I’m not a great conference attendee. This is ironic since I have for over twenty years hosted conferences. (I think this might be a requirement for lectureship directors in Churches of Christ. You know who you are). And I like people who are good conference attendees coming to my conferences. By good, I mean they’re not hanging out in the back and looking for an opportunity to sneak out and find a coffee shop or other type establishment. So, I’ve tried to be better at attending classes and presentations and actually singing during worship, to avoid that whole hypocrisy thing. I’ve upgraded, I think, to an average conference attendee. When I go with my wife, who is a truly, truly good person, I might actually be a good conference attendee.
I’ve been to the Pepperdine Bible Lectures every year for the last thirty years, save one. I go mostly to see friends and spend time with my parents who live on campus. I probably set foot in Duke’s more than I do Smothers Theater. Since moving to Michigan, I’ve thought about taking a few years off, but a personal friend is the new director and he’s nice to have me teach with another good friend each year, Richard Beck. This year, Richard and I are doing two late night things, one of which will feature us playing our guitars poorly and singing and talking about the music of Johnny Cash (the singing will be bad too so that people won’t notice the bad guitar playing). So, I’m happy to go to support Mike Cope and play bad guitars with Richard Beck in front of a live audience.
But here’s the real reason I’m going, why I wouldn’t miss this year’s PBL. Sara Barton is preaching at a morning keynote session. A big part of this is that I love Sara and am proud she’s my friend. I’m sitting in a kitchen that a year ago was hers, a place of warmth and grace where I found friendship and laughter in a time in my life when I desperately needed it. Now its my kitchen, or a kitchen I share with Sara’s lingering presence.
But the real reason is that this will be a woman preaching a sermon in a large Church of Christ gathering. Sara will be the first woman to preach a keynote message at Pepperdine. I commend ACU for having Barbara Brown Taylor preach at their last Bible lectureship. Huge. Way to go Brady Bryce. But this is different, I think. Sara’s as Church of Christ as her Arkansas accent. This is one of our own ascending one of the most historically significant, er, pulpits in our recent history. The best preaching I’ve heard has come from Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse. Bill Love, Mike Cope, David Fleer, Randy Harris, Aaron Metcalf and many others have delivered powerful messages in that space. And now, Sara, a woman in Churches of Christ, will take her place beside them.
And what this will mean for other women in Churches of Christ cannot be adequately brought to words. At the very least, this will say that this is a possibility for other women with similar gifts and godly dreams. At the most, it will normalize the practice. I’m under no illusion that this will become common practice among our churches in the near term. But what I think might happen is that it will create a space for what some Churches of Christ do that doesn’t make those congregations something other than Church of Christ.
My guess as a former lectureship director is that Mike doesn’t yet know what the public reaction will be. I know this will cost them some market share. Numbers might look different this year and for awhile. I hope not, but I would guess otherwise.
But in thinking about Mike and Pepperdine today, I was struck by the few brave souls who made these kinds of moved thirty and forty years ago and who were ostracized for it. I think of Bob Randolph and the good folks at Brookline in Boston, and the brave people at Bering Drive in Houston, or the good folks in Stamford, CT, or Manhattan or West Islip. I will think of them when Sara climbs the steps in Firestone Fieldhouse.
I remember when the Northwest church in Seattle went to an instrumental service about 20 years ago. Milton Jones found his invitations to lectureships severely curtailed. Now, however, many congregations have made changes related to music in worship and they are not excluded the way that the good folks at Northwest were. And I’m hoping that this will be true of congregations that become more gender inclusive.
I’m thankful for brave people who cross the line first simply out of conviction that they are doing the right thing though no one else may follow. So, I’ll save you a seat to hear Sara and we’ll honor those who made similar moves years ago.