The mayor of Houston, Texas, recently subpoenaed several pastors, demanding they submit their sermons for review by the city attorney. This was ostensibly to determine whether their level of political activity might have endangered their nonprofit status.
This was all part of the deep cultural divide in that city's on-going struggle over so-called "gender equality" laws, particularly that section allowing "cross-gender males" to use female restrooms. The mayor's actions unleashed a firestorm of protest, not only in Texas, but nation-wide. Thankfully, she finally, and I might add reluctantly, agreed to withdraw her utterly unconstitutional subpoenas. Thank God for that, but by the time she did, she had already sent her chilling message and it was shockingly clear. Not even the sanctity of the pulpit is safe anymore.
That, in fact, was her real purpose. She did not withdraw the subpoenas because she suddenly had an epiphany. She only gave in because of the hue and cry raised largely in social media and on certain news outlets such as Fox News.
Christians dare not fool themselves. This brief reprieve in Houston is not some full and final victory. That mayor and others like her will keep on coming. They will do whatever they can get away with, whatever they can find activist courts to force on society and they will keep chipping away at the most treasured tenets of our nation's constitution and our Judeo-Christian heritage.
At the same time this high-profile firefight was being waged in Houston, I was trying to console and advise a pastor in the Midwest who was being drawn and quartered by a ruthless church board. The spiritual forces behind that internal and unpublicized struggle were just as ugly, just as cruelly unjust and darkly manipulative as those in the Houston mayor's office.
The war is on and the Visigoths are not all in the mayor's office. Some of the most devastating assaults on Christian leadership are inside jobs. Alas, the barbarians inside churches are no less virulent, and are, in fact, more personally wounding to leaders than any damage inflicted by armies of atheists. There are supernatural forces behind all attacks and such forces are relentless and remorseless. This is not to frighten Christian leaders into the closet of compromised acquiescence. The old adage of "go along to get along" is a path strewn with primroses and ending in disaster. By the same token, naïveté is dangerous in a dangerous world. Jesus admonished believers to be as "wise as serpents and as harmless as doves." For too long, too many ministry leaders have been far more harmless than wise.
Education and Snake Handling
Today ministry is no longer being done in the relative innocence of Eisenhower's post-war America. Snakes, dangerous snakes are not only in city hall but on the bench, in the bank and on the church board. Snake handling, it turns out, is not for the hills of Kentucky, but for sophisticated ministry leadership in the 21st century. Snakes must be handled by well-prepared, well-educated leaders who combine serpentine wisdom and Christian guilelessness. Twenty-first-century ministry leadership must include a meaningful theology of supernatural opposition and a practical approach to leading in the face of it.
In fact, the challenging realities of ministry leadership in this new millennium demand that we carefully re-evaluate how we educate and train next-gen ministers and how we continue to keep ourselves sharp. I spent nearly two decades in higher education and I have spent literally hours and hours with thoughtful colleagues discussing the educational process. I have heard pastors castigate seminaries, sometimes with justification, in the face of which I have heard ministry educators offer unimaginably lame self-defenses. Blanket denunciations of theological education are unreasonable and unhelpful. Equally unhelpful are educational "purists" who offer hardly more than self-perpetuation as the defense for their pet courses.
An Educated Clergy
Nothing I say in this piece should be read as anti-education. St. Paul was among the most cosmopolitan, multilingual and well-educated persons in the Roman world. John Wesley was an Oxford Don. Martin Luther was a university professor with an earned doctorate, and C.S. Lewis' phenomenally educated mind did not hinder but rather gave voice to his inspired spirit.
I believe in an educated clergy. I also believe that education must prepare leaders who can effectively, joyfully and triumphantly do the work of the ministry in the face of what is shaping up to be the most challenging century since the reign of Constantine.
I recently took part on a panel of Christian leaders, ministers, educators and laypersons that discussed the state of modern ministry education. While the issues being debated around the table were important, the private conversations in the hall were more illuminating to me.
Several participants were lamenting the quiet demise of a large nondenominational church in the Southwest. "What happened?" someone asked.
