From independence to interdependence: The power of small groups

Goma_groups2We expected to run alone. That’s how our former cross-country coach did it. But on his first day, our new coach explained then demonstrated a different way of running together. He called it “Indian running.” Coach laced on his running shoes and ordered: “Follow me.”

Quickly we formed a line, like baby chicks following their mother hen. Setting a brisk pace, after a minute, coach barked out his command: “Next runner.” The boy at the back of the line then sprinted, passing his teammates, taking his position at the front of the line as the new leader. After another minute, he, too, would shout: “Next runner” and a new leader emerged. In this way, everyone had a chance to set the pace for a time. No longer were we nine runners depending only upon ourselves. Instead, we were interdependent, encouraging each other, running together.

Coach taught us all an important lesson:

Interdependence beats independence every time.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament teaches the power of interdependence. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NIV) explains:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

In the same way, Paul encouraged the Galatians to carry each other’s burdens as a way of fulfilling Christ’s law of love (Galatians 6:2). In the earliest days of the church in Jerusalem, this was how believers built each other up in the faith, sharing their possessions, meeting in each other’s homes, eating together, celebrating meal Holy Communion, praying and encouraging one another (see Acts 2:42-28). It was an attractive, loving fellowship, and outsiders longed to be part of of it.

What worked in the earliest centuries still worked hundreds of years later. The young English evangelist, John Wesley (1703-91), was instrumental in birthing many people into Christian faith. However, he noticed that their faith often quickly grew cold. Like a newborn baby needs a blanket to keep warm, so new believers need warm fellowship to grown in their faith. Wesley soon despaired of visiting in the homes of everyone who was coming to Christ. He had to find a new system. Over time, he organized the early Methodists into mixed male/female groups of 15-20 (“classes”) and – for those who desired – into single gender “bands” of 5-7. These small groups met once per week in the evening for 60-90 minutes, allowing people to share their successes and challenges with each other, to pray and encourage each other in their faith. Like the early Christians, the Methodists discovered that – while independence leads to spiritual indifference – interdependence fosters spiritual growth.

Small groups are discipleship groups, helping members follow Jesus more closely, together. Paradoxically, greater dependence upon each other leads to greater dependence upon God.

While serving as a missionary in Benin (West Africa), I always looked forward to the Wednesday morning men’s breakfast. Five or six of the male missionaries in town met each week at 7 a.m. at the same café. We drank coffee, ate eggs and toast, caught-up on events from the last week, and encouraged each other. Before leaving, we spent 10 or 15 minutes in prayer. Those were years of great challenge in ministry, and our weekly meetings were fresh water for my thirsty spirit. Though we never ran together, those Wednesday breakfasts reminded me of Indian runs from high school. Once again, I moved from independence to interdependence, growing stronger in the process.

In small groups, we learn that our struggles are not ours alone. With time, trust develops between members. Brothers and sisters feel free to share about unhealthy habits that have ensnared them and receive help from others in the group. In the confession of sin and praying for each other, healing comes (James 5:16).

To be independent leads to isolation and despair. Interdependence, on the other hand, builds community and together draws us closer to God. What small group opportunities are there in your church? If there are none, speak with your pastor or other leaders in your church. Reflect how you can become a catalyst to begin this powerful initiative in your community of faith.

A means of grace: a tribute to Dr Rob Staples

rob staples“Take a course from Dr Staples.”

Those six words jumped off the page, words penned by my former Eastern Nazarene College professor when I was a first-year student at Nazarene Theological Seminary. It was part of a thoughtful and pastoral reply to my anguished letter, wondering whether I should continue in my journey toward ordained Nazarene ministry.

First semester at Seminary had been brutal, capped off by a note scrawled on my research paper by a different well-intentioned but theologically brittle professor:

“Mr Crofford, if this is your continuing position, do not seek ordination in the Church of the Nazarene.”

The Lord must have known that such “hardening of the categories” called for an antidote. I enrolled in some of Staples’ courses and the good Doctor became part of God’s medicine.

