RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — As I write this article, I think back to my undergraduate studies at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Ky. I knew then that God had called me to preach (in fact, I was already pastoring a church in Ohio), and I was fairly certain I would continue my studies in seminary. Nevertheless, I chose to major in English education, with a minor in religion. Now, some 25-plus years later, I wonder if I would follow the same course.
Were I making this decision again, I would choose one of two options: 1) follow the same approach with a major in education and a minor in religion (or Christian Studies, etc.), or, 2) complete a double major in Christian Studies and some other practical area of training. That is, in my case, I might have majored in Christian Studies and English education. I likely would have chosen the latter and then sought an accelerated graduate theological degree at a university or seminary.
With either option, you will note that I am arguing for the value of earning a degree that prepares a student to do something other than church work while still providing basic theological training. Here’s why this approach is so appealing to me: I believe it may be the best approach to prepare believers to do the Great Commission in the 21st century.
Let me explain. Two significant issues now necessitate more than just a major in Christian studies for those preparing for ministry. First, many churches in North America are so small that they cannot afford a full-time pastor. Approximately one-half of the churches in the United States have fewer than 75 attenders, and those congregations often struggle meeting their financial obligations. Their size, however, should not limit their possibilities to have a trained pastor. Even those pastors who continue their education in seminary — which I encourage — may still need to rely on their vocational training in some church settings. For these churches, a bi-vocational pastor is likely the best option — and a pastor with preparation in some other area as well as theological training is best equipped to serve bi-vocationally.
In fact, a bi-vocational pastor will likely have more immediate opportunities for evangelism than will a full-time pastor. Regrettably, too many full-time church staff spend so much time doing church “stuff” that they have little time to be in the community reaching out to non-believers. Meanwhile, bi-vocational church leaders live daily among the unchurched, working beside and getting to know those who need to know Christ. Their vocational setting becomes the front edge of their mission field.
Second, a world that includes 1.7 billion people with little or no access to the Gospel also needs people who are trained with various skills and disciplines. Fleeting are the days when doors around the world were open for missionaries. Increasing are the calls for Christian businessmen or women to work in an international setting while also seeking to share the Gospel. As a matter of fact, “business as mission” might be our best option to take the light of Christ to the darkness of the world, and that strategy necessitates raising up Christian leaders who are trained in different occupations. The doctor, engineer, travel agent, pharmacist, businessman, teacher and others can often go where no missionary can easily go.
Here, then, is the flipside of this argument. Were I king for a day in an ideal world, I would also want all Christian college students to complete at least a minor in Christian studies — including those who do not sense a call to Christian service. Not every believer is called to ministry, of course, but all are called to be disciples who make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). While a college education can never replace discipleship in the local church, it can certainly strengthen and reinforce that discipleship. The result — that is, a generation more thoroughly equipped in Christian doctrine — can only strengthen an anemic North American church still mandated to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. A dying world, beginning with North America’s 200 million-plus unbelieving or unchurched residents, needs believers who are passionate for Christ and prepared with the Gospel.
That’s where Christian universities can play such a vital role: helping to prepare every student for Great Commission obedience, regardless of his or her chosen profession. University faculties can train students in multiple occupations while also undergirding them with a Christian worldview, basic Bible knowledge, and theologically informed thinking skills. Some students will become strongly equipped laypersons who help lead their churches. Others will serve God through ministry, whether bivocational or full-time. All will be better prepared because their Christian universities took seriously their responsibility to broadly train the next generation of Great Commission leaders.
Chuck Lawless is the International Mission Board’s vice president of global theological advance.