I was 20 years old when I received a phone call that dramatically changed my life. A few years earlier I joined a Scripture Union mission team. I remained on team for many years in time becoming the mission director. While I was directing my first mission I had a visitor come to see me; the boss of Scripture Union. I was enthusiastic to tell him all my plans for the mission.
A few weeks later the phone rang; it was the Scripture Union boss and this time he was offering me a job. I was an unconventional choice for a ministry position. I was 20 years old with no formal qualifications and only a few beach missions for experience. I read the bible but had never been anywhere near a bible college.
For the next five years I worked at Scripture Union recruiting and equipping volunteer teams to lead outreach ministries and share the gospel with an unchurched audience. My time leading at Scripture Union was great preparation for ministering in a local Church. I learnt much about theology and much about how to lead ministry teams. It’s a pity none of that mattered to churches.
Bible College is king
Churches considered my Scripture Union experiences interesting but what they really valued was years in a bible college. In the eyes of many a bible college degree was the most appropriate training for church ministry.
I think that’s worth questioning.
Whilst at 20 I’d never been near a bible college. I’ve now been to three of them. I completed a diploma then a degree and I’m currently completing post graduate studies. Here are some reflections on the merits and weaknesses of bible college training.
Bible Colleges do well training people to be biblically sound
I believe Bible College does a good job preparing someone to think theologically. It equips students to know the bible, understand its various genres and to consider big issues through a theological lens. It does well at providing students with a background into church history and how theology shapes missional practices. These are good things to be learning.
Bible Colleges struggle to train students for practical ministry
While bible colleges do well at providing students with a theological grounding, my experience suggests they fall short preparing students for practical real-world ministry. I’ve noted numerous Bible College graduates, who despite meeting the academic criteria to pass their courses, struggled to lead ministry teams, deal with conflict, set vision collaboratively and equip people to share faith in everyday life. Numerous people leave Bible College as competent theologians but poor missional practitioners.
Bible colleges recognise there is a need to prepare students for the real world of ministry and attempt to incorporate practical assessments into their curriculums. There’s a world of difference however between writing an assignment on leading teams and leading a team for real.
In an episode of the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper learnt to swim using the internet. He claimed: “The skills are transferrable; I just have no interest in going in the water”. Unfortunately Bible Colleges tend to assess practical training in an academic manner, resulting in students submitting highly researched and referenced assignments that tell us little about whether they can use those practical skills on the ground.
Bible College might make you too academic
It shouldn’t surprise that Bible Colleges have a strong bent toward the theoretical. They’re academic institutions and everyone working in them has been immersed in an academic culture. I was frequently corrected by lecturers for having assignments that sounded more like sermons than academic essays. I would reply that it’s better to have academic essays sounding like sermons than to have sermons sounding like academic essays! Regrettably there are plenty of qualified ministers who have been through Bible College who preach like academics. They preach theologically deep sermons that in many cases fail to connect with the lives of ordinary people.
A change in thinking
Bible Colleges will continue to evolve and hopefully will find ways to provide more authentic practical training and assessment. The biggest thing that needs to change is the thinking of Christians when it comes to what constitutes a well-trained minister. Rather than simply assessing a potential minister’s academic record, churches should value, just as heavily, a potential minister’s hands-on-experiences as a missional leader.
Churches should give greater consideration to potential ministers who have devoted time to serving with missionary groups like Scripture Union, YWAM, Young Life, those involved with camping, schoolies or university ministry and those who have served as chaplains, scripture teachers and youth group leaders. Such potential ministers with runs on the board as missional leaders could undertake theological studies at Bible College while they serve a church. It’s preferable to add theological training to someone who is a good missional practitioner than to try turning an academic theologian into a missional leader.
Future Christian ministers should study at Bible College but it shouldn’t be the sum total of their ministry preparation. It’s a myth that Bible College alone produces well prepared Christian leaders. Its time more people acknowledged that.
Travis Barnes lives in central Victoria with his wife and two daughters. He is an associate minister with the Churches of Christ denomination. You can find more of Travis’ articles at: https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/travis-barnes.html