Thursday, January 28, 2016

Divinity Schools And Effective Evangelism

A Personal Reflection On Theological Education In Light Of The Mandate To "Make Disciples"

I have reflected on this article by my friend Donald McGavran and without duplicating his points I have been concerned about the larger issues.

America has with each succeeding year and with each successive generation become less Christian. We have gone from an overall churched population of 43% to the current 17-20% of the population attending worship weekly.

Each year from the many seminaries 1000's of new graduates are sent out into the harvest field yet their entrance into the task seems to make little if any difference in the society we are called and commissioned to reach with the good news.

A simple question would seem to be, "Are we training people to do what needs done so the mandate of our Master be fulfilled?".

I remember asking a person who wanted to teach for us at our seminary "Tell me about the last person you led to Christ and what you did to reach them?". To say the prospective teacher was shocked at the question was an understatement. Their response was to wonder what this had to do with teaching!

Trying To Teach Church Growth
Translation Issues
We have a situation where too many professors in seminaries have neither been in any pastoral ministry or are currently actively in ministry. If the persons doing the teaching are not "playing with real bullets" how can we expect they will be able to teach people how to do effective ministry. What would happen if stories of the lost being found came from the professors hearts? Would they not teach differently and would not their passion be felt by the students under their tutelage.

My personal experience in talking to scores of wonderful pastors was to ask them if they were ever required to take an courses in evangelism or church growth. The answer that it was required was heard seldom. Most schools offered Evangelism as an elective but it was not required. It is no wonder that the message clearly given that the mission of reaching the lost is really not that important.

Dr. McGavran made this challenge to seminaries as he was convinced that a change in the amount of harvest received from the Fathers vineyard was tied to the effective training an deploying of leaders.

We would demand in our lives that Medical Schools train doctors who can care for people, Teaching Colleges that produce people with the ability to teach, Hair Dressing schools persons who can style hair and the list could go on. 

Could we put the same expectation on seminaries that they prepare leaders who can lead churches to fulfill the greatest of all tasks, the making of disciples.


Does the theological seminary have anything to do with effective evangelism?  Is not the theological seminary concerned only with correct views of the Bible and with inculcation of true doctrines?  Must not a theological seminary deal exclusively with theological ideas believable today?  Is not effective evangelism part of life outside the seminary?  We also remember the tremendous effort now being made by many denominations to bring about brotherhood, peace and justice in all corners of the world.  We also remember eternal God’s command to disciple all the peoples of earth.  We therefore affirm that seminaries should do two things.  First, train their students to communicate to members of the church correct views of the Bible and correct doctrines.  Second, train future ministers to make every congregation they serve evangelistically effective at home and abroad.

Most Theological Seminaries Do Not Teach Church Growth—That Is, Effective Evangelism

During my lifetime I have served as a faculty member in nine theological seminaries.  I have lectured in many more and met many fellow theological professors in several continents.  While I have never done a careful research on the subject, I believe that I am correct when I state that most theological seminaries do not count evangelism or church growth an essential part of their curriculum.  In a few a two or four hour course on evangelism is required or is an elective.  In many seminaries, however, no course on effective evangelism is offered.

The reason for this extraordinary state of affairs is easy to state.  Protestant theological seminaries were born and their curricula fairly well established in the years 1550-1800.  During these years Roman Catholic mission orders were very active in Latin America, the Philippine Islands and a few other sections of the world.  But the Protestants, sealed off by Muslim armies in the south and east and Spanish and Portuguese navies in the Atlantic to the west, believed that their main task was Christianization of the masses of nominal Roman Catholics who had been swept into the Protestant Church by the Reformation.

The concept, therefore, of the theological seminary as an institution which trained ministers to maintain and improve existing churches became very firmly established.  Maintenance mentality still dominates most seminary faculties.

Today, however, 1986, we look out on a very different world.  Christians can reach any part of the world in a matter of a few hours.  Enormous numbers of Americans cross the oceans to visit Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa.  Citizens of all these different nations flock to the United States.  The concept of one world inhabited by one great human family is voiced again and again by today’s media.  It becomes part of the everyday thinking of most American citizens.

