Reclaiming Glory by Mark Clifton

I had the chance to meet Mark and pickup his book at a North American Mission Board conference on replanting dying churches. I read the book over the same two days the conference was held, so it is a pretty quick and easy read.

There is a lot to commend about this book. First of all it is well written in a “keep the cookies on the lowest shelf” kind of way. He does not go out of his way to use seminary words like prolepsis and polemic – he just talks about the topic in a way that makes sense to most readers. This is really important because I think it’s average everyday people who have to understand this idea if a movement around replanting will gain ground. Just having some young pastors who are willing to take on a dying church so they can finally be senior pastor is not going to get it done.

The book (and the conference which will be repeated in Feb 2017) do a very good job of redefining the narrative around successful churches. The Southern Baptists, perhaps more than other denominations but at least as much, have majored on numbers for a long time. While it’s true that living things grow and the lack of growth should be a concern, numbers of people in pews is actually never something that is commended in the Bible. Their new definition seems a lot healthier and more biblical is “Success – bearing fruit in the life of a church – means having a pattern of making disciples who make disciples that results in the community being noticeably better.” Note: Having 1500 people show up on a Sunday morning who are total consumers who want things their way and make no meaningful impact on their community is not success in this definition.

One of the real strengths of the book is the empathy it shows for these dying churches. Prior to the conference, I would have said that these places were just stuck in the mud. They need to repent and move on and get with it. The reality is that many of these churches have been hurt over and over by a system of rotating pastors every 2-3 years and have lost faith that there really is a shepherd out there who will shepherd them after God’s own heart (Jer 3:15). Additionally, as Clifton says on p 26, it is frustrating and confusing for a dying church to accept that what worked so well in the past may, in fact, be hastening its demise. It’s hard for these saints bought by the blood of Jesus to see these truths and they need a gentle shepherd who won’t break these bruised reeds.

Honestly I don’t know whether I am cut out for the work of replanting. I feel like I’m a little more missionary than shepherd – I even prefer to use biblical counseling evangelistically than with people who are already in the Kingdom. I think in the right context I probably would be able to do this. The great value of the book is not only that it clarifies for potential replanters whether this is something they might be called to, it also puts a spotlight on a topic the whole church needs to bathe in regular prayer.

Semi-nary a good experience

I introduced this series on the relative value of seminary here if you are interested in reading the first installment.

The goal of this blog is to highlight some of the really difficult times I had in seminary. I don’t mean difficult as in academically challenging, I mean difficult as in befuddling or spiritually draining. There are good reasons people write books like “How to Stay Christian in seminary” and often I wanted to wrap my head in duct tape so it didn’t explode.  I’ll list a few specific instances at the end of this article but I’ll kick it off with the two general things that drove me nuts and offered no redemptive value.

I mentioned in the first installment that seminary is deadly primarily because it is academia. It is sad to me that we think spiritual qualifications are built on how well someone navigates the academic world. This is especially true when reading the New Testament and seeing that one of the things that grew the gospel witness of the Apostles is that they were “uneducated, common men.” (Acts 4:13) I went to the Greek like a good seminary dude and it turns out that in the original language “agrammatoi” means “uneducated” just like in the English translation. It may have even carried the connotation of being illiterate, but certainly meant they didn’t have formal religious instruction. I realize seminaries say there are lots of reasons why they are necessary and I don’t debate that there are some valuable things a seminary can bring, but those gems are limited by things like accreditation and extra-biblical requirements on higher education centers.

Here’s an example. I was already done with a paper when I heard that the grader (not the professor) had a problem with bullet points. In the real world, bullet points are valued because they offer clear communication in a concise manner so I asked him how much of a problem it would be if I kept my paper as it was. He said it would cost me a letter grade, maybe more. Who knew Jesus hated bullet points so much? Why are thesis papers formatted differently than every other paper? Why does the proper order of items in a footnote matter? Why are a thousand things true of seminaries if their goal is to equip church leaders for local church ministry? It’s because they are primarily institutions of higher learning. I was so dejected about the bullet point thing I almost quit 2/3 of the way through my program.

What’s worse is that seminaries basically misrepresent what they are doing when they say they are preparing leaders for local church ministry. There are some that do this well and I’ll talk about those in the fourth post, but because they are primarily academia they actually prepare people to read books, listen to lectures, take good notes and write papers. It’s like what Mike Ditka said when they asked him if it was a good idea to draft a quarterback and let him learn the position while sitting on the bench. “All he’ll learn by sitting on the bench is how to sit the bench. If he wants to learn the position he has to play the position.” He also said “If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn’t have given us arms,” but that’s another blog post.

