17 May, 2022

Looking Back: How Christian Colleges Have Responded to the Need for Preachers Over the Past Century

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by | 1 January, 2022 | 0 comments

Fifty years ago, most pulpit ministers in Christian churches and churches of Christ were products of our Restoration Movement colleges.

It had been that way for some time, and it likely remains that way today . . . though probably to a lesser extent. [See related article, “The Ministry Pipeline,” by Chris Moon]

A survey of pertinent articles appearing in Christian Standard between 1969 and 1974 and a review of James B. North’s Restoration Movement history book, Union In Truth, indicate that most of the colleges producing ministers for Christian churches and churches of Christ were started in the 1920s and thereafter as a means of supplying capable, conservative preachers and leaders for those churches. Theologically conservative educational institutions were considered critically important to those churches’ survival because, as of about 1920, most of the existing Disciples of Christ colleges were seen as having drifted toward liberalism. [See sidebar at the end of this article]

“Perceiving an urgent need for full­time paid preaching ministers, we responded by founding colleges which would educate them,” Gerald C. Tiffin wrote in Christian Standard in 1974. He referenced a February 1922 article in Christian Century that reported less than half (43 percent) of all Disciples congregations—liberal and conservative—employed full-time ministers, while one-quarter (25 percent) employed no minister at all.

“Early in our separating history, in a time of crisis particularly in ministerial preparation, we chose preacher-training education, not only as a point of visible separation from Disciples, but also as a major focus of our identity, a means of continuity, and a strategy for survival,” Tiffin wrote. “These colleges functioned (and continue to function) to reopen closed congregations, begin new congregations, and strengthen existing congregations. The sustenance and promotion of paid leadership for local congregations has dominated the thrust of most of our colleges founded from the third decade of this century [the 1920s], until today.”

And thus, throughout most of the last 100 years, Christian churches and churches of Christ have filled their pulpits with men who graduated from our institutions.

A PRELUDE TO ATTENDING BIBLE COLLEGE

But Christian colleges must have candidates to mold into preachers and ministers. Looking back several decades, how were ministry candidates being groomed during their growing-up years?

Veteran Christian minister and educator LeRoy Lawson came through the ministry pipeline that existed in the 1940s and ’50s.

“Then, as now, the local church was the primary source of future Christian leaders,” said Lawson, 83, who served with Christian colleges and churches throughout his career, including years as senior minister with Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona, and president of Hope International University in Fullerton, California.

 “I suspect it’s still true that smaller churches do a better job of recruiting and inspiring young people into ministry than megachurches and even moderately large churches do,” Lawson said. Larger churches tend to “attract and entertain their youth,” he said, while small churches “integrate their high school kids into serving in the worship service. . . .”

At his home church in Tillamook, a small city of a few thousand in northwest Oregon, Lawson was considered a “budding preacher.” It was assumed he would go to Bible college for formal training.

Other key factors in raising up ministers for many years, Lawson said, were the summer camps that “flourished in that era” and the Christian Endeavor program.

“Many of my fellow Bible college students testified to the lasting impact of their camp experience,” Lawson said. “One reason for the success these camps had in recruiting future preachers is that they were staffed by preaching ministers. In later years, these men stayed home and sent their youth ministers in their place, so the number of aspirants for youth ministry as opposed to preaching ministry grew while the numbers seeking to study for general (preaching) ministry diminished. There is no substitute for the apprenticeship model of training.”

Camps remain relatively strong, but the Christian Endeavor program—whose vision included leading young people into increased biblical understanding and spiritual maturity, and developing one’s spiritual gift of leadership—was waning in most places by the 1950s.

Bible colleges and seminaries were the capstones of preacher training, Lawson said. At his alma mater, Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon (now Bushnell University), Lawson said, ministry students were encouraged to continue on for a seminary degree—“to ‘dig their wells deep,’ as Dr. Joe Dampier used to advise.”

“I wasn’t aware as a college student that Bible colleges were then [in the late 1950s] at the height of their appeal,” Lawson said.

THE SITUATION 50 YEARS AGO

In 1970 and 1972, Christian Standard reported on surveys that sought to determine how many ministry students our colleges were graduating.

“Three to five hundred preachers will be graduated into the work of the church this spring,” Harrold W. McFarland wrote in March 1970. He based his findings on a survey of 32 preacher-training schools (among the 34 asked to participate). “[H]undreds of others will graduate and enter such fields of service as missions, youth work, Christian education, church secretarial work, and various musical ministries. A good number will also take up ministries as Bible college professors, instructors, and administrators.”

“Of the 648 total graduates expected by the reporting colleges in 1970,” McFarland continued, “58 are to receive graduate degrees, and 325 of the total are ministerial graduates. . . . The preacher graduates are 55 percent of the total, and all of the graduates are entering church-related professions.”