Dr. McGavran
Beginnings of The School Of World Missions
Furthermore, Protestant churches today are let by highly trained ministers.  Most American denominations require that those ordained be at least college graduates.  Many denominations insist that on top of four years in college there be an additional three or more years in seminary.  The Christian minister must be a highly educated man.  He must think that way and speak that way.  This almost guarantees that he will remain out of touch with blue-collar America and some of white-collar America also.

Today seminary faculties in all six continents look out on a world wide open to the gospel.  True, some nations are closed to missionaries from any land, but the number of unbelieving, unreached populations open to evangelization is enormous.  The existing evangelistic efforts of most denominations are touching only a fringe of the available populations.  Any exact and truthful picture of the spread of the Christian faith indicates that while in a few places it has spread very greatly, in most places the number of believing, practicing Christians is relatively small.  Even in Europe and North America committed Christians are a small proportion of the total population.  They will remain a small and sometimes shrinking part unless seminaries begin to train their students in effective evangelism.  I repeat—they will remain a small and sometimes shrinking part unless seminaries begin to train their students in effective evangelism.

All Seminaries Need to Make Effective Evangelism a Substantial Part of the Required Curriculum
A typical seminary requires 36 four-hour courses successfully completed to gain the coveted degree of Master of Divinity.  Of these 36 four-hour courses, one may be an elective in evangelism.  In most seminaries, however, many complete the M.Div. curriculum without learning how to win men and women of their own neighborhoods to Christ.  Furthermore, they learn nothing about the world’s vast unreached populations of thousands of varieties and multiplying congregations in each.

I do not know what the specifics each seminary requires.  I am speaking to you about  this seminary (the lecture was given at Duke Divinity School) but the seminary world in general.  I submit to you that one 36th of the seminary curriculum or no evangelism at all is not in accordance with God’s will for today.  It is not theologically correct.  It states a theology which is not true to eternal God’s oft-expressed purpose to seek and save the lost.  It is also functionally inadequate.  It does not recognize that every minister goes out into an American world which is largely secular, humanistic, and often pagan.  It does not even see that the world where everyone was a Christian and had only to be educated no longer exists.  Our world population today is only one quarter even nominally Christian.  Tomorrow only one fifth will call themselves Christian.  Practicing Christians are, of course, a much smaller proportion of the total.

As I look at the very complex mosaic of mankind in North America I am sure that one four-hour course could not possibly instruct future ministers in how to reach effectively the multitudinous segments of population which they will find in the cities and countrysides where they labor.

Add to this picture the fact that ministers in North America face the need for finding the lost not only in North America but also in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe.  In France large sections of the country are, by the Roman Catholic Church, called mission territories because in them less than 5% of the population ever attend mass.

This whole unwon population in our own nation and around the world is now immediately accessible.  Students in American seminaries speak English, and English has become during the past fifty years the most universal language known to man.  English is to the next decades of the twentieth century what koine Greek was to the Apostle Paul.  It was in koine Greek that he wrote to all the members of ten or more house churches in Corinth,  “I am…seeking…the good of many, so that they may be saved.  You follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1Cor. 10:33-11:1).

Theological seminaries preparing effective ministers of Jesus Christ should pay considerably more attention to how the correct doctrines and the correct Scriptures which they must teach can be communicated and believed by multitudes in order to carry out eternal God’s command.  The minister is a communicator of the gospel.  He must know how to evangelize effectively.

Would it not be highly desirable to rule that of the 36 four-hour courses required for a M.Div., five be devoted to effective evangelism?  In suggesting the subject matter of five such courses I am treading on dangerous territory.  Each seminary would determine five great aspects of effective evangelism which it wanted to teach.  Some seminaries would emphasize certain aspects of the giant task.  Other seminaries would emphasize other aspects.  However, to make my proposal concrete, let me mention the following five.

