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With community needs rising in economically tough times, many pastors find themselves unequipped and unprepared for dire situations. Here’s how online education can change that anytime, anywhere.
Job losses and tanking stock portfolios. Mortgage crises, foreclosures and mounting bills. Divorces, addictions, affairs and other scandals. What used to be a staple only in news headlines and tabloid magazines made its way into almost every church this past year, as congregants and communities alike struggled with an unraveling culture. Pastors across the nation found themselves face to face with a surging tsunami of needs, to which they responded and continue to respond.
In the process, however, many church leaders discovered an equally pressing need for them to be educated, equipped and trained. A growing number are realizing the important role that practical, applicable knowledge plays when combined with Holy Spirit impartation and raw life experience.
Enter online education. An anomaly only a few years ago, it is now an essential for every Bible college, seminary, university and theological institute. And that’s great news for pastors who don’t have the option of putting life on hold to pursue a degree on campus. Online education can offer the perfect solution for “on the go” lifelong learning. But since not all distance-learning programs are created equal, here are a few things to consider when deciding where to go for your schooling.
Accredited vs. Unaccredited
Accreditation is the license given to religious vocational schools by the federal government and some states permitting them to grant degrees and diplomas. To be accredited, a school must be approved by an accrediting agency within CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation). These agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. To find out if the school you’re interested in is accredited, visit chea.org.
Unaccredited schools may be licensed in some states to offer religious vocational degrees, certificates and/or diplomas. All of them should be able to report to you in writing the licensing or religious-exemption relation they have with your state. This way, you can be certain your school complies with state laws and regulations through your state’s department of education.
What are the major differences between accredited and unaccredited? Accredited schools can provide federal financial aid, academically trained faculty, extensive library and research facilities, and accurate measures for student grading and transcripts, recording both student performance and hours earned that can be recognized by other accredited schools.
Accredited programs of study are more rigorous than unaccredited ones. They require more online “classroom” hours, and some involve more direct interaction. Of course, papers, assignments, tests and semester schedules are a part of accredited online distance education. Bachelor’s through M.Div. (Master of Divinity) degrees can be pursued online, but accredited D.Min. (Doctor of Ministry) programs all require some on-site or on-campus instruction.
Unaccredited education is usually less demanding and costly, easier to complete in a short time and more accessible to large groups of people. It’s a great option for pastors who want skill training or spiritual impartation from leaders whose ministries they value. It’s also a step up from most church curriculum.
There are a few negatives to going this route, however. You can’t use what you have earned for future study in an accredited institution or on your résumé as part of your job application. If the school doesn’t have proper state licensing or exemption, then what you have received may be illegal.
Whether you opt for accredited or unaccredited, consider these factors:
Here are three popular questions about online ministry education:
1. Can unaccredited academic studies or life experience be counted in my application for a degree program at an accredited institution? All accredited institutions have some policies for considering unaccredited work for “advanced academic standing.” Each institution has a set policy regarding advanced standing that has been worked out with its accreditation provider. Ask the question while you are in the process of applying. Some pastors never consider that their documented ministry or work experience may be considered for advanced standing at the graduate level.
Note: Don’t call a school’s administrative office and ask if “such and such” can count for credits. You must apply, and everything must be in writing, before a school will determine your academic standing.
2. Do I have to take Greek and Hebrew? Most accredited M.Div. programs require original-language study. Greek and/or Hebrew opens up wonderful revelation in Scripture. It’s worth the effort, cost and time.
3. Is financial aid available? Yes. Accredited schools have federal loans and grants available for undergraduate and some graduate programs. The financial aid officer can tell you how to apply.
As a pastor, lifelong learning and continuing your education isn’t an option but an obligation to those you serve. Even when it’s done online, systematic study can reap a wonderful harvest of truth and practical ministry tools for equipping both you and those you lead.
How the organic church makes followers of Jesus
Although discipleship is a hot-button issue right now, there’s nothing new about it. Historically, the emphasis placed on this fundamental part of the Christian walk has moved in waves.
The word discipleship took on new popularity after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship was published in English in 1948. Parachurch organizations began to emphasize “making disciples” rather than just converting souls. Thus modern discipleship programs were born. But soon people began to see these programs as legalistic. Young believers eventually burned out from the rote and rigors of regimented prayer, Bible study, confession of sins and weekly witnessing. What began as an exciting prospect turned into religious duty and drudgery. Accusations of lukewarmness arose, fueling the perception of legalism.
