Blogger’s Note: This post was supposed to have appeared on January 29 — the final day of my Messiah College course on Brethren in Christ history. Unfortunately, for some reason, WordPress didn’t post it. In any case, the post wraps up a series I’d been doing about my first time teaching this course. (If you’re totally lost about this post, you can check out the earlier contributions to the series here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Enjoy!
Today officially marks the end of January Term here at Messiah College — which, of course, means that I’ve finally wrapped up my course on Brethren in Christ history and theology. For those of you who have never taken a three-week intensive such as are taught during January Term, it’s a grueling process — and one that takes a lot out of both students and faculty. My students seemed willing to finish well (as willing as you can expect from students who have spent the last twenty-one days working intensely on a single course, and sixteen of those days in three-hour lectures!). But I tried to make the last few days of class especially engaging.
As I reported earlier, we’ve had a number of guest speakers over the past few days. Former moderator Warren Hoffman described post-1950 Brethren in Christ church planting endeavors. Current Atlantic Conference Bishop Pauline Peifer shared her own story as a woman in pastoral and administrative leadership in the denomination. Yesterday, we were joined in class by Dr. Dwight Thomas, a former music professor at Messiah and a longtime researcher on Brethren in Christ history, particularly the church’s musical history.
Dr. Thomas helped us to understand the history of Brethren in Christ music — “from living room to sanctuary,” as his article on the subject is titled. In particular, he set the Brethren in Christ’s musical evolution in historical context and walked us through each of the hymnals that the Brethren in Christ have produced throughout their history.
The most exciting part of his visit came in the third hour of our class, as we moved in Hostetter Chapel on Messiah’s campus for an hour-long hymn sing. Led by Dr. Thomas and a team of Messiah College musicians and singers, the event included songs from each era of Brethren in Christ musical history: classics like “Trust and Obey” (a favorite of the Brethren in Christ) as well as less popular tunes from the most recent hymnal, Hymns for Praise and Worship (1984).
My class was joined at this hymn sing by nearly 100 local Brethren in Christ folks and faculty and staff from the college. I was thrilled that so many came out for the event!
The hymn sing lasted until 4pm. Later, my wife Katie and I welcomed the whole class — 12 students — to our home for dinner and conversation, a way to celebrate the completion of an intensive three weeks.
Today, on our final day of class, students took their final exam and gave short presentations on current Brethren in Christ congregations, their culminating project for the course. I asked students to give a demographic overview and a description of the congregation, and then to connect their experience and analysis of the local church to their study of the Brethren in Christ. Since I assigned my students a variety of congregations — from the Grantham Church right next to Messiah College, to the Solid Ground congregation in Southern California, from the very rural Pleasant Hill congregation in Ohio to the very urban Circle of Hope church in Philadelphia — they had very different experiences to share. I was impressed by the ways in which my students connected course themes like peace and nonresistance, community, sanctification, and nonconformity to their analyses of these diverse congregations.
Overall, teaching this course has been a learning experience — for the students, obviously, and for me, too. Most of the students I taught this semester are new to the Brethren in Christ Church — several have attended the Grantham Church during their time at Messiah, while others had no idea who the Brethren in Christ were before they embarked on this course. Only one student had any historical connection to the denomination. (His last name is Engle!) All this means that we had a lot to discuss and process during this very short window of time. I’m impressed with what they’ve been able to accomplish as well as the questions and observations they’ve made along the way.
Personally, I’ve learned a lot about how to communicate this kind of history and theology in accessible ways. I’ve also learned the stories and illustrations about the Brethren in Christ that work and don’t work. For instance, students really responded to the story of the first movie ever shown at Messiah College, in the 1930s. It helped them to understand the period in college and church history in which efforts to be progressive culturally and socially were met with opposition and resistance — even self-imposed resistance. I’ve also learned that some of the stories I know that have really worked among pastors and church members don’t work quite as well in a college classroom setting.
I’m hoping that the Biblical and Religious Studies department at Messiah will invite me to teach this course again in the future.