This is the text of the 2023 Academic Year Convocation address given by Western Theological Seminary President Felix Theonugraha on August 28, 2023. To view the whole convocation service, visit our YouTube Channel here

Why are you here? To the learning community of Western Theological Community, from the Board of Trustees to the faculty, from the staff to the donors, from the returning students to the new students, from the students here in Holland to those watching via livestream, why are you here?

After all, it seems that everything about the Church is trending in the wrong direction. Statistic tells us that the Church in North America is in decline. Church membership is decreasing. Trust in religious leaders is at an all-time low. The number of students attending seminaries continues to decline. It is easy to be discouraged about pursuing ministry.

Yet today, on the 60th Anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech,” we are once again confronted with the depth of hatred that human beings can have toward another when this past weekend in Jacksonville, a white man committed racially motivated attack full of hatred and killed three Black people who were just innocently going about their day. 

Students, you need to know that in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, the Board of Trustees adopted a Statement on Racial and Ethnic Diversity, in which it says that as a Seminary, “we affirm that all human beings are created in the image of God, and we uphold the full dignity and worth of all people of all racial and ethnic identities. Therefore, we reject any direct or indirect discrimination against, and devaluing or dishonoring of, any person on the grounds of race or ethnicity.” Words and actions that violate the image of God in a person have no place here at Western Theological Seminary.

For the purposes of today, the events of this weekend reminds us that, no matter how discouraging the statistic about the Church maybe, we live in a world that is desperately in need of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We live in world that is crying out for the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ that has been accomplished once and for all on the cross. We live in a restless world that is craving hope, peace, and belonging, and this world will remain restless until it finds its rest in God and God alone. And so, I ask again, why are you here today?

In 2009, author Simon Sinek gave a TED talk titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” In what has become the third most watched TED talks of all time, Sinek pointed to the stories of Martin Luther King, the Wright Brothers and Apple and argued that while most people focus on the what of their work, people who inspire others to action focus on the why of what they do. He said, “Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do. 100%. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?”

As we begin this new academic year, I want to begin with a plea and a prayer. Here’s my plea. Know why you are here.

The text that was read for today, Colossians 1.15-23 was actually the same text that was preached at my New Student Orientation back in the Fall of 2002 at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I had just moved from San Francisco, California having never visited the campus. I arrived early with my dad so he could help me find a car and settle into my dorm room. I had just graduated from Cal Berkeley, spent four years in the newest residence hall at the school, equipped with a T1 LAN line that was the fastest data connectivity network available at the time. 

I arrived at TEDS and moved into a residence hall that was built in the 1970s with just barely just enough room for a bed, a desk, a dresser, and a place to hang your clothes. The windows were poorly sealed, the building was poorly insulated, and worse of all, it was only equipped with a dial up connection. For a young 22-year-old moving half way across the country to a land that I did not know, leaving my friends, family, and everything that was familiar to me behind, this was too much to bear. Unbeknownst to me at the time, My dad, upon returning home, told my mom that he had never seen me so depressed.

But there I was, sitting in the Opening Chapel of New Student Orientation, wondering what I had gotten myself into, when the president of the school, Dr. Greg Waybright, stood up and preached from this text. And it was at that Chapel where I sensed the still small voice of God saying to me, “this is exactly where I want you to be.”

Scholars are nearly unanimous in recognizing Colossians 1:15-20 as a hymn that exalts the supremacy of Jesus Christ. The hymn begins by declaring Christ’s supremacy over all of creation. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. The preeminent Christ is eternally in the very likeness of God and the visible incarnate representation of the invisible God from eternity past to eternity future. 

The phrase “firstborn” does not imply that Jesus Christ was the first to be created, but rather that Jesus Christ was before all of creation. For in Jesus Christ, all things were created. All things, whether in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. Thrones, powers, rulers, or authorities. All things, everything was created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. Jesus Christ is supreme and is sovereign over all of Creation. Friends, this Jesus is the one who we worship. This Jesus is the one who we love. This Jesus is the one who calls us to follow him.

But the text does not stop there. From this high, mighty, exalted, astounding, amazing description of the Supremacy of Christ over all creation, Paul goes on to argue why Christ’s supremacy matters to us, the Church. Just as Jesus Christ is supreme over the cosmos, he is also sovereign over the Church. He is the head of the body and of the Church. Not only are all things created in Him and through Him, all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, are also reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, who made peace through His blood that was shed on the cross. Reconciliation with God, being restored into a harmonious relationship with God is possible only and because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and through his shed blood.

And in case the Church in Colossae was not paying attention, Paul brings this message home in verses 21-22. Oh, by the way, I’m talking about you. You see, you were alienated from God and were enemies of God because of your evil behavior. But now, Jesus has reconciled you with God and restored you to God through his body and as a result of Christ’s work on the cross, you are now holy in God’s sight, without blemish and without accusation, as you persevere in your faith. You are the recipient of God’s grace and mercy. You are the object of the reconciling work of Christ. This transcendent God has drawn us near to Him, so that by the grace of God, in Christ, we may be declared righteous before God!