NTS chapel services were always better attended on the days when Dr Staples preached. We could count on his lively sense of humor to add a light moment to our day. When a colleague took longer than usual to introduce him, piling up the plaudits, Staples at last made his way to the pulpit:

“With a introduction like that,” he quipped, “even I can’t wait to hear what I’m going to say.”

It will be shame if no one preserved his many limericks, humorously delivered before his sermon with a comic’s keen sense of timing.

Other funny moments were more spontaneous. Once in class, Dr Staples lost his train of thought, his brain stubbornly refusing to recall the name of the theological term that eluded him. “Oh no,” he lamented. “I think I might have what’s his name’s disease!”

Staples’ course, “Wesley’s Theology,” opened up a new world. My understanding of the doctrine of holiness to that time was based solely upon the American Holiness Movement interpretation with its strong accent upon a second, definite crisis experience. Dr Staples masterfully guided us through large swaths of Wesley’s writings; the takeaway for me was love. John Wesley taught that – as Jesus affirms in Mark 12:30-31 – holiness boils down to love for God and love for neighbor. Holiness suddenly was immensely practical and others-focused, a refreshing change from the self-centered nature of my prior understanding. Later when I pursued doctoral studies, it’s not surprising that I dug deeper into the theology of John and Charles Wesley. After all, it was Dr Staples who had sowed the seed years before.

All was not roses for the professor students loved. In class one day, he alluded to an episode from a few years earlier where powerful critics in the church questioned aspects of his theology, seeking his removal. Without tearing off the scab, he observed with just a hint of pain:

“I stood at the edge of my ecclesiastical grave and looked down into it.”

After a formal inquiry, he was vindicated, but the episode is a reminder that even professors of theology who are well-loved and loyal to the denomination risk becoming casualties when an unchecked “hardening of the categories” sets in. It was a vigorous defense of Staples by colleagues that saved him for the church. Happily, it meant that he was still there at NTS to teach me when my own time of theological fragility arrived, when I desperately craved not heavy-handed law but lighthearted grace. Indeed, Dr Staples’ wit and wisdom became for me a means of grace.

Dr Staples, thank you for staying the course. Well-done, good and faithful servant.

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Photo credit: Greenlynn blog

Missing small

Medium2I’m missing small.

I first noticed it at a doughnut shop at the Ronald Reagan airport in D.C. then here at a mini-mart in Oklahoma. In both places, if you want coffee, you have two choices, medium or large.

Now, I’m no expert in logic, but doesn’t the word “medium” by definition mean in the middle? So, how can you have medium-sized unless you also have large and small?

Jesus had a soft spot in his heart for small. His disciples wanted to chase away little children, but Jesus scolded: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14, NIV). That verse alone provides a pretty good argument for why the church baptizes people of all ages and sizes.

Sometimes small refers not to age but to the “vertically challenged.” Zaccheus climbed a sycamore tree to try to see Jesus, but the irony of the story is that the Lord ended up seeing him. When he did, he perceived not a reviled tax collector but a small man with big promise. When Zaccheus promised to make restitution for all he had stolen, Christ responded: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9, NIV).

The most famous example of small in Christ’s teaching is the humble mustard seed. Just a speck of grain, yet it grows into a large tree, big enough so that birds can lodge in its branches (Matthew 13:31-32). Jesus used this as a parable of the Kingdom of God. Something may seem insignificant, unimportant, yet God can use it to make major, positive changes. Bi-vocational pastors of churches with just a handful of members should take heart. You don’t have to be a big church to count. Little churches – whether they meet in a church building or a home – can have an impact all out-of-proportion to their size. What counts is that they are filled with love for God and others, yet always inviting new people into the life-changing circle.

When it comes to coffee, I can deal with only medium or large, but when it comes to the Kingdom, let’s not forget small. No one is insignificant to God, and no service rendered is unimportant in the Lord’s sight.

Baptism: Confessions of a late bloomer

baptismI decided to follow Jesus at age 7 and was baptized at 22.

Yes, you read that right. There were 15 years between my coming to Christ and my sealing it publicly via water baptism.

How can that be when all those years my parents and family faithfully attended Nazarene congregations?

I love God and the Church of the Nazarene, in that order, but I have to admit: When it comes to my baptism story, it’s complicated.