Perhaps this is related, but the second I found so surprising (and lots of others who have been to seminary after spending time in the private sector have agreed) is the level of administrivia and lack of customer service at seminary can be appalling. It was not uncommon for me to wait 1 – 2 weeks for a one sentence answer to a time sensitive question, and sometimes it was longer. While students were expected to meet requirements and sanctioned with lower grades when they failed, in several cases the staff were not generally held to the same level of accountability as the students or expected to lead with excellence by example. Maybe it’s a resource constraint issue, and maybe I’m too much of a consumer, but when I pay money for a degree I expect a level of service commensurate with other things in that price range. Maybe lack of communication and delays are normal in academia and so seminaries are in line with their peers, but that sort of makes my first point about seminaries being primarily academia.

Some other things that were befuddling or aggravating to me about seminary:

  • I had a class that included helping those with eating disorders. It included the requirement that I submit everything I ate through before I went to bed each day. It seemed overly intrusive, but was more befuddling when someone in the class who had previously struggled with an eating disorder was excused from the assignment with the rationale that focusing on food would be bad for her. Huh?
  • The Oxford comma. If you know what this is you are perfectly fit for an advanced degree or a grammar Nazi. If not, you are probably a normal human.
  • Seminaries use words like proleptic and polemic as if they were words anyone understood in the real world. Introducing these terms into those wanting to shepherd ordinary people is actually counterproductive. (I didn’t have this experience in my program, but I would add to this doctrinal things like whether supralapsarianism is the right view. Nobody in the real world cares about these things.)
  • My thesis project was nowhere near worth the level of effort it required. I had a great and godly adviser who didn’t have a lot of time. Whereas I thought it would be a way to work through the content, his main role was really to help me publish a paper properly (and I would never have finished without him). I probably read well over 3000 pages to get enough citations and even then had to scour the internet for blog posts and online articles to back up my points. I would have gotten just as much benefit from a couple weekends alone and a few phone calls with people who could contribute to my thinking.
  • I don’t think I’ll ever understand how you can take a class involving shepherding a person’s soul, have a professor never once watch you shepherd a person, and somehow get graded on it. What does that tell you about how connected seminary is to real life?

In the next post I’ll highlight some of the high points of my seminary experience.

Is seminary a complete waste of time and money?

Since I finished my seminary degree, people have been asking me whether it was worth it. Even before that, when people heard I was in seminary, a good percentage asked whether it was a waste of time and money. I wanted to do a short series on the topic. While my own experience is of course front and center, I have tried to temper it with experiences of others who have gone to different seminaries and asked myself whether my answer would be different if I went to a different seminary.

The big caveat beyond that is that I love the brothers and sisters at my seminary. We are joint heirs of the Kingdom and I will enjoy the presence of the King of Kings with them for all eternity. Some people I love have made a career choice of working in a seminary environment, and there’s probably nothing wrong with that. This series is about the relative value of a massive investment of time, energy and money in seminary vs. other ways that investment might be spent.

The simple answer to “Is seminary a complete waste of time and money?” is, no. It is not a complete waste of time and money. I personally would not do it again and think most people would get better outcomes for what they desire somewhere other than seminary. I certainly know some people who benefited tremendously from a seminary environment, but it is the minority. There are several things I gained in seminary that I may not have gained through other avenues. But the reality is there are very few people I know who say they enjoyed seminary that I would want to have on a church planting team in my context.

I’ll devote a whole post to what I didn’t find helpful about seminary, but the biggest thing is that seminary is primarily academia. If you are the kind of person who likes to read books and write papers and debate finer points then you will enjoy seminary and probably exaggerate its value in real life. If you don’t enjoy those things or are primarily a pragmatic person (which is true of me), seminary will be a dull, life-sucking chore. It also means that things move slowly – whether that is because of lack of motivation or lack of resources is not visible to me- and that can be inordinately frustrating at times. I suspect it is a mixture of both. I frequently struggled with the idea that my seminary generally did not treat me like they were preferring me in honor as a brother in Christ or a customer of their service. It was pretty much: “This is the way we do things here. Deal with it.” There is no doubt that my makeup and career in the private sector colors this a lot, and maybe I’m wrong, but I do know that if I treated those paying my salary the way my seminary treated me, I wouldn’t have any more customers. That’s not an exaggeration.

Which may make you ask, “Mike, why did you go to seminary in the first place?” The answer is I wanted to be a church planter and a godly man who I have great respect for told me that church planters in the west needed a piece of paper on the wall. It was just a cultural expectation. What I have found in our ministry context of low income, mostly minority people, is that nobody cares that I went to seminary. What I have learned through a wide variety of places is seminary is basically a place where middle and upper class white people send other middle and upper class white people to get the credential they like to see in middle and upper class white churches.

Again, I’ll devote a whole post to what was beneficial about seminary, but to me the highlight was one class (thank you Dr. Carson) that made the central point that our own spiritual condition is the primary thing we bring to our ministry experiences. It’s easy for me to go into pragmatic “fix it” mode, and that reminder more than anything else has been etched into me permanently.

I suspect most people who go to seminary would be far better served by joining a local church context where they were challenged to live by increasingly greater faith rather than an academic context where they were required to grow their brain.