And this Gospel, Paul goes on to say—this good news of of Jesus Christ reconciling us through his death to present us holy in God’s sight is the reason why Paul have become a servant of God. Paul has become a servant of this Gospel message. This is Paul’s why.

In that same vein, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that being a servant of this Gospel message should also be our why. 

As 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 reminds us, God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. What is this ministry? That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal to us.” 

Friends, this too is our why. This is the ministry that has been entrusted to us. And it is a weighty one, an important one, a crucial one. Our God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, the one who reigns supreme over all of creation, the one in whom and through whom all things were made, the head of the Church, has chosen to entrust the message of reconciliation to us, so that by the power of the Spirit, we may implore the world on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. 

Friends, let me say it again. This is my plea to you this morning. This is our why: we are here so that we may be formed and equipped as ambassadors of God, so that we may appeal to the world, be reconciled to God, your Creator, your Savior, your Redeemer. We are ambassadors of this message of reconciliation–Be reconciled to God.

And so, in light of this, here is my prayer for the Western Theological Seminary learning community this year. Every year, I have the privilege of selecting a theme verse for us, and this year, I have selected Romans 12:2 to be our theme verse. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world. But be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” 

Romans 12:2 provides a contrast between two agendas. The pattern of this world, and the will of God. The pattern of this age is one of sin and death, whereas the will of God for us is to live as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. Paul commands us to not conform to the pattern of this world, but instead to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. We are instructed to readjust or to reprogram the way that we think so that we may understand, agree, and live into the will of God for our lives.

So friends, my prayer for us as a community is this—that your time here would be a time of transformation. That we may more and more, grow and mature into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who is the head of the Church.

One more concluding point before I take my seat. Often, the thrust that is pulled out from Romans 12:2 is the phrase “renewing of your mind.” It is used to encourage us to discern truth from error, right from wrong, and to be confident in what we believe. And friends, I pray that for us. In fact, it is appropriate for a Seminary, as an institution of theological education and a learning community, to put a high emphasis on the renewing of our minds. After all, the pattern of this world and the will of God are not complementary agendas. You cannot seek and approve the will of God while also living in conformity with the pattern of this world. Seek God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will!

But I also cannot help but note that beginning in Romans 12:3 through the end of Romans 12, the focus of the chapter is actually not on individual transformation but on communal transformation. It is as if Paul is saying that the evidence of our transformation can be most clearly observed in the way that we interact with one another in community. 

  • In v. 3, he encourages us to be humble. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” 
  • In v. 10, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” 
  • In v. 13, “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” 
  • In v. 14, “Bless those who persecute you.” 
  • In v. 15 “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” 
  • In v. 16. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.” I
  • n v.17 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in front of everyone.” 
  • In v. 18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” 

It is as if Paul is saying that the fruit of a transformed life is most evident in the context of community. Now, I don’t know if that’s right. Dr. Wesley Hill and Dr. Madison Pierce are our New Testament scholars, and so I submit my interpretation to their evaluation, and friends, they are excellent. But assuming that I am not entirely off base, this is my prayer for us this year.

My fellow ambassadors of Christ, ministers of the Gospel of reconciliation: May this year be a year of transformation for us and may the fruit of this transformation be evident in the way that we interact with one another.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The following excerpt was taken from a chapel sermon by Tanner Huizenga, a current in-residence Master of Divinity student.

My hope for the church has recently been encouraged by crying in a storage room.

Before I explain, I want to give us some context for Paul’s letters to Timothy. Paul is Timothy’s mentor, and in his letter, he instructs Timothy to help the Church in Ephesus find its way back to following Christ’s ways.

The church in Ephesus had mixed the ancient Greek and contemporary Roman cultural beliefs in their worship, preaching, and life. They reached the point where they, as a church, created something entirely different from the message of Jesus.

With that in mind, let me read the encouragement that Paul gives Timothy as he embarks on his journey to nudge the church of Ephesus back toward Christ.

“When I left for Macedonia, I urged you to stay there in Ephesus and stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth. Don’t let them waste their time in endless discussion of myths and spiritual pedigrees. These things only lead to meaningless speculations, which don’t help people live a life of faith in God. The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith. But some people have missed this whole point. They have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions. They want to be known as teachers of the law of Moses, but they don’t know what they are talking about, even though they speak so confidently.” 1 Timothy 1:3-7

…filled with love from a pure heart and genuine faith. My heart yearns for that. I imagine that your heart yearns for that as well.

Yet, we live in Ephesus. Our churches today suffer in a similar way to the church in Ephesus. The Ephesian church had lost its focus on the foundation of God’s love, and lost itself in the Roman and Greek cultural influences that pushed against the truth of Jesus. Not only did they mix all these different beliefs, they, as a community, spent their time speculating and arguing about what the church’s beliefs should be. In one sense, the church should be having healthy discussions about its collective beliefs, but their discussions turned into arguments, which led to the absence of love, genuine faith, and pure hearts.

So where do we find genuine faith and hope for the church in the context of all this brokenness and hopelessness? Personally, I have found it from being a witness to students’ hearts.

