Recently I’m running into a lot of writers who are asking the question “If we all serve the same God, why is Christianity growing all over the world except Europe and the U.S.?” I find that am important question. The problem is most of the answers I’m seeing deal with fringe issues and don’t go to the heart of issue. The issue is far more than spirituality or commitment. The heart of the issue is more in the implementation of that spirituality and commitment. Many U.S. churches have deeply committed Christians and yet their churches are dying like flies. I know some deeply spiritual and committed pastors who can no more grow a congregation than they could fly. No, the problem isn’t spirituality or commitment. The problem goes much deeper to our assumptions on how to implement our faith. Let me share just one false assumption.
Most churches in the U.S. require an ordained, seminary trained pastor whereas most churches in most of the places around the world where Christianity is exploding don’t require a seminary trained, ordained pastor. That simple fact alone is a major deciding difference. Let me explain.
Seminary takes seven years at minimum – four in college and three in seminary. Three things are wrong with that picture: one, it takes the best years of a person’s passion. Two, it takes too much money and leaves one in too much debt. Three, it’s not the way Jesus mentored the twelve disciples who changed the world.
The places around the world that are thriving are growing faster than they can train seminary pastors. They are laying hands on everyday lay leaders and sending them out the moment they prove themselves which takes neither seven years nor a boatload of money.
I’ve used my tribe, The United Methodist Church, which isn’t united and isn’t Methodist, as the best example I know to explain this issue. The original Methodist Church, under Asbury and Coke, used non-seminary trained, everyday Christians to plant churches in almost every town from the East Coast to the West Coast. All they had was a Bible and a horse. They were called Circuit Riders and they created the largest Protestant movement in our history. Methodism continued to thrive until the 1960s. Guess what changed from 1950 to 1960? Prior to 1950 Methodist pastors were not required to attend seminary. Some went, but the majority didn’t … that is until the 1960s when seminary training became a requirement. We’ve been in decline ever since.
Of course most of my peers have pooh-poohed this rant of mine over the years, but that’s because of their false assumptions. Christianity is not about how much you know; it’s about how passionate you are about who you know. We have substituted education for passion, mentoring for curriculum, and institutions for community. And the results have been catastrophic.
As long as we continue to require seminary training, fancy buildings, ordination of only seminary trained leaders, we are doomed to continue the headlong spiral into oblivion. Surely we are smart enough to see that, or will our pride and false assumptions continue to rule the day?
For further reading see
Dinosaurs to Rabbits: Turning Mainline Decline into a Multiplication Movement
Bill, you said:” Christianity is not about how much you know; it’s about how passionate you are about who you know. We have substituted education for passion, mentoring for curriculum, and institutions for community. And the results have been catastrophic.” I totally agree with the first 2 sentences, but perhaps another factor is also the substitution of solid biblical theology with a secularist leaning perspective (a movement which strayed from the Scriptures as authoritative and foundational whereas the early Methodists were breathing Scripture in and out). I went to bible school and Seminary, planted a church in Belgium and it’s doing very well 15 years later, but I know an American seminarian now matriculating, who is inline to be ordained and he even bores me in personal conversation. I have no idea who encouraged him to pursue pastoral ministry, and can only hope a fire is lit within him before he officially begins. I actually believe the church in Europe is beginning to awaken, but today’s Christians are fo9llowing 200 +years of decline. It may take a while yet. God bless. Great subject, Good thoughts. thanks.
the strange thing is that even though most of the multiplying churches dont have ordained pastors, most of them are some of the deepest thinkers of Scriptures I’ve run into. the real issue is multiplication not growth. Mainliners could grow once again with ordained clergy but they can never multiply and go viral with ordained clergy. there just arent enough around. but thanks for pushing me a bit on this because it shows me something i need to focus more time on
Thanks for pushing me on this. The conversation about our book is helping to clarify the basic issue about seminary and ordination. The problem isn’t that seminary and ordination are bad but that they are limiting. Mainliners could grow once again with seminary trained, ordained clergy but we can never experience a multiplication movement and go viral with seminary trained, ordained clergy because there just aren’t enough around. It’s easy for Mainliners to focus on seminary and ordination because they aren’t thinking addition growth instead of multiplication. Once you begin to think multiplication it changes everything and I do mean everything. And the strange thing is that even though most of the multiplying churches don’t have ordained pastors, most of them are some of the deepest thinkers of Scriptures I’ve run into. the real issue is multiplication not growth.
