By Jeff Green
His size 9½, wingtip leather shoes sit in a glass case in the library named for him. L. Palmer Young, the third president of Kentucky Christian University, was a preacher first. He followed in his dad’s footsteps, preaching for more than 69 years. The shoes serve as a reminder of the need for more preachers. Wally Rendel, who preached Palmer’s funeral, asked, “Who’s going to fill his shoes?” Where will the next generation of preachers come from?
The church has constantly been challenged to find replacements in vocational ministry, especially in preaching. A forensic expert isn’t needed to diagnose that fewer people are being trained for preaching than 40, 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Ministers who graduated in the 1970s and ’80s are starting to retire, and we could be facing a shortage of trained ministers to replace them.
Many issues explain how we have found ourselves in this situation. Here are just a few:
The high cost of education is prompting ministerial candidates to forgo training at the college level or is pushing them toward other careers. Students often graduate with a mountain of debt, and many of our churches cannot pay a large enough salary to enable them to pay off their school loans.
The declining birthrate will affect the pool of ministerial students over the next 10 years and beyond. A September 10, 2018, article in US News & World Report said, “A declining birthrate means the college-going population would decline by more than 15 percent” in the next decade. That could prove devastating to many of our Restoration schools.
The abundance of small, declining churches adds to our growing problem of not having enough ministers. On any given Sunday, hundreds of our churches that average 30 or fewer people meet in areas where multiple Christian churches and churches of Christ exist within a 10- to 20-minute driving distance. While no one wants a single church to close its doors, we may need to consider uniting our churches in one location, selling church properties, and using those funds for missions, new church plants, and Restoration schools where training occurs.
The way we reach and minister to students is different today than 20 or 30 years ago. Ernie Perry, preaching minister at Indian Creek Christian Church in Cynthiana, Kentucky, recalls being asked to serve as volunteer youth group leader at his church in Chesapeake, Ohio. The group of 4 students soon grew to more than 100. Of that group, 16 went on to Bible college, and many continue to serve in ministry.
“There was an expectation,” Perry says, “that if you were a leader in the high school youth group, then you would take the next step and attend Bible college with the hope of going into vocational ministry.” Preachers and youth ministers would encourage their youth to strongly consider Bible college. Today, there seems to be more emphasis placed on the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:9).
Bob Russell, in his sermon “International Harvesters,” spoke of the importance we all share in evangelizing the world no matter what our occupation or placement in life. “But,” he says, “in emphasizing the priesthood of all believers, we’ve allowed the pendulum to swing too far, and we’ve neglected the truth that there is a special calling to preach as an occupation.”
Parents don’t adhere to and respect ministry as they once did, and that adversely affects recruitment of young people for ministry. Many want their children to be materially successful and will guide (and sometimes push) them toward careers that pay well and have plenty of opportunities for advancement. Ministry was once considered a high calling, but today many see it as a judgmental, dead-end career.
Many are no longer devoted to our schools. Retired preacher and professor LeRoy Lawson—a former president of Hope International University—shared with me that many in our churches “don’t have any loyalty to our Restoration schools.” Preachers have, for various reasons, become disenchanted with their alma maters and they convey that to their congregations. Soon the dominoes start to fall, resulting in a lack of school recruits, drop in financial support, and eventually total disengagement.
Megachurches that recruit from within their own church have contributed to the decline of people training for ministry in Bible colleges. Many of our larger churches find an incredible personality and worker in the pew and forgo any formal theological training. Our churches and schools are beginning to develop solutions to help address this need. For example, Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College has created a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry degree “designed to enhance the work you are already doing in ministry, without relocation.”
Other factors, such as smaller numbers attending church camp, fewer Christian colleges and university recruiting teams, less involvement of senior ministers in the lives of their church’s students, and an ever-increasing secular world where people are shunning Christianity . . . all of these are contributing factors to the declining number of students going into ministry.
Here are five areas that can help us with recruiting the next generation of ministers.
Request: Jesus commanded us to pray for workers. “Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’” (Matthew 9:37, 38). Are you praying for a least one young student to consider preaching ministry? We need to make this a high priority in our churches and schools.
Recruit: WhenI was recruited to Bible college in the 1970s, it was a “one-size-fits-all” Bible degree peppered with a few practical ministry classes. Today we have become more specialized in our Bible and ministries programs. We want youth and worship ministers and preachers who have studied, labored, and prepared to be the best in their field, especially in this rapidly changing world. Christ In Youth, Summer in the Son, church camps, and the International Conference On Missions continue to help churches in recruiting students for service. Many of our schools have developed online programs that help recruit nontraditional students who may be bivocational with their ministry training.
Reward: Matt Summers and his brother James grew up at First Christian Church in Owasso, Oklahoma. The church provided significant tuition scholarships when the brothers attended Ozark Bible College to prepare for vocational ministry. James now serves with FCC and, more than a decade ago, that church gave thousands of dollars for several years to help start Crossroads Christian Church in Joliet, Illinois, where Matt serves as lead pastor. This past Easter, nearly 4,500 people worshipped at the two churches. Both churches are reaping the rewards of supporting these brothers. Even though our churches are autonomous, none of us could exist without the help of others.
Rebuild Relationships: One of the Restoration Movement’s greatest strengths, autonomy, may also be our greatest weakness. Autonomy allows schools and churches to easily drift apart. As schools have adjusted to meet the needs of the next-generation student, many churches may have felt abandoned or ignored. It often can seem like “us vs. them.” We need to look for ways to rebuild our relationships. Schools need to be a transparent and inviting resource. Churches need to support and be understanding of changes schools must make to keep up with today’s educational standards and demands.
Resolve: At the 2018 North American Christian Convention, I attended a meeting with directors of development and advancement from various institutions of higher education. During our discussions, many shared how church giving has fallen off significantly. There are a variety of reasons, but all agreed that churches do not support the mission of Christian higher education like they once did. Generally, when churches make cuts to their budgets, school support is either drastically reduced or dropped altogether. Schools are left to scramble to find support elsewhere, raise tuition, and add various programs that will entice students to attend. My prayer is that our schools and churches will resolve to come together to fix what is broken in our relationship, and that our schools will remain places of Christian learning that churches will unreservedly support with dollars and students.
Jeff Green serves as director of development, alumni, and church relations at Kentucky Christian University. Jeff has ministered to churches in West Virginia, Michigan, and Florida, and he was a church planter in Brazil. Jeff and his wife, Patty, have three children and nine grandchildren.