As a youth pastor, I’ve heard my students ask big questions that reflect their even bigger hearts. These students have shown me that before we can ever hope to be a community that points others to Jesus or a saving witness to the world around us, we must first posture ourselves to be fully present to the people around us.

In the summer of 2022, we took our middle school youth group on a mission trip to Charleston, West Virginia. Each night, we set aside ‘group time’ before bed, which was a time for our youth group to discuss the day. Our students picked the storage room in the basement as our group time meeting space. This storage room was accompanied by stained cement floors, several old plastic Christmas trees, a nasty yet comfortable leather couch, and chairs made for toddlers. But the students didn’t mind; that was our spot.

One night during group time, Andrew, one of our students, shared a story about another student he had met that day named Armani. Armani met Andrew while serving at a shelter for women struggling with addiction. Andrew began to share that this child was at the shelter because his parents were absent from his life through the struggle of drug abuse. In that absence, his grandfather, who worked at the shelter, stepped in to raise him.

Armani’s story struck a deep chord with Andrew because he, too, had lost both of his parents and was being raised by a grandparent. As Andrew finished his story, he said something that will always stick with me: “Armani was so happy, even despite all that had happened to him.” As he said this, I began to think that Andrew, in a way, got a chance to care for his younger self—to look his own story in the eyes and see all that likely confused and hurt him when he was Armani’s age—and see his younger self smile back at him.

If you knew Andrew, you’d know that nothing in the world would break his spirit for life. Through his story, he set the tone for that room to be a space where other students could freely share. More students began recognizing that the pain and struggle they felt so alone in was a shared struggle of hurt and loss. As students shared how God had been reconciling the painful parts of their lives, they collectively laid hands on each person and surrounded them in prayer. Hands-on prayer turned into a giant group hug after each student shared. After we had prayed for everyone, a student said something that I will always remember: “I forgot who I was hugging!”

Through all the hugs and prayers, each student was held by God in a way that will forever change the way I see the church. What kind of community becomes so present to the trials and tribulations of their peers that they simply forget who they are hugging, comforting, or extending compassion to? I saw so many students learn about God’s love with a posture of listening to the pain of others to reach a more compassionate understanding of one another. That’s genuine faith, that’s a pure heart, that’s God’s love.

Just like those youth group students have modeled so well, the call and responsibility for each of us is to posture ourselves as learners and listeners of the teacher Jesus.

Sit at the feet of Jesus and be a lifelong learner of his heart. When we do that, we offer ourselves to become a more compassionate community because we have trained our ears to hear his pain stories. We become a compassionate community filled with love from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith.

Written by Dr. Tim Basselin, Director of Field Education and Student Life at Western Theological Seminary

At WTS, we care deeply about the formation of our students. The Abbey courses, Abbey retreat, and intensive courses are designed to foster whole-person formation, encouraging deep spiritual growth and meaningful connections among our students. Let’s delve into the transformative experiences that await you at Western.

The Abbey Courses: Cultivating Community and Spiritual Formation

At Western, we prioritize the holistic development of our students, and the Abbey courses play a crucial role in this endeavor. The Abbey is a required course for M.Div. students and is open to all students. 

Over the course of 6 semesters at the Abbey, a small group of 6-8 students led by a professor meet regularly to build a strong sense of community, explore spiritual disciplines, support one another, and engage in life together.

This intentional community fosters vulnerability, open dialogue, and attentiveness to the movements of the Spirit. Such practices are essential movements of the Spirit: essential practices for responding to the Triune God’s ongoing redemptive work in the world, as highlighted in our mission statement.

Students often express that these groups are the most formative aspect of their education, nurturing spiritual practices and lifelong friendships that continue to support them long after their time at Western has ended.

Abbey Retreats: Spaces for Spiritual Growth and Connection

Each semester, Abbey courses include a two-day retreat held in October and February. The Abbey retreat is open to all WTS students, even those not enrolled in an Abbey course. 

The Abbey retreats bring together distance learning and in-residence students, professors, and administration to practice, explore, and share their spiritual lives with one another. Every retreat revolves around a theme and provides ample opportunities for Abbey groups to deepen their connections with and demonstrate their care for one another.

While we recognize that committing to a small group for three years and attending two retreats in Holland each year may seem like a significant demand, these opportunities embody our dedication to whole-person formation.

The Intensives: Embracing Learning and Relationships

In addition to Abbey courses and retreats, WTS offers in-person intensive courses for those who are otherwise taking courses online. These courses further emphasize whole-person formation by recognizing the unique learning that occurs when students gather in a shared physical space. Sitting together in a classroom, sharing meals, and engaging in casual conversations alongside academic pursuits fosters deeper connections and enhances the educational experience.

Whether you are an in-residence or distance learning student, our goal is to develop meaningful relationships, create a sense of belonging, and provide supportive environments that encourage curiosity and connection throughout your journey of theological education.

Written by President Felix Theonugraha, President of Western Theological Seminary

We live in a rapidly changing society. Notably, the religious landscape of the United States is undergoing a transformation unlike anything we have experienced in the history of this country. Studies have shown that the number of Christians is declining, while the number of people who consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion continues to rise.