"When the founder retired, his successor flopped," one man explained. "The church hemorrhaged until it slowly bled to death. Finally there was just nothing left."
"Yes, I understand that, but why? Why did he flop?"
"He couldn't preach and he couldn't lead."
In another hallway encounter at the same meeting, a pastor told me privately that he was dreading the week to follow the conference. He said he was heading home with a heavy heart to sack his youth pastor. When I asked why, he explained that the youth the pastor was causing so much turmoil that firing him had become unavoidable. I was intrigued and I asked some follow-up questions. What kind of turmoil? What got him hired in the first place? The weary pastor explained it in the following way.
"He seemed so cool. He was fun, attractive and full of youthful high energy. I just knew he'd be a hit with the kids. And he was at first. But he has no people skills, and he is arrogant beyond words. He ran off all our parent volunteers. First it was just the parents, then even the kids began to quit. The whole thing just fell to pieces. He just doesn't understand how to work with people. Don't they learn any of that in Bible school?"
Something of an answer may have come from a retired Bible school president who told me that the No. 1 complaint he got from alumni who hired his graduates was that they couldn't actually do anything. He said, "I got sick of hearing the same thing. Your graduates are great on theory. They just can't do the job." With a sigh he added, "I came to believe near the end of my presidency, that our No. 1 failure was practical ministry preparation. If I had it to do over again, I would stop about half of our theory courses and require more internships."
Real Life and Practical Theology
When I graduated from seminary, I labored under the misapprehension that if I preached well enough and loved my people selflessly, they would love Jesus and me and all would go well. Having earned good grades at a top theological seminary, with a diploma in hand (ink still wet), very little experience and absolutely no practical education, I became a senior pastor. To be sure, it was a small church, hence limiting the breadth of damage I could inflict. Even so, I soon discovered that an A in graduate level Hebrew Wisdom Literature afforded me scant wisdom in the face of the imminently practical issues of church leadership.
Budget preparation, board relations, church growth, hiring and firing, volunteer management—these and a vast host of their cousins stared me in the face every single day, demanding answers I did not have and requiring decisions I was utterly unprepared to make.
As I went further in ministry, new levels of responsibility opened. At each new step I encountered, not fewer, but ever escalating challenges. I was determined to learn all I could. I tried to plug into every power outlet I could find. I simply did not know where to look. For a course called Systematic Theology, I read and wrote a paper on a majestically forgettable book by Rudolf Bultmann, the subject of which was the "de-mythologization" of the New Testament. For years after that I just knew the splendid moment would come, some question would be asked to which Rudolf Bultmann would be the correct answer. If that ever happened, I was ready.
Alas, it did not. Never once in 46 years of ministry and leadership have I been asked a single question by anyone to which the appropriate answer might even remotely have included a reference to Rudolf Bultmann.
What I have been asked, over and over again, were questions about management, such as budgeting, organizational structure and debt service. I have been asked questions such as, "How do we fire the worship leader and not get sued?" "Why is our attendance up but giving has not improved?" And the ever popular, "If we cancel the night service what will we say to the 13 senior souls who still love it?" I have been asked thousands upon thousands of relationship questions for which I desperately needed counseling skills. I have been asked questions such as, "Are demons real, and do you think my brother-in-law has one?" Never once was Rudolf Bultmann the correct answer.
I suppose there are churches that have split and blown to pieces over the authorship of Hebrews. Maybe. There may have been ministries that imploded because Greek was all Greek to the pastor. Perhaps, in some galaxy far, far away, but I doubt it. However, the landscape is definitely littered with the bones of churches which got overextended in bad debt, or waited too long to respond to a changing market, or missed the tide and ended up stranded on the beach of irrelevance, gradually dying a slow death.
Their corpses lie as they do because bad decisions (or more likely no decisions) got made in the face of opportunity.
At the two universities of which I served as president, I was blessed by the willingness of both faculties to emphasize practical ministry. Certainly theology, Bible, church history and the biblical languages are important and should be taught. I am not anti-theology. I have personally taught a course with the ostentatious title of Pneumatology. Having said that, the fact remains that those who intend to lead ministries in the prevailing environment also need management, finance, counseling and communication. They also need them to be taught by skilled practitioners.
