Church growth or kingdom growth focus?
From a talk by Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary
Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary gave a talk at the Karam Forum 2020 addressing this central question: “What do seminaries need to be like to equip the churches to equip God’s people to serve God in the patterns of their work and their play beyond the boundaries of the church?”
Richard has been a leading voice addressing the relationship between vocation, ministry, theology and the marketplace. Here are some summarised extracts from his talk:
For some decades I've been speaking about lots of ways in which God's people were not being encouraged to see their work beyond the boundaries of the church - being sent forth by God into the life of the world. I've been discouraged and at times felt very lonely.
I was teaching at Calvin College and later at Fuller Theological Seminary and also a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School. At Calvin College you have this opportunity to be teaching people are going into the insurance business, law, the arts and in other areas of ministry beyond. I've learned so much from many 'lay' people who work with people from all over the world.
The Lilly Endowment has invested USD$150M since 1999 in teaching programmes that help undergraduates at Christian colleges to think of their work as a vocation, as a calling from God. Nothing like that has been invested in theological education i.e. seminaries and here's the troubling question, "When these students actually graduate and go out into the workforce, what kind of churches are they going to go back to?". Are they going to go to churches that will encourage what they have learned in these vocational programs as college and university undergraduates?
I've been thinking about what do seminaries need to be like to equip the churches to equip God's people to serve God in the patterns of their work and play beyond the boundaries of the church - that world that they're being sent into.
Let me just mention three obstacles that are very much on my mind.
One is a kind of 'ecclesia-centrism' where people are encouraged to get involved in 'church'. A good friend was asked to teach at a college 2 hours commute away. At the same time, he was asked to be an elder and turned this down due to the time pressure. The pastor, who really was very good in so many ways, said to him, "Well, one of these days you're going to have to decide to do something for the kingdom.".
I was in South Korea talking to Fuller alumni. One of them, who had a MDiv, had gone back to Korea and got a job as a newspaper religion reporter. Every week, he is read by several million readers. His pastors were angry with him because he did not go into 'ministry'. He said the teaching of Fuller seminary is a big part of the problem in South Korea as we teach about church growth. This encourages pastors to have big congregations and spend a lot of money on programmes. They have wealthy people in the congregation and they want them to go out and make money, bring it into the church so that the church can do things.
He said there's nothing happening for the formation of people serving in the Korean Parliament, nothing happening in the business world and the entertainment world - the growing film industry. The focus has been on church growth rather than kingdom growth.
The second obstacle is academic guild directed or guild guided patterns of theological education. What to teach in seminaries. On one hand, the kind of scholarship that we produced in the last half century or so has been just terrific but we also need to have a focus on the kinds of theological questions that are important for the life of God's people.
There are two kinds of theology; a) professional theology - that's the kinds of discussions that theologians have as they argue with other theologians e.g. the atonement and b) worldview - theologians responding to questions posed to them by people living out patterns of discipleship beyond the world of the church. Examples of the latter are, "How do I relate to my Muslim neighbours?, How do I raise my kids in a highly sexualized society?, What about the teaching of evolution in the public schools?". Seminaries are not equipping pastors to struggle with such questions.
Whenever we start talking about introducing new courses in new areas, we always get into turf wars because what it comes down to is, "Are we going to give up a course in our department?". We have to understand the urgency for some people of these kinds of questions. We need to deliver differently. We've got to come up with new reward systems in theological education because the standards for getting tenure and for rank advancement are book reviews, scholarly essays, footnotes, etc.
The third obstacle is a theological problem, especially endemic through the evangelical world. We have had for most of the 20th century, a theology and spirituality of cultural survival on the margins - this world is not my home, I'm just the passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond and I'm surviving in the meantime in a world that's going to get worse and worthless. We have a lot of work to do about how we equip God's people to take responsibility for cultural renewal for affirming and working toward good goals in the larger culture in which we find ourselves and so we need honest, humble discussion and efforts to do some new things in theological education.
Richard then goes on to develop some ideas. Perhaps you have your own or you could ask your church attendees what they would really like to understand, be equipped for, as they go out into the world during the week to the work God has called them to do. This could possibly be threatening for leaders as the focus is not about growing 'your church' but growing the kingdom. This will result in churches growing but that may not be the one you lead. But where is your identity?
Richard's 40 minute talk is here:
See also What workers want from their local church.
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