Western Theological Seminary is also navigating this rapid transformation. WTS was established in 1866 when seven of the first eight Hope College graduates petitioned the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America for permission to continue their ministerial preparation in Holland, Michigan, instead of traveling back to the East Coast.

The General Synod agreed and established the seminary to meet the needs of the mid-western churches. Now, 157 years later, the mission and purpose have remained unchanged: to form women and men for faithful Christian ministry and participation in the Triune God’s ongoing redemptive work in the world.

In other words, we exist for the sake of the Church. At the same time, the denominational and educational landscape we find ourselves in today is drastically different from 1866. According to the Association of Theological Schools, by 2030, the most common seminary student will be attending a school that does not belong to or receive support from the same denomination as their parents, and will most likely end up serving at a church that belongs to a movement, network, or denomination that did not exist 30 years ago. 


Western Theological Seminary is already experiencing this profound shift. A mere 25 years ago, most of our students came from the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and almost all of our faculty members were ordained in the RCA.

Today, only about 25% of our students come from the RCA, while only about 50% of our faculty is ordained in the RCA.

In light of this shift, WTS requested and received permission from the General Synod to become an officially related seminary of the RCA (just like Hope College, Northwestern College, and Central College) instead of a seminary owned and operated by the RCA. This new status will make a tangible difference in our ability to recruit students from beyond the RCA and establish partnerships with churches outside the denomination.

We are already seeing the fruits of this shift, as denominations such as the Disciples of Christ and churches from the Presbyterian Church USA have begun sending students to WTS and establishing new scholarships with the seminary.

But what does this mean for you, our churches, loyal supporters, and partners? In short, you will find more of what you have always loved and appreciated about Western Theological Seminary.

You will continue to find a school that is absolutely and unashamedly committed to the historic Christian faith, the authority of scripture, and the flourishing of the Church.

You will find faculty members dedicated to our students’ holistic formation. You will find a seminary that continues to be distinctively Reformed, drawing upon the richness of Reformed theology and the depth of the Reformed tradition to inform our theological reflections and preparation for ministry. You will find a seminary that remains unmoved in our commitment to equip women and men for all levels of ministry. You will find a seminary that is responsive to the critical needs of the day by developing new programs in Mental Health Counseling and Disability and Ministry so that our students can be equipped to face the urgent challenges of our society. You will find a seminary that continues to grow in our Spanish language programs and engagement with Christians from the majority world, where the Church is bursting at the seams and growing in leaps and bounds. In other words, you will find a seminary that will continue to graduate pastors to serve and lead the Church with you.


We are indeed living in a time of rapid, challenging shifts. Yet, I am filled with hopeful excitement for the critical role that Western Theological Seminary has played and will continue to play in forming and equipping students who will faithfully lead the Church, proclaim the good news of the Gospel, and embody the love of Jesus Christ in a broken and hurting world that desperately needs Jesus, the hope of the world. By God’s grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we will meet the challenges of today and the problems of tomorrow for the flourishing of the Church.

Western Theological Seminary (WTS) has received a grant of $1.15 million from Lilly Endowment Inc. to support the Center of Disability and Ministry in establishing the Nurturing Children with Disabilities Project.  

The program is funded through Lilly Endowment’s Nurturing Children Through Worship and Prayer Initiative. The aim of the national initiative is to support faith-based organizations as they help children grow in faith and deepen their relationships with God.

Through the Nurturing Children with Disabilities Project, guided by Director of the Center for Disability and Ministry Director Dr. Benjamin Conner, WTS will develop a theology and practices of corporate worship that are inclusive of children with disabilities.   

The program will support specific congregations in this effort and create popular and academic articles and books along with resources for the Center for Disability and Ministry (CDM) that will be available widely.  

“We are excited to learn alongside congregations how to see the world God created through the eyes of children with disabilities as we attend to the ministry of horses, explore nature together, and express our insights through artistic expression,” said Dr. Benjamin Conner, Director of the Center for Disability and Ministry. “As we recover awe and wonder, we will consider how we might join our praises and laments to creation’s ongoing chorus of worship.”

Lilly Endowment is making nearly $32 million in grants through this invitational round of the Nurturing Children initiative. The grants are funding efforts to help organizations develop new and/or enhance existing programs that support congregations as they design worship services and prayer practices that more intentionally and fully engage children. 

Western Theological Seminary is one of 26 organizations taking part in the initiative. They represent and serve congregations in a broad spectrum of Christian traditions, including mainline Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, Pentecostal, Black church, Hispanic and Asian traditions.  Many organizations also serve churches that describe themselves as nondenominational, ecumenical, and multi-denominational.

Lilly Endowment launched the Nurturing Children initiative in 2022 as part of its commitment to support efforts that strengthen the religious education and formation of children and enhance the vitality of Christian congregations.

About Lilly Endowment Inc.