My parents had me dedicated as a baby at the local Church of the Nazarene near Washington, D.C., where I was born. Dedication was the predominant practice in the Church of the Nazarene at the time and still is today, despite the fact that our Article of Faith # 12, “Baptism,” makes allowance for both believer and infant baptism. (Interestingly, baby dedication appears nowhere in our Articles of Faith, but does have a ritual at the back of the Nazarene Manual, along with an infant baptism ritual).

Our family later moved to central New Jersey where we attended two Nazarene congregations successively and finally to Rochester, New York. Like the D.C. area Nazarene congregation, none of these three church buildings had baptismal fonts or baptistries. In short, baptism was the nearly invisible sacrament during my early childhood – tucked away in neglected creedal statements in our church Manual – but never on the minds of architects who designed buildings for Nazarene worship.

There was one Sunday when I was living in Rochester that a visiting family showed up. Our pastor baptized their infant by sprinkling, but – strangely enough – we never saw that family again.

Fast-forward to age 13. I was a teen Bible quizzer studying the Gospel according to Matthew. I couldn’t get away from Matthew 3:13-17, where Jesus submitted himself to baptism by John. My logic was simple:

1) Jesus was baptized;

2) I’m supposed to be like Jesus.

3) Therefore, I should be baptized.

So I talked to the pastor and asked to be baptized. He looked at me, and with a kind but firm voice intoned: “Greg, we don’t believe that baptism saves you.” End of conversation.

Three years later, at age 16, God called me to preach, and in the Fall of 1981, I enrolled as a freshman religion major at Eastern Nazarene College. For four years, I successively attended two more Nazarene congregations in the Boston area and – during that time – witnessed several baby dedications but no baptisms of any kind, of any age candidate. Midway through my time at ENC, I received my first district license with my home District. I filled out the form that asked lots of good questions about my spiritual experience. “Have you been born again?” Check. “Had you been entirely sanctified?” Check. The form allowed for me to expand on my answers to those questions, describing my spiritual journey and my call to preach. But one question was conspicuously absent: “Have you been baptized?” I never noticed at the time that it was missing, not having thought about it since my very short conversation with my pastor at age 13.

Graduation, marriage, honeymoon, a move to Kansas City for Seminary in the summer of 1985 – Upon arrival, we visited several Nazarene congregations in the Kansas City area, and finally settled at the Grandview church, south of KC. The second Sunday there, the pastor announced that there would be a baptism class the next Sunday night and – one week later – a baptism service. This was my chance, my first Nazarene baptism service where adults would be immersed. I was happy to sign my name to the list of candidates. Nine years after my first request to be baptized, I was awakening from my sacramental slumber.

Since the Grandview church had been built without a baptistry, we joined forces with a nearby Nazarene congregation that had one. I remember the words of my pastor, Rev. Richard “Dick” Neiderhiser, as I walked up the steps to the baptistry. He playfully dubbed me the “late bloomer,” then plunged me under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Fifteen years after my decision to follow Jesus, I was now officially initiated into the Body of Christ.

There’s one other curious side-note. When I was 12, our church in Rochester held a class using a book that took a bunch of us 6th graders through a simple catechism. When we were done, I joined the Church of the Nazarene. So, from age 12 to age 22 – for ten years – I was a member of the Church of the Nazarene even though I had never been initiated by baptism into the Church universal.

Apparently I’m not the only one who considers this backward order strange. For at least the past two General Assemblies, there have been resolutions presented that would require anyone uniting with the membership of the Church of the Nazarene to have first been baptized in some Christian community of faith. Importantly, the resolutions did not mandate so-called “re-baptism” in order to join Nazarene ranks, just baptism in a recognized Christian church. Twice, the resolution has been defeated.

Some Nazarene congregations are not waiting around for the denomination to officially change its polity. In 2004, my two teenage sons joined the Church of the Nazarene while we attended the Nampa College congregation in Nampa, Idaho. Though the Manual has not changed, I was thrilled when their youth pastor asked them whether they had been baptized. They had been, some years before. He explained that baptism was a first step – initiation into the larger Body of Christ – that precedes joining that part of the family called “Nazarene.” God bless that youth pastor! I have hope that this practice will spread and that – as sometimes happens in our tribe – our official statement of practice in the Manual will eventually catch-up with our longstanding practice on-the-ground.

