I can still remember my first visit to the campus of Roanoke Bible College (now Mid-Atlantic Christian University). I was being given a tour of the campus, and this was before the new chapel/gym/library in the Albert Blanton III Center was built. As I went up the stairs in Heritage Hall to what was then the chapel, my eyes beheld Jesus’ words from Matthew 9:38 emblazoned in the stairwell, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”
I think now, more than ever, we need to be praying this prayer.
Our Bible Colleges are graduating less and less preachers. My Alma-mater, a place I will always be grateful for because of the education I received, the relationships that were forged, and the memories that will always be cherished, no longer offers a degree specific to the preaching ministry, largely due to the paucity of young men seeking that profession (they do still offer a general ministries degree for those wanting to enter full-time ministry.) So who’s to blame? And what, if anything can be done about it?
Playing the Blame Game
Now some blame the Bible Colleges. They say there is a loss of focus on original purposes. And who can blame these critics? The names of our colleges are constantly changing to reflect a different image or different purpose or different programming. RBC became MACU. Johnson Bible College, my grandfather’s Alma-mater, is now simply Johnson University. Atlanta Bible College, MACU’s sister school is now Point University. Now, I don’t think a name change means these colleges are renouncing Christ, but it does give ammo to the nay-sayers, and whether it is fair or not, it does lend credence to the argument that our preacher-training colleges have lost focus.
Others blame tuition costs. When I graduated RBC, the cost of education was roughly $12 – 15,000 a year for a student taking 15 credit hours. To be fair, MACU has worked hard to keep tuition costs down, but now it costs roughly $18,000 a year. That’s $72,000 after four years. Grants and scholarships are limited at our Bible colleges due to the fact that they are private entities. That means student loans. The fact of the matter is many of our Bible College grads will be given their diploma with $40,000 or more of debt shackling them for at least the next 5 years of their young lives. Couple this with the fact most first ministries are with small or rural churches that can’t afford to pay a preacher well, and you get parents advising their kids not to go into ministry because they will graduate a pauper and remain one the rest of their career.
Others blame churches. Our churches aren’t training our young men to be ministers. Our churches aren’t instilling in them the desire to serve the Lord in the capacity of a located, full-time ministry, and if they are, it’s not preaching ministry they want to enter. It’s youth ministry, or worship ministry, or counseling or missions. Not that any of these are bad, mind you, but they’re not preaching, and if you enroll 100 guys in the Youth Ministry program but only a half-dozen in the preaching program, that spells death for that field of study.
Still others blame preachers themselves. “If we only had more preachers willing to spend time mentoring young men,” is how this argument goes, and there is some veracity to that. But in a church culture that shuffles kids off to wee worship, children’s church, or youth group, where they interact with worship ministers and youth ministers instead of the “Senior” minister, is it any wonder they choose those fields of study over preaching? They have grown up shielded from our preachers and out of earshot from their sermons. This is why it is doubly important for preachers to go out of their way to initiate, keep up and grow an impacting effect on the lives of the young people, especially young men, in their congregations.
But there’s another way that people blame preachers. They blame preachers for setting too poor an example. Generations ago preachers were nearly universally respected in America. Their word was as good as gold, and so were their reputations. Unfortunately, in our information saturated era where every flaw of men who were once on national pedestals is magnified and publicized, this is no longer the case. Combine this with our post-Christian society that is skeptical, if not cynical, about everything, and preachers rank barely above lawyers in the realm of respect. We are seen as soft and spineless men who are intellectually inferior to those who got a “real” education from a “real” university. Jokes abound about how preachers work only one day a week and are therefore lazy. Yet let one slip into moral failure because he spends too much time working and not enough time with his family, and then we are labeled as unfaithful and immoral. Stories abound in ministry of churches who treat their preachers little better than a minimum wage employee. Rather than see him as a partner in ministry, called and appointed by God, they see him as a common laborer who better toe the line or he (and his family) will be sent packing. The problem with this is (a) our members see the lack of respect and (b) so do our boys. It is extremely hard to recruit a young man into the preaching ministry when his experience is that preachers are maligned and ill-received.
Who Is to Blame?
There are many other, more minor culprits that catch the blame for the falling numbers of men entering preaching ministry. Some blame current methodology in our churches. Others blame a lack of discipleship overall. But what is the answer? Which one of these things is to blame? The answer is all of them, yet none of them.
All of them are to blame in that all of these things: tuition costs, loss of focus in several religious colleges, failure of preachers to interact with young men, decline of respect for the position of preacher; these all play a role in the declining numbers of young men stepping behind the pulpit. To try to pin the blame entirely on one of these factors will result in turning a dangerously blind eye to the other factors at play.
But none of them are to blame in the sense that they are symptoms of a bigger problem. The fact of the matter is we are in a spiritual war, and our preachers are often on the front lines of the battle, leading the best they can. What better way for Satan to diminish our forces than to limit the number of men on the front line? So Satan, that Serpent from the Garden, that trickster in the Wilderness, the Dragon from Revelation, has launched a multi-pronged attack, not merely on the current preachers, but on the future ones as well, and when we debate over which prong is the biggest cause, we miss out on the real culprit behind it all.
What Can Be Done?
This is a big problem we face, and like all big problems, there is no simple solution. But there are several things we can do to help.
- Pray for our Bible College presidents, professors, and trustees. These are the decision makers and the mold that will shape the next generation of Christian leadership. Pray that they (a) receive wisdom, (b) stay focused on the goals God has given them and (c) have the intestinal fortitude to make tough decisions, including decisions to trust God to provide the funds when forced to choose between principles and pocketbooks.
- Preachers, practice discipleship. I view part of my job as not only proclaiming the word of God, but practicing it as well. It’s not enough to preach disciple-making, we need to practice it! Where I am, I have started a men’s ministry in which we study the Bible together, ask tough questions, and hold each other accountable. The result over the last 4 years? We have added three new deacons and ordained four elders, the first elders this church has had in nearly 20 years. In a church that averages 85-90 a Sunday in attendance, this is huge (to God be the glory!) But what about the young men and boys? All I can say is, I have caught more than one elementary school boy standing behind the pulpit at church pretending to deliver a sermon. I am humbled every time I see it, and I make sure to encourage them in it. Any one of those young boys can become a preacher, I want to make sure that seed is planted and well-watered.
- Treat your ministers like a co-laborer for Christ, not like an employee. This means practicing love. Re-read 1 Corinthians 13 to refresh your mind on what love is. Do you show those things to your preacher? If not, why not? I am blessed to have landed at a church that showers me with love on a continuous basis. But I have been in some tough ministries as well, where I was not loved so well. While I learned much from my experiences, I can tell you this, I am far more motivated to do ministry where I am loved than I am where I was barely even respected. But don’t do this merely for your preacher’s sake. Do it for your sons’ sake as well. When you gripe about the minister, his sermon, his tie (or lack thereof), your kids hear it, and they develop the subconscious thoughts that (a) it’s okay to criticize preachers, and (b) I don’t want to be a preacher.
- Follow Jesus’ command to pray for laborers to work the harvest fields. I believe the field in America is ripe, I want some help bringing that harvest into God’s house. Pray that God will send His Spirit to call young men to serve His Church, regardless of tuition costs, regardless of constant criticism and regardless of any poor examples of a preacher they may have had. Pray that these young men hear the call and heed it. There is much work to be done. There are many souls to be rescued, and “how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14)