another problem with ordination is it always makes laity second class citizens who either think or say when confronted with serious leadership, “I’m just a layperson.” that is deadly and needs to be avoided at all costs if you want to develop radical disciples who follow Jesus
I agree that requiring seminary training is a factor, but I’m not sure that it’s the deciding factor. In general, educational standards are higher in Europe & the USA than the rest of the world. I believe that the biggest & deepest issue is that the US & Europe are post-Christian cultures. Another question that applies to mainline denominations is, what percentage of churches are served by lay pastors? For decades, the number of lay pastors has been increasing, while the number of churches led by ordained pastors have decreased. For the record, I’m a PC-USA pastor. I do agree, that the system could be simplified. The Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptists have levels of ordination. Maybe it’s time for mainline denominations to shift to levels of ordination.
dont forget, that methodist took over the county because of uneducated circuit riders. but the real issue you are missing is that any multiplication movement will always outgrow the number of ordained pastors available and as long as their is ordination the laity will always think of themselves as second class citizens. both of these are deadly.
Great food for thought Bill. Firstly circuit riders were probably evangelists, while many pastors are not. As Alan Hirsch, Mike Breen and others have written, some are better wired up to lead leaders of leaders and this creates rapid multiplication. However they often work in para church settings since church can stifle this. So there are some important pieces around recruitment and giving space to multiply that need to be in place. Secondly, the content of pastoral training does not always help pastors navigate through sticking points. In my doctoral research 7 out of 10 churches grew in the 4 to 5 years after a consultancy and half of these churches were subsidised! So in this gap there are processes or keys to vitality that external facilitation can provide.
Ian, even the role of pastor is that of equipper and equippers multiply what they touch. Pastors were never meant to be caregivers, that is the role for the laity.
I bought the new book as soon as I got the first email saying it was available. Having worked for a pastor that credited you with lighting the spark in him that helped turnaround the church he has now pastored for over 30 years, I was well aware of you and your work and I just knew from the title that this book was something I needed to read. (We’ve met as I was your contact person when you brought the Radical Discipleship Conference to our church 🙂 )
I now am a pastor myself and belong to your same tribe. Reading the book and this blog post have further solidified my decision to do Course of Study (COS) and not Seminary. Since I already have a bachelor’s degree and am “only” 50 I could do seminary and still have plenty of years to serve as an ordained elder but…why? I decided that my time and money could be better used for the work at hand. So thank you for your words. I’ll be buying a copy of the book for several of my key leaders and together we’re going multiply and turnaround the mainline decline in our little corner of the world!
Thank you Bill, and Bill T-B, for doing what you do and writing what you write. It is appreciated!
thanks for the kind words. Wish i were 50 again and know what i now know. I wish you God’s speed in your journey.
As a church business manager and father of a Pastor, my observations are – being a Pastor takes a lot of hard work. It is way beyond seminary training, or the auto-attraction of good sermons. I believe that quality training helps Pastors cope with many spiritual battles…but it does not build drive, grit and commitment to that hard work.
Perhaps today’s dependence upon passive ministry is the downfall of some church leaders. Pastors who are trusted by their church, enjoyed by the community and have spent a lot of energy stepping off of their church property are following the steps that circuit ministers took to make a great church. Maybe the computer is today’s trap leading to their downfall …The reality is that sitting on the computer, planning mind-bending sermons, laying out events, handling building issues can really be the by-the-way stuff. These distract hours/per week from the real mission…shepherding, leading, teaching, loving and caring for their church folks and people in their community. That sounds like the same hard work invested by the early circuit ministers. I pray for my ministers and my son. I am captured by a great sermon for the moment, but I love a great pastor for his whole tenure.