The first would teach the theology of finding and folding the lost and multiplying congregations of the redeemed. This is an essential part of all true theology.  The second course would teach how to train laymen and laywomen for evangelism.  Lay people, if
In that great Children's Story about Winnie i the Pooh
Eoore laments as he floats down the river to his demise
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble would you mind rescuing me"
trained in evangelism, are most effective communicators.  They reach their fellow workers, fellow faculty members, fellow employers and employees.  Lay people must be trained in effective evangelism.  The third course would teach how to multiply congregations in North American Anglo and minority populations.  Each of the multitudinous segments of American society is a distinct population, in which congregations must be multiplied.  A fourth course would accurately describe the state of the churches—denominations—in other continents.  Do they comprise one percent or 90% of the population?  Are they growing or declining?  Are they carrying on effective evangelism or merely looking after themselves?  How can they be helped to become evangelistically more powerful?  Are they sending missionaries to their own unreached populations, or must this be done by missionaries from other nation-states?  The fifth course would deal with the ways of evangelism which God was most greatly blessing  to the redemption of women and men.  The ways of evangelism differ for various populations.  Those which are effective in university populations will yield no results among the illiterate tribesmen in the heart of Africa.  Those which multiply congregations among blue-collar workers will not be effective in east London, where 98% of the English remain out of the church.  Simply because the ways of effective evangelism are so numerous and vary from population to population, age to age, this fifth course may run for two semesters.

Would five or six four-hour courses on evangelism be pleasing to God?  Would not such a program enormously advantage the existing church?  Would this not very speedily make for a much better and more moral and just world?  If the answers to these three questions are yeas, then why should not every seminary soon require five four-hour courses on effective evangelism-i.e., church growth?

Objections to These Proposals Are Certain to be Voiced

Let me deal at once with one—that is, that all the existing subjects also need to be taught.  Which of them can be compressed?  Will church history or Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, Christian education, or worship give up part of its courses?  Quite impossible.  The effective answer to this objection is that as new situations develop, new courses of the curriculum have been made available and always will be.  The curriculum formed between 1550 and 1950 is not the best curriculum for a tremendously changed world.  As God’s will for the present world is made clear and becomes feasible, all good Christians will seek to bring their individual and corporate lives into harmony with it.  In order to make churches and denominations more obedient to Christ’s command to matheteusate panta ta ethne, now being perceived in a new way, seminary faculties and their boards of trustees will beyond question, bit by bit, reorganize their curricula.

The Institute For American Church Growth
Founded by Dr. Win Arn
Training Pastors and Laity in Effective Evangelism
To be sure, some seminaries will not.  Other seminaries will.  Those seminaries which will not, will observe their congregations and denominations shrink.  Those who make the changes will observe their congregations and denominations grow.
It is worth remembering that in the past the most orthodox and sound theological seminaries have been those of very slow-growing denominations.  In a nation whose population was exploding, into which large numbers of immigrants were pouring, the denominations whose seminaries were committed to teaching only those portions of theology which people already converted needed to know have often been the least growing.  The Pentecostals during the past 80 years have grown enormously.  But their seminaries and Bible colleges have not ranked high among the seminaries of the world.

Every theological seminary must decide whether the ideal denomination, most pleasing to God, would be one which sedulously cares for exiting Christians or one which, in true New Testament fashion, both cares for existing Christians and multiplies churches in unreached portions of humanity.  If the answer is that the Church most pleasing to God is one which in every possible way seeks to disciple panta ta ethne as well as care for existing Christians, then the seminary curriculum must prepare ministers to do both tasks.

Every seminary has a course on homiletics, the effective presentation of the gospel.  At first thought, effective courses on homiletics are all that is needed.  Unfortunately, homiletics is usually held to be the presentation of the gospel in sermon form to those who regularly attend church.  These, with few exceptions, are not the unsaved but the saved.  These are the practicing Christians.  These are the existing congregation.  As the thoughtful minister prepares a message for these, he inevitably stresses that they, the saved, need to know.  He talks about how Christians can become better Christians.  He assumes that those listening to him are already followers of the Lord Jesus.  He frames his sermon in language and thought forms which will appeal to that segment of society to which his flock belongs and from which his salary comes.  All this is excellent.  The pastor must indeed care for the flock.  He must indeed preach convincing, well-thought-out, easy-to-listen-to, and persuasive sermons.

