Newton’s First Law of Motion and the Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Mick Hirsch

Nobody knows what to do with Newton. You see, Isaac tested not only the laws of physics – he also tested how far Christian orthodoxy could bend until it simply breaks. Today, most people think of Newton as a brilliant physicist, the guy who came up with the Three Laws of Motion that we all had to learn at some point during our educational journeys. But, back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, people didn’t know where to put him. If we’re honest, we all know how comforting it feels to label someone, to put them in a category, which we can either love, hate or discard as unimportant. This is what happened to Newton. The guy who discovered the Laws of Motion was put. And still today, among an itsy-bitsy group of historians and theologians who dabble in esoteric subjects, people are still arguing about where to put poor Isaac.

Let the name-calling begin: Newton’s a born-and-bred Anglican; no, he’s an antitrinitarian Arian heretic; impossible, he’s certainly somewhere between a Socinian and the Eastern Orthodox communion; seriously, let’s get real – he’s a deist; for God’s sake, it’s so obvious – he’s a latitudinarian-millinarian, duh!!! Oh, and we mustn’t forget… he’s one of the greatest physicists of all time.

We’re always looking for an easy way out, but if we think seriously about it, it’s really, really hard to put someone somewhere. Can you relate? Has it happened to you? It’s certainly happened to me, perhaps nowhere as intimately and personally challenging as the my own mercurial faith background. Like Isaac, I, too, have been called a lot of names and put in a lot of places.

Here’s the story: I was baptized Roman Catholic as an infant, just a year or two after my mom converted to Catholicism in order to marry my dad. But, by the time I was about two or three, my mom had had enough of Catholicism, and wanted to return to her Protestant roots. So, she took me to the “community church,” which happened to be American Baptist. Soon afterwards, my dad succumbed to some kind of Protestant temptation and followed along. It so happened, that by the time I entered junior high school, the Baptist youth group had diminished to a small handful of kids. So, the three of us abandoned ship and joined in with the Methodists. All fine and well, except for the fact that when my grandfather – my best friend – died during my sophomore year of high school, I was devastated. My “to be expected” teenage angst turned into a fierce atheism. With all apologies to any lawyers out there, it took working as a paralegal at a cutthroat Chicago law firm my year after college to reorient myself to a life of faith.

I felt something moving in my heart (John Wesley, referring to his own experience, said, “my heart was strangely warmed”). Coincidently, the only place I knew was the United Methodist Church (the one Wesley “founded”). So, I went there… and this time, I was pretty sure that my heart was strangely warmed. One Easter morning, I woke up and went to church. I knew all about Easter – the rabbit who lays chocolate covered eggs… cool. But, when the congregation belted out the hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” well, I broke down in tears. It was an Isaiah 6:8 blast of what Methodists call “justifying grace” – the type of grace where God pardons and restores a person back to God. Before I could even think, there I was proclaiming, “Here I am. Send me!”

Bam! I entered Yale Divinity School on track to become ordained in the United Methodist Church (UMC). (By nature, I am curious – despite my affiliation with the UMC, I worked at a Congregational Church and completed my requisite internship at an Episcopal Church – once again, I was put… x 2.) Nevertheless, within the UMC, I felt on top of my game. I was young, clever, capable of entering the denomination from the inside, so that I could champion UMC-awesomeness, but also change some of the things with which I struggled about the Church.

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself faced with a very difficult decision: either I take the vows to follow United Methodist doctrine, which would mean denying my LGBTQ friends the opportunity to profess their love for one another through marriage, as well as dissuading my LGBTQ friends from following their authentic call to ministry because they would be denied the same ordination I was about to receive. After many years of study, jumping through all the hoops, interviews, essays, paperwork, background checks, etc., etc. – I walked away. He who strived to be an insider now found himself an “outsider.”

But, that’s when I realized something monumental, something so very important, something incredibly powerful, life-giving, meaningful, purposeful… something real and inspired, all in one!

I was part of the laity.

