Monday, October 27, 2008

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Stephen Dancer

This is the last in our series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today is...

GD: Hello Stephen Dancer and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
SD: Hi Guy. Thanks for asking me to take part. I'm 45, husband to Susan for 21 years, and father of a 15-year-old daughter. I have been a minister of the gospel for 18 months. Before that, I have been a nuclear physicist at Glasgow Uni, a design engineer in an aerospace company, and a dossing student studying theology.

GD: Your blog is called "Doggie's Breakfast" er... why?
SD: Nothing mysterious. I started the blog while I was a student. At the time I was not sure what it was going to consist of - a mixture of personal news, theological reflection, reviews, other bits and pieces. In other words, a dogs breakfast of a blog! Apart from some fairly pretentious greek-sounding names, that was the best I could come up with.

GD: Maybe you sould have stuck with a pretentious greek-sounding blog like, "Kreas-Aptos". It's not too late to change. Now, what do you most enjoy and what do you find most frustrating about blogging?
SD: I enjoy the interaction and fact that people are interested in some of the same things I am. In the early days when I was studying theology as a distance learner, no one around me was thinking about thing things I was thinking about. To write about them and have others comment was a great blessing. One of the frustrations is that now I am in full-time ministry I don't get the time I would like. Another is that I am more inhibited about writing now than I once was. I have to think more carefully about what I write in case it has effects I did not intend.

GD: Yes, throwaway remarks on the blog can lead to some tricky pastoral visits. What does your family think about your blogging habit?
SD: I think they think it is a bit eccentric! My wife reads it now and again.

GD: Do church members read your blog? Reactions?
SD: Interesting question. I don't really know. Our congregation is small (it's a church plant getting started) and not many are internet savvy, even the younger ones. Only occasionally do I get a comment from them about it. Probably just as well.

GD: Which theology/ministry blogs do you find most profitable?
SD: The ones that I get most help from are Building Old School Churches, Church Matters, Exiled Preacher, Helm's Deep, Against Heresies, More Than Words, Reformation21, The Ugley Vicar, Thomas Goodwin, Tim Chester, TheResurgence, Etranger and The Blue Fish. But actually, I read a wide variety of other blogs. That means there are many things I disagree with. However, there is often much that I can learn from in areas not covered by conservative ministry blogs.

GD: Tell us how you became aware of a call to pastoral ministry.
SD: It all happened rather gently. In 1989 my wife and I moved from Glasgow to Derby for my work. I was moving from academia it the engineering industry. Being a bit naive we joined our local United Reformed Church. "Hey, it's Reformed", I thought! I soon discovered it wasn't, but we stuck with it because there were a good number of evangelicals in the congregation. Over time I had the opportunity to preach occasionally. Partly this was out of necessity since preachers seemed hard to come by. However, I found that people in the church began asking me if I had considered entering the ministry. I took the suggestion seriously enough to consider taking a URC lay-preacher training course. I did not get very far with it because I was beginning to have serious doubts about the URC.
In 1997, after 8 years of trying, we finally left the URC over doctrinal issues to attend Woodlands Evangelical Church in Derby. This was like coming into the light! The elders there were very gracious and allowed me to explore whether or not I had a gift for preaching by giving me an opportunity every couple of months. Again some people began to ask whether I had considered full time ministry and if not then perhaps I should.
A couple of things began to happen. Firstly, in coming to Woodlands I began to explore Reformed theology more intensely. In a sense this was a return to my roots in Glasgow. "Just what exactly was I being taught at the Tron in Glasgow?" Woodlands itself would not place itself in that camp completely, but the biblical teaching was the catalyst. This study stimulated an increasing desire to preach the doctrines I was rediscovering. Secondly, I began to think through with Susan what full time ministry might mean for us. We are both naturally cautious people, so this took some time.
Finally, in 2000 I got in contact with the EPCEW since I had come to evangelical presbyterian convictions. In 2001 I finally started theological study at WEST by distance learning. During that time, I had a very useful two years working with Gareth Crossley church-planting in Derbyshire which helped confirm the sense of call.

GD: Who has had the biggest influence on your theological development?
SD: You might expect this from a presbyterian, but John Calvin and John Murray!

GD: What did you find most helpful about your theological studies at WEST?

SD: Probably two things. Firstly, learning the biblical languages had instilled in me a greater love for the Scriptures. It is not so much that one sees a different picture with them. It is just that one sees in higher definition. I love that. Secondly, WEST helped me grow in confidence in the Word such that one need not be afraid of authors who seem to be influential yet wrong. The training at WEST has helped me to discern and evaluate much better than I ever could without it, even if I were a good reader. I meet plenty of people who read plenty but who collect ideas like magpies, yet are unable to make real sense of what they are reading.

GD: Who has taught you most of what it means to preach the Word of God?
SD: There are some things that are "better felt than telt" (to use a Scottish saying). So I have probably learned the most from observing the example of Eric Alexander when at St. George's-Tron, Glasgow. The clarity of his thought and the power and passion of his delivery remain with me. Many lives were changed as a result.
GD: Has being in full time ministry been anything like you expected?
SD: No it's different. I sort of expected when I started in this route that I would end up in a settled pastoral situation. As it turned out, I came to the conviction while training that the church needed to be planting churches, not just doing evangelism. So it was, in a sense, easy for me to join with EPCEW church-panting strategy. However, I did not expect that I would constantly feel out of my depth. Nor did I expect that I would constantly be tempted to worry about whether I am doing the right things day by day. However, I see these as training in dependency from the Lord.

