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?