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As a graduate of two seminaries and as a current seminary instructor, I have often internally cringed at statements like, “Seminary classes need to be more practical” or “The seminary isn’t doing enough to care for the students’ spiritual needs.” On the one hand, a theological education should not be impractical, not should it ignore the spiritual formation of students. After all, the primary purpose of most seminaries is to train people to serve the local church in various capacities. But in the same breath, I fear that statements like those above betray a misunderstanding of the respective roles of both seminaries and the local church.
Many churches (but not all churches!) seem to believe that it is the seminary’s job to train, mentor, educate, and evaluate future ministers, evangelists, church planters, etc. But the seminary is being given an impossible task. Churches often perfunctorily sign-off on a recommendation form, and hand over people who are immature in their faith, expecting the seminary to single-handedly transform them into pastors. The seminary is seen as a pastor factory that should churn out graduates who are academically and practically prepared for full-time ministry, with the requisite personal spiritual maturity and godly character.
It is easy to think that success in ministry depends upon us making good decisions. If God’s plans for this church / ministry are going to succeed, we need to discern His will and follow it. But what about when we make dumb decisions? Can our failures ruin what God wants to accomplish? Certainly, our decisions have a real impact in our lives and the lives of others. We should pursue holiness and make the best choices we can. But at the same time, our missteps, miscalculations, and general failure to follow God in every way do not prevent God from accomplishing his plans.
We see this principle at work in the story of Abimelech and Abraham in Genesis 20. Abraham and Sarah move into Gerar, the territory of King Abimelech. Abraham has some inkling of the trouble that is ahead, so he tells Sarah to say that she is his sister instead of his wife. Abimelech then takes Sarah as his wife, but before he gets to sleeping with her, God speaks to him in a dream and tells him that she has a husband already, and Abimelech will thus be punished. Abimelech pleads his innocence, returns Sarah, and berates Abraham for lying to him. At the end of the day, Abraham gets his wife back plus a lot of gifts from Abimelech who wants to clear his name and escape from divine wrath.
A lot of ink (and pixels) have been spilled talking about the incredible impact that short term missions are making. However, that conclusion is based almost entirely on the perceptions of those who went on the trip. And the impact in question is often the effect that the trip had on those who went, not those on the receiving end. It is fantastic that so many people are blessed by going on short-term missions but are the people whom they went to serve getting blessed as well?
In a disturbing, yet eye opening article, David Livermore ("American or American't? A critical analysis of western training to the world", EMQ, Oct. 2004; Vol 40. No. 4. [pp. 458-456]) writes about a study that he did, “comparing North American pastors descriptions of their experiences training cross-culturally with the way national pastors and leaders described those same experiences.”
In planting a new church, how should the missionary provide for the continuing care of the congregation after he is gone? Or, to put it another way, how do you know when you are “done” planting a church? In not a small number of cases, missionaries in Thailand have established churches with a modus operandi something like this: evangelize and disciple until there is a sufficient number of Christian believers such that there are people to lead various elements of Sunday worship service and there are more or less sufficient finances to rent a building and call a full-time Bible school educated Thai pastor to lead the church. If these elements are mostly in place, then the church is considered planted and the missionary feels free to move on to a new location. Often there are some kind of appointed or elected church leaders which may or may not resemble Biblical elders. In many cases, I have seen a church committee which makes decisions about finances and church activities substituted for the Biblical model of elders, namely mature Christian men who govern and shepherd the congregation, bearing spiritual responsibility for the souls of the people. If a missionary gets the number of believers up to level where the church won’t dissolve, and then calls a native pastor (whom a small church often times can barely pay), is this really the best model for establishing healthy Biblical churches?
It is always good to know that someone is speaking from experience and not just theory. Therefore, following on from my previous post about Nevius’ thoughts on finding local leaders, I wanted to share Nevius’ account of how he and his missionary colleagues made the mistake of appointing elders too hastily:“Twenty years ago our mission in considering this subject reasoned on this wise: We are Presbyterians, and our churches should be organized from the first on Presbyterian principles. If we cannot get men for elders as well qualified as we should like, we must take the best men we can find, men who seem sincere and earnest Christians, and who may develop in character and ability to fulfill the duties of elders by having the duties and responsibilities of this office laid upon them. With these views and expectations several churches were formally and constitutionally organized. It was found, however, in not a small proportion of cases that the elders did not, or could not, perform their official duties, and were an obstruction to any one else attempting to do so. They were placed in a false position, injurious to themselves and the churches of which they had the nominal charge. Some were hardly able to sustain the character of an ordinary church member and others were in a course of few years excommunicated. We then took action as a Presbytery, determining that
Every missionary wants to develop indigenous local leaders so that an indigenous church may be established. When there are not many local Christians to choose from, it can be difficult to find the right people, especially those that are Biblically qualified. With many years of experience under his belt as a missionary in China, John Nevius had that following to say on the subject:
"It is only natural that missionaries should at first seek and employ many native agents. They are anxious for immediate results, and home societies and the home churches are as impatient to hear of results as the missionaries are to report them. No communications from the field seem so indicative of progress, and are so calculated to call forth commendation and generous contributions as the announcement that native laborers have been obtained, and are preaching the gospel. While the missionary himself is for months or years debarred from evangelistic work by his ignorance of the language, a native agency stands waiting his employ. His circumstances and his wishes add stong emphasis to the oft-repeated truism, "China must be evangelized by the Chinese." So urgent seems the necessity to obtain native assistants that if such as he would like are not forthcoming, he is glad to avail himself of such as he can get. How many of us have thought in connection with some specially interesting inquirer, even before he is baptized, "What a capital assistant that man might make." (John Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Monadnock Press, Hancock New Hampshire, 2003, p.21)
There is a church that my wife and I know well where almost none of the people on the church leadership committee are qualified to be there (this church uses a leadership committee instead of an elder board, deacon board, or some other form of church government). Sure they are aware of passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that lay out the Biblical qualifications for elders but those requirements don't seem to be very important to them. As in the time of Nevius,