But back to my baptism odyssey.

All told, I held 8 district licenses on two districts. During all eight annual interviews prior to being ordained in 1991, I was asked many questions by ministerial credentials boards, yet not once did anyone ever ask me whether I had been baptized. So, I was ordained as a Nazarene elder – as my ordination certificate says, in “the Church of God” i.e. Church universal – without anyone inquiring about my status in the Church universal, the broader community of faith. No one was interested in knowing if I had ever been initiated by baptism into the Church that Jesus the Nazarene founded, against which the gates of Hell shall never prevail (Matthew 16:18).

Am I alone in this strange baptismal journey, or have things changed? Tell me about your Nazarene baptism experience.

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FOR FURTHER READING:

If you want to read excellent teaching on the meaning of baptism, I highly recommend two books:

– Rob Staples, Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality (Beacon Hill, 1991), available here at Amazon.

– Michael Green, Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice and Power (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987). An updated version of the book (2010) is available here at Amazon.

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Image credit: Crossbridge Community

Direction: 3 questions every church must answer

compassMy younger son, Brad, and I were having lots of trouble on our canoe trip. I would pull my paddle in one direction and he would pull his in another. Instead of making forward progress, we just turned around in circles. It was great fun for others to watch, but super frustrating for us. Finally, the two of us started communicating about the direction we wanted to go, coordinating our efforts. The circling stopped; slowly, we moved downriver then with greater speed as we got the hang of it, working together instead of at cross-purposes. After a few hours, we had finished the river float – success!

What is true for canoeing is true for churches. There are three questions regarding direction that every church must answer:

1) What is our destination?

2) What must we do to get there?

3) How will we know when we’ve arrived?

Let’s look at these questions one at a time.

What is our destination?

I love  the “Horatio Hornblower” series. In dramatic fashion, Captain Hornblower would announce the heading of the ship, and everyone replied: “Aye, sir!”

Some seem to think the church is a Navy vessel. The Captain (Pastor) gives the orders, and everyone obeys. But things are changing, even in the West. We have moved to a collaborative model, much closer to the villagers in rural Africa gathered under the mango tree. From oldest to youngest, everyone has a word to say and direction emerges based on consensus. In the digital age, the “mango tree” can be a FaceBook page where everyone is encouraged to speak up. Either way – whether in person or through social media – listening happens, making it more likely that we move forward together, in common purpose.

What is it that we want to accomplish together? This is another way of articulating the question of destination. Once we have listened to each other and consensus on direction has emerged, it is time to sum it up in a single sentence. Here’s an example of a guiding statement:

“Building a deep community of faith 500 strong.”

We’ll talk about that statement more below.

What must we do to get there?

Sometimes in evangelical circles we have thought that we must first believe, then we can belong. In fact, most have experienced the opposite. In The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again (Abingdon, 2000, 2010). George Hunter III maintains that “belonging comes before believing” (location 795).  Share stories with each other. How did you come to be committed to the church and to Christ? Every activity of the church must foster that sense of belonging, that each of us are loved and that this community of faith has a place for me. If an activity (or program) does nothing to help build that sense of community – the belonging preliminary to believing – then it is not leading you toward your goal as a church. It is a paddle in the water steering the canoe in the wrong direction.

How will we know when we’ve arrived?

The five words I love most from my GPS are these:

“You have reached your destination.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if church work were so clear cut, to know that we have “reached our destination”? In fact, it is rarely so obvious. Still, there are indicators that we are heading in the right direction.

Let’s take a look again at the guiding statement, “Building a deep community of faith 500 strong.” What are some of the key words?

“building” – This speaks of the atmosphere of a church. Do we encourage each other, building one another up, celebrating our strengths and graciously forbearing the weaknesses of others, as they put up with ours? People have plenty of chances to be torn down by the words of others outside the church. Inside, each of us needs affirmation that we are a person of worth and deeply loved by God and others. Our pastor has fostered what I call the “holy hug,” a variation of the “holy kiss” Paul talks about in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20 and elsewhere.

