A chat with Hallam Willis
So this past week I had to opportunity to chat over email with an old and dear friend of mine Hallam Willis. Hal is someone I’ve known for much of my life; we were in sunday school together as kids (and then lost touch), were baptisted the same day, became close friends, worked in ministries together, and were involved in each others weddings (he as my best man, myself as a groomsman). Hal is a brother who the Lord has used to bless me immensely and help me change for the better. He is someone whose wisdom I seek frequently, who challenges me, and a person I look up to. Hal took the time to answer some of my questions, and I hope you’ll enjoy and/or gain something from them.
Could you share a bit about your testimony?
H: My testimony really begins with my parents, who all through my life were given the particular wisdom they needed for the particular stage of life I was in. They are both christians, and so I grew up going to church with them, but by the time I was fourteen, I was ready to call it quits. I have always been dominated by the rational/theoretical side of my mind, and so I found science and philosophy very appealing, but with only the most basic grasp of their concepts. I read a great quote somewhere, and I can’t remember who said it, but it goes: “Small sips in philosophy will make a man an atheist, but fuller draughts will make him a Christian.” So that was me. I was a sipper, and didn’t have my feet, and was carried away. So for the next handful of years, I spent my time quietly and privately disowning Christianity, getting involved in all the things teenagers get involved in, and for the first little while, really enjoying myself. But I was never at ease with it, the harder I tried to prove God out of my life, the less comfortable I felt with my lifestyle. Through this time, my parents, especially my mom didn’t put too much pressure on me, but they kept looking out for me, and injecting biblical wisdom into my life every once and a while, and I do attribute much to this God-given wisdom in keeping me open to the faith. Eventually God, in the way that only he can, called me back in grace. I was invited, very randomly, by a friend (who turned out not to be a christian at all), to a youth retreat; I don’t know why I said yes, but I did. It wasn’t a miraculous conversion that weekend, but I remember vividly sitting at communion and seeing a picture of Christ on the cross, and he was crying, and that image, though it didn’t convert me, made me sympathetic. And it was that sympathy, that new openness, that lead me on a journey back to Christ and to a renewal of my faith.
When/how did you know you were called to your ministry?
H: I felt I was called to ministry within the first two weeks of being in Bible College. I went with the plan of only being there for a year, to take a couple of courses, and learn something. But I fell in love with studying scripture up close and personal. I remember taking an Old Testament biblical theology course with a Professor named Peter Gentry, and watching my whole bible come together in one magnificent, detailed, intricate story. So I went full time for a degree thinking that I would be a missionary or a pastor. So that is the when I felt that call. But that was only a feeling, and that is a bit too subjective. I knew I was called to ministry really only last summer when I did an internship at Trinity Baptist Church and was confirmed by the congregation there that I have been given this calling.
There are a increasing number of ministries publishing online content, how helpful do you find this?
H: Yeah, this is something I have been struggling with for a while. Obviously I don’t want to generalize too much, but I have had a growing sense that the mass of online content can be very unhelpful for Christians who read it on a daily basis. There are certain brands of teaching whose emphasis can amount to having a yoke put around your neck that I think Jesus came to remove. I find myself dissatisfied with the “we are nothing but worms” approach to the Christian life, when this amounts to what feels like the totality of our spirituality. Instead, I would prefer a balanced approach which emphasizes the fact that I am a child of God on whom he has set his love, on whom he shines his face, and in whom he can be pleased. Other themes I see on a regular basis are blog posts that “suggest” Christians do “this” or “that” in such a way that we might feel bad for liking certain things, spending money on certain things, or enjoying certain activities that we should not be made to feel bad about by an anonymous blogger who can only write in the most general terms, often attempting to mimic the idiom of some famous preacher in a way that seems disingenuous.
You are someone who has recently completed seminary – what were your experiences like?
