A variety of polls in recent years have displayed the widespread ignorance of many Americans on topics relating to politics, history, finance, and most surprisingly, religion. A 2010 Pew Research poll on religion and public life and a 2009 George Barna study revealed some insights into how little Americans know about their own religious beliefs, and unfortunately, the results would probably disappoint many Christians. While 83 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, nearly 60 percent of Christians cannot name half of the Ten Commandments or the four gospels of the New Testament, according to the 2009 George Barna study.
This trend is one reason why Nathaniel Ford, a 2006 graduate of Franklin High School, decided to attend Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) after graduating from N.C. State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications in 2010. While many college graduates go on to pursue careers in education, health-care, or finance, Ford thought a stint in seminary school was the best thing for he and his wife, Whitney Ledford Ford, an English teacher in Cary, N.C. The two were married last July.
“I grew up in church but you see things differently when you are going through college,” said Ford when asked about his decision to attend SEBTS in Wake Forest, N.C. “I went through a period of intense doubt and I just had a strong desire to learn more about the Bible and share it with people. I felt like I needed to learn more about the scriptures if I was going to do that and it’s not easy. It’s a very difficult thing to do,” said Ford about comprehending the Old and New Testaments.
Ford, who attends The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., believes there is a great need for “solid” preaching in America and the world. “I think many people approach the Bible in a shallow way, and I think America is lacking in that sense,” said Ford. He hopes to be part of the solution to that problem in the future.
Furthermore, with the rise of the New Atheist movement in the United States, espoused by renowned authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, who all have published New York Times best sellers, an extensive knowledge base of Christianity has become even more important to acquire for Ford. Dawkins’ 2006 book entitled “The God Delusion” was on the New York Times best seller list for 51 weeks, evidence of the influence of the movement’s attack on Christianity specifically and religion generally. Their clout is predominately targeted at America’s colleges and universities.
“I think it’s important to acquire a lot of knowledge about the Bible in order to spread the message to people who are skeptics or to people who just don’t’ know,” said Ford. “If you approach the Bible in a superficial way, you’re only going to leave people unconvinced or even more discontent with the core message of the Bible. I think doubt can be a great thing for Christians. I know I’m stronger because of it. If handled the right way it can help you and those around you. It can be scary, I admit, but if you surround yourself with the right people it allows you to grow in your faith and ultimately help you carry that message to other people,” he said. “I know when I have questions the Bible always provides answers.”
Ford has learned a great deal in seminary already, particularly about Biblical translation strategies. “It is impossible to read a passage and be unbiased, or at least it is hard not to,” said Ford. “But our professors teach us to read a passage in context and read it structurally. I think both the Old and New Testaments are structured in a way that if you read it in context, it allows God to reveal himself in unique ways. They just try to tell us to let the Bible speak for itself,” he said.
To Ford, his study of the Old Testament at SEBTS has been extremely rewarding. Prior to enrolling at SEBTS, Ford had a difficult time understanding the teachings of the Old Testament. That has changed dramatically, attributed to Ford’s professors at SEBTS, he says. Ford thinks that although there are differences between the two books, he believes the Old and New Testaments corroborate one another, coinciding with the underlying message of salvation through Jesus Christ “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is how strongly the Old Testament correlates with the New Testament. From Genesis to Revelation, I think it is a story about God and his revelation to mankind,” said Ford.
Ford chose to concentrate on Christian ministries at SEBTS, a field he thinks will equip him with a variety of skills that will help him bring the message of the gospels to other people in a way that will satisfy their curiosity and initial questioning.
Ford, who hopes to obtain his Master’s in Divinity degree from SEBTS in 2013, has been active in Christian church groups throughout much of his life. In the summer of 2007 Ford visited the Ivory Coast in Africa in an effort to assist impoverished villages in the region. In the summer of 2009 Ford went on a mission trip to Southern India. The two trips had a profound effect on how Ford views the world. “When we were driving hundreds of miles through Africa and seeing so many small, poor villages, I realized just how blessed and fortunate I was just to be able to travel and live comfortably. Many people we came across had no cars, no schools. It was just eye opening,” he said. Ford assisted in building new schools in the region, a luxury he thinks many Americans take for granted.
The prevalence of poverty in India also impacted Ford’s perspective on human culture and sociology. “The disparity between rich and poor in India is unbelievable,” he said. “The extent of poverty and the vastly different culture of India was something I’ll never forget. I was thinking that I’m just a mountain boy from Franklin, North Carolina, and just couldn’t believe how fortunate I really was,” said Ford about his mission trip to India.
Indeed, his experiences and intricate studying of the Bible will provide him with the tools that he believes are necessary to proselytize the Christian faith to other peoples from diverse backgrounds. When he completes the 90-hour program at SEBTS, Ford hopes to go on overseas mission trips and testify about the Christian faith and support poverty stricken communities by providing them with resources, capital, and most importantly to Ford, the message of Christ.
Manifested in his humble and congenial personality, Ford attributes his life vision to his Christian upbringing, and often invokes the story of John the Baptist when discussing his take on faith and doubt. “Even John the Baptist, someone who was so passionate about his faith asked Jesus if he was really the Messiah. I think it shows a human element to him that should help any Christian persevere through doubt and grow stronger in their faith, especially when we have so many distractions around us” he said.
Despite his laid back demeanor, Ford admits that missionary work has somewhat of a negative connotation. “That’s what I am trying to do. I want to tell people about the gospels in a non-confrontational way,” said Ford. “I think if you give people time to talk they will listen. But having said that, there is no denying that Jesus was a confrontational person. He said he is the only way, which is very radical and confrontational in some ways. So I think it is important to find that happy medium so that people can express their views, but also be open-minded about the validity of Jesus’ teachings,” he said.
As Christmas approaches, Ford does agree that his education has significantly altered his approach to the holiday season. “My views have definitely changed. I guess I’m just more aware about what we are truly celebrating,” he said. While people may disagree theologically with the future Christian leader, nobody can question Ford’s sincerity and genuine passion for Christianity. The 24 year-old is looking forward to returning home to Franklin to celebrate the birth of Christ with his family.