GD: Yes, feeling out of your depth is something of an occupational hazard for pastors. But it keeps us hanging onto the Lord for dear life. Now, your blog features a rather long list of books you have read during 2008. Many pastors I know seem to make little time for reading. Why do you think that it is important for Ministers to keep on studying works of theology?
SD: I struggle with reading. I always have done. My reading rate is 20-30 pages an hour. And that's better than it was! It is easy for me to put off reading some 17th century writer (I am reading Herman Witsius at the moment) because of long sentences, or wierd vocabulary. But it is worth it. I need to feed my soul by having the conversations in my mind with old, dead guys, and young live ones. And there is a ministry benefit - I remember Stuart Olyott saying once (to paraphrase), "If you want your preaching to be interesting, read!" I think what he was getting at was that the preacher's reading benefits his congregation too.

GD: With your scientific background in mind, how would you describe the relationship between science and theology?
SD: I find a couple of scriptures helpful here. Genesis 1:1 gives us the marvellous presupposition we need to have - God exists. Then Psalm 19 marvelously explains how God reveals himself, first in Creation (vv.1-6) then in his Word (vv7-14). Of course, the former is limited. Creation only declares the presence of God. The Word declares who he is and how he can be known. Scientific knowledge fits into the former category of revelation. With the presupposition of Gen 1:1 science is discovering God's handiwork and how he sustains the universe (Heb 1:3).
Of course, the problem comes when many scientists ditch the presupposition of God. My experience is that such scientists don't realise that they accidentally adopt other presuppositions in the scientific process. Thereby, they unwittingly adopt a faith position, which they abhor, and often they smuggle in other presuppositions to make sense of the life they actually live. This can make for a fraught relationship between public science and public theology.

GD: A good presuppositionalist answer there! Right, if time travel were possible, which figure in post-biblical church history would you like to meet and what would you say to them?
SD: I would like to meet John Calvin and ask, "What was the truth about your part in the Servetus affair?

GD: I wonder what he'd say. Who is your favourite fiction writer?
SD: I don't know that I really have an out and out favourite, as I don't read much fiction. One write I have enjoyed is Ian Rankin

GD: Which contemporary theologian would you like to see writing a full length systematic theology, and why?
SD: I guess I have always wondered if Richard Gaffin should do so. I have enjoyed his lectures, articles and books since he combines exegetical rigour with profound insight. His thinking on union with Christ has certainly changed me.
GD: A full-on systematics by Gaffin would be a mouth-watering prospect. If anyone reading this has any infuence with RG, then tell him to do it! I hesitate to ask you this, what with you being a Led Zeppelin loving Presbyterian Mosher, but care to name your top three tunes or pieces of music (not necessarily Christian)?
SD: I have tried to like classical, and I have tried to like Christian, but to little avail. The only thing I like along that line is congregational singing.
So, from a Mosher's perspective here are three (that's hard - only three? [You're fortunate I gave you three, so don't push it - GD]):
Rock'n'Roll (Led Zeppelin)
Where the Streets Have No Name (U2)
Bling (The Killers)
But then, it may change next week...
GD: That wasn't too bad - for a Mosher. Great U2 tune in there. Now, what is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?
SD: I read Robert Letham's "The Holy Trinity" slightly over a year ago. Does that still count? [Oh alright then, becasue I liked it too, see review]. We need to recover the habit of wrestling with who God is and what he is like. This book helps.
If you want one strictly within the last 12 months, I re-read William Guthrie's "The Christian's Great Interest". Heart warming and helpful in knowing what saving faith is. Everyone should read this.
GD: What is the biggest problem facing Reformed Evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
SD: I can only see what is around me and would not claim to know the general state of RE. But I see fear, not necessarily amongst ministers, but amongst elders and members. Many churches are small and struggling, have worries about resourcing the ministry, and are inward looking. This is often contrary to the articulated position. This is a pastoral problem. I believe that as ministers we need to be leading our people to the great truths of the Bible, seeking to persuade them that it is reasonable to believe what it teaches. But also, as pastors, we need to be aware of how the word we are preaching is being believed by our people. That's a constant challenge - to minister to the heart.

GD: It certainly is. Thanks Stephen, for dropping in for this little chat. Every blessing with your ministry!
That was the final interview of Blogging in the name of the Lord: Series 4. I hope to host another set of conversations with Christian bloggers sometime in the New Year.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing another interview series, Guy. I am looking forward to the next one, should it come to pass, in the new year.

Guy Davies said...

That's OK. Glad you've enjoyed them. We'll have to see who we can get in the hot seat for 2009.

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Hope you visit our site and comment, please.

David E. Holt said...

I just stumbled on your interesting and insightful interview with Stephen Dancer. I'll look forward to reading other interviews. My name is David Holt, retired minister after 43 years in the active ministry. Retirement has given me time to write a Practical Ministry 101 type book entitled ABCs Of Ministry: Choosing It, Learning It, Doing It, After It. It's aimed at giving some practical 'how to' suggestions and advice which goes far beyond that offered by most colleges and seminaries. It is my passion and thoughtful desire to help enable ministers in general and young aspiring ministers in particular to do what God has called upon them to do.
David E. Holt

Anonymous said...

Regarding Systematic Theology Douglas Kelly's is due out next month and Richard Gamble has a 3 vol ST/BT/HT coming out next year from P&R.

Surely we do not need anymore.

Guy Davies said...

I wasn't aware of the new ST's coming soon. Douglas Kelly's looks an exciting prospect. But I've only just started on Bavinck Vol 1, so no more ST for me for a while yet.