Last month, I taught another week-long, masters-level intensive for the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College. The team who handled the logistics did great work, enabling ten students to be there in person (socially distanced) and five to join us via Zoom from various parts of the country.

In addition to teaching, I spent some time at the Marion Wade Center, looking through the Inklings books in the reading room, across the hall from J. R. R. Tolkien’s desk. (And, like always, I opened C. S. Lewis’ wardrobe and reached in to knock on the back, just to check.) On another afternoon, the team that oversees the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center archives let me peruse the original journals from missionary Jim Elliot.

At the end of the week, I was physically tired but spiritually energized. There’s something special about teaching ministry practitioners from various denominations and different regions. This cohort included an Anglican priest from Nigeria, Vicki Gray (who serves with her husband Derwin at a leading multi-ethnic church in North Carolina), a Christian Church pastor in a rural community, and women serving in parachurch organizations on both the East and West Coasts. Bring together people who are united around the gospel, committed to the authority of Scripture, and passionate about growing in ministry effectiveness and the result is stellar discussion.

Here are a few things I learned from this round of teaching at Wheaton.

1. Challenges in the church are often similar across ministry contexts.

The way a challenge facing one church is expressed may look different in another context, but the challenge itself is often the same. The sins and struggles are similar. For example, after a session on the pervasiveness of consumerism in the West, a student from Nigeria told us how the “What’s in it for me?” mindset shows up in Africa as well. A relentless focus on self that threatens to topple a God-centered mentality in worship can prevail not only in individualistic cultures but also in communal environments.

Strangely enough, it’s encouraging to hear ministry leaders open up about their struggles, especially when similar issues cross denominational and cultural boundaries. It helps us realize we’re not alone. Sin is sin. Struggles are struggles. Sin and selfishness manifest in different ways, depending on the context, but a camaraderie develops when you realize that everyone faces similar challenges.

2. Most churches do not fully express a single ministry philosophy.

One of the purposes of the course I taught was to examine different “church orientations” that give rise to different models and church practice.

  • We spent some time looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the Attractional Church, modeled by Willow Creek, Northpoint, etc.
  • We also looked at the Church Health movement, based on natural church development, modeled by traditional churches, 9Marks, and the liturgical renaissance.
  • We discussed the Missional Church movement, on display primarily in the work of Alan Hirsch, but also under the influence of Lesslie Newbigin and others.
  • We devoted some time to congregations that combine elements of missional and attractional and church health (such as The Summit Church, led by J.D. Greear), and then we studied the Center Church ministry philosophy as advocated by Tim Keller.

My goal was to present each church orientation in the most compelling way possible and then to delve into the nitty gritty of decisions and ministry practices that often prove controversial. (That’s where the inevitable weaknesses appear.)

In the discussions that followed, ministry leaders in the class often recognized elements of these models in their ministries. When they tried to “sort” themselves by orientation, however, many of them found it hard to peg their church as being in one camp or another. Most churches are not a “pure” version of any particular model or philosophy. There are Willow-like elements in congregations that would more closely align to a traditional model, and there are missional elements in churches that start out with the attractional orientation.

What’s the takeaway? It’s important to recognize where your congregation is on the spectrum of ministry philosophy and theological vision so that you anticipate the weaknesses in your approach and can maximize the strengths.

3. Evangelism is a perennial challenge.

Nearly everyone tells me that evangelism is tough, not only for themselves but also for the people they lead. It’s hard to train and motivate people to share their faith. It’s easier to encourage church members to bring people to church. It’s easier for people to give their personal testimony. But when it comes to telling the story of Jesus and then calling for a personal response, the challenge of training and motivating regular churchgoers toward this Great Commission task is tough. And that’s true no matter where you come from. A discouraging word, yes, but it’s nice to know that virtually everyone struggles with that challenge.

Consider Wheaton 

I’ve said before that at Wheaton, I often feel like both teacher and student because I get to learn more about issues in churches in different parts of the country and around the world. I hope that more men and women who are looking to grow in their knowledge and passion for evangelism and church ministry will consider furthering their theological education, and give strong consideration to the Wheaton College School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership.

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