In an age when the weight of science is held in the balance and the natural order is often held in conflict with biblical belief, the church needs both a robust doctrine of creation and the tools necessary to navigate toward sympathetic conversations. This is the goal of the Henry Center’s Stott Award for Pastoral Engagement, a $15,000 congregational grant that provides the opportunity for churches to grow in their understanding, teaching, and proclamation of the Christian doctrine of creation.
Many thoughtful pastors are understandably reluctant to engage the doctrine of creation in their congregations, especially in conversation with the sciences. Through careful organization, active involvement, pastoral networking, and financial resourcing, the Stott Award supports pastors and congregations willing to venture into this potentially divisive territory for the good of the church.
After our mid-year consultation, we sat down with Matt O’Reilly, lead pastor at Hope Hull United Methodist Church, a recipient of one of six awards, to learn about his interest in the award and its influence, both in this congregation and the surrounding community. These are excerpts from that conversation.
What about the Stott Award grabbed your attention?
Before I arrived at Hope Hull UMC a number of the laity had expressed interest in how the Bible relates to science, particularly with questions about origins, evolution, and creation narratives. Some of the lay leaders had led a fairly well-attended Bible study that looked at some of those questions. We saw the Stott award as an opportunity to take the next step in understanding the relationship between science and faith, going deeper with those questions.
What big questions are your congregation seeking to answer?
The first year our approach was very much to consider some of the apparent conflicts between scientific study and the Christian faith. The speakers we invited were experts in moderating that debate and responding to some of the claims that you get from folks antagonistic towards the Christian faith.
The second year we’ve taken a very different approach. We’re asking the question, how can the sciences shed light on our understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be made in the image of God, and what it means for God to have made us? What are the neurophysical and biological aspects of our human life that relate to and impact our spiritual formation? Assuming that God has made us and made the world, what can we learn about how he’s made us through the sciences?
Why the focus on brain chemistry, on emotions, on neurology?
Our interest in neuroscience and how our brains relate to our spiritual formation—our interest in holiness—is at the heart of our Wesleyan Methodist tradition. We are deeply committed to the biblical truth that God’s grace is more powerful than our sin. Over the last couple years I’ve looked more into how our bodies figure into our spiritual formation. Some of the older paradigms might think about spiritual formation simply as a spiritual reality: formation has to do with our soul or inner being, but our bodies are not so relevant in that.
Our interest in human transformation at the neuroscience and biological levels is very much rooted in the twin convictions that God is able to transform us by his grace and God has made us with bodies that involve physical processes all working together for his purpose.
What are your aims? What do you hope for?
One of our goals is to facilitate a posture of amicability between the sciences and the Christian faith. Our aim is also that we would have a better sense of God’s purposes in our lives, a better sense of what it means to be made in the image of God, a better sense of what it means to be a human being through whom God wants to work in the world. Our focus is very formational. It’s about a deeper understanding of who God is and what he’s up to.
One of the convictions that we’ve been reflecting on recently as a church and among church leaders is, what does it look like for Hope Hull UMC to become a theological shepherd regionally? We want to help people raise important questions and think through those questions in ways that are grounded in Scripture and take account for the contributions of the sciences, not simply as an intellectual exercise, but as a Christian practice
To what extent did the focus group affect your own pastoral ministry?
In the focus group, it was tremendously helpful to hear congregation members reflect on the significance and the trajectories of our ministry and how that has impacted their understanding of Christianity. It has been really helpful for me as a pastor to find out what lands and what doesn’t.
What aspects of this program experience might translate to other ministries Hope Hull is doing?
We have considered how the Stott Award has provided us an opportunity to learn about launching new initiatives. The focus group, sermon series, and educational event is a model that we may put to use in the future. It also has us brainstorming about other topics and other doctrines that we could highlight, since we’ve learned this model and it has been quite productive.
How did you learn about this grant?
From a few different places. I was at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting and learned about the grant. Then a former seminary professor of mine forwarded me an email, suggesting it would be a good fit. I found that the program resonated with me as a pastor, as a theologian, and what we were trying to do as a church.
What type of pastor, what type of congregation would you recommend the Stott Award to?
I think pastors who are interested in thinking very deeply about the Christian life, pastors who are oriented toward theology are going to find themselves very much in their elements in the Stott Award. And congregations that are responding well to that sort of pastoring are going to find themselves at home in the Stott Award. Often times we pit theology and pastoral ministry against one another.
How many times have I heard pastors say, “I’m no theologian…” and then continue to say whatever they’re going to say? I would caution us against creating division between local churches and those in theological leadership. Pastors are theological leaders. Whether we like it or not, it’s our job as pastors to shepherd our people in how we think about God, how we talk about God, and how we relate to God.
How we know God and how we experience God’s purposes for our lives is a deeply theological discipline. Pastors who are in tune with the relationship between serious theology and the pastorate would do well in the Stott program. And for pastors who have an inclination toward that relationship but haven’t mined it as deeply, the Stott Award could provide an opportunity for them to ask those questions in a structured format.
Some might ask, “what am I going to get out of this award that I’m not already doing as a pastor?” What would you say?
One of the best things about the Stott Award is the community that is created. Any pastor that receives the award is placed in a community of five other pastors who are reading the same materials, working through the same model. You’ll spend time reflecting on what you want to do. What are the best ways to do it? Best practices, pitfalls to avoid? What has been really beneficial for me is the networking opportunity: to connect with the Henry Center staff, the award committee, professors in a variety of fields. It has been really rich for me to be able to make those new friendships, cultivate those new relationships, and be renewed. The mid-year consultation is a spectacular way to be able to sit down with a group of really serious thinking Christians and get some charitable and helpful feedback on a sermon series. The average pastor doesn’t get to sit down with leading theologians in North America and receive feedback on a sermon series.
What is your congregation saying about the program?
The Stott Award has provoked significant congregational engagement. There are folks who weren’t as involved who are now more involved. There are folks who are asking questions they’ve never asked before. It has also given our church a chance to live into a new level of hospitality. When you start hosting community events, you embody a welcoming presence in ways that you may not have before. It has been a growing opportunity for a church. It has been a chance to ask new questions and engage in new manifestations of our mission.
Learn more about the John Stott Award for Pastoral Engagement.