An Interview with Dr. Matt Friedeman
You are a professor as well as an activist – what led you to think that you
needed to do in order to teach?
When we arrived in Jackson in 1987, Dr. Harold Spann, the preside
nt at the time, thought there would be wisdom in my finding a ministry position to provide additional experience, since I was teaching the practical side of the curriculum here at WBS.
So…we looked for a body of believers in the inner city that was active in their community. We landed at Wells Church (the late Keith Tonkel, pastor); within a very short time, I ended serving as associate pastor (and my wife Mary as children’s education director).
A few years later the editorial director of the paper (a member of Wells) challenged me to start writing a twice-weekly newspaper column for the state-wide daily (The Jackson Clarion-Ledger), and a year after that I was hosting a local radio show that, in time, expanded to a statewide and then a national audience.
During that whole time, I had a gnawing feeling that what I had become was an expert in verbiage – speaking/writing – but not actually doing something. In fact, I had convinced myself that talking about action was, in fact, doing enough. But one day I said something on radio about crime and criminals that irritated the Sheriff, and he asked if I would accompany him for a tour
of the Penal Farm.
After he showed me around, I asked him if there was any chance that I could come out and talk with those guys about the gospel. Soon I had a badge and a weekly prison ministry.
Is that when your discipleship groups started going to the Detention Center with you?
Right. One day I hit me afresh that when Jesus had a discipleship group, they didn’t just sit around and have Bible studies or attend Temple services. They ministered together, and the discipleship lessons tended to fit around the ministry. John Wesley’s “Holy Club” at Oxford had the same conviction – no holy club without a serious ministry component (and prison ministry at that!).
So one day I announced that I was going to have a discipleship group that would meet in the seminary parking lot at 6:00 p.m. – we would pile into a van, sing hymns and pray on the way to the Detention Center, minister, then debrief and have a Bible study on the way back.
And that has sort of formed a philosophy of ministry for you and a number of students.
Yes, but I don’t think it is a philosophy of ministry for me only, but something that should be a non-negotiable for everyone. I have come to believe that bishops, district superintendents, pastors, professors, seminary administrators, laypeople – everyone! Even the Pope! – ought to have a regular ministry to the poor and needy. It is central expectation in the Bible, in Jesus’s discipleship method, and in our theological tradition which includes heroes like the Wesleys, the Booths, B.T. Roberts, Phineas Bresee and many, many others who established regular and on-going evangelical movements to the disenfranchised and the oppressed.
We say in the classroom, “If you make disciples by sitting around and talking don’t be surprised if your disciples sit around and talk.” American evangelicalism specializes, it seems, in making disciples with open Bibles and our lattes nearby, but precious little action towards the needy in our communities. It’s my conviction that compassionate ministry modeled after the ministry of Jesus is the greatest missing link in the church’s discipleship methodology.
To take students out where there are real-life, serious situations and tell them , “Guys – let’s get to work with Jesus”… well, it changes their lives. I remember one of the first times we ever went out to the Detention Center I sent two guys in to share their testimonies. I was thinking, “What could possibly go wrong, I mean, who can mess up your own testimony?” These guys could, that’s who! I had a conversation going in another part of the room so I told them to get going without me. When I finally got back around to them they were reading, monotone, their testimonies. Not telling them naturally, not preaching them, not energetically reciting their stories, not tearfully relating how Jesus saved them from a life of misery – but reading them in very boring, yawn-inspiring fashion. I was aghast.
I was going to stop them after the one guy got done but then the other one started immediately after and there we were, stuck listening to the second boring, monotone, life-story.
Standing there with the prisoners I swore to myself to save them from any more of this blather when the second guy finished – but then the other guy broke in immediately after that testimony and before I could intervene and gave an altar call. Now I was horrified, mortified. I had been coming out to this facility for years and was as sure as I could be that no one – if they were still awake – would respond.
Boy, was I ever wrong. Probably twenty guys gave their lives to Jesus that night with these two less-than-captivating speakers leading them in prayer.
We all learned a lot that night!
By the way, those two young guys now have two of the most exciting disciple-making ministries in two different nations. And they are two of the better preachers our seminary has produced, in large measure because of their ongoing experience with those men in detention.
At any rate, when we cease to act towards the most vulnerable, the sick, the hungry and thirsty, the imprisoned…we get isolated and lazy. And then, we die. God will not honor an inward-directed faith. We were meant for the great commandments of an outward-bound life.
You have also taken dozens of students with you across the years to stand outside the state’s only abortion clinic a few miles from the seminary.
So, we gave students options. If they didn’t want to go to the incarceration facilities for a discipleship group or for an “A” in a class, I gave them the choice to go out to the abortion clinic instead.
Across several years these students have been on hand as hundreds of babies – nearly a thousand – have been saved from the abortionists. They were instructed as they went out to this place of death to be firm, kind and gentle with the ladies going in to the clinic and make sure they knew they had a choice. You see, we are the real pro-choicers out at the clinic – many of those ladies don’t think they have a choice; we’ve got to tell them they do have a choice and that we will help them any way we can if they choose life. That presence helped us to be used of the Lord in a mighty way. I doubt any other seminary in the nation does anything close to something like discipleship-by-abortion-clinic ministry.
One of my favorite stories along these lines is this one: a bunch of students had struck up a conversation with an abortion-minded young lady at the clinic and eventually they turned around to me and told me to come and over to talk. I asked the young lady her name. She said it was Hanna. We talked and then, about six years later, she wrote me via Facebook. She said:
“I just wanted to say thank you for hearing me out and talking with me 6 years ago at the Jackson, MS abortion clinic. Back then I was a frightened Christian girl who thought abortion was the only way to save my life. I had the full examination and even paid the $100.00 to have the procedure done in 1 week….