Lilly Endowment Inc. is a private foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly Sr. and his sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. While those gifts remain the financial bedrock of the Endowment, it is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff, and location. In keeping with the founder’s wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education, and religion and maintains a particular commitment to its hometown, Indianapolis, and its home state, Indiana. The Endowment’s religion grantmaking aims to deepen and enrich the lives of Christians in the United States, primarily by seeking out and supporting efforts that enhance the vitality of congregations and strengthen the pastoral and lay leadership of Christian communities. The Endowment also seeks to improve public understanding of diverse religious traditions by supporting fair and accurate portrayals of the role religion plays in the United States and across the globe.

About Western Theological Seminary

Western Theological Seminary(WTS) is a reformed Christian theological seminary in Holland, Michigan. WTS offers 16 graduate programs online, in residence, in English, and in Spanish, for women and men preparing for faithful Christian ministry.  Home to the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination and Center for Disability and Ministry, WTS is committed to providing excellent theological education and forming students spiritually. WTS was founded in 1866 when seven of the eight members of Hope College’s inaugural graduating class wished to become ministers and petitioned the RCA to allow them to complete their education in Holland.

The Faith and Illness Initiative (FII) is a project hosted by The Girod Chair of Western Theological Seminary to discover a theology of vocation and virtue for Christians living with chronic illness.

FII seeks to facilitate an interdisciplinary conversation among pastors, scholars, and medical professionals, alongside faithful Christians who live with chronic pain or illness and their caregivers. The goal is to shape the theological imagination of the church on this topic.

FII is currently recruiting pastors to participate in the 2023 FII Colloquy. Click Below to learn more and apply


By Dr. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology

The Problem: The Growing Challenge of Chronic Illness and Inadequate Storylines of Discipleship

Medicine has its limits, but it is an extraordinary gift from God. Modern medicine has made great strides in treating acute injuries and illnesses, extending lifespans and giving “second chances” for life to many patients with serious illness. Amidst these advances, the prevalence of chronic illness has risen sharply. Demographic studies anticipate that serious chronic illness will become significantly more widespread in coming decades. Bio-medical treatments have provided great help for many with acute illnesses. But as research has shown, bio-medical approaches to chronic illness are ultimately insufficient. Indeed, as Harvard Medical School professor Arthur Kleienman has shown in The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition, chronic illness is invariably complex, with biological, psychological, social, and cultural elements tightly entangled together. Fruitful treatment requires not simply a new pill, or another bio-chemical intervention. Instead, since chronic illness is a “bio-psycho-social” reality, a path toward healing engages not the medical system, with its various approaches to physical and mental health, but the patient’s culture and community, the life-purposes of the ill. Chronic illness is a deepening problem. It will not be properly addressed by treating individuals as “consumers” of medical goods and services. We need the partnership of communities of connection and care. We need to engage questions of life-purpose, which relate to faith. Ultimately, for those of us who are Christians living with chronic illness, we need the living God. We need the church. And the church needs us.

And yet, in the modern west today, Christians with chronic and degenerative illness are asked to live within a narrow set of “storylines” about how the gospel relates to these complex forms of illness. While prayer and support are helpful, these Christians often become objects of prayer for healing in a way that suggests they cannot participate in God’s mission in the world until the illness goes away. Whether through the common storylines of  “victory over illness” through the “miracle of modern medicine,” or through praying for miraculous intervention, Christians living with ongoing illness often feel forgotten and sidelined when the illness continues unabated. Ill Christians are often told to become “advocates” to “fix” the problem to be “warriors against cancer” or “warriors against chronic Lyme disease.” But the ongoing battle of displaying the light of Christ in a darkening world is no longer seen as a possibility. In spite of good intentions from faith communities in our medicalized age, they often fail to offer a robust theology and pathways of discipleship for followers of Christ amidst illness. 

The Path Forward: To Recover a Robust Vision of Vocation and Discipleship

The Christian faith has a long and storied heritage in caring for persons struggling with illness. This has been displayed in a variety of personal and communal callings. Some have explored the marvelous order and complexity within God’s creation to discover new medicines and modes of treatment. Others steward their energy to help provide a communal response to acute injuries and illnesses. Others provide care through help and companionship, as a family member or clinician. Since the earliest centuries of the Christian faith, Christians have sought to provide communal and personal responses to fellow image-bearers in need, in body and soul.   

In addition, for centuries before modern medicine, Christian communities joined together in worship with the ill, addressing the needs and gifts of ill members of the congregation in particular ways. Coming before the Lord of life with laments and petitions for healing, Christians prayed for one another to grow in conformity with Christ, whether or not the illness was physically healed. Physical healing is a good gift. But recognizing that the Christian’s ultimate enemy is not illness, but sin and the work of the principalities and powers, Christian communities sought to give a robust vision of discipleship for the ill and (temporarily) healthy alike. Amidst the affliction of ongoing illness, believers faced particular temptations, such as despair and envy, and were especially called to particular virtues, such as hope and perseverance. The community was called to support ill brothers and sisters in their vulnerabilities, and to learn  from them in their examples as fellow ambassadors of the good news. 