Those numbers might have seemed impressive on the surface, until McFarland pointed out, “It is still reported that almost 2,000 congregations do not have full-time preachers. Any pulpit committee knows [that] usually one is found at the expense of some other congregation, who then has to begin looking.”

Two years later, a June 1972 editorial noted that Charles Matthews, director for leadership training for Standard Publishing, had surveyed Christian colleges and asked similar questions about graduates. He received replies from 28 U.S.-based schools.

“The [1972] total was . . . 546 degrees—356 degrees to men and 190 to women,” the editor wrote.

“Three graduate schools reported granting degrees to a total of fifty-six men, which would indicate that one Bible-college graduate in six goes on to receive a higher degree in one of ‘our’ schools. A goodly number do graduate work elsewhere. Since these are the same men who graduated from the Bible colleges a few years ago, their work represents a deepening, rather than a broadening, of the available work force.”

The editor wrote, “[The] Directory of the Ministry listed 4,148 ministers, 2,527 others in church-related vocations, and 658 missionaries, for a “grand total of workers now in the field . . . at 7,333.”

“If the colleges continued to graduate the same number each year,” the editor noted, based on the numbers listed in the directory, “it would take approximately twelve years to replace the present work force. And that would not provide ministries to new churches, new multiple ministries to growing churches, or increase the overseas mission force.”

The lesson from all of this? Churches have been dealing with a shortage of ministers for a long time.

OTHER POINTS TO PONDER

In his article from 1970, McFarland acknowledged that “not all of the preachers for [these] . . . congregations came from these schools. Many preachers are ‘self-educated’ for their ministry; others adapt a general, liberal arts education; others receive their education in denominational colleges.”

It was virtually impossible then, as now, to determine with a high degree of accuracy where the pulpit preachers and other ministers come from across the spectrum of our churches. But in the 21st century, it seems that more and more people are taking nontraditional paths into the ministry. Anecdotal evidence indicates many churches are taking skilled, personable, and committed folks from within their churches—i.e., known commodities—and training them for ministry roles . . . and doing so largely apart from the Christian college system.

If we step back, we might see it’s not illogical that loosely affiliated “independent” Christian churches, over time, would grow less “dependent” on an established Christian college network.

Through the years, Christian colleges have had to adapt to survive . . . and so have many other Christian church “institutions”—the North American Christian Convention (now called Spire) and Christian Standard among them.

Lawson describes the past half-century or so of change this way: “A fiercely independent spirit among churches and their leaders has replaced the greater sense of interdependence we felt in those days.”

Change is inevitable. With innumerable factors at play over the past 100 years, it seems unfair to solely blame Christian colleges for failing to train up enough ministers for our churches.

“I’ve been watching and mourning their decline ever since [about 1960],” Lawson said. “Many have closed their doors because of inadequate financing, diminishing enrollments, disappearing denominational loyalty (even in our ‘non-denomination’), and the waning influence of churches in recruiting the next generation’s ministers.”

In other words, if Christian colleges are not producing enough ministers, there’s plenty of blame to go around for that.

And if there’s a shortage of ministers today, it means not all that much has changed. There were not enough ministers to fill our pulpits in the 1920s or early 1970s, either.

Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard

_ _ _

— SIDEBAR —

An Era of College Planting

The Disciples of Christ and the independent Christian churches and churches of Christ split in the 1960s, and the former officially became a denomination—the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—in 1968. But the fracture between the two groups had been apparent for 75 years or more.

In the 1920s, the “emerging independent Disciples,” began in earnest to open conservative schools . . . schools that didn’t teach higher criticism or endorse open membership, et al. By that time, conservatives saw the handwriting on the wall. For independent Christian churches to not just survive, but multiply, there needed to be conservative schools training up conservative preachers to lead conservative congregations.

A few of the established colleges—Milligan, Johnson, Northwest, Minnesota, and Kentucky (which had just opened)—came to be associated with these independent churches. Many more schools followed.

Among the independent colleges founded over the next half century: Cincinnati Bible Seminary (1924); Manhattan Christian College (1927); Pacific Christian College (now Hope International University, 1928); Atlanta Christian College (now Point University, 1937); San Jose Bible College (now William Jessup University, 1939); Ozark Bible College (1942); Lincoln Christian College (1944); Boise Bible College (1945); Midwest Christian College (now part of Ozark, 1946); Roanoke Bible College (now Mid-Atlantic Christian University, 1948); Great Lakes Bible College (1949); Dallas Christian College (1950); Platte Valley Bible College (now Summit Christian College, 1951); St. Louis Christian College (1956); Central Christian College of the Bible (1957); and Emmanuel Christian Seminary (1965). Some other schools started and have since closed (as Cincinnati did in 2019).

—J.N.

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