Mercer University, McAfee School of Theology

A Disrupting Word: Preaching a Theology of "God as Event" to Engage Theological Reflection

The project outlined in this thesis examined the role of preaching in engaging members of an established, traditional congregation by using the narrative, inductive style of the New Homiletic, with the theological lens of John Caputo’s “God as Event.” This project took place over five weeks at the First Baptist Church of Williams, with the primary goals of examining how members of the congregation hear theology in sermons, use what they hear to articulate their own theological beliefs, and how discussing such theology leads to the identification of an emerging, local theology.

Eight members of Williams volunteered to participate in five focus group sessions which met the afternoon of each Sunday when the sermons were preached. During these sessions I served as a participant-observer, keeping the focus group sessions on track with guiding questions, while recording each session for data analysis. The data collected was analyzed in order to examine how the project met the three goals described.

The data demonstrated how members of the congregation had heard the theology present in the sermons, often repeating words, phrases, and specific theological ideas directly from the sermon. The data demonstrated how participants borrowed this language to describe their own beliefs, while also reflecting critically on the theological ideas presented in the sermons. Furthermore, it showed how these eight members began to identify a local theology in the congregation and surrounding community and how they might critically engage with this emerging, local theology.

There is the potential for further study concerning the role of preaching in shaping theology in the postmodern, post-Christian era. There is also potential for studying how preaching may make space for deconstruction within the confines of a traditional congregation. This project presents the possibility for wider conversations concerning preaching’s role in the theological development of the postmodern Church.

Seeing Our Way to God: An Exploration of How Baptists Utilize Prayer Drawing as a Contemplative Practice

If listening to God and abiding in God’s presence are the primary ways in which people perceive the will of God, cultivate self-awareness, and transform culture, how might our churches create opportunities to engage with God in meaningful ways? In the specific context of a Baptist congregation in Anderson, South Carolina, this research project introduced prayer drawing as a contemplative practice. The structure of the prayer time invited participants to encounter God through drawing and coloring in an open-ended and receptive way.

Each of four forty-five minute sessions utilized a schedule that (1) gave a theological and historical background for contemplative practice and the use of art in the church, (2) gave instruction on the practice of prayer drawing, (3) set a meditative tone, (4) allowed time for the practice itself (about 17 minutes), and (5) allowed time for detailed responses to reflection questions. The primary research instrument was a questionnaire that sought to ascertain the following: (1) to what degree is prayer drawing a new practice to Baptist participants and to what degree was the practice helpful, (2) in what ways did this prayer operate as a contemplative practice, (3) to what degree did this prayer modality assist in facilitating a connection with God, and what was the resultant communication, (4) in what ways did prayer drawing operate as a vehicle for God’s grace in moving participants beyond the self to glimpse a more truthful and deeper reality. The researcher compared the resulting data to themes found in literature about contemplative prayer.

The data revealed an increased sensitivity and awareness of God’s movement and presence, and also indicated participants prayed in ways that were worshipful, grace-filled, transformative, and transcendent. Implications for further research include using a different population sample, artistic media, and a closed-covenant group, among others.

Increasing the Understanding of Grief and Addressing the Needs of the Grieving in Ministry

Two of my worlds began to collide and I realized potentially unmet needs existed in the church. I have served as an ordained pastor in this community for the past fifteen years. Through the funeral home, I serve as grief counselor. While assisting families in the latter capacity, it became apparent that many churches in the community did not provide care for the grieving beyond the funeral. With this information, this project was created.

To reach the greatest number of people at Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, the project began with a four-week sermon series. The series was designed to expose the congregation to the concepts of grief, how grief was expressed in the Bible, and the church’s responsibility to the grieving.
On each Wednesday night following the Sunday morning sermon, the congregation was invited to ask questions or request clarification of the concepts presented in the sermon. This also allowed me to provide additional information about the scripture. At the conclusion of the series, they were given the opportunity to take part in a six-week focus group. The group would explore the topics further as well as identify any needs that may exist in Trinity’s approach to the grieving.

The focus group met for six consecutive Sunday afternoons. They spent two weeks exploring the topics further. The following two weeks enabled participants to tell their story about grief and the support they did or did not receive. The final two weeks were spent uncovering ways that Trinity could provide additional support to the grieving. During this final two weeks, the group came up with two solid conclusions. Trinity could provide a monthly grief support group and could enhance the grief support through an existing committee at the church. There are other solutions that can be implemented in the coming years.

