Reflections on Bethany, Seminary, and Belonging
by Matt Miller, Associate Director of Young Adults
In June, I completed an 11-year journey through seminary. Finally. Some of you know this journey has been wandering, wild, up-and-down, and in every way slow and roundabout. Some of you also know how curiously right this journey has been for me. This is curious for a few reasons, but perhaps most importantly because, “seminary is where faith goes to die.” While this is not the universal experience of graduate theological education, it is far more common than you’d think. It is the dark underbelly of seminary that over years of focused thinking, studying, and writing about God—about Jesus Christ, the Church & her history, pneumatology & eschatology, and the Bible—actual faith dies.
Beliefs are hot-forged spearpoint-sharp, Scripture is squeezed into a travel-sized suitcase, ships of doctrine are commandeered…ancient languages are wrangled to the dirt like livestock, and all the questions are firmly answered. Creativity is sold to buy structure. Joy is exchanged for professional acumen. Mystery is cashed in for mastery.
In this, the sustenance of discipleship wastes away like that long-distance friendship. “We’ll catch up soon,” we say to the personal God who craves relationship with us, “but I’m just too busy this week and next.” Faith atrophies simultaneously with connection to the community of God.
And yet. Somehow, I have emerged from 11-years of near-constant exposure to the dangerous geography of seminary with a faith more dynamic and alive than it’s ever been. How? I am not special—I doubt, I double-down on sin, I get distracted, and the glittery things of the world catch my eye. My DNA holds no secret to a lively faith. My upbringing, too, is nothing special: I was raised in white Evangelical America through the 90’s and early 2000’s. So, what gives?
What gives over the last 11-years is you, Bethany. As the body of Christ, you have constantly been Christ to me these many years. You have been friends. Mentors. Teachers. Home groupies. Pastors. Remind-ers. You have been challengers. Inviters. Pushers. Seekers. Ego-checkers. Question-askers and answer-guardians, protecting me from the danger of heady & sophomoric certainty. You have metaphorically and literally fed me and housed me. You have been coaches and in many ways over many seasons, you have offered yourselves as teammates in a scrimmage: practicing, sharpening, correcting, and occasionally hip checking me into the right spot on the playfield of theology and ministry. In my particularity, you have met me with real belonging in this community. To that, I say thank you from the deepest corners of my heart.
And here’s the thing—this thank you is for more of our Bethany community than you might realize. To every one of you who have ever remembered my name, thank you for the dignity that confers. To those who invited Allison and I to a meal many moons ago, and out of which no ongoing relationship developed, thank you for the meaningful welcome those moments were. To those who have ever simply listened as I practiced the motions of ministry—BPYG’ers, young adults, Alpha—thank you for your acceptance of my unfinished-ness and rough edges. To those who have been unapologetically yourself, thank you for embodying the church as body, which constantly teaches the courageous and simple humility to be the part of the body I am meant to be without needing to be anything else. Big moments and small ones; they all matter, because belonging is an accumulated reality.
As the young adults at Bethany know well, I like questions and want to leave you with one here, but this question needs a little bit of preamble. The Church—and our church—lives or dies not on our specific theological convictions, but on whether we learn to belong to one another. The kind of belonging I mean is not one of formality (membership) nor theological assent (insert Pauline quote of your choice here). This belonging is one which is felt and lived. It is the textured, tactile, sometimes difficult, and occasionally effortless, embodied, experienced sort of belonging we know from sports teams, from seasons of rich home life, and from intense communal experiences of summer camp, undergrad, and military deployment. This kind of belonging is the accumulation of 10,000 tiny actions and moments that build into something titanic. This kind of belonging is, perhaps most importantly, one of inescapable mutuality in which givers receive and receivers give.
So, I want to ask: where is the whisper or nudge or intuition or sense from the Spirit inviting you to forge belonging at Bethany? What does it look like to act on that nudge? And what is holding you back?
Yours in imagining a future of belonging together, – Matt Miller