Ministry Program

Some of my most rewarding teaching experiences have been in the Duke Doctor of Ministry program.  This summer I took over as Director of the program.  I’m excited about this opportunity to lead what has become one of best Doctor of Ministry programs in the country.

A remarkable aspect of the Duke program is how many of our students have successfully published books from the theses which they wrote as part of the Doctor of Ministry work.

This month, Jeff Seaton, a United Church of Canada pastor, published his book, Who’s Minding the Story?  I advised Jeff as he wrote his thesis and knew that it would become a much-discussed contribution to the conversation over liberal church decline in North America.

I wrote the foreword to Who’s Minding the Story?  Here’s an excerpt from what I had to say as an invitation into this remarkable work of contemporary theology and ecclesiology:

Some years ago I participated in an extensive sociological study of trends in mainline Protestantism in the U. S.  We were just beginning to notice that liberal, mainline Protestantism was in trouble.  The only specific insight that I remember from the study was theological: mainline, liberal, American Christianity is in trouble because our clergy have given people a theological rationale for godlessness.  This theological critique came from sociologists!

While we were sleeping, without intending to do so, we gave people the intellectual ammunition they needed to steer clear of the church and its claims in order to descend more deeply into their subjective selves.  Personal experience with a wide array of churches in the intervening years has confirmed the validity of this thesis.  Liberal Christianity in North America is in freefall for lots of reasons – low birthrates, a graying membership, our churches stuck in areas of declining population, we failed to reach the waves of new arrivals from other cultures, and a host of sociological, anthropological factors.  However, a more important element in our demise may be theological.

We failed to keep our eye on the ball, to keep the main thing, the main thing, to take care of business, to mind the store.  I could pile on a few more tropes, but I’ll let Jeff Seaton put forth the most apt metaphor: Who’s Minding the Story?

The disestablishment and disenfranchisement of liberal, Protestant Christianity has been more apparent in Canadian churches than in churches I have served south of the border.  For us Americans, the Canadian Christian situation is not only disturbing but also an important warning.  

Jeff has given us a straight-talking, revealing book that puts its finger on our wound – our flaccid, vague Christology has robbed liberal Christianity of anything to say to the world that the world cannot obtain more easily without all the baggage incurred by claiming that a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly is the truth about God.  Thousands of Canadians seem to be saying, “If it’s not about Jesus, why bother?”

Building upon the thought of fellow Canadian Charles Taylor, Jeff illuminates our situation.  e are paying dearly for our intellectual mistakes.  Democratic, subjective, vague Liberalism has proven to be an inadequate means of thinking about the thick, demanding, odd story that is the gospel of Christ.

Jeff demonstrates how the oddness and peculiarity of the Christian story does not easily translate into the stories that the world tells itself.  Little about the gospel is innate or available to modern people without the substance and agency of Christ.    

I hasten to add that Jeff’s is a very helpful, hopeful book.  Jeff is not only a seasoned pastor who writes from the trenches but also a member of a new generation who sees the intellectual, theological challenges ahead of us in a way that is different from us old guys.  

Reading Jeff’s book gave me hope for the future and a provided a way of recommitting myself to the distinctive, odd, wonderful story of Jesus Christ, reconciling God’s world to God.

–Will Willimon

Let me hear from you if you are thinking about applying to the Duke Doctorate of Ministry at will@duke.edu

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