Can Anything Good Come Out of the Halls of Academia?

by Dr. Greg Carlson

Recently I heard a chapel speaker use Nathanael’s question in John 1:46,”Can anything good come from there?” to support the ministry of Christ in small or town and country churches.1 I have to admit, sometimes I wish there were a similar text that could be used to support cooperation between church practitioners and academics. What contribution, cooperation and symbiosis mark the relationship of children’s/family ministry to the halls of academia?

Schools Contribute

One significant dimension of colleges and seminaries that relates to the larger ministry of working with children and their families is the development of the next generation of leaders. How can our children (or those yet to be born) know of our great God unless we train the leaders who will be ready for this task?2 A decade ago I was aware of perhaps only a handful of schools that had a specialization or major in children’s/family ministry. Today well over a dozen offer this combination. Churches and ministries are looking for skilled workers, and schools are responding.

Insights for pastors already serving also can be gained from professors and academic institutions. Surveying the breakouts of the last several years at CPC, I observed that often when the academics were sharing, they were talking about trends. Busy ministry leaders sometimes do not have the time to read, summarize, analyze and synthesize new directions for ministry. The book Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation3 came into being because a seminary professor gathered four people in practice and teaching to discuss the issues. Correspondingly, when church equippers inform academics about the ideas that are priority and pressing, as in the project What Matters Now in Children’s Ministry,4 the academics are trained. When leaders and teachers incubate initiatives, it makes for stronger children’s/family ministry. This is why a number of schools  encourage their students to attend and profit from conferences such as Children’s Pastors’ Conference. And a number of those schools are seeking to provide training for practitioners.5

Surprising as it may seem to some, often colleges are the greenhouse for revival in ministry. Contrary to the picture of academia as “ivory towers” or “dry deserts of speculation and useless debate,” the Lord has often used colleges and seminaries as the seedbed for revival. Within our generation, the college revivals of 1992-1996 (sometimes called the Howard Paine or Wheaton College revival) inspired a fresh generation of workers for ministry. The Asbury College Revival of 1970 could also be cited.

God has used educational endeavors6 to promote and inspire Christian ministry. And missionary endeavors have been advanced from academic institutions, as in the Student Volunteer Movement of the 1880s and the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Why do I mention these? Because students can be the very impetus for personal or group revival in our ministries. May it be true again as young people see the need for serving children and their families.

Several other contributions of schools to the overall practice of children’s/family ministry could be easily overlooked. In New Testament time, the teaching of sound doctrine was charged to young Timothy and to Titus.7 In our time, the charge is to our schools. What is taught in the schools in one generation is practiced in the streets in the next. And often correcting common belief by sound teaching (both in school and church) counteracts error and challenges to faith When professors fail to influence and interact with ministry leaders, it weakens both.

Another role that academic institutions play is to aid in the systematic training of church leaders. Too often, in the rush and busyness of current ministry, leaders fail to provide their staff and volunteers a progressive attainment of sound training. When a holistic model that addresses ministry skill, personal growth and attitude development is promoted by those in academia, it can provide the basis for best practices in our churches. An example may be the “Side-by-Side Mentoring,” which Bethel Theological Seminary provides.

These are not the days of dusty bookishness in academia. Creative educational outreaches have had significant and positive impact. Examples8 include the Learning Lab’s learning residency program, Evangelical Training Association’s church-based Bible Institutes, and Child Evangelism Fellowship’s specialized training in children’s ministry specific to their ministry’s staff but available to others. Several schools have given credit for CEF’s Children’s Ministry Institute.® Online Christian education is also a promising enterprise. INCM is working with its advisory group of colleges and universities to investigate making the modules of training from the Children’s Pastors’ Conference available to individuals and schools.

So what can schools do for children’s/family ministry?

  • Prepare new leaders.
  • Listen to the needs of frontline workers and provide continuing education.
  • Prompt sensitivity to the Lord and join in praying for revival.
  • Guard a strong, biblical, theological approach to children’s/family ministry.9
  • Model and interact regarding creative processes for church ministry.

Churches Reciprocate

How do churches and other ministries interact with schools? Most of the values mentioned above are reciprocal-e.g., in order for  leaders to receive training on campus, they have to be sent and supported. To educate in creative ways takes cooperation from frontline trainers. Leadership preparation, continuing education and training, revival promotion and creative ventures are not possible without faculty and church leaders working together.

In addition, faculty and students alike can learn from the practitioners. If you are within distance of a Christian college or university, your expertise in sharing with students is invaluable to the school. I often invite guests to share “from the real world” in the classroom. This resource should not be limited to just sharing with students, but it may also include the development of ideas, projects or mutual endeavors that would benefit classroom and ministry. Internet access and Skype® make classroom involvement easy.

Many faculty members do have broad and impressive ministry experience and would appreciate interaction with ministry leaders. Resources can be shared as dialogue occurs. When academics participate in a training day, serve on a denominational committee or teach in their local church, a cross-pollenization of ideas and formation occurs. Churches that invite academics to join them find sound research and expertise, but in addition, equip faculty for the teaching of pace-setting and best practice ministry. As an example, when working as the global training director for an international ministry, I was always pleased to hear practical ideas to make the ministry better. These ideas would often then prompt my teaching friends with whom I was in dialog to further develop and enhance ministry capability.

Sharing a ministry project or a recent publication is one of the best ways to promote best practice among the emerging leaders that schools represent. Informing faculty of “what works” is a valuable resource.

Providing internships for student leaders-in-the-making can be one of the best parts of children’s ministry staff and school faculty cooperation. Allowing fresh leaders to obtain guidance and experience, “learn the stuff they didn’t teach you in seminary” while still in seminary and forming the basis for a lifetime of service are all benefits of working with a school’s field experience.

Perhaps the most important aspect of cooperation between school and church is for practitioners to listen, pray and model personal spiritual development. Young leaders in training need strong and godly examples to follow.

What can ministry leaders do to support and enhance academia?

  • Invite students to consider taking coursework to prepare them for ministry.
  • Initiate a classroom or faculty dialog.
  • Share best practices through projects or publications.
  • Provide internship opportunities for students.
  • Model servant leadership through personal and professional growth.

Dr. Greg Carlson is Professor and Chair of Christian Ministries at Trinity International University. He is an author, family ministry consultant, pastor and seminar leader. He and his wife, Donna, live in the Chicago area.

1. Klassen, Dr.Ron (Executive Director of Rural Home Missionary Association). Normal People Need Christ Too. Chapel Podcast, Dallas Theological Seminary, October 26, 2010.

2. See Psalm 78:5, 6.

3. Anthony, Michael, ed. Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2006.

4. Gueverra, Matt, Amy Dolan & Henry Zonio. What Matters Now In Children’s Ministry; 33 Perspectives on How to Influence Children’s Faith Now.

5. INCM website: https://incm.org/cpc_college.html .

6. Reference J. Edwin Orr & Richard Owen Roberts Campus Aflame: A History of Evangelical Awakenings in Collegiate Communities.

7. I Timothy 1:3, 4; II Timothy 4:3,4; Titus 1:13,14.

8. Leadership Lab:  http://www.theleadershiplab.net/residencies/Developing a Dynamic Bible Institutehttp://etaworld.org/bibleinstitute/; and Child Evangelism Fellowship:http://cefcmi.com/.

9. Resources like Gary Parrett and S. Steve Kang’s Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful; A Biblical Vision for Education in the Church (IVP Academic, 2009) discuss these systematic processes.

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