You probably know the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t drown it.”
I’m taking that more seriously these days.
The last few months have been full of changes for us, the Chappotins and Christ Journey. Some have been great and exciting, others have been sad and painful, but all have had a transformative impact. Many realizations about church and leadership have come into greater focus and we’re realizing how important it is to have this clarity of vision.
Those who’ve talked to me much lately will probably know that I’ve been reading Neil Cole’s books - first Organic Church, now Organic Leadership and this past weekend I picked up Church 3.0. I’ve never found a writer that is as consistently inspiring and frustrating in the span of a single page. I really think some of his views are unfair and naive (particularly when it comes to the history laid down in scripture of the Holy Spirit choosing to work through people to teach other people), but so much of his critique is incisive and challenging.
Yesterday, I read about a conversation he had with a well established evangelical pastor; one who’d been leading his present church for 20 years - an impressive feat in today’s culture. (Organic Leadership, 76-77.)
The pastor was arguing for more rigorous scholarly expectations and review in the ordination process (Cole seems opposed to pretty much any scholarly expectation whatsoever). The pastor said that each candidate for ordination should be scrutinized by a panel of ordained pastors and seminary professors and said that average church-goers without theological training would lack the astuteness to determine readiness.
I see where this guy is coming from, I’ve been witness to too many congregational leadership selection processes. People are seen as fit for leadership because of their popularity, often having earned their fame in the local community for business or political feats. Many are assumed to be good leaders because they have been successful as businessMEN, doctors or lawyers. Often there is little attention paid to the leader’s gifting and calling to teach others the way of Christ - or even teach Bible class. Sometimes people are called to leadership with very little knowledge of Scripture but with great understanding of “how things work” in the business world. Then we mourn that our churches function more like a cold-hearted business - driven by the bottom-line - than like the Body of the Risen Christ. What did we think was going to happen?
That doesn’t mean that our leadership needs to be all seminary trained folks chosen by seminary trained folks. That kind of clergy elitism is just as contrary to the Body of Christ image. I have indeed known both men and women with no formal theological education who show a deep love, knowledge and application of the scriptures - my father-in-law is one such leader. I trust his judgement of scripture and how to live it out more than pretty much any professor’s.
So, I was conflicted in how to respond to this pastor. Then Neil Cole asked a quick volley of questions that stopped me in my tracks.
“So, you’ve been teaching the same people every week for 20 years (over a thousand sermons), and they do not know enough of the Bible to discern sound doctrine? What’s wrong with your teaching?...If 20 years is not enough, how many more years of your teaching do you think it will take before they would be able to tell the difference between good teaching and bad?”
What’s wrong indeed! I doubt that there’s anything wrong with this guy’s preaching in the sense that we normally mean - I don’t know who it is, but the overall tone of the chapter suggested that this is a well-known and well-respected guy.
But it made me think of people I’ve known - some of whom sit in the same bible class and listen to the preacher faithfully week after week for decades on end. They sit in those classes every year and yet don’t feel they are ready to teach others even the basics of faith. If a friend asks them about Jesus, they’ll be happy to set up a coffee conversation between that friend and their minister...and woe to the preacher that isn’t able to drop everything and talk to their friend.
Even someone who’s been a Christian for only a few years - like the apostles were when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost...
I still believe there is a need for theological education. There is a 2000 year gap between us and the most recent of Biblical books - God may not have changed (which isn’t as universally true as we might think, but that’s another post) but the cultures of humanity certainly have. There is a need for some to put in the extra effort to learn about and help their community navigate those differences.
There is also value in having guides along the journey who have dedicated themselves to learning pray so that they can empower and support others to pray- some of these guides will be trained in seminary, others will be trained in the midst of a praying community (think of the various teachers that Timothy had - The Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands by the elders - 1 Tim 4:14; Timothy’s own mother and grandmother...don’t think for a second that they weren’t important teachers - 2 Tim 1:5; and of course, Paul - 2 Tim 1:13).
We’ve just finished a reading Acts where we encountered Paul on his missionary journeys. Sometimes he stayed in a place for a few days, sometimes longer (I love the divine protection that allowed him to stay in a hostile Corinth for a year and a half - Acts 18).
But as we read through the rest of the New Testament we’ll see that after these short stays a church typically grew up in that place - occasionally led by someone that Paul sent to the them or left with them (like Timothy), sometimes led by another who came after Paul (like Apollos) but often they led together as the community who received the good news. None of these people had known about Jesus for very long - and none had even a single copy of the New Testament...there weren’t any yet. And yet we read amazing stories of faith and growth.
I recently heard that the average church-goer in America has more training and exposure to scripture than many bishops in parts of Africa. So, how much longer do you need to listen to teaching before you are ready to lead and teach others?
The truth is, I’ve spent more time than makes sense trying to drown the horse. Here’s water, what hinders you? When you get ready to drink I think you’ll find the water cool and satisfying. In the meantime, there are other horses that haven’t found the trough yet, I’m gonna go try to find them.
You can too.
If you’ve had a drink of this water, you’re ready for the trip. Stop looking at the water. Get a drink and let's go.