By Jerry Harris
Independent Christian Churches across America are facing a crisis. I realize crisis is a strong word, so I will attempt to carefully explain the situation.
The crisis comes from a gap between the growing numbers of people attending these churches over a relatively short period of time and the shrinking number of leaders being produced by our institutions of higher education to minister to them.
The January/February 2022 issue of Christian Standard included the article “Invisible Renaissance” that showed the amazing growth in attendance of our largest churches over a 20-year period. The result of that study was breathtaking. Between 1998 and 2018, the number of churches averaging more than 2,000 in weekend worship attendance nearly tripled. Overall attendance of 46 churches listed in both surveys increased nearly 2.5 times. While not all churches in our fellowship are growing, many of them are, and that creates an incredible need for more well-trained leaders.
That same magazine issue also shared an investigative report into the numbers of ministry graduates our Christian colleges are producing for our churches. In short, the total number of graduates at these schools has increased over the past 20 years, but the number of ministry graduates has declined.
Churches have endeavored to fill this gap by hiring internally, moving people from volunteer positions to paid part-time and full-time roles. While these people may have great relational and communication gifts, have secular college degrees, already live in the area, and share a common church chemistry, they probably don’t have the specific education necessary for ministry.
Many churches have looked to professional hiring or placement organizations that forego our Restoration distinctives and open the minister hiring process to a wider evangelical or even denominational community; this can lead to a dilution of biblical truth and sound doctrine in our churches.
While our colleges continue to offer traditional opportunities for training up Christian ministers, the mechanisms we rely on have their own baked-in challenges:
College is expensive. The per credit-hour cost is often over $500. While financial aid is available, this can trigger debt that takes our college graduates years to repay. Young, college-educated, married couples can be hit doubly hard. Debt is debilitating in ministry when churches can’t pay enough to cover those costs. Online degree programs are also expensive; their per credit-hour cost is sometimes higher than in-person training.
College requires uprooting. Colleges require students to live on or near campus unless an online substitute is available. This can limit the opportunities for nontraditional students and potentially damage their ministries.
College campuses are expensive to run. Administrators of colleges with physical campuses must address housing, meals, extracurricular activities, transportation, infrastructure, management, and discipline. All these elements, which are baked into this model of education, come with a cost.
For students who have the time, money, flexibility, and desire for a traditional college experience, this model remains a good option, but for students who see these as daunting obstacles, a traditional education may seem out of reach. This situation has spurred me to look for alternatives or to create something new to address the compelling need required by our present reality.
An Unanticipated Answer
Enter John Baxter and NationsUniversity.
You may be asking, “What is NationsUniversity?” That was my first reaction. When I met John Baxter, president of NationsU, at ICOM, I had no idea whom I was talking to . . . or what God had planned.
NationsU is an accredited, online Christian university associated with the Restoration Movement. However, because it has its roots in the noninstrumental Churches of Christ and has focused primarily on students outside the United States, it has gone unnoticed by our fellowship. Yet, in God’s timing, that veil has been removed.
As I’ve read about our wider movement, I’ve written several articles about some important discoveries I’ve made about people in other branches. I wrote about Marshall Keeble, an evangelist who baptized more than 40,000 people and started over 400 churches. I wrote about Fred Gray, a pivotal lawyer who championed the Civil Rights Movement with desegregation. I didn’t know either of these men, because they were Church of Christ and Black.
I didn’t know John, either, but I had heard of his father, Batsell Barrett Baxter, Church of Christ preacher, professor, author, and radio and television personality for Herald of Truth. What I didn’t know was that what I was seeking to create had been created 26 years earlier . . . even predating the internet!
John and I visited at different times during the conference to discuss the need for more ministers in our Restoration Movement churches. We both recognized there are already many men and women serving who long for theological and ministry training. Unfortunately, uprooting family and quitting jobs that support their bivocational ministries are not viable options. Like many who are already serving the Lord in ministry, these ministers need relevant, effective, affordable, and local theological training, but that has felt like a pipe dream.
