Mind the Gap

Building a bridge between the Church and higher education.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon pastored the great New Park Street Chapel (later the Metropolitan Tabernacle) in London, England, from 1854 to 1892. He was only 19 years old when he was called to pastor New Park Chapel, a well-known church which had dwindled numerically to 313 members, with actual attendance being much smaller. It took only a few months of Spurgeon’s dynamic preaching to see attendance rise. By the age of  22, Spurgeon was consistently preaching to crowds of 10,000 and had become London’s most popular preacher. Swelling crowds required numerous church relocations ending with the opening of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in March 1861. With a main sanctuary seating capacity of 5000 and an overflow area that seated 1000, the Tabernacle was weekly filled to capacity. During Spurgeon’s 38 years of ministry, the church grew from 313 members to more than 5000 members. 

By 1970,  78 years after Spurgeon’s last year of ministry, only a few of the pews were necessary for Sunday morning service attendees. The once enormous crowds of thousands had diminished to less than a hundred. The obvious question is “what happened?” The answer is complex with numerous reasons for the decline. If our task is to coalesce all of the reasons for decline to just one word,  that one word would be “change.” Many ministers tried to follow the legendary Spurgeon, and none met with success. Additionally, London was in the throes of massive urban growth. In 1850 (when Spurgeon began his ministry at Metropolitan Tabernacle) the population in London was 2.5 million. In 1900 (when Spurgeon ended his ministry), London had grown to 5 million and by 1950 growth reached 8.5 million.  Another change came in 1898, when the Metropolitan Tabernacle was nearly totally destroyed by fire. Years later in 1941, the church faced physical destruction again from the German bombings of London in World War II. Church leadership changes, massive urban growth, and physical property destruction were all factors of immense change. 

History reminds us that life is filled with change—some minor and some major. No exception, ministry is constantly changing. During the spring of 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic only accentuated this truth. Today, nearly a year later, the effects of the virus continue to present obstacles and opportunities for the local church, its ministers, and faith communities. In the past year Christians have watched more online church services than previously in their entire lives. Zoom meetings with staff, church boards, and pastoral counseling sessions are considered commonplace. With multi-sites, revitalization attempts, online services, and planting, the outlook for churches appears to be daunting. 

Looking at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and considering the rapid rate of change in the world today, it gives those of us in pastoral education and training a reason to stop and ask the question, “Are we doing a good job preparing our future ministry leaders?” The answer is sobering. 

As a school of ministry preparation, I believe The King’s University provides strong academic programs and curriculum. In fact, many ministry preparation schools have solid educational curriculum. Perhaps a place for improvement is getting to know students on a more personal level.  What if we created a dual approach that included academic challenge/excellence, as well as learning assessment throughout a student’s academic experience?  Can you imagine equipping students with knowledge while assessing their personality traits and leadership potential? What if we did more than award a degree, but tried to invest in the entire person and help them find the path that would ultimately be the most rewarding and fulfilling? Strengths need to be identified. Spiritual giftings need to be developed. Weaknesses must be identified and strategies for overcoming ministry-hampering behaviors and thoughts addressed and healed. We need to do a better job of listening to our students’ sense of ministry calling. What is the Holy Spirit saying to them? And after listening and assessing and praying, we move away from a cookie-cutter approach to ministry preparation. 

People preparing for vocational ministry need a level of self-awareness about ministry and how and where they fit. Are they called to pastor in a smaller church setting where their heart’s greatest desire is to be close to people? Are they ready for a life of hands-on ministry to a group of people who they will love and growth with over the long haul?  Are they aware and in the process of being healed from past hurts that greatly impact their sense of identity and wholeness? Have we taught them to love people and to be available for people’s greatest joys (marriage, the birth of children, baby dedications, and successes in life) and their most challenging hardships (divorce, addictions, death)? Can those students come to embrace a personal, hands on ministry in smaller churches that brings great fulfillment and contentment?  

Can we help those with other gifts and callings prepare for ministry in larger churches, where building a team of pastors, board members, and key volunteer leaders will be desirable and necessary for healthy growth and service? Can we help those individuals understand that unless they recruit, develop, and inspire others for positions of leadership, the church risks becoming stagnant? Can those ministers find great satisfaction in pouring into the development of a few key leaders and learn to delegate much of the pastoral ministry to others? Can we help them to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit when discernment is required in building great teams? Can we assist them in seeing joy in raising up others for the work of the ministry?

And for those who are called and gifted to pastor megachurches and multi-site churches, can we educate, train, and equip them with a different skill set while keeping their heart for God in a healthy place? Can we teach them about how effective systems work in a large church context? Can we help them to be builders and dreamers and visionaries who see and cast vision in compelling ways? Can we help them to see ministry in big organizational ways? Can we help them to know how to build a healthy, strong, and sustainable organizations? Can we assist them as they prepare for the financial challenges of building multiple buildings and supporting sizeable staffs and other paid personnel? Can we help them to define success in ways that are attainable and will give them a sense of contentment?

These are the musings of a pastor/teacher, who is one of many, charged with the responsibility of loving, training, and educating the next generation of ministry leaders. The challenges are real and they are immense, but our God is greater and even more determined that all of us to get the job done.      

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