Need for Transitional Guidance and Training for New Pastors in the CME Church

The biblical foundation of this project stems from the notion and belief that Jesus operated in a manner that resembled an itinerant minister. I contend that pastors and the church are best served if the incoming first-year pastor has received some measure of significant transitional guidance and training prior to their appointment. Some denominations prepare their pastors accordingly and implement requirements that allow them to acquire guidance and training that will help them in their transition. My project is seen from the lens of the United Methodist Church which provides a short transitional period for pastors and churches to come together to confirm if the “new marriage” is a fit for both pastor and church. The purpose of this project is to capture first-year experiences and stories of pastors in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) to identify common ideologies that there is a need for significant guidance and substantial training prior to their appointment. Perhaps some other ideas and suggestions may arise from this study.
My methodology entails qualitative research in the form of a survey that was used to gather data on the views of new pastors in the CME Church. United Methodist provides resources of information to their pastors to help facilitate their transition process before they take ownership of a new appointment. My mission is to build upon their transition process which includes appointing a transition team to the pastor.
This project revealed there is a need for more substantial training and guidance for first-year pastors in the CME Church. Although 93% felt they transitioned into the role well, their responses reveal they lack certain skills or expertise in certain areas that may have helped with the transition.

Housing as if People Matter: Analyzing the Impact of Interpersonal Interaction and Increased Familiarity on Housing-Related Decision-Making in the Old West End Neighborhood of Danville, Virginia

This project explores the degree that a deeper level of familiarity between diverse persons has an impact on the way they think about housing-related priorities and factors. More specifically, it analyzes how both insiders and outsiders to a particular neighborhood (the Old West End in Danville, Virginia) think about housing in the context of a particular neighborhood both before and after getting to know each other over the course of a series of meals.
In establishing its context and ideological foundation, this project considers the history of housing policy in the United States in light of the work of E. F. Schumacher and John M. Perkins. By applying both Schumacher’s person-focused economic principles and Perkins’ philosophy of community development as a lens through which to consider housing-related decision-making, the project explores a philosophy of housing-related decision-making that is both person-focused and rooted in Jewish and Christian scripture and theology.
This project uses two instruments to gather data before and after a set of meals including both free and guided conversation. The first asks participants to rank a set of fourteen housing-related decision-making factors from most important to least important. The second is an interview including questions designed to gather each participant’s latent and manifest values related to housing as well as what they perceive to be the assets and challenges of the neighborhood. Administering the same instruments before and after the meals and conversations produced data about how priorities, values, perceived assets, and perceived challenges converged and diverged among participants from before to after the meals.
The data demonstrates that interpersonal contact and increased familiarity produce some convergence of opinion on matters discussed at some length during the meals as well as producing an overall increase in participant confidence as to the relative importance of some housing-related decision-making factors.

Approaching the Tomb: How Scriptural Reflection and Hospice Education Influence the Church's Conversations about Death and Dying

First United Methodist Church of West Point, Mississippi, is a multigenerational congregation experiencing growth in membership. Much of the church’s energy goes into activities for those able to come to the church building. The problem that has developed is that the homebound members and those who are nearing death are at risk of feeling isolated from the community of faith. The project developed as a way to identify what might cause church members to shy away from one another’s deathbeds.

The goal of the project was to provide space in the local church for conversations on dying, death, and resurrection. The project measured the effects of Bible study and hospice education on the church’s ability to talk about death and dying. The intention was to help members of the local church articulate and reflect on which components of the end of life of their loved ones evoked discomfort and unease.

The seven-week project consisted of a group interview in the first session, three sessions of Bible study on John 11:17-44, two sessions of hospice education, and a group interview in the final session. The project’s methodology involved qualitative research with data collection from group interviews and discussion. Data came from the two group interviews. The type of analysis used was phenomenological inquiry.

The results of the project suggested that lack of medical information about the end of life and a lack of theological reflection about death in the local church contribute to people’s fears of talking about death and dying. There was concern expressed in the group about the suffering of the human body as death nears. Developing trust and relationships, especially through storytelling, helped enable conversations in the context of a small group.

Missional Relationships: Using Preaching and Small Group Reflection as a Mechanism to Expand Missional Theology and Build Mutually Beneficial Relationships in the First Baptist Church of Orangeburg, South Carolina

The congregants of First Baptist Church, Orangeburg, South Carolina, are like many in churches across the United States. While they believe in the importance of local mission efforts, they view their work primarily as charity to a different group in their com-munity. For more robust and effective efforts, however, the minister must encourage his or her congregation to develop relationships with those they serve. This project explores the importance of relationships in mission. The goal was for those who volunteer in the soup kitchen to develop mutually beneficial relationships with those they serve, to understand their efforts as more than just charity, and to view their efforts as ministering with people in their own community rather than ministering to people in a different community.

