Theological FAQ:

What's your story? How did you come to know Jesus Christ? Do you consider yourself "born again"?

Before I knew God, when I was arguing against his existence, the Holy Spirit was gradually breaking through my resistant ignorance. As that breakthrough gradually happened, through the ministries of individual Christians (more than whole churches), the King called me his friend, and our cosmic relationship of Creator-to-creature was redefined by a loving personal friendship of only-begotten Son to adopted son, friend-to-friend, brother-to-brother.

This happened in remarkable ways. I grew up in a socially Christian context: We were one of those "churchgoing families" that rarely actually went to church. I was baptized Episcopal and confirmed Presbyterian, but I did not believe in God, and I gradually developed a disdain for the liberal Protestantism that offered little to me besides Sunday time-killers. Yet God was providing; I was learning practices that would come alive later in my Christian life. I remember somehow pulling out a Bible in ninth grade, reading it, and being discovered by my shocked father. Neither I nor he knew what to make of it.

My first experiences of living faith came from a Mormon girlfriend whose patient faithfulness in the face of our contempt won me back to thinking of God as plausible, and a high-school best friend whose crazy mother fed us Hal Lindsey books and terrified us into believing we had at most two years to live before the rapture. I learned from these unlikely sources what the American mainline never managed to teach me: God was real, alive, personal, still at work, and coming back soon. And Christian faith was powerful.

However, these experiences turned me merely into a superstitious apocalypticist, not into a disciple. That transformation came one bored college night, home for Christmas break, when I fished around for something to read from my nightstand, found the Bible my godparents had given me at my baptism, and randomly turned to Luke’s Gospel. What I read there scared me far more thoroughly than Lindsey’s doomsday scenarios: Jesus was just, uncompromising, and dominical. This was not the Christ of either the liberals or the millennarians. I had to give away everything and everyone, and follow only him, or else. It took me an entire horrible day to make up my mind. I consider that day "my initial commitment."

Growth came slowly, because through this entire time I was unchurched. It is a wonder that I never joined a cult, because (like all good American individualists) I entertained rather than accepted doctrines, encountering them from churches and sects alike, distrusting only the established authority of orthodox denominations with their "organized religion." However, as my college years came to a close, I became an evangelical (through C.S. Lewis and Pat Robertson (!)), entered the subculture, and found in this tradition solid ground I have never been tempted to leave. My future mother-in-law nagged me back to church at Lake Avenue Congregational Church, where (finally!) spiritual growth started happening regularly. These years have taught me vivid lessons: First, God’s providence is incredible. Second, only life in the Church is truly Christian life. Third, whatever evangelicalism’s shortcomings, it possesses incomparable spiritual resources and theological sensibilities.

Growth only accelerated as I joined a Willow Creek-inspired church-plant five years later and got a taste of full Christian involvement in true Christian community. The intensity of that blessing drove me to a new career, to seminary, to preaching and teaching in church, and to a vocation in theology.

This describes my personal experience: Jesus has become my friend, brother, and advocate, without ceasing to be my Lord, King, and judge. I feel both sides of this relationship in my life. I can count on both poles of this dialectic when I sin and our relationship needs repairing. Likewise, I can count on both when I act in faith to serve him.

Throughout our relationship, I have felt a sense of mission from God. The Gospel always came to me not simply as salvation, but as a commission. The present form of this commission is teaching doctrine, but some sense of purpose and urgency has always characterized my "walk" – along with some sense of the consequences of a job poorly done.

Because my growth as a Christian came apart from a consistent relationship within a local church, and because I was long suspicious of the "works-righteousness" I sensed in such efforts to make room for God’s presence, my spiritual disciplines are rather less developed than those of some fellow evangelicals. (It was years before I realized that "quiet time" was not merely a time of silence!) Personal and family prayer, devotion, and other spiritual practices are not as habituated as I wish they were. Though our Christian friends seem not to notice this weakness (or else they keep quiet about it), my wife and I both feel it. Fortunately, my recent education has given me the theological resources to appreciate the role of practice in Christian life in an unprecedented way, and my local church coherently stresses worship, solid doctrine, and other corporate and personal spiritual practices.

My years of theological education have tended to strengthen my appreciation of Jesus’ lordship more than my appreciation of his friendship. Learning a new language for speaking of God has sometimes distanced me experientially from the Savior I never stopped trusting. But in the past three years I’ve been blessed beyond measure to belong to a local church full of fellow disciples who love to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Their witness and example have reinforced my appreciation of my formal theological education, while bringing me to a new level of personal love for my royal friend and the Kingdom of priests he has been incorporating into himself.

Today I love to teach in Church as much as I love to teach at school. Over the years I have preached, taught theology and Bible studies, led small groups, served as an elder, witnessed to New Agers at conventions, endured seventeen months on a pastor search committee, co-written my church’s statement of faith, and led film series at church and school to teach people to view films critically and faithfully. I firmly believe that one cannot adequately practice theology in the academy without practicing it first in the local churches of Jesus Christ, and so I praise God for my opportunities to do so.

In countless surprising ways, the Holy Spirit has impressed Jesus on me. My journey to evangelicalism was aided by childhood at the margins of liberal Protestant denominations, teenage premillennial paranoia, admiration for the enthusiasm of heterodox traditions, and fundamentalist youth apologetics. My later experience as an evangelical churchgoer and now theologian has replaced the excesses of these with more of an awed confidence in God, Christian Scripture, and authentic tradition. My faith has grown to a point where many issues which used to worry me, now simply engage me. God’s presence in my life has brought a wonderful serenity to my relationship with Jesus Christ – one I never would have predicted when setting out for seminary. This state of "second naïvete" (which in my case is really a first naïvete) is a blessed place to be. I try to communicate its availability to students at school and church, while remaining sensitive to those who are not yet there, or are in danger never of attaining it.

My perspective as one disciple of Jesus Christ is a specific perspective, and it specifically informs the way I approach life in Christ. I belong to a particular tradition (American evangelicalism) and a particular local church (Christian Assembly Foursquare Church). I am happy and fruitful in both. I make my own location within the body of Christ explicit to my students. But I am what Richard Mouw calls a "restless evangelical," unsatisfied with the narrow communities of inquiry and neat solutions that have sometimes characterized my own tradition (and every other). I go out of my way to stress that there are other legitimate perspectives, whose differences with my own are important. I try to negotiate the treacherous ground between the opposite ecclesiological heresies of pluralism and provincialism. What makes me evangelical is deeply important to the way I do theology; but what makes me evangelical also keeps pushing me (and my students) into evangelicalism’s frontiers. These are qualities I hope to cultivate particularly in graduate and doctoral students, but I always work to grow them in my congregation and in undergraduates.

I have tried here to go deeper than merely affirming the usual evangelical catchwords – "born-again," "personal Savior," and so on – but I remain comfortable using them. My life so far has been a long process of discovering them, seeing God bring them to life, learning the depth of their real meaning, and appreciating where they are commensurate with the devotional dialects of other Christian traditions. Nothing in my experience with God has made me prefer a different vocabulary to describe my personal relationship with Christ, though as time goes on I am more and more willing to accept the synonyms of my brothers and sisters.

Grace and peace, Telford