This commitment to a robust vision of discipleship that extends not only to the healthy but the ill has a deep source in the Christian faith: by the Spirit, the church bears witness to our crucified and risen Lord. As the apostle Paul testified, the power of God is displayed in the crumbling “jars of clay” of our mortal bodies. This takes place “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7, NIV). Our bodies are good gifts, temples of the Holy Spirit. And yet, “outwardly we are wasting away” even as “inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Amidst his own ongoing afflictions, Paul repeatedly cried out for relief (2 Cor. 12:8). Yet the Risen Jesus declared to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8). Amidst ongoing illness, Christians are to simultaneously seek mending and repair, and to bear witness to the crucified and risen Lord when illness persists. For as Paul testified, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). 

The Opening Colloquy: Fall of 2023

The first colloquy for the Faith and Illness Initiative will take place September 18-20, 2023, in Holland, MI. It will include two public events – one at Western Theological Seminary, and one at Hope College, co-sponsored by the St. Benedict Institute.

Apart from the two public events, a core group of 12-14 will meet for discussions, meals, and shared life together. This core group will include a group of visiting scholars and clinicians, a group of pastor-theologians (who will be accepted after an application process) and a small group of seminary students. 

  • Scholar and Clinician Participants: Dr. J. Todd Billings, theologian at Western Theological Seminary and author of Rejoicing in Lament and The End of the Christian Life will be the scholar-host. He will help lead the discussion with confirmed visiting speakers and scholars, including Dr. Matthew Levering, theologian and author of Dying and the Virtues (and many other books); Dr. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, author of Glittering Vices (and numerous other works) and a philosopher at Calvin University specializing in virtue ethics;  Dr. Irene Kraegel, author of The Mindful Christian and a clinician who directs the Center for Counseling and Wellness at Calvin University. 
  • Guest Participants:  Each colloquy will feature discussions with a variety of participants from theological and medical perspectives. In addition, various faculty from Western Theological Seminary and Hope College will join the group for discussions that are pertinent to their areas of interest and expertise.
  • Discussions:  The discussions function like “think tank” sessions, diving deeply into the topic. We seek to think biblically and theologically about our topic, but in a way that is attentive to pastoral practice, congregational life, and the experience of Christians living with chronic and degenerative illness. The “end goal” is to generate constructive theological, liturgical, and pastoral resources to embrace a renewed theology of discipleship for Christians living with ongoing illness. 
  • Articles, Blog Posts and resources will emerge from pastors after each colloquy, on the ecclesial dimensions of the topic.

The following excerpt contains sections from Chapter 7, “Faith for Exiles: Keeping Faith in Digital Babylon,” in Rooted: Growing in Christ in a Rootless Age by Stephen C. Shaffer (Peniel Press, 2022). Stephen graduated from WTS in 2013 with an M.Div. and is currently a pastor at Bethel Reformed Church in Brantford, Ontario.

Babylon is not dead; it just went online. In their book Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock describe our current culture in the West as a “Digital Babylon.” Once, the Christian faith sat at the center of many communities—as Jerusalem sat in the middle of Israel. Now, that faith feels pushed to the margins. Many of us may have grown up near a “spiritual Jerusalem,” but we now live in Babylon. Though we may not feel as if we have changed, the culture has certainly changed around us, and it can be disorienting, particularly as change seems to occur faster and faster. 

We sense that fewer people are religious (or at least believe in the same way). We have now moved into Babylon. No one asked us if we wanted to move, but we are there, nonetheless. According to Kinnaman and Matlock:

Ancient Babylon was the pagan-but-spiritual, hyper-stimulated, multicultural, imperial crossroads that became the unwilling home of Judean exiles, including the prophet Daniel, in the sixth century BCE. But digital Babylon is not a physical place. It is the pagan-but-spiritual, hyper-stimulated, multicultural, imperial crossroads that is the virtual home of every person with Wi-Fi, a data plan, or—for most of us—both.

While Ancient Babylon used the threat of physical violence to impose its will, Digital Babylon’s weapons are more subtle, though no less powerful. The goal is not merely military conquest but cultural conquest.

Digital Babylon does not need swords and arrows to conquer us when it can use the internet and our smartphones. When we consume content on the internet, whether through apps, videos, music, tv shows, or social media, we are being discipled—shaped to consider some things important by how much attention they take from us. In this way, we can participate in our own colonization by Digital Babylon. “The idea of digital colonization may seem extreme, but here is the point: screens inform and connect, but they also distract and entertain. Through screens’ ubiquitous presence, [Digital] Babylon’s pride, power, prestige, and pleasure colonize our hearts and minds.” Digital Babylon works its way into our hearts through the devices we can never seem to leave behind. 

Digital Babylon is driven by distraction. Our most precious commodity in the digital age is not our time or money, but our attention. Boredom is the new enemy, and everything we own seeks to capture our limited attention. The problem of distraction, however, runs much deeper than the temptation to scroll through Facebook at work. Our inability to sit quietly with our own souls creates the most significant spiritual problem of our times. When our hearts begin to ache, we self-medicate through technology. The discomfort, the quiet prick of our conscience, the unease that all is not right with ourselves, or even the hint that there might be something more—these fears are quieted quickly by watching another episode on Netflix, joining another Twitter crusade, or scrolling TikTok. 

