Thoughts on Church Based Ministry Schools

Over the past several years there have been several mega-churches (and giga-churches) that have started ministry schools out of their campus(es) which are seeking to train young adults in their specific ministry model while also providing them with a college level education.

Of course, this movement isn’t anything new. In fact, it is quite old-school. 

Earlier today I saw a leader in evangelicalism send out a tweet promoting the new ministry school his church was starting. As I ruminated over this, it got me thinking about some of the old fundamentalist Bible institutes and colleges which emerged out of the cultural isolation resulting from the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the period from the 1930s to the 1950s (and a bit beyond) many disenfranchised fundamentalists withdrew from the larger cultural conversation and began to promote and support their own ministry programs and educational systems.

George Marsden has noted about this period in his marvelous Fundamentalism and American Culture (Revised Edition):

Since dispensationalists lacked and clear view of the organized church above the local level, the Bible institutes played a major role in giving them some unity. They arose in response to the demands of urban ministries and the desire to train lay leader for evangelism. They also served as centers for training for foreign missions – always a prominent concern. A wide variety of local evangelistic agencies, local congregations, Bible conferences, publications, and independent national agencies for missions and other types of evangelism was informally united by common ties to various Bible institutes…Of these, Moody Bible Institute was preeminent, not only because of its connection with the late evangelist, but also because of the leadership of two of the outstanding spokesmen for the movement, Reuben A Torrey, first superintendent (from 1889 to 1908) and James M Gray, who served from 1904 to 1934, first as dean and later as president. (128-9)

Now, though the old fashioned institutes were crafted with the idea of training young men for ministry (and women for support roles) and focused primarily on evangelism and missions. These new Church Based Ministry Schools continue an evangelistic purpose, but have, as their primary focus training in ministry leadership and church growth models. 

It is a palatable difference.

torrey09However, the aim seems to be the same. In the early part of last century as these institutes arose there was a general mistrust for seminaries and universities with the influx of German Liberalism and modernist professors. Now, it seems, the mistrust continues to a degree, but it is not about the failure of theology, but the failure of adequate ministry preparation.

It is hard to find a seminary graduate, even from our best evangelical seminaries, who is “ministry ready” upon graduation. For many of these mega and giga-churches, training young leaders in their models is a better investment (for so many reasons) than prioritizing seminary graduates as staffing options.

What is striking isn’t this last paragraph, but that history is, once again, repeating itself. The next several decades will be fascinating to watch. The way that evangelicalism is poised in America the wings of fundamentalism, progressivism, Calvinism, and church growth model are re-creating the grounds that led to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of this same era one hundred years ago.

May we find a better way than division and isolation. The true challenge is that while 100 years ago Christianity remained the dominant cultural spiritual expression in America, we have many other growing voices today.