Dialogue: A conversation with Jerry Rushford
Jerry Rushford is an incurable optimist with seemingly unlimited energy. He needs little sleep and loves to travel, read books, research church history, preach, teach, lead tours, tell hymn stories, organize events, talk to people and more. He seems to know everybody. He is director of church relations, professor of church history and editor of the Pacific Church News at Pepperdine University.
Rushford is perhaps best known as the director of the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, which he has led for 27 years. Each year the lectures bring more than 4,000 people from about 40 states and many nations to the Malibu, Calif., campus. Rushford emphasizes diversity of thought, drawing together Christians from around the globe. He loves the church and is a builder and unifier.
Rushford brings churches and people together wherever he travels. He speaks in numerous churches across a wide spectrum of the country. The Bible Lectures create a forum for many church leaders and promote positive discussion and interaction among all.
“Jerry is a remarkable force for good among Churches of Christ,” Pepperdine President Andy Benton said. “He loves, even cherishes, our history, and he wants to be a positive influence for our future together. I admire his skill as he fashions an annual lecture program that emphasizes the good news in our brotherhood and sends people home with hope, encouragement and energy.”
Rushford received his education from Great Lakes Christian College, Rochester College, Oklahoma Christian University and Abilene Christian University (M.A. and M.Div.). He earned a Ph.D. in American church history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written four books, including “Christians on the Oregon Trail.”
He and his wife, Lori, are members of the Conejo Valley Church of Christ. Their two daughters, Hilary and Ashley, are graduates of Pepperdine.
How do you maintain your level of energy?
I have the greatest job in the world. I am privileged to work and teach at Pepperdine University and to be the director of the Bible Lectures. It doesn’t get any better than that.
My work with students and church leaders is very rewarding. I never get bored.
You are a man of many interests. Tell us a few of your favorites.
College football, used book stores and Shakespeare.
I enjoy many sports, but college football occupies a special place in my affections. To be part of the colorful pageantry of a crowded stadium on a crisp autumn day, with footballs in the air and bands playing and the crowd roaring, is to experience a slice of Americana. It renews my zest for life.
When I travel around the country, I invariably check out the used book stores in every town. Buying books online is not much fun. I want the thrill of the chase, the sheer delight in finding a jewel in the midst of the dusty stacks. In December, I was in London on the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth, and in a small bookshop off Charing Cross Road I found a copy of A. L. Rowse’s “Milton the Puritan.” I had looked for it for years. The joy of that discovery is forever etched in my memory.
I am proficient in only one language, and the person who elevated that language to its greatest heights was Shakespeare. A large part of my library is devoted to Shakespeare. If I were starting my career over again it would be a toss-up on whether I would pursue a degree in church history or Shakespeare and literature.
The Pepperdine Bible Lectures are unique. What is your philosophy for planning them and why have they been so successful?
From the beginning I tried to create a program that was inclusive of every segment of the church. I wanted American and foreigner, young and old, black and white, conservative and progressive, scholar and blue collar worker, young family and senior citizen to feel a sense of ownership of the Pepperdine Bible Lectures.
Second, I wanted to punctuate each program with sustained periods of vocal praise that would bind us together in Christ.
Third, I longed to create moments of transcendence where we honored faithful servants from around the globe.
And, finally, I wanted to close each day with hugs and laughter in a pie and coffee fellowship that would be a foretaste of heaven. These components have been present for 27 years, and they have helped us attract a loyal network of friends who continue to make the annual pilgrimage to Malibu.
You will direct your 27th program in May. How many more will you do?
President Benton has encouraged me to complete 30 years. So, if the Lord wills and my health remains good, I will craft the programs through 2012.
I never set out to do 30, but I will admit that for a historian the number 30 is close to sacred. It represents a generation.
When the closing prayer ends on Friday evening, May 4, 2012, I will know that I was uniquely privileged to set the table for an annual feast for one entire generation. That’s a humbling thought. I’m very grateful that God led me to Pepperdine.
You frequently talk about the history of hymns. When did your love for hymnody begin?
One advantage of growing up in a cappella Churches of Christ is that everyone is encouraged to sing. The words from hundreds of hymns becomes part of our DNA. But I never thought about the stories behind the hymns until my senior year at Oklahoma Christian when I read the November 1964 issue of 20th Century Christian entitled “Hymns of Faith.” For more than 40 years, since reading that issue, I have closed every sermon with the history of a hymn. I have now led 14 “Literary and Hymn Pilgrimages” to the British Isles, and I have another group going with me in May.
You have taught the history of the Restoration Movement for nearly 40 years. When did you develop this passion?
During my high school days at Great Lakes Christian College in Canada we studied the history of the Restoration Movement, and for me it was life-changing. I had never studied my spiritual roots before.
In my graduate years at ACU, I was enriched by studying with outstanding church historians like Everett Ferguson, Bill Humble, J. W. Roberts and Thomas Olbricht, but the person who had the greatest impact on me was a librarian named R.L. Roberts. His encyclopedic mind and contagious passion for Restoration history kindled a fire within me that has never died out.
Beginning on Aug. 1 of this year I will become director of the new Churches of Christ Heritage Center at Pepperdine.
To create an archive of Restoration literature and related materials is the realization of a dream for me.
When I relinquish the Bible Lectures, I will continue working in the Heritage Center.
You visit a lot of churches each year. From that experience what do you see as a great need for Churches of Christ in the U.S. today?
When you read “letters from the churches” in 19th century Restoration periodicals, you quickly realize that their dominant word was “cause.”
Every letter was a progress report on “our glorious cause,” and yet no one ever took time to define the “cause.” They all knew what it was. It was nothing less than the restoration of the cross-centered lifestyle and counter-cultural teachings of the primitive church.
This Restoration vision became a “cause” that energized many Christians. It was the engine that drove the Restoration Movement forward as it advanced westward across the continent. But that language was lost a long time ago.
We need to rediscover our Restoration heritage with its emphasis on the cross-centered lifestyle and counter-cultural teachings of the earliest Christians. It could become “our glorious cause” again.