Why should we send our best people to Bible College? (3)

Why should we send our best people to Bible College? (3)

As I have previously stated, I believe that there needs to be some form of moratorium between evangelical churches and Bible Colleges in our country. We need to ask some tough questions. Who exactly is serving who? Who are many of our Bible Colleges actually accountable to? What figures do we have that show us in real terms just how successful these places are at ensuring people leave to go into full-time pastoral ministry of some level? How can a Bible College realistically assess a person in terms of their spiritual character, devotion to the Lord, prayer life, love for the saints, perseverance through trial etc? As John Frame points out:

The academic machinery is simply incapable of measuring the things that really matter – a man’s obedience to God’s Word, his perseverance in prayer, his self control, his ability to rule without pride, the spiritual power of his preaching in the conversion of men and the edification of the church.

It is my contention that a man who comes to me with a degree from a Bible College is not necessarily any more spiritual use in ministering to housing schemes than a man with latent spiritual gifting and a mixture of on the job training and ongoing theological learning and assessment. It is laughable to even suggest that because somebody has a handle on Greek or Church History that, somehow, they are better prepared and more qualified to face the temptations and trials of spiritual battle in the coalface of a housing scheme. It is my experience that, with few exceptions, I have to help people ‘unlearn’ the Bible College mentality of academia and help them to work on the practical realities of Godly living in the field. Dr. John Frame, 40 years ago now, makes an interesting proposal.

Let us then consider a positive alternative. A church or denomination establishes a kind of “Christian community” where teachers, ministerial candidates, and their families live together, eat together, work together; where they all really know each other; where their lives (their habits, their tempers, their talents, their loves, their hates, their struggles, their sanctity and lack of it) are known to all. The teachers and older students would thus be “examples” to the newer and the newer would be under the scrutiny of the older. The community is not a monastic escape from the world; rather it is mobilized for the purpose of establishing and nurturing churches throughout its locality. Each teacher, student, wife and child is to be deeply involved in the work of developing churches, through visitation, neighborhood Bible studies, public meetings, street preaching, and then (as churches are established) through Sunday School teaching, preaching church youth work, church administration, etc.

This, to my mind, encapsulates what we are trying to achieve through Porterbrook Training and our on the job internships here at NCC. I know lots of other churches that are now following suit or have been engaged in this approach for many years. As I have already stated elsewhere, with this system we get to (1) train our people theologically at a very good level and (2) we get the bonus of observing them, coaching them and discipling them in the particular field they want to ultimately serve in. So, they get to learn and grow from actual practitioners rather than text books and through writing theoretical papers. In Frames alternative to Bible College, he envisions the following:

There will be no set “number of hours” after which a man is entitled to graduation. Teachers and older students involved in teaching ,will meet from time to time for intensive evaluation of each student’s progress in life, skills and knowledge. These meetings will determine whether a man will be dropped from the program (either because of doubt concerning his call to the ministry or because of doubt concerning the ability of the program to deal with the student’s problems), or whether he will be promoted to new levels of responsibility, or whether he will be “graduated” and recommended to the churches for the ministry. No man will “graduate” unless the teachers are convinced that he has the character, skills and knowledge that the Scriptures require of church officers.

At Niddrie we are constantly developing our programme to ensure that people are (1) constantly getting good feedback. That means both positive and negative constructive criticism. (2) They are subject to a high level of spiritual accountability with intensive one-to-ones with a designated accountability partner and/or mentor. (3) People are given opportunities to serve in a variety of practical areas, including teaching and are given wide ranging feedback which will help them to nurture and develop gifting. (4) The wheat and the chaff are ‘sifted’ through the intensity of the process as underlying character defects and sins are brought to light and sought to be dealt with. The problems usually appear when a person is designated unfit for ministry by the leaders of the local body and so they move on to a new church and turn up with the intention of going to ‘Bible College’. I have lost count of the many people over the years who have randomly turned up at church for a few weeks, asked to meet me, and then informed me of their desire to go to Bible College. When I ask them what the pastor of their ‘home’ church thinks I usually get a reply along the lines of, ‘Oh, he doesn’t understand me…that church is awful’ or words to that effect. I personally tell them that I won’t be signing off on a reference until they have been with me for a few years and I have seen some sort of evidence of spiritual life, growth and leadership gifting. They are usually off down the road to the next church on their hit list, doubtless writing me off as one of those ‘terrible pastors’ as well!

If, as evangelicals, trying to encourage and grow a new generation of leaders to work in our inner city housing schemes and council estates then we must face the facts that Bible College is not the future for many of our people. So, what is? My aim is not to annoy people but to help us to think. Bible Colleges aren’t going to do this. They have a vested interest in their own self-propagation. They’re not going to lower academic standards even if a man has excellent spiritual credentials. They are going to fail him because they have to. Well, there’s part time courses, you may say! There are. But why would they be any more superior to initiatives like Porterbrook which, in my opinion, puts theological training back where it belongs. In the hands of local churches and local church leadership. Please be clear that I am not advocating the end of Christian scholarship but what use are scholars in training pastors and housing scheme church planters? Not much I can assure you. Their benefit lies more broadly than that. I think that today, more than ever, if we are to grow future leaders who will be effective in housing schemes then we must develop theological ‘hot houses’ in our local congregations, work at sharing resources like Porterbrook, share experiences and lessons learned between local church practitioners and offer valuable hands-on experience where possible. If I am going to send my best people anywhere it will be to plant another congregation or grow them into teaching and leadership positions in order to train others also.

Still thinking it through.