Friday, September 6, 2013

Pastorates manuscript #6

The global south

I remember listening to a missionary in the 1980’s, recently returned from Africa, who talked about a model of leadership training that was growing by leaps and bounds in Africa.  It was called “theological education by extension” or TEE.  In this model, students did not travel to a seminary to take several semesters of classes.  Rather, the teachers traveled to the village where the students lived.  In these scattered villages, the professor led classes over a weekend or maybe a week.  The students were probably already leading local churches and many worked at tentmaking jobs in addition.  They took a few days to study in order to be better equipped for ministry.  This model did not produce theological sophistication in its students but rather equipped them for the fast, portable work of leading local congregations.  TEE was a response to rapid growth of the church.  To the great surprise of many in the west, African Christianity had begun to grow by leaps and bounds, and TEE was one of many desperate moves to try to provide biblical leadership.  

About the same time liberation theology began to echo out of Latin America.  In a bid to deal with the consequences of corrupt politics, a hierarchical Catholic Church, and devastating poverty, small groups of Christians called “base communities” began to live together, sharing their meager wealth and their spiritual lives.  They began to read the Bible differently, recognizing that God had a “preferential option for the poor.”  Without a doubt much of liberation theology was deeply influenced by Communism, but it was also influenced by Acts 2 and other passages in scripture.  These Christian communities started within Catholic roots but rapidly expanded beyond the Catholic Church.  As pentecostalism grew by leaps and bounds in Latin America, many Jesus-followers took a page from the flexible leadership and communal lives of these base communities.  

After Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China, many missionaries thought the Christian church within China would be devastated.  All the missionaries had been expelled, after all, and there would be a serious lack of Christian leadership.  When China began to reopen after a few decades of being entirely closed to western Christianity, the first Christians to visit this new China were shocked to find a vibrant, under-the-radar Christian presence in house churches, led by pastors who had never been to seminary but who had been educated in the “school of suffering.”  That church had grown dynamically in the absence of professional leaders.

In the global south, the church was growing by leaps and bounds.  Two characteristics of these growing churches are worth noting:  First, they were not passive, but active, because they were gathering in home-sized groups where each member had definite roles and responsibilities.  To borrow language from Bonhoeffer’s classic book Life Together, there were few if any “unemployed” people in the church, in the sense that they were non-involved in the life of that church or passive in regard to its ministry.  Second, they were led not by degree-wielding, seminary trained pastors, but by minimally trained, spiritually gifted leaders.

Please note that I am not arguing against the existence of professional pastors.  Ephesians 4 makes clear that one of Jesus’ gifts to his church is the leadership of pastors.  However, I believe that professional pastors have made serious mistakes in the way we lead the church.  We have too often failed to disciple new leaders.  Instead, we have chosen to focus on our own gifts and abilities.  We have failed to find effective models for equipping the saints to do the work of ministry and instead, we have done ministry ourselves while people watch us.  We have organized our churches in such a way that our own roles as preachers and teachers are highlighted, often to the exclusion of other gifts and other leaders.  

Pastorates are a powerful tool to help the church function as it was intended.  Precisely because they do not encourage passivity, pastorates can help fill the void in leadership development in our churches.

If we pay attention to the Spirit’s movement over the last several decades, we have to acknowledge that on the level of local leadership, a seminary education is not necessary to a healthy church.  I’m not suggesting that theological training is of no value; quite the opposite.  Theological training as has been traditionally done at the seminary level will increasingly belong at the level of oversight, not at the level of local shepherding.  The idea that we have to require a four-year degree (or more) before a person can lead a house-sized congregation flies in the face of what God has been doing for several decades in the global south.  

Today we are seeing these same patterns -- local gatherings of moderate size, meeting without the burden of mortgages and salaries, led by gifted persons who are passionate for Jesus -- expanding across the increasingly dechurched western landscape.  Networks of missional communities have taken root in England, in continental Europe, in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the United States.  Something is happening as western churches are listening to and imitating their brothers and sisters in the global south.  The Holy Spirit is calling us to a way of being the church that is flexible, portable, and easily replicated. The pastorate is one particular model of this movement of the Spirit.

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