This project is a qualitative study that combines interviews, small group reflection sessions, and sermons to expand the congregation’s view of the importance of relationships in mission. Interviews were held before and after the sermon series with church member volunteers. Group interviews were also held with non-member clients. In addition to inter-views, small group sessions with corresponding activities were held following the sermons for volunteers. Finally, after all the interviews and sessions, preliminary results were shared with volunteers.

Participant responses indicate that they do understand the importance of relation-ships in mission. Participants also indicate that they view their efforts as more than charity and that they appreciate the need to empower those they serve if they hope to serve along-side them. Further study is needed to see how these changes to empower clients are implemented and how it affects the health and vitality of the ministry.

From Disorientation to Reorientation: Introducing Theological Worlds to Enhance the Sense of Spiritual Support among Selected Students at Landmark Christian School

Adolescence is often a time of disruption in teenager’s lives. For many Christian teenagers, this disruption affects their faith, creating a period of disorientation. Previously, these young people assumed the faith of their parents, but adolescence opens the door to rethink and reassess those commitments. Unless they sense a personal, vital connection to their faith, they will likely move away from it in the future. This study introduced a group of twelfth-grade students at Landmark Christian School to W. Paul Jones’ concept of Theological Worlds. The researcher expected to learn what difference it makes for Christian adolescents who are experiencing a time of transition in their religious lives to consider which Theological Worlds they and others inhabit. The students were selected based upon their designation as “Transitional” by the Spiritual Experience Index – Revised (SEI-R). The project consisted of six weekly meetings with the group of thirteen participants. During each forty-five-minute meeting, different aspects of each Theological World were introduced through scripture, songs, and videos. Participants then recorded their reflections about what they had seen and heard. After finishing the six meetings, participants completed the SEI-R again to measure if any difference was made. Eleven out of the thirteen indicated an increased sense of support related to their faith. The average sense of support among the entire group had risen by almost nine percent. Follow-up interviews with the participants confirmed the accuracy of the data and brought further clarity to the factors that contributed to the increased scores. Among those factors was the sense that they were not alone in the ways they experience and express their faith. This thesis concludes by suggesting several ways that these findings can be applied both at and beyond Landmark Christian School to help adolescents move from disorientation to reorientation around the topic of faith.

Learning to Dialogue and Discern: Conversations that Matter in the Local Church

“How now shall we live?” “What is right under these circumstances?” “What has character and morality to do with decision-making and ethical living for Christians?” These questions and many more feel harder and harder to address in a culture so politicized and polarized that the very consideration of ethical conversation evokes considerable anxiety in individuals and communities. Learning how to navigate the dual enterprises of exploring politicized moral issues in a church community setting and fundamentally changing how a group dialogues requires deep examination of Christian morality, the ethical methodologies to assess it and make moral recommendations in group settings, and the group dynamics and dialogue / discernment models.

With the deep social and political divide in the United States today, politically diverse churches like River Road Church, Baptist in Richmond, Virginia have often become silent on issues of moral importance that have become politicized, or have even split along secular political party lines, instead of seeking to find a Christian response to contemporary political and social issues through productive dialogue. This project sought to create a covenantal ethical discerning dialogue that produces a way of having a productive dialogue within church leadership that is theologically rich, intellectually serious, genuinely illuminating about moral issues, and that leaves the community intact. Ultimately, the project results seemed to indicate that such a model for discerning dialogue was necessary and helpful for church leaders, while also providing some insight to needed changes to the dialogue process.


Too often churches select and nominate individuals to serve in the sacred call of a deacon based on an old model rather than a discernment process. Under the old model, committee members randomly select potential deacon nominees and immediately contact them about having their names placed into nomination. The following project thesis introduces the First Baptist Nominations and Lay Leadership Committee to a corporate discernment process that allows space for the movement of the Holy Spirit in the scared call of a deacon.

The research methodology used in the project thesis involved the researcher being engaged as a participant observer. The researcher also used a combination of participation, observation, and interpretation of data collected from interviews as the primary qualitative research method. The researcher, working with the Nominations and Lay Leadership Committee, compared the answers to pre- and post-research questions after introducing the committee to the First Baptist Corporate Discernment Process.

Through the introduction of the First Baptist Corporate Discernment Process, members of the Nominations and Lay Leadership Committee discovered a new way of xii selecting and nominating individuals to serve in the sacred call of a deacon. Members of the committee stated that the introduction of the corporate discernment process gave the committee the tools necessary to find spiritual consensus during the deacon selection and nomination process. The corporate discernment process also provided the space needed for the movement of the Holy Spirit as the committee sought spiritual consensus during the deacon selection and nomination process.

Opportunities for additional study include the use of the corporate discernment process with other committees and boards of First Baptist. Further study also includes introducing the process to the diaconate. Additional opportunities include introducing the process to other Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches in South Carolina as well as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
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