On the heels of this came a shift toward extreme grace that infiltrated the early days of the Jesus movement. This reaction bred a segment of Christendom who swung the pendulum of legalism to the other side and were highly undisciplined and morally lax.
The “discipleship/shepherding” movement’s emergence in the early ’70s sought to correct this problem of “greasy grace” by swinging the pendulum back to the earlier ways of discipling young Christians. This time, however, it added a line of theology built on a stringent view of submission to authority. The result wasn’t pretty. Many lives were devastated by top-heavy, high-handed, authoritarian leaders who wielded power and control under the banner of “submission to authority.”
Almost 40 years later, today’s youth know little about these earlier movements nor the roots of modern “discipleship.” In fact, that term has taken on another wind. Yet history and its cyclical patterns teach us this sober lesson: Whenever Christian leaders observe a waning in the faith commitment of young believers, they assume that the antidote is “discipleship” as a method and program.
A Modern ‘Reframe-ation’
For the last two decades I’ve been involved in the organic church phenomenon that’s sweeping across the world. I wrote extensively on organic church life in my book Reimagining Church, but here’s a brief overview:
Organic churches meet much like the New Testament assembly did. They have no clergy or professional pastors and typically don’t own a building. They often meet in homes or occasionally in rented spaces. The members participate in all of the church’s decisions. In corporate meetings, every member is active, functioning according to his gifts. Leadership is present, but it doesn’t dominate, control or usurp, and it is exercised by everyone in the church.
Members know each other deeply and live a shared life in Christ. This authentic community is one of the hallmarks of organic churches. Yet perhaps their most outstanding feature is the emphasis on the indwelling Christ and the belief that Jesus is the only head of His church. This belief isn’t simply a theological proposition; it’s the practical experience of all authentic organic churches.
One of the most striking observations I’ve made over the last 21 years is how disciple-making operates in an organic church compared to a more traditional/institutional church. Those who stress the importance of discipleship today take their cue from Jesus’ exhortation to His disciples to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19). Yet a significant follow-up question to that commission is rarely asked—namely, how did the 12 make disciples? The answer is telling.
The 12 didn’t set up discipleship classes or programs. They didn’t put one Christian above another in a hierarchical chain of command. They didn’t create accountability groups or unmovable regiments for observing spiritual disciplines. Instead, they planted vibrant Christian communities all across Palestine. Likewise, Paul of Tarsus made disciples by planting Christian communities throughout the gentile world. To the early believers, Christian community was the only discipleship “program” that existed, and it was sufficient.
My point: The way the 12 made disciples was the same way Jesus made disciples. To wit, Jesus lived with a group of men and women for three and a half years. During that time, they shared their lives together under the headship of Christ. Jesus, the 12 and some women all experienced authentic community with Jesus as the center of their community life.
In the same way, the men whom Jesus commissioned planted authentic Christian communities all across the world, and within such communities, disciples were naturally made. Those communities were organic rather than institutional.
It’s impossible to separate the ekklesia from Jesus Christ; it’s His very body. And according to the New Testament, you can’t separate discipleship from the ekklesia any more than you can separate childrearing from the family. In organic churches today, each member becomes “discipled” simply by being part of the shared-life community. Here are some of the features of organic church life that explain how this occurs:
1. Spiritual formation is tied to knowing Christ deeply with others. Organic church life doesn’t include religious duty, programs and methods. The focus is on knowing Jesus. Organic churches recognize that Christ is alive and can be known profoundly. They understand God’s goal is to “form Christ” within the believing community (see Gal. 4:19).
Extra-local church planters give organic churches a rich revelation of Jesus through their spoken ministry. They also offer members practical ways of knowing Him—both individually and corporately. Because of this, members often pursue the Lord together during the week. Knowing Christ together is a large part of their shared life.
2. Spiritual growth occurs naturally in the context of Christian community. The responsibility for discipleship doesn’t rest on the individual in the organic church. Spiritual growth isn’t an individual pursuit. Organic churches by definition are shared-life communities. Members are intimately involved in one another’s lives. Hence, they seek the Lord together during the week, often in pairs or threes. They use Scripture together, not as a means to gain academic knowledge or sermon material, but as a means to learn Christ and fellowship with Him in the Spirit.
