Where Are Tomorrow's Leaders?
by Steve Brown
For about one hundred years Advent Christians relied principally on two colleges to prepare church leaders.
While formal theological education was not universally valued in the churches, the schooling model was believed by many to be the primary incubator for people called to ministry. Training leaders in theological colleges (and seminaries) was entirely consistent with accepted practice in the wider North American church, reflecting an educational paradigm highly regarded in the last half of the 19th century into the present era.
But after Aurora University (then, College) changed its curriculum in 1971, eliminating its ministry program, and Berkshire Christian College retrenched and sold its campus in 1986, the Denomination had no flagship for leadership training and theological instruction. But, the diminution of the theological colleges, within fifteen years of each other, provided a new opportunity to rethink theological education. Hopeful alternatives are emerging.
A “North Star” guides church leadership development.
This article endorses a framework for developing church leaders already being implemented by local churches, church networks and missions organizations in North America and the world. Since the schooling paradigm for church leadership training is a modern Western invention, we would do well to look back to the New Testament to consider concepts that can inform the identification and training of leaders today.
The Holy Spirit unfolded such a model in the early church through the teaching and practice of the Apostles. This paradigm is meant by God to be a pattern for leadership development throughout the church era. However, it is not a detailed blueprint but something like a North Star, a fixed point of reference for navigation.
Now is the time for a “fresh look.”
Therefore, the loss of the denominational theological schools, while regrettable, presents an opportunity for a “fresh look” at leadership development. In doing so, we will find that tomorrow’s leaders are with us right now. The task ahead is “on the job” training in the church to equip God’s people for ministry. The encouraging news is this: recent research in first century Christianity indicates that church-based leadership development was the method chosen by the Apostles to preserve their efforts in the church planting mission.
Now is the time to engage in a broad, aggressive reconsideration of how the church functions in God’s plan for the ages (Eph. 3:7-10), including the framework for leadership development employed by the Apostles.
Of the several analogies/conceptual modes of the church found in the New Testament (it was likened to the human body, a temple for the Holy Spirit, a building, a household or a family of families depending on the author’s intention), one that is helpful for this discussion is the church as community. This analogy lends itself well for another look at the context of theological education for leadership, since it is natural to need leadership when people come together for common cause.
However, the church is more than a natural community. It is a community of Christians called out and called together by God through the Gospel. Jesus, by His ever-present Spirit, is the Leader of the community. The church was not an afterthought in heaven. It was in the Father’s plan from the beginning. He provided for it in the death and resurrection of her Lord. The church is “The Community of the King!”
Consider five benefits for developing leaders locally. The church is 1) a living context providing multiple teaching venues, 2) a dynamic setting to develop competencies, 3) a laboratory for effective gift assessment in ministry, and 4) a powerful agency to affirm emerging leaders in the Holy Spirit.
Surely, these are not the only benefits for developing leaders. One more obvious value would be a serious reconsideration of the schooling model for ministerial training, which has become alarmingly expensive and exceedingly disruptive for both the church and the potential leader’s family.
However, the primary justification for rethinking leadership development and deployment comes from the example of the early church. No passage is more instructive than the Antioch initiative recorded by Luke in Acts 13:1-3. The Mediterranean mission for church planting rose in a worship setting as church leaders fasted in prayer. Luke writes very little about this occasion, but he gives us enough to set the wheels in motion.
First, the Holy Spirit sets leaders apart. They are selected by God, not man. Next, the Antioch leaders affirmed the role of the Holy Spirit by laying hands on Barnabas and Saul. New leaders did not present themselves to the church, nor did letters of recommendation qualify them for office. Then, they sent them off. It was out of the community of faith that the mission began by the initiating impulse of the Holy Spirit. Important for consideration is the significance of the community of faith in the identification, development, ratification and sending of leaders. Here Luke points the way forward.
So, how specifically should the church reassert itself as the primary platform for leadership development? Should not a new beginning come from the reassessment of the church as the single venue through which God expects the Great Commission to be fulfilled? Here are three suggestions to move the conversation forward.
The church should be a hermeneutical community.
The Bible belongs to the Christian community. “The sacred writings,” wrote Paul, “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Furthermore, “all Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness” and to the point of this article “that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
The skills to read, discern the meaning and discover the significance of the principled intentions of God are to be employed by the church for the benefit of equipping leaders for ministry. Unfortunately, those skills are diminished in most congregations with disastrous results. Most of the heavy lifting in interpretation has been turned over to scholars who write commentaries, which tend to be inaccessible except in the academic fraternity.
Consequently, the natural, God-given gift of interpreting speech and words, which resides in us by design, must be activated, sharpened and employed effectively at every level of Body life. Wisdom for solving problems should be in abundant supply, yet sadly it is eclipsed by lack of sound judgment. That stultifies thinking and meaningful reflection, diminishing the living context of learning obviously valued by the early leaders.
The church should be an interpreting community. It has been given the essentials of the faith, “the basic principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12). In the soil of God’s truth sound judgment grows. Imagine leaders wrestling together over current spiritual and cultural issues informed by an ordered investigation of biblical/theological principles.
In a community serious about knowing the intent of God in Scripture, leaders can develop reflective skills to become able Bible interpreters in their own right. Theology can then flow dynamically through the church. Emerging leaders will learn to value and exposit the truth through critical judgment developed in a church-based environment.
The church should be an educational community.
Is it not time to think of the church as the preferred environment for acquiring knowledge and wisdom? As home schooling has proven superior to public education, so theological education in the church could become superior to current leadership training built off the university model of the West. It will take work. But let the project go forward!
Consider Psalm 1. There, the blessed man (or woman) is the one who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly but delights in the law of the Lord—day and night! What better venue could there be to do just that than the community of faith. The training of Timothy for ministry developed by means of in-service learning. Today’s church should do no less.
The church should be a serving community.
Two of the chief criticisms of the schooling model for training church leaders concern the issues of competency and assessment. By delaying actual ministry service while aspiring leaders manage the educational maze of course work, administrative procedures and funding anxieties, the question of fitness for ministry in terms of relational skills, gift-mix, teaching aptitude, public preaching, family life and much more come after formal education. Too often, those school years of knowledge acquisition mask functional deficiencies discovered in service. Great is the disappointment when aspiring leaders discover they are not cut out for church ministry after all.
Given the expense of college and seminary preparation (with Bible colleges pushing beyond $30,000 a year for tuition, fees and room and board, not including the cost of books and travel), an alternative way of identifying and qualifying people for leadership must be considered. God’s word suggests this new way already exists—the serving community of faith. Why not qualify and encourage leadership in this best of all environments. Is there a better way to develop servant-leaders than in the serving-community?
What this article proposes is a serious conversation leading to a change in the paradigm for leadership development. Of course, talking is of little value without a common desire to take a “fresh look” at history and opportunity. The absence of theological schools does not obviate theological education. In fact, it should fire up the “Communities of the King” to take up the leadership development challenge on a large scale.
The leaders of tomorrow are in our churches! Let’s identify them, train them and set them to work—around the world, “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10)!