The Adam Hamilton interview on ‘Making Sense of the Bible’ while growing the church

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TO BUY THE BOOK, click on this image for the book’s Amazon page. At the end of this interview, you will find more links and information on ordering the accompanying DVD and Leader’s Guide.

Adam Hamilton wants to help congregations grow.

Within his United Methodist denomination, he already has proven himself a master of church growth. Now, he is breaking out to a wider audience in his first book for HarperOne (his earlier books are from Abingdon, his denomination’s publishing house).

Now, he wants to show congregations nationwide how to fuel revival and outreach—by starting with the Bible.

But, this isn’t your grandfather’s revivalism. Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today is equal parts an evangelical return to the Bible as the foundation of Protestant Christianity—and a scholarly, inclusive approach to understanding scripture that draws on themes familiar to readers of Brian D. McLaren, Rob Bell and Marcus Borg. Most importantly, for the millions of men and women who have been avoiding churches for years, this is a faithful and intelligent orientation to the Bible.

Adam Hamilton’s congregation was dubbed the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection when he and a handful of families founded it in 1990. “Resurrection” seemed like a good name because the only space they could afford at the time was a local funeral home. Today, the church’s “main campus” is in Leawood, near Kansas City, Kansas, but the church is spread across multiple “campuses,” including some sites in other states with video feeds. Adding to that growing list of physical locations is a rapidly growing online church that attracts thousands each week. The church’s digital team regularly sees men and women logging into online worship from Michigan to Florida and from New York to Los Angeles—often including sites overseas.

How big is the Church of the Resurrection?

Church of the Resurrection lobby

One entryway to just one campus of Church of the Resurrection. Photo by Paul McDonald provided for public use.

Writing as Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine with many decades of experience as a journalist covering religion in America, I can tell you: Claims of church membership and attendance are as slippery as eels and there is no regulated national reporting on numbers. Nevertheless, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research is widely respected as a neutral center observing these trends. Based on Hartford’s rankings …

AMONG ALL CHURCHES:
The largest American congregation is Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston with a weekly attendance of more than 40,000. Next are about a dozen churches claiming weekly attendance of 20,000 or higher, including two of the most famous megachurches: Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California and Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Next are more than a dozen claiming weekly attendance of 15,000 or higher and among the famous congregations in that strata are T.D. Jakes’s The Potter’s House in Dallas and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers Church in Georgia. Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection currently is listed in the next group claiming weekly physical attendance of 10,000 and higher. Hamilton’s online congregation isn’t reflected in these totals and, if counted, would push Church of the Resurrection up into the Jakes and Dollar range.

Heatmap of Online Worship

This sample “heatmap” shows the geographic spread of online worshipers at Church of the Resurrection on one Saturday. On Sunday mornings, the heatmap expands further.

AMONG UNITED METHODISTS:
No question—Church of the Resurrection is the largest within the 12-million-member denomination with roots in the movement founded by John and Charles Wesley before the American Revolution. Next in ranking, at about half of Church of the Resurrection’s size, is Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, where pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell has made a name for himself in befriending presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama. (Adam Hamilton also is dabbling in national leadership; he preached at the Inaugural Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral in Washington in January 2013.) Caldwell’s church is followed by Granger Community Church in Indiana, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio—and then Highland Park United Methodist Church and The Woodlands United Methodist Church, both in Texas.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Adam Hamilton in …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ADAM HAMILTON ON
‘MAKING SENSE OF THE BIBLE’

DAVID: On July 12, you’ll turn 50. You’re only six years older than Rob Bell. And, already, you’re a long way toward your life’s goal of leading a revival within mainline Protestant churches, specifically within your own United Methodist denomination.

Adam HamiltonADAM: We care deeply about wanting to see the United Methodist church revived and revitalized.

DAVID: As a journalist, it’s hard to keep up with everything you’re doing with your huge team of colleagues. I hadn’t realized until recently that you’ve got a satellite program called Partner Churches that now lists eight congregations from Maryland to California. This is for small churches, often served by part-time pastors, who want to use Church of the Resurrection resources—including your sermons in a video feed, right?

ADAM: Yes, we know that all of the things we are trying to do won’t work the same way everywhere. There have to be many different approaches to ministry. Remember that the majority of our United Methodist congregations are small. Many of them have local pastors in some cases part-time at the church. Some of our small churches are led by lay people who serve as excellent pastors in their communities in many cases. Some of these men and women are excellent shepherds; they’re great at hospital visitation and other areas of ministry—but perhaps they don’t feel they can preach very well, or at least not every week. So, that program, Partner Churches, provides a high-quality sermon from Resurrection and other resources.