However, such sermons do not reach the very large percentage of the population which attends no church.  Here in the United States there are possibly 50 million practicing Christians regularly in church on Sunday.  A hundred million nominal Christians also are to be found; they attend church now and then particularly at Christmas and Easter.  Finally there are 8090 million who never darken the doors of any church.  Professors of homiletics may be assured that the sermons their students preach will certainly reach and influence the 50 million.  They will be heard now and then by a scattering of men and women in the 100 million.  They will be heard now and then by a scattering of men and women in the 100 million.  They will never be heard by the 90 million.  As we explore the subject of a theological seminary and church growth, we must therefore ask, must not any seminary which would seek to obey God in the last decades of the twentieth century here in America teach ways in which all congregations, all denominations, and all ministers will use a significant portion of their time in finding and folding the 180 million lost sheep in the United States?

Dr. Donald McGavran
A Life Well Lived
It cannot be said too emphatically that too many seminaries in all six continents are preparing ministers who are engaged in looking after—maintaining—the current congregation.  Just how they do this will, of course, vary from situation to situation, congregation to congregation, and denomination to denomination.  Far too many congregations and denominations, facing the most responsive world ever to exist, are spending 95-99% of their time, prayer, money, and thought in looking after themselves. On October 11, 1985, I received a letter from a very able seminary graduate who has served as a pastor of two local churches and now occupies a position in a theological seminary.  That seminary is planning to send him to the United States for further study, preparing him to become a professor of church history in the seminary.  Concerning the churches of several denominations in a densely populated part of India, he writes the following:

“I believe that reaching the receptive Exhavas (pronounced Er’avaz) is a responsibility of the churches in that area.  These churches have to be mission minded, to win the receptive peoples of the population.  The government of India will not give visas to missionaries.  Whatever is done must be done by the churches.  Unfortunately, the churches, instead of being mission minded have become institution minded, with scores of schools, hospitals, and nowadays so-called development work…Our churches have lots of money, but they spend it on other things than winning non-Christians to Christ.  The root cause of this is that our pastors and leaders do not preach and teach about discipling all the castes.  Also none of the pastors is trained in effective evangelism.  That is why I want to study missions.  The seminary is prepared to send me to the United States to study church history.  I have a hard time to decide between my own convictions that I need to study how to win non-Christians and the seminary’s desire to have me specialize in church history.”

This letter might have been written from 10,000 mission fields and from any one of hundreds of seminaries.  Seminaries believe that they are training ministers, not evangelists.  Seminaries believe that the main task of the minister is to be doctrinally and historically correct.  Seminaries are not missionary societies, they emphasize.  As a result, in the midst of a most responsive world too many denominations grow very slowly.  Too often the most modern, advanced and wide awake denominations are also the least growing.

As I discuss these matters with Christian leaders of today, they frequently reply, “Yes, of course, such courses must be in schools of evangelism or missions.  We quite agree that the unreached must hear the gospel rapidly and effectively.  But the theological seminary is not the place in which to teach such courses.  If the church wants these taught (and we hope it does), the church must establish separate institutions which will deal with these important topics.”  What shall we say to comments like these?

The answer must be that the fundamental—repeat, fundamental—task of every minister must be seen as both caring for the flock and finding and folding the lost—including, alas, vast numbers of very nominal “Christians .”  No true shepherd will ever say, “Only such sheep as care to follow me will I shepherd.”  The true shepherd constantly seeks for the uncared for, the lost, the hungry, and the wandering sheep.  The Lord Jesus said the true shepherd leaves the 99 in the fold and goes out to seek the one lost sheep.  Today’s shepherds may have 20 in the fold and 80 lost in the wilderness in danger from wolves and lions.  All true followers of the Lord Jesus must share and incorporate in their own lives His overpowering concern that unbelievers become believers, that they repent, be baptized, and become practicing members of His Body.