“deep” – Churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition sometimes speak of the “deeper life.” We recognize that the decision to follow Christ is only the first step in a lifelong journey of discipleship. The Holy Spirit can cleanse us at a deep level, filling us with God’s love and a desire to serve Him.

“community” – To be in community is to do life together. Is is the spirit of Ubuntu, to recognize that “I am because we are.” In our disconnected day-and-age, to foster connectedness is one of the key strengths that the church offers. Former General Superintendent Nina Gunter once said:

In the church, there are only two categories of people: participants and critics.

Communities grow stronger and more united when members of the community are given service opportunities, using their God-given talents. Those who are fenced-off from meaningful service will either speak up (criticizing) or will leave.

“faith” – As important as the value of connectedness is, unity in the church goes deeper than the connectedness created in clubs based upon common interests only, such as bicycling or photography. Our unity is based upon Christian faith, our common confession that Christ died, Christ rose, and Christ will come again. We believe that life has purpose because we – as the People of God – are part of a larger Story, the Story of God, and that story is life-changing. The preaching of the Word and the observance of the Sacraments (Eucharist and Baptism) are ways that we tell the Story.

“500 strong” – The Book of Acts reports that following Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost, about 3,000 were added to the church (Acts 2:41). Likewise, Jesus tells the parable of 100 sheep and how the shepherd cared for all 100, both the 99 that he left safely behind and the one he searched for in the wilderness (Luke 15:1-7). Well has it been said: “We count people because people count.”

Though some are qualitative and some quantitative, each of these words in the guiding statement can to a degree be assessed. Are we a church that encourages each other? Are we going deeper in our faith, nurturing each other in the life of discipleship? Do those who attend feel like they belong, finding a place of meaningful service? Do we point our people back to the Story of faith that holds us together? Finally, have we set growth goals that are realistic, realizing that numbers – while not the only measure of our impact – are one important indicator of a church’s health?

The three questions of destination, how to get there, and knowing when we’ve arrived are crucial to the success of the church. Guiding statements – developed not unilaterally but collaboratively – help everyone know where the “canoe” is headed. With a Spirit-inspired vision clearly in-mind, we can joyously pull together, making progress toward where God wants us to go.

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Image creditNexus Mods

God’s Not Dead: A review

God's_not_deadFull disclosure: I’m not a big fan of Christian movies. Generally, I find them preachy, poorly acted, and – produced on a shoe-string – it usually shows.

So, I went to “God’s Not Dead” (2014) ready to hate it, and surprisingly, I didn’t.

The plot centers on atheist Professor Raddison (played by Kevin Sorbo), a philosophy professor who urges his freshmen students to write just three words on a piece of paper: “God is dead.” If everyone in the class will do this and turn it in to the prof, the unit on metaphysics can be skipped. There wouldn’t be a story to tell if all the students did so. One student – Josh Wheaton (played by Shane Harper) – is a Christian, and refuses to sign. As a result, the sincere but apparently outmatched Wheaton must give a presentation during three class periods, attempting to prove God’s existence.

The movie requires the viewer to suspend belief, at least to some degree. The veteran Radisson grows more agitated as the movie goes on, apparently troubled by the mounting evidence presented by the neophyte Wheaton. However, in real life, would any of these arguments have caught a philosophy professor worth his salt so flat-footed?

As the movie progresses — SPOILER ALERT! – Wheaton wins not by playing the philosopher, but by putting on his counselor’s hat. Radisson is not an atheist based upon reason as much as emotion, residual anger at God for taking away Radisson’s mother from cancer when he was only 12 years old. Seizing on the moment, in front of the class, the freshman chides: “How can you be angry at someone who doesn’t exist?”