DAVID: Readers may think that sounds like something out of the “prosperity preaching” movement—Creflo Dollar and others have tried video feeds. But what you’re doing here stems from the very roots of Methodism more than 200 years ago. Methodism was an incredible grassroots, pack-it-up-and-move-it movement. Circuit Riders crisscrossed America. Wesley himself was a pamphleteer widely using the latest technologies for rapid print distribution of his texts.

ADAM: The example I use is a 1789 edition of John Wesley’s sermons that was published while he was at his City Road chapel in London. I hold up my copy of that book and I say, “In America, when the Circuit Riders started a church, they would get it going and then they would leave to work in another town and they’d say, ‘Here is a book of Wesley’s sermons; read one each week until I return to you.’ And they would. We’re just adapting Wesley’s model for the 21st Century.

DAVID: That pattern spread like wildfire in the era of Francis Asbury. Wesley’s assistant before the American Revolution and later one of the first Methodist bishops. The more I’ve researched Wesley’s life myself, the more impressed I am with his courageous innovations. The book of sermons reflects his roots in the Church of England where there was a tradition of publishing sample sermons. So, it was natural for him to carry this idea much further. For Asbury and his team, sample sermons were a great help. Most United Methodist leaders, even today, have copies of Wesley’s numbered sermons.

ADAM: We’re constantly testing what we can do to help small- and medium-sized churches, especially those that are struggling. Partner Churches is just one example. We’re trying all kinds of things. In our online worship, last Sunday, we had 3,600 people actually logging in during the worship services. The online participants register their attendance; they can turn in their prayer requests; they can make donations. That’s the fastest growing segment of our congregation.

They visit us from many places. Recently I was out of town, so I worshiped online myself. What’s interesting is that out of 3,600 men and women we have online on a Sunday morning, about 2,000 of them are Resurrection members, but they choose to worship online with us—for many reasons. Many people can’t make it to the church on a Sunday, for example, but this gives them an opportunity to be with us.

FAITH VS. SCIENCE?

Inaugural Prayer Service

Adam Hamilton preaching the sermon at the National Cathedral’s Inaugural Prayer Service in January 2013. Photo courtesy of Washington National Cathedral. Photographer: Donovan Marks.

DAVID: Right now, you’re speaking to a larger national audience through this new book and events like last year’s sermon at the National Cathedral as a part of President Obama’s inauguration. But, many of our ReadTheSpirit readers are meeting you for the first time today. So, I want you to describe this passion that drives you: Your goal isn’t political influence or riches. You’ve said you’re donating any proceeds from this new book back to your church. You really do want to see mainline Protestant churches start to thrive again, right?

ADAM: There were two things I had in mind as I was finishing this new book: One is the person who has been turned off to Christianity because of things they’ve heard or experienced in the past. The most vocal Christians we see in America today are conservative evangelicals and Fundamentalists—and I know those are two different categories, but the two groups do overlap. I don’t regularly watch Bill Maher, but I happened to see him on TV the other day ridiculing Christians because of this new Noah movie. Maher was pointing out that  a large portion of Americans tell pollsters that we need to take these Bible stories literally—and Maher also was pointing out how absurd the Noah story seems, if we have to take it literally. He pointed out that it’s obscene to think that God wanted to kill virtually every man, woman, child and animal on the planet.

The Bible does seem absurd to many people, today. And misunderstandings about the Bible lead to all kinds of confrontations. I think of people in my own congregation: One woman is studying biology at the university level and she told me, “I’m in a Bible-study group and people are telling me I can’t be a Christian if I believe in evolution. Modern biology rests on the assumptions of evolution.”

There are so many issues that arise if we try to take everything in the Bible as literally true. What do we do with all the violence in the Bible? What do we do with the passages in which God seems to be ordering overwhelming violence against men, women and children? There are lots of people wrestling with these issues inside and outside of churches all across America. I write about these issues in the new book.

I want people to know that there is room to interpret scripture in light of modern science and that we don’t have to accept that God intentionally ordered this overwhelming violence we read about in some passages. But we have to properly understand the Bible. I’ve been saying this repeatedly within the United Methodist Church.

DAVID: Now, through HaperOne, you’re saying this to a much broader audience. Clearly, you want to revive “mainline Protestant” churches. You’re also known as fairly evangelical among United Methodists. Crossing over into the national arena now, one big question is: Where do you stand on interfaith relationships? In my own research into your work, I’m finding very positive examples of cooperation with diverse communities. You were honored, at one point, with a B’nai B’rith award in social ethics.