Let’s go back to Newton. Our friend Isaac became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1667 at the age of 24 – the same age I was when I entered Yale Divinity School. Isaac was on the ordination track in the Anglican Church. Like me, he, too, walked away. There were things with which he didn’t agree in the Church, and he felt it impossible to commit to things about which he felt strongly.

Even more importantly, despite the fact that others immediately tried to put him into certain categories – heretic, anti-this & anti-that, etc. – he didn’t stay put. Rather, he discovered the laws of MOTION!

Think back: do you remember Newton’s First Law of Motion? “Every object persists in its state of rest (i.e., inertia) or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.”

I’m going to make an assumption: like me, you learned this First Law of Motion as a phenomenon of the science of physics. Well, I’m going to suggest something else: Newton’s First Law of Motion is equally a phenomenon of APOSTOLIC MISSION!

Christians – the ordained, yes, but even more so the laity (they are few, while we are many!) – Christians are, by definition, MOVED! When we open our hearts to God, God responds with a blast of grace, and that blast is the “force impressed on [you and me]!!!” That blast is God’s call to us to abandon the comforts of inertia – the comforts of “here” – and instead, pack up our faith, our hope, and our love, and go “there” – wherever “there” may be. For, there is always a need “there.” There is always a place, a people, a neighbor, someone who needs us “there.”
God’s grace fosters, nurtures and empowers us, every single member of the body, which, for Isaac, is another way of saying, “God moves us!” And, for Jesus our Savior, is another way of saying, “go and make disciples of all nations…”

Mick Hirsch is the President & Executive Director of THRIVE Gulu, a non-governmental organization that delivers mental health and psycho-social support services to survivors of the genocide in Northern Uganda and South Sudanese refugees displaced to Uganda.  He is a graduate of the University of Chicago, the Yale University Divinity School and the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. He has no particular denominational affiliation apart from the fact that he loves Episcopal liturgy, Orthodox iconography, United Methodist hymnody and Unitarian Universalist social justice.  

Workshop Materials: Leadership Essentials for Laity

Workshop: Leadership Essentials for Laity
Presenters: Ann Michel

Attached you will find the powerpoint from Ann Michel’s workshop “Leadership Essentials for Laity.”

Workshop description: This workshop will equip lay leaders and church professionals who are not ordained clergy with some of the basic skills essential to effective church leadership. Beginning with the premise that all leadership is relational, the workshop will consider team building, recruiting, and how to develop others as leaders.



Workshop Materials: In Ministry Together: How Laity Can Embrace Their Call

Workshop: In Ministry Together: How Laity Can Embrace Their Call
Presenters: Ann Michel

Attached you will find the materials from Ann Michel’s workshop “In Ministry Together: How Laity Can Embrace Their Call.”

Workshop description: This workshop will explore a more inclusive, synergistic paradigm of ministry that includes the work of lay leaders and church professionals who are not ordained clergy. Participants will be given the opportunity to consider how God’s call is active in their life and their work, and to claim a clear theological identity as ministry leaders.

Three Observations

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a conversation around theological education. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Jonathan Strandjord

children_youth_1Observation #1: Theological Education of Public Leaders is Becoming More Plural in its Forms and at the Same Time More Connected in its Development and Execution

For several decades, Lutheran churches in North America have done nearly all their work in theological education for public ministry using one standard model: an M.Div. structured as two years of on-campus study followed by a one year internship and a final year on campus.  This shared pattern has been seen as a key way our church fosters a connected leadership and a common theological conversation.  In the last few years we’ve added a certificate model, two different ways of doing an M.Div. using distributed learning, and a first-year-online program.  In the next two years we will likely see at least three additional ways of earning the M.Div., including a 2+2  model (two years on campus followed by a two-year residency internship during which one also does course work via intensives and/or online courses), a “fully embedded” model in which  the entire degree is program is done in ministry contexts, and a competency-based program.