More Questions Answered
NationsUniversity, I learned, was initially created to provide top-quality biblical education for people on the mission field in the developing world. It then expanded into prisons and provided that education without cost. Before long, I was asking John a barrage of questions about how we might work together.
QUESTION: What kind of education is offered?
ANSWER: Certificates, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees.
Are you an accredited university?
Yes . . . accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as having the same weight as regional accreditation common to most colleges and universities.
What does it cost?
$450 per quarter for the 33 top developed countries, including the United States. No tuition is charged to students (including missionaries) in developing countries.
Are you adamant about noninstrumental Church of Christ distinctives?
No. They are not taught rigidly, though we strongly endorse Restoration principles.
Are you willing to have Independent Christian Church professors teach?
We would love that! We welcome academically qualified volunteer professors from the Independent Christian Churches.
If we wanted to be a part of what NationsU is doing, how would that be received?
We would embrace that!
Is there a way to collaborate with existing Christian colleges?
Absolutely! We already have numerous relationships with Christian colleges around the world.
After those initial conversations, I asked some of our scholars to look over the course catalog and syllabi of NationsU. I and others have been impressed by what is offered, the structure of their delivery system, the quality of their teachers, and the sound biblical doctrine of their content.
I asked how NationsU could help meet the needs of our individual churches. We discussed how NationsU students might be incorporated into a residency where they would receive an asynchronous education without leaving their existing ministry location; the idea is to develop leaders where they are already planted and working.
With that in mind, Christian Standard is excited to announce a joint effort with NationsUniversity to provide “REAL Residency” to ministers and churches associated with the Restoration Movement. We believe this will help solve the problem of not enough trained ministers to fill the many positions throughout the fellowship.
Our churches can provide mentoring and coaching on the practical aspects of ministry in their present ministry setting and NationsUniversity can provide the other key component to ministerial development: sound education in the Bible and basic theology.
REAL Residency—Increase Your Influence
So what do we mean by “REAL Residency”?
REAL is an acronym formed from the following words and the fundamental principles behind them:
Remain where you are. Bloom where God has called you to minister and where you are already planting seeds and growing the church. Don’t uproot yourself to go to a Christian school; let the school come to you.
Engage in practical ministry with excellent mentors and coaches already in place at your local church or throughout our fellowship. Also, engage God’s Word in meaningful ways by studying with an accredited, online Christian university.
Afford your schooling. NationsU provides economical education to help prepare ministers so they won’t go into debt. The first quarter of study is free for students so they can decide whether this approach to learning is suitable for them. After that, tuition is $450 per quarter for as many courses as a student wishes to take; books are free through NationU’s online library. Churches may also choose to help by covering the cost of this education.
Lead with confidence. You might never have imagined God could call you to service and equip and educate you this way. He can take you to places you can’t imagine.
Residency means all of this education happens where you call home! You will take courses at home on a schedule that works for you. The courses are self-paced and self-guided, so you study what you want to study, when you want to study, and where you want to study. You then can apply what you are learning at your home congregation. You learn locally, serve locally, and lead locally.
Many of our larger churches have developed models to help new ministers grow into their roles. Christian Standard has been gathering ideas related to mentoring and equipping new ministers for service in our churches. We are launching our sharing of those ideas in the form of a Toolbox that new ministers and others can access for free. We welcome ideas from any of our churches on how to develop ministers locally and, over time, we will include the best of these ideas in our Toolbox.
We know more ministers are needed to serve in our churches. It is our prayer that the REAL Residency concept is helpful. Let’s create the best residency at each of our Christian churches to support new ministers. For those who do not already have an undergraduate degree from a Christian school, new ministers can build a strong foundation in Bible and basic theology by studying at NationsU.
To new ministers, we encourage you to say yes to every opportunity for development. God will join you as you Increase Your Influence. See www.nationsu.edu for more information.
Jerry Harris serves as publisher of Christian Standard Media and teaching pastor at The Crossing, a multisite church located in three states across the Midwest.