I am not denigrating seminary courses such as The History of Christianity in the Middle Ages. It was, by the way, one of my favorite courses in seminary, taught by one of the most brilliant and eccentric lecturers I have ever heard. What I am saying is that one might make an A in that very course and in many like it and not survive the first six months of pastoral ministry. There is a gap in much seminary and Bible school education called "practical ministry."
When I designed the National Institute of Christian Leadership, it was with this very gap in mind. I have been delighted to see folks from the church world seated beside political and business leaders who all found the practical teaching of the NICL transferable and applicable. Recently I attended a meeting of pastors, leaders and educators including several retired seminary and university presidents. The unanimous opinion at the table was that ministerial education in this century must be more practical.
Even as I wrote that last sentence I could hear the objections of some. "The church is not a business!" I understand what such voices are saying. At least I think I do. Yet the reality remains that churches that are inefficiently administered, stagnant in growth and poorly led do not witness well to the present age. If our God is a God of excellence, and He is, then His church in the world must pay its bills on time, manage its employees and volunteers for quality and communicate its core message with excellence.
Lions in the New Millennium
I do not believe that Nero-esque persecution, concentration camps for American Christians or some kind of 21st-century "Lions in the Coliseum" redux are the real danger ahead. Having said that, I suppose the mayor of Houston has made the case that Christians may be thrown into an arena of snarling subpoenas.
Despite her actions, the greater, more foreseeable risk is that of the church devolving into a mute, irrelevant antique. This is already true to a tragic extent in much of Western Europe. Empty liturgical churches unable to respond meaningfully to cultural upheaval or even to sustain the faith of the "faithful," have become hardly more than props in a Monty Python skit. London, which was the birthplace of the Wesleyan revival, now has more mosques than Methodist churches. The last time I was there, I had a difficult time finding a cabby who could take me to Wesley's home, or who knew who Wesley was. Not to sound smug with "Jolly Old," one driver in Boston had never even heard of Jonathan Edwards.
We should know church history and learn from it. One thing we should certainly learn is what made such giants as Wesley and Edwards the giants they were. It was above all things their ability to speak to their own generations and cultures. They were bold, relevant, contemporary and anointed. If the church today is to be a powerful and redemptive force in this new millennium, her next generation of ministers must be prepared, educated and trained in multiple leadership, management and communication skills—not the least of which is preaching.
While it is true that we live in a culture with a wildly diverse array of communication options, preaching is still of utmost importance, especially to those who have to listen to it. I travel about as widely as any minister in the U.S., and the major complaint or compliment I hear from laymen everywhere with regards to their own pastors concerns preaching. If there is an area that needs a fresh revitalization of emphasis in ministerial education, I believe it is preaching. Creative dramas, production values in worship services and music are all important. Yet it is primarily preaching through which the Word is communicated.
Contemporary ministerial education needs a fresh new emphasis on biblical content, authenticity of style, clarity of structure and orderly thought in preaching. The basics of illustrative material, point of view, introduction and conclusion are being ignored to the detriment of some modern preaching. Somewhere between the "internal combustion" of unplanned, unthought-out, un-understandable emotional pulpit explosions and pedantic, mind-numbing boredom there lies a fertile opening for great preaching. I believe this is a great need in the American church and will be a crying need in the future.
I am not alone in my longing to see a resurgence of great preaching, and I do not believe it will come without great teachers of preaching who can convey to young people a profound respect for the supernatural power of preaching that is well-crafted and profound.
I reject George Bernard Shaw's contention that they who can do, and they who cannot, teach. At least, I do not believe it has to be that way. Teachers of preaching who love preaching do it well, and those who understand the bones as well as the breath of preaching are worth their weight in gold. May their tribe increase. Those institutions which celebrate preaching, which hire homiletics professors who are skilled and anointed practitioners and where preaching is consistently modeled in chapel services, will challenge students to excel at it. It will be precisely such centers of learning and practice from which the next generation of great preachers will undoubtedly come.
