I received an email a few days ago from a pastor of a supporting church. He reported that he is retiring and that the district and church board have agreed that the church “has run its life cycle and will be closed.” It seems sad and makes it sound normal and inevitable. People have life cycles. Do churches and organizations face an inevitable future? What about Bible schools and other ministerial training programs?
Twenty five years ago Richard B. Wilke wrote:
“Once we were a Wesleyan revival, full of enthusiasm, fired by the Spirit, running the race set before us like a sprinter trying to win the prize. Now we are tired, listless, fueled only by the nostalgia of former days, walking with a droop, eyes on the ground, discouraged, putting one foot ahead of the other like a tired old man who remembers, but can no longer perform.” (1)
Richard Wilke is a bishop in the United Methodist Church. His words were published in And Are We Yet Alive, a controversial book at that time about the future of the United Methodist Church.
I read this book in the late 80s with a group of pastors charged with leading the Christian education ministries for our district. Our programs were plateauing. We were concerned, looking for answers. This book served as a shot across the bow of our big ship. Wilke stated, “The decline in our church school began in 1960 and has continued precipitously ever since.” (2) The United Methodist Church had lost a significant part of its membership in 25 years. Wilke believed that the declining commitment to teaching and discipleship was directly related to the overall decline in the UMC.
Now, twenty five years later, we are beyond the plateau in Christian education in the US Assemblies of God. It is so painful for those of us that were involved in the heyday of the 70s and 80s to see the declining state of Christian education in our churches. Then our churches were experiencing explosive growth and Sunday School still mattered. Today, many have eliminated Sunday School and for most of the rest, it looks like a tired old man! I think it’s harder for us as missionaries since we only get a closer look once every five years.
Nowhere is this loss of emphasis more clearly seen than in the ministerial training programs in what were our own Bible colleges. When I attended Northwest College in the mid-70s, the vast majority of the 700 were ministerial students. Of course, there weren’t many other options in those days. Today, Northwest is a university, with twice as many students and a much more diverse program. But the ministerial training program, once the core study plan, has receded into the shadows. (3) Northwest is not alone. Even though a few of our schools are thriving, we are in the consolidation and closure mode. There is no single explanation. It’s complicated.
Without question, the call to ministry and ministerial training begin in the local church. Northwest was started by a pastor and a local church, what was then Hollywood Temple in Seattle. Soon after, the church relocated nearby and was renamed to Calvary Temple. I served six years on the pastoral staff of this great missions church. Today, the story is repeated as churches and districts are opening new schools of ministry to make ministerial training more accessible to the called.
What about the Latin America/Caribbean region? Where are we at in the life cycle? Are we doomed? What can be done to avoid the inevitable? I wonder what Christian education, especially ministerial training, will look like 25 years from now in Latin America and what vitality treatments may exist to maintain vibrant training ministries.
Following are some of my observations about Christian education in the Spanish-speaking countries of the Latin America/Caribbean region and missionary involvement in ministerial training.
We are still in our Christian education heyday. During the 2011 International Dialogue of Educational Leaders (4) held in Panama in February, we received reports from 15 of the 19 countries that are a part of the CELAD-CADSA block and SEC, the education service for the Spanish-speaking countries. These reports confirm AGWM statistics and trends. Ministerial training is strong. We may even be peaking. Here is a summary and some observations:
|CELAD/CADSA||Brazil/Caribbean||Rest of World|
|Total Bible schools||47%||12%||39%|
Even though CELAD/CADSA has just 10% of the A/G adherents worldwide, these 19 countries have:
• 18% of the ministers (emphasis on the call and involvement in ministry)
• 47% of the Bible schools and extensions (emphasis on accessibility)
• 49% of the Bible school students (emphasis on classroom teaching)
• 34% of total ministerial students (emphasis on ministerial training)
We must buck the life-cycle tendency towards decline and maintain a strong emphasis in Christian education. I do not believe that we are doomed to repeat history. But we will need to work hard to avoid it! This applies to the local church, training institution and general-district council structures.
In preparing the reports for the International Dialogue we asked each country to identify their top three concerns or needs in their ministerial training program. After the reports were received, the large group selected the top four or five concerns. These concerns were assigned to small groups for study, who later reported their findings and recommendations to the large group. The concern voted number one was the need for the national church and education department to “value and protect” effective training of ministers. The representatives present recognized potential slippage in commitment and emphasis given to ministerial training.
The report proposed some excellent ways to value and protect effective ministerial training:
• Improve the relationship between the Bible school and local pastors
• Involve local pastors and presbytery in the Bible school
• Cultivate hospitality, generosity and friendliness with local pastors
• Professors must be involved in spiritual mentoring
• Reach out to alumni
• Offer practical courses for local pastors
• Seek professors and personnel who live the Pentecostal experience
• Teach and demonstrate Pentecostalism
The report rightly emphasizes the important relationship between the Bible school and local pastors. Logically, all Bible school students will come from local churches. These two entities must work in tandem to value and protect ministerial training.
We must get personally involved as strong advocates for ministerial training. I like the emphasis that Wilke gives to Christian education and training:
“The Bible is our book, and we will carry it into the future with us. We will teach it to our people, and they will in turn teach it to others. Pastors must multiply themselves by training others; they must become preacher/trainers.” (5)
A missionary, by definition, will take others along on the journey. I taught the missions course for ISUM a couple of years ago in Venezuela. I re-read Hodge’s book The Indigenous Church and included some chapters in the student’s reading. In his chapter on self-propagating he counsels the missionary to not get bogged down in a single location, but to move around to maintain the larger vision. He should take promising workers along on the journey. Your involvement in ministerial training may never be formal, but these Paul-Timothy relationships and moments shape the legacy you leave. (6)
How do you see it? In the US? In the Latin America/Caribbean region? Do you see Christian education, ministerial training in particular, like a vibrant youth or a tired old man? Are wrinkles and death inevitable for our training institutions and programs? Take a moment to share your thoughts below
in the Leave a Reply section.
By Rod Boyd
1 Wilke, Richard B., And Are We Yet Alive, Abingdon Press, 1986, page 9
2 IBID, page 11
3 Statistics of the number of ministerial students in our 19 A/G schools are difficult to come by. I found this website http://www.onlineeducation.net/school/northwest-university that provided the number of degrees issued by program. Of the 508 undergraduate degrees awarded, 118 appear to be from degree programs related to Bible, theology, ministry or religion. This number surprises me as I expected it to be closer to a 10 to 1 ratio. If you have any statistics, please write!
4 The International Dialogue of Educational Leaders, conducted every two years in the odd years by the Resource and Advisory Center (Centro de Recursos y Asesoría). A complete report of the 2011 International Dialogue is available on the Center’s website at: http://elasesor.org/201103Dialogo.aspx.
5 Wilke, page 89
6 Hodges, Melvin L., La iglesia autóctona, GPH 1953 (English), 2006 (Spanish), pages 55-56