The Duncan Banner

August 19, 2011

FCC minister researched ‘brands’ of church as a youth

Toni Hopper
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — Arnold Nelson describes his childhood personality as stuffy, priggish and pious. Yet, he says that changed when he went to college.

Nelson, who has been minister of First Christian Church for the last four years, hopes Duncan residents find him to be as delightful as he finds them.

Ask Nelson why he made the decision to be a preacher, and he doesn’t give the atypical “God told me” answer.  Instead, he says he was an adolescent who knew what direction he wanted to travel. That’s the stuffy trait, he says.

“I had made a decision when I was 12. It’s the only decision I don’t regret from my youth.”

Nelson hails from Clarksville, Tenn., population “back then” about 30,000. The fourth of six children and second of four boys, he left Clarksville in 1968 at age 17, and headed to Oklahoma to attend Phillips University in Enid.

When he arrived at PU, he says people there set him straight about his personality and attitude.

“I got the self-righteousness knocked out of me. Before going to Phillips, I had a boy’s view of the church, very solemn.”

The Phillips people, teachers, ministers and others, gained instant admiration and respect from the young Nelson. They helped chart his course in ministry and life.

When Nelson was 15, he spent an entire year visiting churches of every “brand” in Clarksville.

It was literally a research project he took to heart and spirit.

“I saw things I liked in all of them and when I returned to my church, First Christian Church, I felt at home. In church, I was treated like a member of a family. As a child, an adolescent and adult, I’ve felt at home in the church.”

Nelson admits he wasn’t enamored with the Bible in those younger days.  For him, church was about the sense of belonging and being around other people who shared his commitment.

After attending PU, Nelson went to seminary school in Denver, Colo. Eventually, he served a congregation in Little Rock, Ark., spent five years as a regional pastor in South Carolina, and then had a stint in the general office in Indiana.

It was his intent to return home to Clarksville to serve as a pastor, but his eyes light up and grow big when asked if he ever dreamed about being back in Oklahoma.

“I like being in Duncan, Oklahoma. I really enjoy people. Healthy congregations attract fun people who are generous of themselves, who are greater than I am,” he says.

Nelson says preaching in the 21st Century probably isn’t all that much different from the 1st Century.

“People still have expectations, hopes, their fears. The Bible can be formidable to people. It’s a 2,000-year old-document. What I hope I do is bring those people to life. They didn’t know they would get their stories in The Bible.”

There is challenge in what Nelson does.

“I think one of the challenges in preaching is the first person, plural pronoun. See, when I preach, I talk about ‘us.’ The preaching of ‘you’ is bad, and ‘them’ is gossip. But ‘we’ is all of us.”

Nelson has also rediscovered the joys of youth through teaching a Sunday school class for middle schoolers. He’s discovering there’s no need for stuffy, priggous, pious attitudes, and today’s youth help keep him focused.

“They are brutally honest. The early adolescent experience isn’t any different. I want to get to know who they are before I have to marry them, perform their weddings. They don’t have all of those sophisticated definitions (of identity) in place they get when they get to high school. Plus, I know them better.”

Nelson chuckles about his service as a First Christian Church minister.

“Once you preach it,  it’s not yours. It’s whatever it becomes.”

And like most ministers, he provides a few extra thoughts on God, his church and, of course, his family.

On God: “God is much better than we give Him credit for. We assign attributes to him we wouldn’t give a villain.”

On his church: “If I wasn’t the minister, I would join (First Christian Church). I feel at home there.”

And, Kelly, his wife of a dozen years? She keeps him from becoming too “stuffy.”