the answer is …?

Here’s a question:  what do you think is the most important factor in producing a mature, well-balanced and well-integrated Christian faith?

excellent preaching? Nope.

inspiring worship? Nope.

small-group fellowship? Nope.

The answer is … adult Christian education.

This is what John Stackhouse says in his book Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (p.315, based on empirical research in the USA). He goes on to say that there is no part of contemporary church life that is more neglected. A sermon and a bible study per week cannot suffice. In fact, Stackhouse estimates that a year of full-time study equals about a decade’s worth of teaching via a weekly sermon + bible study.

Speaking personally, studying theology full-time was a huge shaping time in my life – it opened up new worlds to me.

I hear the same thing from student after student at IBI where I work. It is genuinely humbling to hear of the thirst and enthusiasm of students to grow and learn. There is so much that is new and exciting to discover. However good the teaching in their local church, is it going to have the people, time, resources to run a full-time theology programme? I don’t think so.  And so students come with a hunger and thirst to study, reflect, discuss and learn in a more sustained and structured way.

Funny I should say this, but I believe that theological study is actually best done in a non-denominational framework and learning in a mixed community (mixed theologically, in age, and in gender) all within a believing yet open questioning culture. Yes with high standards, but with a strong focus on service and practical application within the local church. This does not remove students from their local church but seeks to integrate learning in the context of the local community.

Of course local churches should be training and equipping people for ministry! I’m actively involved in a local church and am committed to helping out in those areas as best I can. Helps to work with a great group of people 🙂 And I think Stackhouse is being a bit unfair on the local church. It’s like comparing apples and oranges to compare a Bible College / Seminary with the local church. They are two different things. The former should serve the latter, not compete with it, or try to replace it. At IBI we try to make very clear that we are NOT a local church community.

But of course the majority of people will never be able to go study full-time – so what should the local church realistically be aiming to do regarding teaching and biblical education?

For some churches tend to ‘protect their own’ and are suspicious or don’t see the need for Bible Institutes or Colleges since they offer their own in-house training programmes over which they have control. I think this is a shame. It is a shame mainly for the student. Even the biggest church will struggle to get beyond delivering a narrow focus of training. Most of all, students miss out on learning alongside and making friendships with others in a bigger more diverse community.

So what are the areas of training – and at what level – that a local church should be aiming to deliver for its members? What sort of training – and at what level – should be seen as the role of a college?

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3 thoughts on “the answer is …?

  1. my own experience is very similar – my life has been hugely impacted in a positive way by my reading and engagement with theology – only because it has brought me further into relationship and communion with god.

    but i find it hard to extol the importance of study/reading/academics without realising i have crowds of my friends who would sprain a wrist opening a book it’s been that long since they last did it. Never mind the people to whom, reading, study and education are something they left behind when they failed their leaving cert or GCSEs at 16.

    i fear we develop a culture in the church were something that appears unaccessible to many becomes of significant importance to relationship with god.

    i’ve been working on this one for 3 years now and still don’t have an answer!

  2. Hmm this appears to be a very western approach to understanding Christian. I wonder how thousands of illiterate brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world would feel if they were told they could not have a well-balanced, well-integrated Christian faith.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m totally convinced and hugely supportive of the work of Bible colleges (such as IBI) but I think it is dangerous to suggest this is the only root to maturity!

  3. Welcome Ruth and Nelly & I. Good push backs. Sure I’d never want to say formal theological study is the only route to maturity – fact is it is sadly often a route the other direction! I tell students all the time that knowledge does not equal spirituality!

    Or an equally destructive option is towards some sort of Gnosticism that ‘special knowledge’ is available only to those who have studied at a certain level.

    Ruth, on the majority world does the point not stand that good biblical education and teaching is crucial for all Christians, and is a vital task for the local church whatever the context?

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