H: My experience in theological education has been largely positive, especially at Toronto Baptist Seminary (I’ll plug this school until the day I die). But as someone who is heavily involved in theological studies from the academic side of things while also preaching itinerantly, I see the good and the bad very clearly. On the one hand, theological education is absolutely vital for pastoral work. Theology is the lifeblood of pastoral ministry; knowing how to handle scripture is part of the calling of pastoral ministry, and the ability to engage scripture at a deep level, working through the various layers of interpretation and application is a heavy responsibility. Pastors are theologians, and they need to be trained to do theology. I make a distinction here. Seminary is not about going and learning theology, in the sense of reading books and just jamming information into your head. Seminary is learning how to do theology, to work out theology for yourself. On the other hand, I am very much against what I would call “game-playing,” which is doing something just for the sake of it. Much of biblical and theological scholarship is game-playing. Much of it has very little impact on the local church, and it really does involve a lot of people working on obscure things for its own sake. If people want to do that, that is fine, but it can be very dangerous for a person to go to seminary and bring this kind of mentality to the pulpit, a lot of jargon and debate that distract from real issues and the real work of a pastor. Pastors need to be discerning as to what information and debates matter, and learn to translate them into terms that their congregations can work with. But this should be a rather small part of their ministry rather than the main emphasis (or even an emphasis at all). This is a larger issue, dealing more with what theological education is really all about, and it’s a conversation that is ongoing in the academy.
You had a sudden health scare a couple years ago – could you share a little about that?
H: A few years ago my kidney exploded. Things like that never happen when you want them to, and they challenge us in any number of ways. The most important thing I learned from that experience was that there is no single answer to the question human suffering. There are unlimited and unique reasons why God allows suffering to happen, and uses it in the lives of his people to perfect us. Two things I learned very clearly were about scripture and worship. I learned that God uses suffering to bring certain scriptures alive to us, and to teach us experientially what they mean. In particular I learned what 2 Cor 4:17–18 really means: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” It is easy to read this, and say “Yeah, for sure” but a different thing to say “Yeah, for sure” when you are in the midst of suffering. We have to learn to look to Jesus in the midst of suffering if it is ever going to be more than theoretical. I can look back and see the fruit of my suffering, and I can read this verse with new eyes and tell people that truly it is a “light and momentary affliction” that is preparing us for an “eternal weight of glory.” The second thing I learned about is what genuine worship of God looks like. The day I got home from the hospital, after about four months of illness and three weeks in the hospital, I read Tozer’s The Knowledge of Holy, and the chapter I was on that day was God’s goodness. Being able to worship God in sincerity and truth means that we can shout and sing God is good when we are healthy and all is well, and when the ground under our feet gives way and all that remains is darkness.
What are your thoughts and experiences on/with the ‘cult of celebrity’?
H: Again, there is a lot of good being done with the dissemination of sound theology and preaching through blogs, youtube, and conferences. But as with most things, too much of a good thing will leave us overwhelmed and dissatisfied. I personally cut my Christian teeth listening to all of John Piper’s sermons on Romans on Sunday nights while I worked a job in the evening. That was transformative for me. But over the next few years I binged on audio sermons that were disconnected from my involvement in my local church. I think such binging on “celebrity” pastors can lead to an emphasis on information over participation, and it can leave us dissatisfied with our own pastors and churches. In recent years, I have come to anticipate hearing what my pastor is saying to me and my church more than I am interested in simply listening to a good sermon. Furthermore, people are only listening to a small group of pastors who are “celebrity,” and they all tend to have similar views and say similar things. So we can uncritically appropriate their ideas and idioms as if they were obviously true, this is the danger of celebrity, it lends a certain amount of authority to the person, and this can lull us into undiscerning complacency. By all means, listen, learn, enjoy, but do so critically and with your bible open, and remember they are just people. I know that most of the pastors who we would classify as “celebrity” would be unhappy about that title, and would want to reject it, so it is really more a problem from our side rather than theirs that I would be concerned about.
Are there any preachers/authors/theologians you learn from that you’d recommend?
H: D.A. Carson is on the top of my list. I find Carson the most nuanced theologians of them all. I try to emulate him in my own thinking by not making the too easy and often false “either/or” distinction. Carson is theologically and exegetically rigorous but pastorally and spiritually profound. C.S. Lewis is one of the most influential writers in my life, not apologetically but imaginatively. Lewis opened my eyes to see beauty and to see the glorious connections between ordinary life and spirituality and how fiction teaches us in unexpected and profound ways about reality. He also showed me that writing and preaching ought to be done beautifully, and great effort must be taken to not be trite or cliché. Finally, John Owen has had an important influence on me. He is my dead theologian, who I read when I want to get a perspective on scripture and theology that is not held captive by the picture of the present.
You have been the quest preacher at a number of churches over the past year, what has that been like?
H: I have really enjoyed the opportunity to preach at a few different churches in Toronto and in South-Western Ontario. Preaching itinerantly offers a unique challenge because you don’t know the congregation intimately, and you can’t guess what their needs are. It requires a lot more prayer and trust in God that he will guide his word to the needs of his people. Other than that practical lesson, it has just been a blessing to preach so regularly and meet so many new brothers and sisters in Ontario. I have a real passion for preaching, and it is always good to take my studies into the pulpit and learn how it applies to God’s people and myself.