Organic churches understand that Christians are “new creatures.” Every creature or species has a unique habitat. When a species is removed from its native habitat, it either dies or some of its natural functions turn dormant. As new creatures in Christ, Christans have a native habitat: the ekklesia—a shared-life community that gathers by, to, through and for the Lord Jesus. Spiritual growth occurs when God’s people live in their native habitat. And that’s exactly what authentic organic churches afford.
3. Transformation takes place by the every-member functioning of the body in regular corporate meetings. Organic churches do not have the typical Sunday morning order of worship in which a minister preaches a monologue to a passive congregation. Instead, their meetings are marked by open participation. Every member functions and shares. He plans with others as a group, prepares in private and then brings something wonderful of Christ to share with everyone else. In an organic church, corporate meetings are the place to give rather than to simply receive (see 1 Cor. 14:26).
It’s easy to assume these meetings would be chaotic. But extra-local church planters equip organic churches to prepare and share the Lord in meetings that are “done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). The result is an unveiling of Christ as He is “assembled” by members of the body in a visible way.
Mutual exhortation in regular Christian gatherings is a major key to spiritual growth (see Heb. 10:24-25). It’s written in the bloodstream of the universe: If you don’t function, you don’t grow. And if you don’t give, you don’t receive. Organic churches are strong on mutual exhortation and encouragement because everyone participates in the gatherings.
4. The marker for discipleship is living by an indwelling Lord rather than by trying to imitate His outward behavior. An organic church can be defined as a group of people learning to live by Christ together. Consider how our Lord lived while on earth: God the Father indwelt Jesus by the Holy Spirit; and Jesus lived by His indwelling Father.
After Jesus ascended, He came back to earth in the Spirit to take up residence in all who trust in Him (see John 14-16; Rom. 8:1-11). For this reason Paul calls Jesus a “life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). Therefore, what the Father was to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is to you and me. He’s our indwelling Lord. The Lord declared, “As the living Father sent me, and I live because the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me” (John 6:57). Paul later wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Organic churches, therefore, do not strive to be like Jesus. That only leads to failure and frustration. Jesus Himself said that without the Father, He could do nothing (see John 5:19). Jesus then said to us, “Without Me, you can do nothing” (15:5). The members of an organic church are focused on learning how to live by the indwelling life of Christ. And therein lies what being a follower—a disciple—of Jesus is all about. It’s not about trying to imitate His outward actions. It’s about imitating how He lived His peerless life—by the indwelling life of God.
Essentially, discipleship boils down to learning how to live by Christ. Jesus’ followers live by the life of their Master, just as He lived by His Father’s life. This, in fact, is the taproot of organic church life.
The practical fruit of all of the above is simply amazing. The sense of guilt, condemnation and religious duty dissipates, eclipsed by a love affair with the Lord Jesus, where each member is secure in His unconditional, relentless love for him or her. That loves spills over to God, to one another and to the lost. Further, their chief passion in life is to know Christ and to express Him together with their brothers and sisters.
The organic church has no clergy; yet every member is a conduit of divine life and shares it with the rest of the body. The organic church has no discipleship programs; yet every member’s relationship is an outflow of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son through the Spirit. The organic church has no sacred buildings; yet each living room becomes the boundary between heaven and earth where God in Christ is encountered and expressed visibly.
This is the environment in which authentic discipleship takes place naturally and without effort.
Frank Viola is a conference speaker and author of numerous books, including his latest release, Finding Organic Church. For more information and free resources, visit his Web site at ptmin.org.
Churches are discovering that generosity isn’t just an
essential component of discipleship, it’s an integral part of spiritual formation.
Cross Timbers Community Church in Argyle, Texas, amazed its community earlier this year by passing the offering plates and encouraging people to take out money if they needed it. To everyone’s surprise, that day they had their largest offering ever.
Pastor Toby Slough explained the situation in an interview with Fox News: “I just sensed in the middle of this economy we had a lot of our members who were feeling guilty when the offering plate was passed. I wanted it to be a time of joy for them, so we told them if they had a need, they could take money out.”
As the concept gained momentum, the church was eventually able to bless people who were unemployed by paying their utility bills. “I’m excited to watch people in need receive because I know as they are blessed, they are going to become givers,” he said. Cross Timbers is one of many churches across the nation today using innovative ways to step up and address the financial needs of their members and their communities. But how does such generosity—blended with action—come about? We all know the benefits of giving, but actually creating a church culture in which giving is second nature can be difficult, particularly during these economically tough times. How can churches build into their members the value that true discipleship includes the oft-neglected aspect of being a generous giver?