Big questions take time to consider. It requires attention to examine our deeply held convictions, to wrestle with uncomfortable and potentially life-altering truths.

Yet, utterly exhausted from needing to know the latest thing constantly, we have little energy to consider the deeper things. Trained to distract ourselves at the slightest sense of internal discomfort, we stop the hard work of soul searching before it even begins. “The problem occurs when antipathy toward sustained introspection and soul searching, cultivated through habitual distraction, becomes a barrier for hearing the gospel.”

The distraction at the heart of Digital Babylon is dangerous, not just for workplace productivity but also for our souls. Through digital addiction, we numb ourselves to the prick of our conscience, an instrument the Holy Spirit uses for our redemption and sanctification. We soothe our conscience, not through confession and absolution, but through the rush of distraction. 

Let’s be honest—we are all in Digital Babylon now. We cannot go back to Jerusalem, at least not yet. We are called to live and to learn to live in this land of exile. We must, like Israel before us, learn to live as strangers in a strange land, to live as faithful people on foreign soil. I am not arguing that technology is inherently bad and that we should eliminate all digital technology from our lives. Instead, we need to recognize the culture we live in and how it shapes us to love and value certain things. 

If we are unaware of how our culture shapes us, we will be unprepared for the struggles our culture causes. “If we assume that society will continue down the path of adopting invasive and distracting technologies, the question facing Christians becomes not only how can we resist these changes but also how can we speak the truth in a culture where this is the norm?” Like all exiles, we will need to learn specific patterns of resistance. In the biblical story of God’s people, we see how God gave gifts to his church—such as baptism, the Christian funeral, prayer, singing, the Lord’s Supper, and wisdom—that foster deeper rootedness in Christ in a rootless land.

We must be rooted in something deeper than our distractable, media-fueled days. We must root ourselves in Christ himself. Only when we abide in Christ, when we belong—not to ourselves, but to Jesus—will we be able to withstand the pressures of Digital Babylon. Digital Babylon may seem like a hopeless place to live. Yet, green shoots grow up among the rubble.

Western Theological Seminary Welcomes Director of MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program

Dr. Elizabeth Pennock is joining the WTS faculty summer of 2023. 

Dr. Elizabeth Pennock will join the faculty of Western Theological Seminary (WTS) and serve as Associate Professor of Counseling and Director of the Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling Program, which will begin receiving applications summer of 2023.

“Dr. Pennock brings the sought-after combination of a skilled counselor, competent teacher, and gifted administrator that we need for this role,” said WTS Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Kristen Deede Johnson. “We are tremendously grateful that God opened the way for her to join us to provide leadership to this endeavor alongside current faculty member Dr. Chuck DeGroat.  Dr. Pennock will be a gift to our entire faculty and seminary as well as to the wider church and community, especially in light of today’s mental health crisis.”

Dr. Pennock’s areas of expertise include trauma and trauma-informed care, counselor education and supervision, and spirituality and counseling. The dissertation she completed for her PhD in Counselor Education was titled “Trauma-Informed Clergy: An Investigation of Factors Predicting the Trauma-Related Attitudes and Beliefs of Christian Clergy in Florida” (University of Central Florida). She has specialized training in trauma therapy that informs her research, teaching, and counseling practice.

Dr. Pennock spent seven years doing mission work and church planting in Eastern Europe before pursuing her career in counseling. After completing her master’s in counseling, alongside running a private practice, she spent six years as a missionary member care provider with a large, interdenominational mission agency. In this role, she provided counseling and crisis care to global missionaries, including psychological assessment of applicants to help assess their readiness for ministry and training staff members in spiritual and emotional formation and cultural adjustment.

Recently, Dr. Elizabeth Pennock was involved in helping with the successful initial CACREP (Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) accreditation efforts for Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Western Theological Seminary will be seeking CACREP accreditation for its program.

“The qualifications required to lead a program that receives CACREP accreditation are extensive,” said Dr. Chuck DeGroat, Professor of Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality. “Dr. Pennock is uniquely qualified and comes to this role deeply committed to Christ and the church.  WTS is truly fortunate.”

“CACREP accreditation is the gold standard for counseling programs,” said WTS President Felix Theonugraha. “Already, seven states require students to graduate from a CACREP-accredited school to qualify for licensure. An additional 21 states have legislation in the works requiring counselors to graduate from a CACREP-accredited school to be eligible for licensure. I predict that Michigan will require CACREP accreditation in just a few years.

“Given the severity and complexity of mental health challenges in our communities, churches, and country, we cannot afford to offer anything less than the highest quality counseling program to our students, which is why we sought Dr. Pennock to lead the program.”

Applications for the Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program are expected to be available in late summer of 2023, with the inaugural class joining the WTS community fall of 2024.

