Why we need a radically different approach to Gospel Training

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You will know by now, that I’ve been passionately arguing for -and practically working towards a different approach to training for Gospel ministry.  So, I was interested to see this comment recently from church planter, Jonny Pollock.

I believe that Jonny is working in a more rural context in Ireland, so it is fascinating to see an alignment between those of us  operating in urban contexts and those working in more rural settings.

I don’t really disagree with Jonny. However, I would push things further.  You see, whilst Jonny argues that Bible colleges need to recognise that there are specific things they cannot do for church planters, I think it’s worth making two counter observations.  The first is that what Jonny says about planters would be true of any Gospel worker whether that as a pastor, cross cultural missionary, youth and children’s worker or women’s worker.  They can input the theoretical learning but there are some things you can only learn out in the field by observing others and then trying for yourself. Secondly, I think that a lot of theological colleges would to some extent, at least in principle recognise this to be the case. Whether or not they and local churches have worked through the practical implications is another matter.

I want to go a step further though.  My argument has been that even on the academic side of things, I don’t think that theological colleges always provide the best opportunity for most people to study and train.  There are a few of reasons for this.  First, because there are too many barriers for a lot of people to be able to properly benefit from them.  These include geography, cost and culture, especially if the potential Gospel worker comes from a poorer/disadvantaged context or without prior academic background.  If we assume that leaders must be financially self sufficient and academically gifted or experienced then we are in danger of slipping into the World’s ways of thinking and operating.

Secondly, I think that there is a problem with the philosophy about how programmes are designed. At worst, in some cases it will come down to who is available to teach and what their personal areas of interest are.  At best, there is a view which says “This is the kind of syllabus that a theological college needs to cover and therefore, that’s what we’ll cover.”  What this can mean is that students get frustrated because at one and the same time, they find themselves going over material they already know well due to prior training, personal reading or teaching from their church whilst also being aware that there are gaps and due to lack of provision or timetabling clashes, they are unable to access them. 

Thirdly, most institutions are tied into the Higher Education structure meaning that both content and assessment must happen in line with the requirements of Higher education and especially accreditation.  This means as well that whatever the tutors may say about prioritising formation and it not being about the exam results, it is about the exam results, the real outcome of theological training is your certificate and the letters after your name.

I’m not convinced that this makes for a good way to train people generally and I’m even less convinced that it is helpful for Gospel ministry training.  It certainly isn’t the best way to equip people for urban church planting in our context.  So, what I’ve been gradually trying to do over the past few years is both argue for and work towards a different type of provision.

Here’s how I think it should be and what I’m working towards.  First, the primary focus should be on outcomes.  We should have an idea of what a particular Gospel worker will look like -what qualities and competencies they will bring to their role in the life of the church.  So we start by defining those competencies. In general terms they are to do with teaching, pastoral care, leadership, problem solving,  evangelism and apologetics.  There may also be some specialised requirements for different areas of ministry.  If you are being considered for a possible call to Gospel work then to some extent and to different degrees you will have aspects of those competencies already.  So, we start by getting a feel for where you are in terms of each competency.

This is because the second point is that training should be tailored around the specific needs and circumstances of the person being trained. That in fact is in my opinion a crucial distinction between training and education. The latter delivers the same content to everyone, the former looks at what the specific person needs in order to reach their outcomes. In other words we spend a bit of time identify gaps in knowledge, experience and skills. Then we decide how to meet those gaps.

Thirdly, I believe that assessment should not be to give a grade but simply to ask whether you have the competency, where your gaps still remain and what you can do to close them.  Assessment should also be practical and relate to what you will actually be doing in ministry. There’s little point in attempting to assess pastors or youth workers by their essay writing skills.  Instead, we should be looking to see if they are able to preach, lead Bible studies, give one to one counsel and if writing anything, probably a blog or a news letter.

Fourthly, training best happens in context for most.  I’m not saying that this is always the case but a lot of the time it is.  This enables the person to actually put things into practice qickly and it helps them to relate the knowledge they are learning to their ministry needs.

Now, as I said, this is something I’m not just arguing for but seeking, step by little step to put into practice here in the West Midlands. One part of that is by building up training resources here on Faithroots and you are welcome to make use of them as and when you find them useful.  However, that’s only part of the story.  What I’d really encourage you to do if you are interested in Gospel training is to get in touch so we can talk more about where you are in terms of those outcomes and what it is that you specifically need.

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