“God’s not Dead” will convince no hardened atheists, but the plot twist – shifting the ground to the question of disappointment with God – may help explain its success. Produced for a mere $ 2 million U.S., it has made more than $ 60 million, a cool thirty-fold profit. Hardly a new film, it still generates lively discussion on  IMDB.com where some threads host conversations on the relationship between science and faith. Much to their credit, the writers of “God’s not Dead” avoided having their young hero take a narrow stance on the “how” of divine creation. Insisting only that God is Creator, they left room for either YEC (Young Earth Creationism)  or other viewpoints, such as OEC (Old Earth Creationism) or theistic evolution, i.e. that God created but has used and still uses evolution to do so.

Sometimes the movie gets it wrong. A young Muslim girl who is a student at Josh’s university is careful to put her head covering back on when around her father, but leaves her arms bare and sports hip-hugging blue jeans. Anyone concerned about covering her head would likely not transgress these other Islamic family norms.

On the positive side, if you’re a “Newsboys” fan, you’ll love the ending, though as time passes, they may have to change their name to the “Newsmen.” But most of those who were watching with us were teens, and they obviously enjoyed the upbeat music.

With the success of “God’s Not Dead,” expect to see more movies like it. If they generate good conversations about Christian faith among those who normally wouldn’t engage and manage to do it in a reasonably believable and quality way like this film did, then count me it.

MY RATING: 3.5 stars out of 5

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Photo credit: IMDB.com

Strong theological education, strong church

Dr Crofford teaches a course on John Wesley's theology to students in Benin

Dr. Crofford teaches a course on John Wesley’s theology to students in Benin

Though my calling is to vocational Christian ministry, there have been transition times when I was very glad for my bank teller skills. It was honest work, and it provided for my family.

Working as a bank teller required specialized training. Tellers must know how to process deposits, withdrawals, account inquiries, loan payments, and more. Banks hire trainers who show new recruits what to do and how to do it.

Like banks, the church also recognizes the value of training. God-called pastors require certain skills. They must know what to do and how to do it. This includes the preparation and delivery of a sermon, baptizing those of all ages, serving the Lord’s Supper, making hospital visits, conducting funerals and weddings, providing pastoral counseling, and a dozen other tasks. These are vital skills for any pastor to be effective, and local churches expect that their pastor is able to perform them to an acceptable level, knowing that with time they will become more adept. In short, training is important.

Regarding business products, Simon Sinek observed:

People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.*

What is true for business is true for Christian ministry in all of its forms. It is not sufficient for a member of the clergy to know what to do and how to do it; he or she must also know why they believe what they believe. This belief, owned through long study and sometimes even spiritual anguish, will in-turn inform why they do what they do in ministry, helping them stay-the-course when difficulties mount, critics are many, and friends are few.

Are we as a church effectively addressing this more advanced aspect of purpose?

When it comes to pastors, do we recognize the need to move beyond the “what” and “how” of training to the “why” of theological education? Churches need not only pastors who are trained to perform ecclesiastical tasks. Churches desperately need pastors who love learning of all kinds, deep women and men capable of theological reflection in the midst of the task, letting that prayerful reflection modify how they practice ministry.

The dangers of only training pastors and not educating them to think critically are real. Some years ago, a conservative Christian mission agency based in the United States sent missionaries to a West African nation. The mission agency equipped local leaders to plant churches throughout the country, in big cities and small villages. Within 15 years, their members numbered nearly 50,000. Over time, the mission’s priorities shifted, so they re-assigned the missionaries to other countries, leaving leadership of the churches in the hands of one of the local leaders who had proven himself capable. One day, he came across an attractive pamphlet about Jesus Christ. He read how Jesus is not God, but the first and highest being created by God. The leader began teaching what he had read inside. The growth of the church stalled and began to decline as 1/3 of its pastors left the denomination, not wishing to be part of a group that had unwittingly begun to promote a false belief. A key leader had been trained for a task but had apparently not received adequate theological education. Consequently, he was unprepared to critically engage with a contemporary manifestation of the ancient heresy of Arianism.