What is a difficulty faced by the church today?
H: Learning how to engage with a post-Christian society. It involves a level of thought and engagement with our faith that was not necessary before. We need a level of nuance that we didn’t need before. But while it is a challenge, it presents a number of opportunities for the gospel. Secular society can only vacuously appeal to certain virtues, and in a very real way in the last few months, we have witnessed the struggle of a democratic society that has no place to put its feet (think of Trump and Brexit). A secular and postmodern society offers the opportunity for a robust public theology to go out and call people to the rock that is God in Christ. The Church offers a place where meaning and imagination, the Eucharist, worship, among other things, are able to confront and upend the empty and self-serving world people are now experiencing. The challenge is great in its complexity: it involves Christians turning their brains on, being creative, working at theology, philosophy, science, politics, the arts, and engaging deeply with culture, but it also offers opportunities for evangelism and discipleship that are extremely exciting.
What has been your biggest struggle as a student and as a person in pastoral ministry?
H: Learning to stop fretting about the Church. A common refrain today is that the church is in trouble, or dying, or needs to be fixed. The Church is the bride of Christ. He knows his people, and he will not lose them. The true Church cannot fail, it cannot be defeated, it cannot die out, and we aren’t responsible for fixing it. One of the big lessons I have learned as both a student of theology and someone engaged in pastoral ministry is to remove this kind of talk from my vocabulary. We have a tendency to want to fix things as pastors or engaged Christians, but God is doing his work, and he might decide to use us. We just need to do the basics: preaching, teaching, prayer, acts of love and mercy, seeking to be in the truth, etc. It is a struggle to fight the urge to try to fix things, especially quickly, but changing people is like trying to turn a big ship, it just takes time.
What are some of the ways you see the Lord at work in Canada?
H: In Toronto especially (I am not sure about the rest of Canada) I see the Lord at work in a number of ways, but I will give two specific examples. First, there are the Grace fellowship churches. This is a group of churches who work together in Toronto, who help one another, support one another, meet together, emphasize solid teaching, prayer, and evangelism, and have a really vibrant community life. I see God at work in these five churches as they grow. Second, I see God at work in the opening of a TGC chapter in Ontario that has united evangelical pastors from Orillia down to Niagara (if not further). This kind of fellowship brings a unity of vision to churches in Ontario and I really see it as God working here to unite the church and give us a common vision. Both of these are held together by the theme of unity, which reflects the vision of Paul in Ephesians, and I really do think that these will be a powerful force for change in the coming years in Toronto and Ontario.
And finally – what would you say to someone thinking about pursuing pastoral ministry as a career/or going to seminary/bible college?
H: I am very young, and in some ways, don’t feel wise enough to answer the first half of this question. But I would say to anyone thinking of pursuing pastoral ministry: seek the virtues that Paul speaks of in 1 Tim 3, be involved in your local church, look for ways to serve there, and seek opportunities to preach or teach in your local church. This will give you an objective basis by which to confirm your calling to ministry, and your specific gifts. On the education side of things, I would say to someone thinking of entering pastoral ministry that training is absolutely vital. Whether you get a degree or not doesn’t really matter (to me, it might to churches looking to hire though). The bible is an ancient text, filled with ancient literature, written in three ancient languages, and it matters to us today. To say that working with such a book is complex is an understatement. But a pastor is called to handle the word of God. It is a sacred task, and one which must be taken with reverence, fear, and respect. Part of that respect is being trained to study it and apply it. I am all about tools though, not information. I have a passion for equipping pastors with the tools they need to do their own work. I think that basic needs are the languages (Greek and Hebrew, and if you can Aramaic), interpretive/exegetical principles, and a system of theology to start with (a complete system of Christian thought). That’s the foundation, everything else we can learn on our own or through experience. The other thing, more stylistic but very important, learning to study scripture saves us from the curse of dull preaching. Preaching that is filled with clichés is a curse. Being able to really dig into a text and draw out the theology (biblical, systematic, historical etc.) saves us from having to rely on our own creativity, and it saves us from cliché. It also usually teaches us something new, and leads to more pointed and specific application, rather than more generalizations. So my advice and encouragement is towards education that focuses on tools rather than information. Pastors need the tools to exegete the text, and then they need years of prayer and experience to learn to preach and apply it.
Thanks for reading everyone. I pray this was in some way beneficial to you.
God bless you all my friends.