ADAM: We’ve tried hard to develop positive relationships with the Jewish community here in our own area. We’ve shared some worship services together. That’s important here because, in the very area where our church sits today—until the 1960s, Jews were not allowed to purchase homes in this community. We regularly talk about this. I have friends, rabbis, who I bring on the screen with me to share in certain sermons where their insights are valuable. I’ve taken a trip to the Holy Land with a rabbi friend. We’ve also met with and talked with Muslims. We’ve sponsored forums here where we bring Christians, Muslims and Jews together to talk.

‘BIBLE 101’ CLEARING UP MISCONCEPTIONS

DAVID: You point out that, in today’s world, the religious challenge really is not between faith groups—it’s between religion and secular culture. Americans are distinctive in the world because of our intense interest in religion nationwide. In the UK and across Europe, there’s a stark contrast: Very few people go to church anymore. Even in America, people really need a crash course in “Bible 101” to understand the Bible.

ADAM: Yes, that’s how to understand my new book. There are so many folks out there who know very little about the Bible. If they read my book, I hope it will clear up some of their misconceptions; then I hope it will lead them to read the Bible itself; and maybe they will decide to visit a church where they can find out more. In the first half of my book, I lay out the Bible: how it came to be, the sweep of the Bible and so on. Then, in the second half of my book, I address some of the very difficult issues that still spring from the Bible today.

A lot of times pastors are nervous about sharing what they’ve learned in seminary and through scholarship with lay people in their churches. They fear this might undermine people’s confidence in scripture. So, we end up with a lot of pastors letting unquestioned assumptions continue and accumulate out there. In this book, I tried to put about a year’s worth of graduate study of the Bible into a book that general readers will find interesting. I find that too many people—including Christians inside the church—have an inadequate understanding of the Bible.

DAVID: I know enough about you to tell readers: You love the Bible. Your own daily reliance on scripture is described in the opening page of your new book.

ADAM: I really do love the Bible, yes. The Bible contains the defining story of my life. As you just noted, I do regularly tell people how I wake up in the morning: I drop to my knees and pray and then the very next thing I do is read the Bible. And, before I go to bed at night, no matter how tired I am, I open my Bible and read. I carry a Bible with me everywhere I go; I carry a Bible on my phone, too, but I always have an actual Bible with me. We encourage Bible reading here. We prepare a daily Bible reading for people to encourage them to read more of the scriptures. Every day, I’m doing all I can to encourage more people to spend more time with the Bible.

GENESIS, SCIENCE & ROB BELL

DAVID: Before I left newspapers in 2007 to form ReadTheSpirit, I covered Rob Bell’s launch of his Everything Is Spiritual tour in which he barnstormed the country, talking to people in theaters and clubs about the Genesis creation story and science—and how the two realms are not in conflict. When I read your section on the Creation Stories, I immediately thought: There’s a lot of similarity here between your approach to these issues and Rob’s.

You and Rob both love the Genesis stories and find them profoundly true, but not as some kind of scientific report on creation. As you both describe it: Genesis opens with some of the world’s most famous poetry, talking about God’s ongoing role in our cosmos. There is no reason to regard this as a war with modern science.

ADAM: The Bible represents the people of God coming to understand how the order of creation came to be. Genesis wasn’t intended as a science lesson, as we understand science today. The Bible is making profound claims about the connection between God and the world—and this is profoundly true. It wasn’t intended as a science lecture.

I encourage people to read the opening of Genesis. The first chapter is beautiful poetry with the refrains coming back—”evening and morning” and this beautiful liturgical language about the nature of creation as it unfolds. People need to understand that this is an archetypal story that was repeated down through the generations around campfires and in homes and the Genesis stories do express deep truths. We need to understand the great value of these stories.

If we free ourselves from all this noise from some of the Fundamentalists about this somehow conflicts with science, then we can begin to appreciate again the deeper truths here. Did a snake appear and speak in a garden in the literal way the scene is described in Genesis? That’s not the point. The point is the real truth of such an experience: Who among us hasn’t heard a serpent speaking to us at some moment in our lives? We’ve all faced temptation—haven’t we? And, often, that temptation feels as real as a serpent speaking to us.

