A Living, Breathing Church
Pastor and Professor Anthony Rodriguez ’06 talks Montreat, mission, and pastoring in the digital age
By Anastasia Howland ’20
Whether he would go into ministry was never a question for Valley Hope Church Pastor—and Montreat College alumnus—Anthony Rodriguez. “I tell people it’s something I knew about myself—like I know that my eyes are brown.” Growing up in a strong Christian household, a career in ministry is what he’d always been drawn to. When it came time for Anthony to decide on a college, he knew two things: first, he wanted to be in the Swannanoa Valley because his friend was planting a church in the area. Second, he knew that ministry would be involved.
Anthony first visited a different college in the area, which he would have been content to attend had he not then visited Montreat. But he did, and it was love at first sight. “We drove through the gates of Montreat and I was like, ‘This is where I’m going. I want to go here,’” he recalls. His love for the Montreat College community only grew stronger during the years he spent here, as did his relationships, faith, and gifts. “I made friends here like I never had before. I grew a lot spiritually. I had people who invested in me and who put me in a position to use my gifts and to lead. I loved it; I wanted to stay forever.” Both his biblical knowledge and relational skills were cultivated within the small, close-knit community of Montreat, preparing him to dive headlong into ministry.
During his senior year, Anthony was a resident assistant in Howerton Residence Hall. His resident director, Steve Woodworth, was starting a new church in Black Mountain and asked if Anthony would be willing to preach. “I don’t know why he asked… It was something I had done before, and I felt like it was one of my gifts, but he’d never heard me preach.” Nevertheless, Anthony agreed. Six years later, in 2011, he became the lead pastor of the church. He continues to pastor this body of believers, today known as Valley Hope Church, located in the Swannanoa Valley.
A major theme which runs throughout all of Anthony’s life—from his time as a Montreat College student, up to the present day—is the importance of community. He is now a husband, father of four children, lead pastor, and adjunct professor at Montreat College. “I needed that small community,” Anthony recalls about his time at Montreat. “I’m quiet by nature. It’s hard for me to make new relationships… but having a small environment really gave me a safe place to spread my wings a bit and give it a shot.”
The same principle of community applied when he attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte. Montreat had taught him the importance of being grounded in community, and Gordon-Conwell’s model allowed for that. He was able to be a full-time student while remaining in the Swannanoa Valley—a community where he had friendships, relationships, and a practical ministry outlet. When Anthony became lead pastor in 2011 at the age of 26, community was vital. “I need you to pastor this church with me,” Anthony recalls telling those who were working alongside him as elders of the church. “I cannot be an individual who leads and pastors; we have to pastor as a community.” He credits God—working through the gifts of the community—with bringing his church to where it is today.
For Anthony, this principle of community, which remains so visible in the various spheres and seasons of his life, is a vital part of the human experience. “It’s almost like we’re made for it,” Anthony says, smiling. As he points out, we’re made in the image of the triune God, who has “forever and eternally existed in community.” Even through the challenges that communities face, Anthony’s belief in them holds firm. And as the pastor of a church with a younger demographic than most, one recent challenge to community that Anthony has noticed has been an increasing reliance on technology.
“I think technology affects us [as a church] as much as anything because of how it is shaping people,” says Anthony. Some of those most heavily affected are members of the iGeneration, many of whom cannot recall a significant amount of time in which society was not entirely saturated with technology usage. And these individuals constitute a large portion of Anthony’s congregation.
“We have a significant body of research now that’s showing that heavy usage of technology is closely associated with anxiety, loneliness, and depression,” Anthony notes. He talks about how connection to others via technology, whether it be texting or in the context of social media, creates a semblance of community. But this “digital community” isn’t the same as a living, breathing community. “It’s not going to fulfill your hunger for embodied, face-to-face, in-the-nitty-gritty kind of community,” he says.
In addition to the challenges posed by technology, Anthony and Valley Hope see value in using digital technology, communicating through their website and on Facebook, which is how most “strangers” find the church. By engaging them through the online community, Anthony hopes to draw them into the kind of life- giving, flesh-and-blood church community they were meant for. “This thing that you’re feeling—that you’re craving—that’s actually a right and a good thing that you’re after, but you’re not going to find it by refreshing Instagram one more time… You have to find it in this kind of place.” In a church.
While “digital church,” such as podcasted or live-streamed sermons, may have some value, Anthony does not believe it replaces real participation in a flesh-and-blood church community. And he thinks churches will begin to reconsider the usage of this sort of technology as they ask themselves, “Are we facilitating people being disembodied brains on sticks who are happy to receive an information download and not have a meal with somebody, cry with somebody, [or] play with somebody?” These are the things a digital church cannot provide. “We’re not just a social club. We’re actually a vibrant and living community fed by the overflow of the community of the triune God.” This, says Anthony, is the community we all long for.
"I love what [technology] can do for us, [but] I’m very thankful that God still works in slow, ordinary, very plain, and boring ways."
Anthony is also wary of the convenient answers technology seems to offer. “[All of us have] more access to versions of the Bible than any other people in the history of mankind,” says Anthony. “But we may be the most biblically illiterate people in centuries. Knowledge accumulation is not the same as wisdom, and technology cannot help you with wisdom. Wisdom is learned and attained in the context of living in community.”
Anthony would be the first to say that technology has many positive uses—he is an active user of Twitter and maintains an online blog—but that those uses are limited. “I love what [technology] can do for us, [but] I’m very thankful that God still works in slow, ordinary, very plain, and boring ways. I mean, communion is bread and wine. It’s so simple and ordinary, and yet… so profound that it cannot be replicated and replaced by technology.”
Anthony hopes that his life, family, and church continue to model the kind of Christian community life which remains vital even in—or perhaps especially in—this age of technology. “Christians are a counter-cultural people. That’s always meant to be true, but I hope that more and more [we model] that. That we are not like everybody else, and that we’re okay with that. And that, ultimately, we’re better off.” ■
Anastasia Howland ’20 is a Bible and Ministry major and English major at Montreat College.