So, how’s the whole “connected leadership” thing going in the midst of multiplying diversity?  So far, so good.  For one thing, the development of these new degree models have brought the ELCA seminary deans into much closer and more regular conversation with each other and with other church leaders (especially those related to the candidacy process).  Ideas are being shared, challenged and refined in an extended plurilogue.  And this multiplication of forms is also creating more ways for congregations and other contextual sites to be much more than just sites, but partners in creating new experiments in theological education (which invites them into conversation about why we bother with any of this in the first place).  In short, the multiplication of models has created an opportunity for the church and its seminaries to make theological education something that’s truly all of our business.

Observation #2: We’d Better Get Even More Serious About Theological Education—and Not Just for Pastors

The theological education of the laity has always mattered.  It matters more now than in a long time.  Our members today are far less likely than they were even just two or three decades ago to simply pick up from the surrounding culture the basics of the biblical story and faith’s wisdom.  We swim in a rising river of competing messages and narratives, a very high percentage of them aiming to sell us something. More and more we are addressed as consumers, customers.  And since “the customer is king”, we find ourselves in the sad, lonely, dangerous position of all monarchs: continuously manipulated and flattered, it is so easy to fall into simply buying the lies or (just as dangerous) becoming cynical.

Given the acute need this situation creates for the discernment that faith’s wisdom makes possible, the church’s work in the theological education of the laity is more important than ever.  But our longstanding patterns of lay education have relied on a cultural consensus that left some times open and basically uncontested for purposes of religious practice and education.  That calendrical consensus is basically over and we find ourselves struggling to find new patterns for fostering both biblical literacy and theological fluency.

The current weakness in theological education of the laity greatly limits the vitality of the church and, over time, acts to negate effectiveness of the theological education received by pastors and other leaders who graduate from our seminaries. For the United States has a deeply democratic culture. This is not to say that our political, economic and social institutions are in fact true to the principles of democracy.  Rather, having a “democratic culture” simply means that leaders (whether they actually are democratic or are in fact profoundly elitist or even thoroughly tyrannical) have to speak and act in terms that are broadly accessible if they are to be effective. Thus in a church where theological wisdom is not broadly accessible, church leaders move to operating primarily out of something else that is (such as the categories of popular psychology, family and group dynamics, management theory, the market).  No matter how excellent college and seminary theological education is, when our graduates find themselves swimming in a pool with a low theological temperature (a community where there is very little practice of  theological study, reflection and conversation), the powerful tendency is for our graduates’ own temperature to drop to match their surroundings rather than vice versa.[1]  To put it bluntly, if we can’t find ways to strengthen the theological education of laity, the theological education of pastors won’t matter—at least for long.

Observation #3: There’s a Lot of Lay Theological Education that Needs to Happen in Congregations—But it Can’t All Be Done There

Our seminaries need to prepare and support the church’s public leaders so they can serve as front-line theological educators in congregations.  Indeed, we need to significantly upgrade their preparation to strengthen congregations as learning communities.

At the same time, we need to move beyond treating these congregational learning communities as being almost entirely self-contained circles.  For one thing, it is very difficult for any but the largest congregations to offer the range of learning opportunities that would be adequate to equipping people to be able to live, work and relate faithfully, wisely and generously to the wide and expanding range of others with whom they relate in a globalizing world. Add to this the end of the calendrical consensus noted above that makes it very hard indeed to regularly engage a critical mass of learners for any length of time in a single local faith community—well, a rich array of educational opportunities becomes a practical impossibility in even the largest congregation if it works alone.   We need to create more trans-congregational educational efforts, lay schools, and digitally-mediated learning communities (all resourced by and resourcing our seminaries) that can grow to knit the whole church together in a theological education network.  If we can do this, we will have a wider, deeper and more durably connected leadership than we’ve ever had before.


[1] Joseph Sittler’s essay “The Maceration of the Minister” made this point vividly already several decades ago.

Strandjord, Jonathan PicJonathan Strandjord has served since 1998 as the Director for Seminaries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  His work centers on strengthening the ELCA’s theological education network through deepening collaboration among the eight seminaries and expanding cooperation with their many co-workers in the ELCA, its ecumenical partners and global companions.