Keith Stillwell received his master of divinity from The Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville in 1988 and his doctor of ministry from the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia, in 2000. He is the Together for Hope regional vice president for Appalachia (hope.cbf.net/appalachia). Previously Keith served for thirty years on church staff as an associate pastor focused on spiritual formation and missions.
How did you come to write a book centered on “Loving God and Neighbor”? What were you hoping to accomplish when you sat down to write Being a Disciple Community?
In my ministry as associate pastor, focused on spiritual formation and missions, I was working on a way of conceptualizing and organizing the major functions of the church. I thought of this idea as a sort of a filing system for ideas, practices, theology of the church—the disciple community. I was looking for a guiding vision for my life and ministry and I wanted that vision to get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and what is the nature, purpose, and practices of the disciple community. I felt there was no better place to start than with what is the heart of the Jewish faith and the commands that Jesus lifted up as most important, love of God and neighbor. Luke follows up on a conversation about the command to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself, with two stories that beautifully illustrate love of God and neighbor—the Parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary.
I began working on this after completing my Doctor of Ministry from Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond in 2000. My D.Min. project was based on the Good Samaritan and neighborhood ministry. So, this has been a long time in the making. I am grateful that my church, First Baptist Church Frankfort, encouraged me to complete this project to use as a churchwide study and emphasis. And I am grateful that James Stillwell was available and willing at that time to write most of the chapter on Care.
What I was hoping to accomplish in writing this book was to provide a tool to help churches reflect deeply on what it really means to be the church. I hope that it can be a tool that church groups can study together, perhaps as preparation for a more thorough process of discerning God’s mission for their church. My goal was to write not just for ministers, but for the whole church membership. There is not much new in this book, but hopefully it helps make some important ideas accessible to the congregation.
Can you talk a little about the structure of your book? Why did you put it together the way you did?
The major functions of a church, in this book, are organized around the command to love God and neighbor and the two stories that follow. This is an oversimplification, but I think of worship, teaching, and prayer as relating more to loving God and the story of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha, and the tasks of missions, witness, and care, as relating more to loving neighbors and the parable of the Good Samaritan. Community and leadership are how we carry out the work of the church. I introduce each chapter with an imaginary conversation with Mary, the Good Samaritan, and me. Each chapter concludes with “Putting it into practice,” which is a collection of related ideas and practices.
What was your goal in creating conversations with biblical characters in modern times? How could this connect your message with your audience?
For me the conversations with Mary and Sam were a way of imagining what Mary and Sam might have to say to the church today and a way of helping me think about the topics. I meant these conversations as a playful and hopefully relatable way of introducing each chapter.
Why start with “we” before “me”?
Especially when we are talking about the church or the disciple community, we start with “we.” We are not alone. I think starting with “we” is particularly important in our North American culture, that places so much emphasis on individualism. The church is a community of disciples. We are all in this together. When we engage in the practices of the church, we are a part of a team. We have encouragement and support from others. The disciple community needs us.
What is the central lesson that you can offer to ministers trying to survive the pain and fatigue ministry brings, especially in the post-pandemic period?
I hesitate to try to answer that question. Ministry can be overwhelming. Our pastors, and other church leaders, want to do good and follow God’s leadership and there is so much they see to be done. There are so many demands placed on them so there are no easy answers. What I am trying to say with this book is stay focused on the main thing, loving God with all your heart and your neighbors, all neighbors, as you love yourself. A focus on what is most important can help us prioritize our time, efforts, and resources.
What was the most meaningful or surprising experience you had in the process of writing Being a Disciple Community?
Maybe this sounds silly, but when I began to imagine engaging Mary and Sam in conversation and asking them questions, it felt as if they were answering me in ways I didn’t anticipate and with insights that hadn’t occurred to me. I felt like they spoke to me and help provide clarity. I hope I was able to discern God’s voice in Sam and Mary’s.