HOMOSEXUALITY: ‘WE MUST BE COURAGEOUS’

DAVID: You have organized this book in a masterful way. You begin with an overview of the Bible and, in the middle of the book, you’ll have a vast majority of readers with you when you talk about the hundreds of verses in the Bible that seem to indicate that God wants us to wreak overwhelming violence in the world—or the hundreds of verses in which the Bible seems to approve of slavery—or the many verses in which Bible treats women as second-class humans or, even worse, as possessions.

Christian churches today have completely rejected slavery or mass killing as something God wants us to be doing. Many churches have come a long way toward recognizing women’s rights. Then, you come to the small handful of verses that seem to condemn homosexuality.

Cover A Letter to My Congregation by Ken WilsonYou point out in this section that you are bound, as a United Methodist pastor, by the denomination’s strict rules on this issue. If you tried to bless a gay couple, you’d be brought up on charges and banned from the church. But, in this section late in your book, you make it clear that gay marriage is not a threat to our faith. And you make it clear that you want to see your church move toward inclusion. Your language in this part of the book reminds me very much of the language in Ken Wilson’s new A Letter to My Congregation.

Let me read from page 278 in your book, Adam: “My own views on this issue changed as a result of thinking about the nature of scripture, God’s role in interpreting it, the meaning of inspiration, and how we make sense of the Bible’s difficult passages. As I came to appreciate the Bible’s humanity, I found I could at least ask whether the passages in scripture about same-sex intimacy truly captured God’s heart regarding same-sex relationships. But what really prompted me to look seriously at this issue and to wrestle with it were the gay and lesbian people I came to know and love, including children I had watched grow up in the church I serve.”

That’s Ken Wilson’s story, too. Truly pastoral Christian leaders do seem to be leading this change in Christianity, right now. The major reason, which you point to in your book, is the enormous generational shift going on across America on this issue. You’re focused on reviving the church and, frankly, that’s not going to happen with large numbers of young Americans staying away from church because of the way churches treat their gay and lesbian friends. The Public Religion Research Institute just released a major new study on this. And, Pew just took a look at the trends as well.

ADAM: You’re right: There is a trajectory in this book. Homosexuality is the most divisive issue in mainline churches and it really is the natural conclusion of the book. By the time you reach this issue, we’ve already talked about the era in which the scriptures were written, the way in which they came to be written and we’ve understood the complexity of the canonization of scripture. And we’ve helped people to set aside their overly simplistic views of the Bible.

So once I’ve established that in the first half of the book, I run through these topics that build on each other: the hundreds of verses about violence, slavery, the way we regard women. Finally, we reach homosexuality and hopefully readers will have a much more nuanced understanding of how we should approach these 5 short passages of scripture that seem to talk about homosexuality. We realize that some things in the Bible don’t capture God’s heart as much as they refer to issues that presented themselves in the era when the scriptures were written.

At the very least, I hope that people will realize that thoughtful and committed Christians can come out at different places on this question—and still be committed Christians.

I know this is a very difficult issue for many people. I have had people leave our church over the way I am talking about this issue and so this is painful for me, too. Some of the people who have left us were people I once baptized. But, right now, the spirit is moving. Of course, we all recognize today that slavery isn’t the will of God, even though hundreds of verses in the Bible seem to take slavery for granted and even encourage it. We’ve moved beyond that issue. We will move on this issue, too.

DAVID: There is only so much you can do, right now. You make that clear in your book. You’re bound by your church law. Still, you can talk about this movement toward change. And talking like that is courageous.

ADAM: I have this deep fear that, one day, I’m going to stand before the Lord and the Lord is going to say: “I put you in a position to speak to great numbers of people. Why didn’t you dare to say something courageous on behalf of people who are so marginalized and who so very much need to be welcomed?” I don’t want to face such a question someday.

Hopefully readers will see how deeply I love the Bible and how much I want people to start reading the Bible every day. I’m doing everything I can, every day, to see that this happens. I believe we can revive the church. But we must be courageous.

DAVID: Well, returning to the life of John Wesley, he courageously published a booklet completely opposed to slavery—about a century before the American Methodist church finally settled that issue.

ADAM: My next big project is about the life of John Wesley. We’ve got video segments in which I take people to many of the places that were important to Wesley. What we can learn about John Wesley and his faith can shape our own faith today and can help us in this revival of the church.

Care to read more?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Very excited by this effort to make a turnaround in a mainline Christian denomination that strives to integrate
    foundational religious texts with today’s world and science. America was founded by those grounded in religious tradition and a deep knowledge of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. It has long saddened me to read of the drop off of
    traditional Christian denominations. Thank you for this interview.