Preaching to Give
Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., says the teaching team at his church talks about generosity not because of what they can get from their people, but because of what they want for their people. A similar paradigm shift is occurring in the leadership of countless churches, and it’s resulting in a renewed understanding of discipleship.
“A lot of pastors today are seeing stewardship as an essential part of the spiritual formation of their congregation,” says Chris Willard, director of the Generous Churches Leadership Community at Dallas-based Leadership Network. “They’re teaching about money because they understand that the way we deal with our God-given resources says a lot about our discipleship. It used to be that pastors only talked about money when they needed to raise money. Now they’re talking about it because it’s an important part of spiritual formation. That means they have to talk about giving more than before. And talking about it more builds it more naturally into the flow of the church so people don’t get that there-he-goes-again feeling.”
Indeed, setting the stage for a culture of generosity usually begins onstage with pastors preaching and teaching on the subject. That’s the case at Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, where preaching about giving isn’t unusual since it’s a core value of the church. “We call people to be generous,” says the church’s administrative pastor, Jeff Abshire. “We lead people in the countercultural message of generosity for the sake of the kingdom.”
For example, Antioch’s senior pastor recently preached a sermon from Acts 2 on sharing common resources. At the end of the sermon he summoned everyone in the congregation who had a financial need to come up front, and for the rest of the people to ask God how He wanted them to meet those needs. As people began to pray, many felt led to come forward and offer money directly. One woman was given $20 but only needed $10, so she gave the remaining $10 to someone else. The day became known as “Keep the Money Moving Sunday.”
Other churches have developed a giving culture by first delving into why its members weren’t naturally generous. Executive Pastor Mark Davis of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale in Florida says the wake-up call came for his church when they launched a capital campaign that received a lukewarm response. “We realized something very crucial: Our people hadn’t been taught how to give,” he says. “We discovered that our body was not well-informed or educated. We realized we needed to challenge people in all areas of stewardship.”
As the church leaders looked into what the Bible says about giving and what other churches were doing to educate their people, their thinking began to change. “We had been looking at giving as a practice, but we began to view it as a lifestyle,” Davis says.
Caught From the Top-Down
Pastors can wax eloquent from the platform about stewardship, yet if they want to see a genuine shift in congregants making generous giving a lifestyle, they must first evaluate their own lives.
“Generosity starts with our elders and then moves through our staff,” says Neal Joseph, former executive pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, Tenn. “That way we set it into the DNA of our church. Generosity is a shared responsibility. ”
Bruce Mazzare, a lay leader at Antioch Community Church, says one of the keys to his church’s success in discipleship is an understanding among leadership that generosity “is not taught—it’s caught. Our leadership lives simply, which has made a profound impact on our people. ”
This top-down philosophy is modeled increasingly by forward-thinking churches. People learn by example, so when leaders live and give generously, people learn to act the same way.
At Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas, leaders model a generous life by giving up their salaries during months of special giving. “Generosity is a value that is modeled at the top level. It’s not just something we talk about,” says Gateway’s Associate Senior Pastor David Smith.
Radical giving started with Gateway’s senior pastor, Robert Morris, who writes in his book The Blessed Life about a time when he believed God told him to give away both his cars, his house and all the money in his bank account. “I remember thinking to myself, This time I’ve out-given the Lord!” Morris recalls. But soon after, God provided him with an airplane, hangar, fuel, maintenance, a pilot and traveling expenses. Says Morris: “As I stood there stammering and stunned, I heard the still, small voice of the Lord whisper in my spirit, ‘Gotcha.’”
Other pastors make it a regular practice to donate 20 percent of their time to causes outside their congregations. “That’s why it’s easy for our leaders to talk about it, because they’re doing it,” says Pastor Scott Ridout of Sun Valley Community Church in Gilbert, Ariz.
There’s a caveat to this “lead by example” approach to generosity, however: Because the mere mention of money can cause some people to instinctively question church leadership, pastors must realize that trust is often the most crucial ingredient in creating a culture of generosity. Pastor Dave Rodriguez discovered this truth at Grace Community Church in Noblesville, Ind.
