By Tom Jones
God is blessing the Christian churches/churches of Christ with incredible growth. More churches are being started than ever. Existing churches are taking the mission of the church seriously and more and more individuals and families are coming into the doors of the church. This is indeed good news!
However, when growth comes to any organization, including the church, there is also a corresponding need for additional staff and workers to direct, organize, teach, and lead. As the gospel account clearly states: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Luke 10:2). Churches and parachurch organizations all over the country are dealing with this need in a number of ways. Many continue to call on Christian colleges and seminaries to meet their needs. However, these institutions have not been able to keep up with the growing need of the churches, and in some cases, are not producing the quality leaders required. Therefore, many churches are hiring from within. Men and women are leaving their secular jobs and being called into vocational ministry. Their churches have done an outstanding job discipling them to the point where they want to work for the church. This is not a bad thing. In fact this phenomenon is filling the gap and helping local churches fulfill their mission.
MORE WORKERS, BETTER WORKERS
However, it is not enough. More workers are still needed for existing churches and for the new ones that will be planted in the next 25 years. In addition, generally speaking, those who come up within the church and go directly into vocational ministry need better ministry and theological training than they are currently receiving. (I say generally because some change-of-career types just seem to “get it” intuitively.) The church needs leadership that is well-trained to meet the multidimensional needs of a complex postmodern culture.
So, what’s the answer to providing both quantity and quality leaders for the church and the parachurch organizations that serve the church? Partnership! To be able to get the job done, churches and educational institutions that prepare leaders will require much closer working relationships. Here’s why:
1. Churches need seminaries and Christian colleges more than ever before. Does anyone doubt that the changing needs of a postmodern culture are overwhelming to say the least? The answers that the church seeks and postmodern generations will insist upon are not simple and will not be attained from a weekend conference or basic level of study. The problems faced by today’s leaders require “sustained attention over time.”
It’s hard to improve on the words of Daniel Aleshire, the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools:
“[The church] needs leaders who have learned to think with discipline, who have the wisdom that occurs from reflecting theologically on ministerial work, and who know the story of faith intimately. The church needs leaders who have been to school, learned their stuff, and who love the sacred tests they have learned. . . . Seminaries have important gifts to give to the communities they serve. When they do their work well, theological schools provide intellectual substance for faith, practical wisdom for the work of religious leaders, and moral guidance for the church’s work in the world.” (Association of Theological Schools, Colloquy, November/December 2004, Volume 13, Number 2, page 2.)
The body of Christ deserves its brightest and best thinkers to mold its ministers into leaders who are passionate, practical, creative, and theologically have deep wells.
2. Seminaries and Christian colleges need the church more than ever before. Educational institutions exist to serve the church! When that is not the case, then the church should no longer financially support a college or send students its way. The seminary I serve and others I know value their relationship with the church. We want you to hold us accountable to produce the kind of leader that is useful in ministry. Be in dialogue with us. Tell us what we are doing right and where we need to improve. We are in the midst of defining moments in theological and ministerial education. We know we must do better in this new age and are committed to reaching a different level of service and relationship to the church.
At Emmanuel School of Religion we are serious and have a vision for two developing issues that will complement what we are already doing and enable us to better serve the church. The first is distance learning. This means that soon change-of-career ministers and other leaders will be able to take seminary-level courses while in the midst of their ministries. Other institutions have similar visions for distance learning, and some already have courses online.
Second, ESR is getting ready to unveil three institutes (church planting, world missions, and ministerial excellence) that will be programmed to interact directly with and meet the needs of Christian leaders and their ministries. We are building a center, with modern meeting rooms and motel-type rooms and suites, where groups of leaders will be able to come for short periods of time to study topics important to them and their ministries. I know other educational institutions have similar plans.
In order for ESR and others to adapt to the needs of the church without giving in to the whims of the church, we need the church’s wisdom, patience, a steady flow of students, accountability, and long-term financial investment. We cannot exist without you. Together we can meet the needs of the future and produce a practical and theologically-balanced leadership for the church, both in quality and quantity.
Tom Jones is professor at Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee, and director of the southeast region of Stadia: New Church Strategies.