Since the seminary is preparing people to become ministers—effective shepherds—in tomorrow’s world, the seminary should change the curriculum which was formed many years ago to fit an old world which no longer exists.  Seminaries should prepare pastors and ministers to help existing Christians to become better Christians and to lead multitudes of nominal Christians and non-Christians—secularists, humanists, followers of the religion of scientism, and on and on—to become believing, trusting and obedient followers of Christ.
What the seminary teaches in regard to carrying out eternal God’s command to proclaim the gospel to panta ta ethne, leading them to faith and obedience, must constantly be measured.  It must be measured against the degree to which seminary graduates are effective in leading unbelievers, secularists, materialists, the lost, o Christian faith.  It must be measured against multiplying new congregations.  Seminary courses in effective evangelism must be counted good not if they are academically impeccable.  They must be counted good only if those who take such courses become good harvesters, bringing in many sheaves from the ripened fields.  The ultimate test as to whether seminary graduates make good pastors has too frequently been whether such a pastor cared for existing flocks.  
Certainly existing flocks must be cared for; concerning that there can be no doubt.  However, in a nation rapidly becoming  humanist, secularist and materialist, the ultimate test must also be how well the pastor and his people win new believes to Christian faith and multiply new congregations.  Every congregation should plant and mother a new congregation every two years.  No congregation should remain barren and childless.  Only as a vast passion to be “all things to all men in order to win some” seizes congregations, denominations, and seminaries can God’s will for the world be truly carried out.

Methodist Bishop Wilke of Arkansas has recently been proposing that the United Methodist denomination seek to double its membership to 20 million by the year 2000.  This is an excellent goal. I devoutly hope that the United Methodists will do just that.  However, if they are to do that or anything like that, Methodist seminaries from the Atlantic to the Pacific must teach all ministerial candidates how to be effectively evangelistic.  Every man holding a M.Div. degree must know a great deal about the many kinds of evangelism that are proving effective in North America today.  He must also know what kinds of evangelism will suit the particular population in the city, town, or countryside where he ministers.  The five four-hour courses on evangelism will have to be well thought out, well planned, and constantly revised in view of the changing situation.  Tremendous church multiplication among our many minorities and the rapidly increasing communities of secularists and modern pagans must become a reality.

As I conclude this series of lectures on how Christians should come out of fields white to harvest, I trust that we shall all remember that we are dealing with something which eternal God commands.  Here can be no doubt that eternal God desires that men and women in all ethne (segments of society) believe on Jesus Christ and become living, obedient members of His Body, the Church.  Since at this point there will be no debate in any Christian audience, in the remaining lectures we shall ask how seminaries, congregations and denominations can more effectively carry out eternal God’s command.  We shall look at the world as it is.  We shall see the unsaved three-quarters of earth’s population.  We shall examine the various ways in which different vast populations divided into tens of thousands of ethne can be led to saving faith in Christ.  We shall discuss how the theological seminary not only in America but around the world can become a more effective instrument in God’s hands.  These and other topics will be presented as possible ways to solve the problem and to develop the tremendous opportunity.  There are no doubt other ways, quite possibly better ways, in the tremendously complex mosaic of mankind.  It is certain that different points of view will be held by many who are concentrating on different pieces of the mosaic.  Nevertheless, I rust that these thoughts set forth in these lectures will prove stimulating and will be one small addition to the surging river of thought dealing with how Christians respond to this opportunity to fulfill eternal God’s desire.

As we look upon the white harvest fields stretched away in so many directions, we must pray indeed the Lord of the harvest to send men and women into the fields who will know how to reap and know how to bring back multitudes of sheaves to the master’s barn.


  1. I should say thanks for this really an amazing and nice post,
    Senior Pastor

  2. Glad you found it helpful. While I have posted this article the 13, the final ones by Dr McGavran before his death are in a book by me entitled “The Final Lectures”