“When I left the building you talked with me and pointed out a blue bracelet on my wrist which read “Jehovah Jireh.” You told me that He will provide a way for this baby to live if I will trust Him and not listen to fear. I was so frightened and afraid of what my parents and church family would think of me.
“I just want you to know that I am a mother to a very loving and wonderful 6 year old boy named Isaac. He just finished kindergarten and loves everything superhero! He hates vegetables and loves chocolate chip cookies. At night he loves to give me the biggest of hugs and in the morning he is pure sunshine.
“To top it off, God made it possible for me to finish college in 2008, and led me to a very godly man to whom I am now married, and who loves Isaac as if he were his very own. He is in his 3rd year of medical school…
“6 years ago I did not believe any of this could be possible, but you did. You helped me to choose life and trust in God over fear and death.”
None of that happens if WBS students aren’t out there striking up conversations for Jesus with people like Hanna. Multiply that story over and over – countless times – and imagine the effect for the Kingdom through WBS.
Back to your media involvement – we have boxes of your columns around here, have heard hundreds of hours of radio and seen you regularly on TV. How has the Lord used that influence?
I think most media-types think they are far more influential than they really are.
Still, I remember Forrest Thigpen of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy telling me that there were some times when I would write on something in the newspaper or broadcast something on the airwaves and it would change the direction of the debate in the legislature. That was always gratifying to know.
Our current governor, Phil Bryant, when he was lieutenant governor, told me on a couple of occasions that he would be working at the Capitol all day and begin thinking one direction on an issue but then get in his car and on the way home hear us talking on the radio about that same issue…and it would change his mind! When the lieutenant governor’s mind changes on a Mississippi issue (for that position in this state is exceedingly powerful legislatively), then you can consider that bill’s fortunes headed in the direction of his desires. It is no small thing to change the lieutenant governor’s mind.
Occasionally a U.S. Senator or a governor or a congressman (even a presidential candidate) would hear something I wrote or said and request an audience. It was not all that unusual to have a major politician striding through the hallways of WBS to come to my office or to the studio for a broadcast. I’ve done dozens of TV tapings in my office at the seminary. Those conversations were very humbling, I can tell you. I felt honored to be a part of it all.
Maybe the best thing to have come out of the media involvement is my relationship with Stu Kellogg, president of WAPT/16 here in Jackson. I was taking part in a weekly debate series on that station with then-future mayor Harvey Johnson. One day Stu called me up one day and asked for lunch. I honestly didn’t know if he was going to fire me or sign me up to host my own program. Neither, as it turns out. He said he wanted to know more about John Wesley. I told him what I knew right there and said I could get him the very best books on Wesley right out of our seminary library if he wanted to do a bit of reading.
He read up on the Wesley brothers and got excited! So I said, “Man, if you can get excited about that, then you ought to take a course at our school.” I told Stu we had a great Old Testament professor (John Oswalt) whom he would absolutely love, and that he ought to enroll in one of his courses. He took the course I suggested, joined a discipleship group with John, and just kept going taking courses. He eventually graduated from WBS, and we immediately added him to the board. He was exceedingly helpful to the seminary for years and now has a ministry in another state.
It sure sounds like the media, then, was a great way to have had substantial influence.
It was a privilege, but having said that, I think there is a much more powerful means of influence than the media.
It is this: a pastor or dedicated layman pouring his or her life into a handful of disciples in a concentrated, small group format and, in time, expecting them to do the same thing in other people’s lives. If that pastor or layman will repeat that cycle over decades, the resulting discipleship impact will be far more consequential than that of a Rush Limbaugh. I really believe that. And it has the added spiritual advantage, of course, of being based on the model of Jesus.
You’ve written several books while you have been at WBS. What has been the impact of that part of your life?
Again, I think the typical writer thinks he has done a lot more than he really has. But I continue to receive significant feedback about the book that grew out of my family experience – Discipleship in the Home. It provides very practical suggestions for discipling your family – basically things that we did in raising our own six children: The Age 18 list, a framework for discipline, a children’s catechism, a dinner table strategy, what to do with your TV.
Intentionality is the key to that book. Purposefully establish a disciple-making process with your children that is spiritually robust and reflective of Jesus’ desires for His disciples.
I remember one of our board members addressing a friend of his from the chapel pulpit. He said that his friend confessed to him one of his worst fears – that his children might not want to go to his alma mater, Ole Miss. Our board member told him, “Don’t worry…you have Ole Miss license tags, Ole Miss pillows in your house, Ole Miss t-shirts and hats and coats, you talk about Ole Miss in every conversation, you go to all the Ole Miss games, visit the campus every chance you get and give a nice proportion of your money to the Ole Miss alumni association – of course your kids are going to go to Ole Miss!” I thought on that moment – switch out Ole Miss for Jesus and His will and ways and guess what – your kids will follow Him.
So that is basically what Discipleship in the Home is about – intentionally inculcating in the family the pattern of following Jesus.
Thirty years–why have you stayed at WBS and Mississippi that long?
I grew up in one town, one house, one set of parents. That seems normative for me. Thirty years ago in April or May, I received a call inviting me interview for a position at WBS. That day I set my mind and heart towards Jackson, Mississippi. Sixteen years ago we planted a church, which only solidified our destiny here.
Medgar Evers said, “I don’t know whether I’m going to heaven or hell, but I’m going from Jackson.” I intend to go to heaven, but as to those last four words of Medgar, “amen” and me, too.
I feel fortunate to be part of a faculty with a rich theological tradition of making disciples by taking seriously the poor and needy. To top it all off, I get to reside in a state with this nation’s greatest social and economic need. Where else would a guy like me want to be?
But I also believe this–longevity matters. The longer you do the right thing over and over and over again in one place, the more likely you are to have an influence that will last.