"History and Faith of the Biblical Communities," at Mount Vernon Nazarene University

“History and Faith of the Biblical Communities,” at Mount Vernon Nazarene University

The “what” and “how” of training are not sufficient. Pastors must understand why they do what they do, itself a natural outgrowth of studying and determining over time why they believe what they believe. Africa is awash in a sea of quasi-Christian teaching that has at-times incorporated elements of African Traditional Religion (ATR) into its thinking, particularly in how it presents the work of “prophets” who end up serving the same function as shamans. We need more than just a handful of theologians capable of separating theological wheat from chaff. Every individual – male or female – who expresses a call to ordained ministry must be given both training and theological education. They must be taught not only the content of faith but how to reflect theologically in-light of both what Scripture says and what the church has historically understood Scripture to mean. Only then can the church stay on-course through the rough seas and high winds of false doctrine. In-turn, pastors – effectively trained and theologically educated – must equip lay leaders in the church in the “what” and “how” of ministry, all the while carefully helping them to understand the “why” of our practice and belief. Orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxy (correct practice) go hand-in-hand.

The training only model, however well-intentioned, is inadequate. One of my supervisors told me soon after I took up my missionary teaching task: “Just give your students the information and make sure they give it back to you correctly on the exam. That’s all they need to do.” At the time, it seemed like good advice, but was it? An African teacher lamented: “The first missionaries came and gave us a book. We learned everything inside and began to teach it. Later, other missionaries came and gave us a second book that said different things than the first. So, we want you missionaries to tell us: Which book is correct?” Though the teacher was well-trained to do the work of a pastor, he was not able to critically reflect for himself and arrive at his own conclusions. He was helpless in the face of contradictory ideas advanced by writers of equal academic qualification. No amount of training could make up for the absence of critically reflective theological education.

Denominations that are growing and stable have understood that education – both in theology and the other academic disciplines – is not an enemy of faith but its enabler. Bertha Munro, the late long-time Dean of Eastern Nazarene College, was fond of telling her students: “There is no conflict between the best in education and the best of our Christian faith.” A tradesman teaches an apprentice what to do and how to do it. That is admirable and needed, yet education delves deeper, helping the student understand the rationale for belief and practice, no matter the field of service, creating a strong foundation on which a solid building can be erected.

Those who think that training ministers is enough may misunderstand the rationale behind theological education. For a student to construct a theology that is his or her own, sometimes he or she – under the gentle probing of a Seminary or University teacher – must set aside long-held beliefs that do not hold up under the closer scrutiny of a more careful reading of Scripture. To construct a durable and biblically faithful theology, some deconstruction often has to take place. This can be a painful, confusing time, but the student who perseveres will come away knowing not only what to do as a pastor and how to do it, but also why they believe what they do. That strong belief, hard-won through prayer and the wrestling of careful reflection, will undergird a ministry that lasts a life-time. Like a weight-lifter, muscle must be broken down before it can be built back up, stronger and more resilient in the process. When applied to Christian faith, this is the sacred task of theological education, a task that is sometimes called “constructive theology.”

Graduates of the ITN Diploma in Theology program, Bukavu, DRC

Graduates of the ITN Diploma in Theology program, Bukavu, DRC

Though theological educators walk alongside students who are coming to understand what they believe and why, the process is not without boundaries. Dr. Thomas Noble has noted that theologians are first and foremost “theologians in service to the church” (Global Nazarene Theology Conference, Guatemala, 2002). They hold in-trust the church’s doctrinal heritage, helping reproduce it in the next generation of its clergy. For this reason, teachers of Bible, theology, church history, Christian ethics and related disciplines are carefully vetted and continually responsible to both fellow educators and church leaders who offer guidance and (when necessary) censure. Well has it been said: “While orthodoxy is not a straight line, it is a fenced-in area.” At the same time, the church must give leeway and space to theological educators, allowing them the academic freedom to carry out their calling in creative ways, always adjusting their methods to fit the changing needs of changing times, yet simultaneously maintaining the underlying integrity of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3, NIV).

Now more than ever, when it comes to raising up the next generation of leaders in the church, we need both training and theological education. Our pastors must know what to do and how to do it, but let us also remember the “why.” Only when we give students space – exercising patience and trusting God the Holy Spirit to guide them as they make the Christian faith their own both in heart and mind – will we reap the long-term benefit of strong clergy equipped to lead a strong church into an uncertain future.

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* Thank you to Anita Henck, for pointing me to Simon Sinek’s idea.