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Can You Train Church Planters in a Classroom? 3 Shifts That Could Make it Possible

I care how church planters are equipped for multiplication, so I also care deeply about Christian higher education and its historic role in ministerial preparation. But it’s time we be honest about the tensions inherent in educating and training future multipliers.  Formal theological education has proven proficient in the training of pastors and teachers, but insufficient for training apostles, prophets and evangelists. That is not to say that apostles, prophets and evangelists have not benefited from theological education, nor that formal theological education has nothing of value to offer these individuals.
The systems of formal theological education are not well-suited to deliver the kinds of transformational knowledge and experiences that shape and produce apostles, prophets and evangelists. Why?
First, many aspects of ministry are difficult or impossible to teach in the classroom. This is especially true for training apostles, prophets, and evangelist. Pastoring and teaching, however, are slightly easier to teach in the environment of a Christian college or seminary.  Second, individuals who excelled in apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic ministry do not typically become faculty who serve in formal education. Those roles are primarily occupied by individuals with teaching gifts.
Over the last 100 years, the evangelical church in America has increasingly encouraged its prospective ministers toward formal training, first in Bible institutes, and then in Christian colleges, universities and seminaries. And formal training has advantages. It has resulted in a highly educated clergy. As a Ph.D, I can appreciate that. But as a researcher who believes facts are my friends, my own research and the research of others has shown that there is no correlation between church planters’ level of education and their ministry outcomes. 
Unfortunately, many seminary graduates indicate that their training did not prepare them for apostolic work. They felt under-prepared by their classroom education to meet the demands of apostolic ministry in general and church planting specifically. In other words, in formal theological education, students with an apostolic gift become graduates who are well prepared to do that which the church does not need. 
Is the answer to forego formal theological education altogether? Would prospective church planters be better off getting a business degree and supplementing their training with a little extra Bible study on the side? No, and here is why.
My research shows that while level and length of education do not correlate with ministry outcomes, there are components of education that do. If a future planter’s education contains these specific learning and experiences, they are actually more likely to have higher ministry outcomes.

  1. Church Multiplication Philosophy and Strategy – This seems obvious, but besides an occasional class on church planting (which is often combined with another subject like church revitalization) most ministers-in-training rarely ever learn about principles of church multiplication so evident in the New Testament and so critical to the historic expansion of the Church. What if every class a ministry major or MDiv student took had an element of multiplication running through it? What if no student could escape our programs without clearly understanding that the multiplication of the church is God’s plan to combat the multiplication of sin in the world?
  1. Missiological and Intercultural Training – If a student is preparing for ministry service in a foreign country, we train him or her to how to exegete culture, communicate cross-culturally and contextualize the gospel appropriately. Students training to start a new church within their own country, however, rarely get the benefit of this kind of training. America is not monocultural. It probably never was, but it certainly isn’t today. Planters have more success reaching people for Christ when they were trained to relate to people who are not like them. What if every student training for ministry was at least exposed to the basic principles of missiology? What if no student left our Christian schools without learning how to minister cross-culturally?
  1. Faith Building and Exercising – Church planting is an exercise in faith. In many colleges and seminaries, the only time students are challenged in their faith is during final exams. Nothing makes you have to trust God like a Greek or Hebrew class. But seriously, while we may learn about faith in the classroom, the classroom isn’t conducive to exercising it. The more we can create education environments where students are forced into situations where they actually have to exhibit faith, the more they will be prepared to do what God is calling them to do. What if future ministers, especially future planters, didn’t just learn about faith, but had to demonstrate faith as a part of their education’s learning outcomes?

I believe in formal theological education. It is not a magic bullet, but if it is done well and contains the right component parts, it can help planters more effectively start churches and make disciples. While a church planter, or minister of any kind, can never be completely equipped in a classroom, implementing the three ideas listed here would at least be a start to creating formal learning environments where apostles, prophets and evangelists can train for a life of ministry.