The longer I live, which has been quite a long time, the more I realize the difference between learning and education. I have a great deal of formal education and I am grateful for it. I spent many years of my life and no small fortune getting it. I have served as the president of two universities and lectured at or taught on the adjunct faculties of others. Some of the finest, humblest most dedicated men and women of God I've ever met serve sacrificially on faculties around the world. I believe in education. I utterly denounce as a pathetic excuse for ignorance the tired old saw that "book larnin' will spoil the anointing."
We live in a highly educated world. Most pastors in the West will preach to educated congregations. I submit that fired-up ignorance alone may be insufficient to reach modern listeners. Contemporary congregations expect, and have a right to expect their preachers to be both biblically knowledgeable and generally well-educated.
To reach the modern mind, preachers in this new era must know how to think and how to employ a broad functional vocabulary to express those thoughts. Educated congregants will expect their preachers to know the difference between Moses and Charlemagne. History, geography, politics, contemporary culture and the arts are areas of interest to today's congregations and they expect their preachers to be conversant.
People look to their pulpits hoping for insight, answers and the application of biblical exposition. Flaunting one's facility with biblical languages is tedious, and the effect of mere showmanship is boorish and tiresome. Today's listeners are looking to God's Word for how to go on living another week in a world that terrifies them. They want to hear the truth in a way that inspires confidence. They are not seeking perfect saints who have spiritually arrived, and they do not expect Albert Einstein in the pulpit. Far from it. They want to learn from learners who are on the journey with them and who have obviously not stopped along the trail.
Life learners seek out seminars and opportunities for genuine development. They are constantly pressing forward. Regardless of the years of formal education they may or may not have, they are determined to keep learning. Anyone who thinks a graduate degree is the end of all learning, has learned little or nothing of value.
With a GED or a Ph.D., life-learners are constantly stretching upward, expanding their mind and their vocabulary, improving their leadership and seeking ever deeper biblical, theological thought. Life-learners are not content to preach from yellowed notes while using illustrations that barely worked years ago and now are utterly lifeless. Congregations are not stupid. They can tell if the preacher has checked out and they know bland micro-waved sermons when they hear them.
Life-learners are also readers. Reading as a ministerial discipline can and should be cultivated. Church secretaries must be convinced that the pastor's reading time is precious time not to be disturbed easily. Churches, having once heard one, will know that a well-read pastor is a gift of God to the congregation.
Certainly the current "church world" literature is important. There are great ministry books being written every year. Keeping abreast of current thought is obviously important as long as it doesn't degenerate into a bondage to fads. Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, the former president of Asbury College, convinced me to read at least one major book a year that has nothing to do with the ministry. Twenty-first-century leaders will need to be life-learners, and life-learners are life-readers.
A teacher whom I admired greatly used to say, "The sermon is the preacher up-to-date." The risk for preachers today is that sophisticated listeners can discern if the expiration date has passed. They want fresh bread. They want the real deal. They want leaders who can lead, manage and steward the church affairs wisely. They want to hear today's sermon, not last year's. They want to hear it from an inspired, prepared communicator. They want educated, well-rounded ministers who can calmly face all this century can hurl at them, whether lions or mayors or whatever.
The 21st-century listener is spoiled, impatient and demanding when it comes to communication. Shall we then give up on preaching? God forbid. We must simply learn to do it better. The business people in our churches have seen great leadership and know what it looks like. Should we be intimidated, shrinking from leadership? God forbid.
The best administrators, the best leaders, the best thinkers and the best communicators should be in the church. Educating Christian ministers to serve in the 21st century, is among the most challenging and important tasks facing the church today. It may well be what decides the future of Christianity in the West.
Dr. Mark Rutland is president of Global Servants. A renowned communicator and New York Times best-selling author, he has over 30 years of experience in organizational leadership, having served as a senior pastor and a university president. Through Global Servants, Rutland has founded ministries in Ghana and Thailand. A native of Texas, he was educated at the University of Maryland, Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, and holds a Ph.D. from California Graduate School of Theology. Rutland has authored 14 books.
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