Prospective students and current pastors, and ministry leaders will also have the opportunity to take two courses during the 2023-2024 academic year at a discounted rate. These bundled courses are designed to equip current leaders to engage in trauma-informed ministry in light of the contemporary mental health crisis.

Western Theological Seminary (WTS) is a Christian theological seminary affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. Located in Holland, Michigan, WTS offers 12 graduate programs online, in residence, in English, and Spanish, for women and men preparing for faithful Christian ministry.  Home to the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination and Center for Disability and Ministry, WTS is committed to providing excellent theological education and forming students spiritually. WTS was founded in 1866 when seven of the eight members of Hope College’s inaugural graduating class wished to become ministers and petitioned the RCA to allow them to complete their education in Holland.

By Dr. Madison Pierce, Associate Professor of New Testament

If you were to flip through the pages of the New Testament and stop to glance at the opening lines of its letters, you would quickly notice a pattern develop: “Paul, apostle…”; “Paul, slave…”; “Paul, apostle…”; and so on. But then you would reach the opening of the letter to the Hebrews: “At times and in various ways, God spoke to our ancestors.” Within its canonical context, the beginning of Hebrews rightly catches our attention. The Epistle opens strangely, not only when compared to other letters in the New Testament, but also to other letters from that period of time. The author doesn’t begin with a self-introduction: instead, he introduces us to God.

Through an extended theological reflection, Hebrews introduces us to a God who speaks. This God spoke to the ancestors of the addressees through the prophets for generations, and now this same God speaks to “us” through the Son (Heb. 1:1–2). Uttering words of the psalmist, this God says to Jesus, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (1:5; 5:5; quoting Ps. 2:7), and “you are a priest forever” (5:5; 7:17; quoting Ps. 110:4).

As God speaks again and again throughout the epistle, each quotation embodies new life as God’s words illuminate the priestly work of Christ on our behalf.

Nevertheless, it is not enough just to read Hebrews; it must also be interpreted. And unfortunately, several noteworthy interpretations of Hebrews are unhelpful, some even harmful. For instance, some think that Hebrews is exemplary in proof-texting Scripture—taking quotations of Scripture out of their context and forcing them to say something contrary to the author’s intention. But reading early Jewish interpretations shows us that the author of Hebrews quotes several passages in ways that would be relatively unsurprising to others at that time. They understood them to be about the Messiah, too—before Jesus was even born!

Other interpreters think that the author of Hebrews appeals to Scripture in ways that undermine God’s ongoing faithfulness to the Jewish people; they think the author of Hebrews goes as far as to “replace” them with the Church. But what these readers of Hebrews do not realize is that the author draws upon Scripture in ways that uphold God’s commitment to his covenant people and that honor the practices of the Jewish people. The author draws upon texts that we often avoid—like Leviticus—to portray Jesus in a way that coheres with the sacrificial system that his readers knew. The author of Hebrews knew the value that the Jewish people received in ordering their lives around the practices prescribed in the Law, but he also knew that one important function of those practices was to foreshadow the work of Christ. Calvin affirms this aspect of Hebrews, saying: “There is, indeed, no book in the Holy Scriptures which speaks so clearly of the priesthood of Christ….” And, in fact, he felt that the portrayal of the Levitical sacrifices was so valuable that he charged his readers to “defend the possession of [Hebrews].”

The author introduces the relationship between the incredible work of Christ and Scripture through speech. Speech for us is often quick and fragmented, hurried, or seemingly inconsequential—food orders, small talk about the weather, etc.

But Hebrews discloses how God’s speech is powerful and generative–at the very heart of the life of the Triune God and his saving work in the world.

For most of Hebrews, we have the opportunity to “overhear” (in a manner of speaking) what God has said to the Son and what the Son has said to the Father. The Father tells us that his remarkable Son is the one who laid the foundations of the earth and that the heavens are the works of his hands (Heb. 1:10–12, quoting Ps. 102:25–27). The Father declares his Son a priest forever (Heb. 5:5; 7:17, 20, quoting Ps. 110:4), one who offers a single yet wholly effective sacrifice on our behalf (e.g., Heb. 7:27). In turn, the Son expresses his desire to lead his brothers and sisters in praising the Father (Heb. 2:12, quoting Ps. 22:22) and also expresses trust in the Father (Heb. 2:13, quoting Isa. 8:17). Additionally, later in the argument, he proclaims his desire to do the will of God (Heb. 10:5–7, quoting Psalm 40:6–8), which in the context of Hebrews 10 is his sacrificial offering in the heavenly tabernacle.

God speaks through Scripture to readers of every age. His Spirit encourages us not to harden our hearts (Heb. 3:7–11, quoting Ps. 95:7–11). The author of Hebrews presses us to expect that we will hear God’s voice, and he teaches us about the power of God’s words—words that brought the world into being and established a powerful covenant with Israel. The author of Hebrews also teaches us to listen to the Son speaking to us, not only through quotations directed to the Father but also through his life and ministry. He reminds us that Christians across all traditions and in all times and places share in this—the holy calling to heed the Word of God.


 John Calvin, Hebrews and 1 & 2 Peter, trans. William Johnston (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 1.