When the church was founded in 1991, money scandals so rocked the Christian world that Grace Church steered clear of mentioning money. But later Rodriguez realized they weren’t serving their people by avoiding the topic. Believing that giving is a vital part of discipleship, they hired staff in 2000, which led to the start of their “Faith and Finances” ministry.
“If people don’t trust the leaders of the church to spend the money under God’s direction, they won’t give generously,” he says. “Building trust sometimes involves periods of tremendous pain to show people that you are willing to sacrifice to do what God calls you to do.”
Teaching on generosity starts at the front of the church, and establishing a culture of giving begins within those in leadership. But there’s an added dynamic when generous giving is viewed as an essential part of discipleship.
Jeanette Dickens of Mount Pisgah United Methodist in Alpharetta, Ga., explains, “We want to create a culture of generosity—a continual message of living in the fullness of Christ.”
Willard agrees, adding that teaching stewardship is different from asking for funds. “We need to ask, but we want people to live generously all the time, not just when prompted,” he says. “Part of what we want to do in the lives of our people is to disciple them in all areas. We want them to grow in their view that God owns all their stuff, and He wants us to use it in a way that honors Him.”
To further this discipleship aspect, Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale not only teaches giving as part of its classes on spiritual gifts but also sends selected members to Generous Giving conferences and seminars sponsored by Crown Financial Ministries (see “Generosity Jumpstart”). Along with using prepared curricula from Crown or Financial Peace University, some churches develop their own discipleship programs.
Many churches target specific age or income groups with their discipleship programs. Central Christian Church of Henderson, Nev., teaches financial management to premarital couples, while other congregations work with seniors to integrate generosity and estate planning. At Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Mo., parents teach their kids about money through a parent-coaching ministry. Developed by a layperson in the church, the program disciples kids in biblical concepts of generosity and helps them start saving and tithing. Rather than receiving an allowance, kids do chores to earn a weekly “salary.”
At Gateway Church, teaching on stewardship is aimed at four income groups: (1) people in crisis; (2) people who need the basics; (3) people with healthy financial lives and (4) people who are wealthy. Financial Stewardship Pastor Gunnar Johnson says the third group is the most neglected. “These are typically 30-somethings with fairly disposable income. We want to help them grapple with the questions: How much is enough? Why has God given me this surplus?”
Most pastors agree that the best way to learn generosity is just to “do” it. People will rise to meet needs as they are given opportunities.
Joseph recalls a pivotal moment at Fellowship Bible Church: “On one Sunday morning we gave more than 2,000 pairs of shoes to people in Peru, Sudan, Mississippi and an African village. Our pastor took off his own shoes and asked for everyone to donate the shoes they had worn to church that day. It was a practical application of giving without worrying about tax receipts.”
And generous living must be celebrated. Generous Giving Executive Vice President Todd Harper stresses, “If pastors want their churches to grow in Christian generosity, they must learn to celebrate it by including it in the worship service, encouraging people when they give and inviting givers to share their giving testimonies with the church.
“Jesus talked about money from the perspective of its importance in relation to our heart, and that’s what we’re driving at,” Harper says. “We’re trying to invite people into a life of wholehearted surrender to Christ. Often, especially with the affluent, money is the primary competitor to lordship in their lives. But as Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, you can’t serve both God and money.”
Willard adds: “The Bible makes a clear connection between the way people think about money and the way they think about God. Someone has said that you can tell a lot about a person’s spiritual life by looking at his checkbook. It may be an oversimplification, but it’s pretty true. As people learn to follow Christ, their pocketbooks come along.
“We don’t want to make people feel guilty about it,” he says, “but to invite them to experience the joy of generosity. That’s what captivates people’s hearts, when they experience that it’s more blessed to give than to receive.”
When it comes to discipleship, teachers sometimes learn the joy of generosity from their students. “We were on a mission trip in Moscow,” says Calvary Chapel’s Davis. “As we were loading the bus to go back to the airport, we told the kids they could either keep their leftover rubles as souvenirs or we could collect them and give them back to the church where we had worked.
“The kids scrambled frantically to gather all they could to put in the bucket. They realized their money was about to be worthless to them. I realized that that’s the way we should live every day—giving our money away as if it’s about to become worthless.”
Lois Swagerty is a freelance writer for Leadership Network (leadnet.org). She lives in Carlsbad, Calif., with her husband.
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