One of the joys of my life has been the privilege of training young ministers of the Gospel in the USA and in India. Prior to coming to Asbury to serve as President, I taught at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for 11 years, and, prior to that, Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. One of the biggest differences I noticed in teaching students in India and teaching students in the USA was their perspective on church planting. My American students thought very little about church planting. Starting new churches for them was a kind of exotic idea which a few brave souls might try, but certainly not part of the normal expectations of someone called into full time ministry. My American students fully expected to graduate, be hired by a church, and be given a salary, pension plan and parsonage. In contrast, my Indian students couldn’t even imagine such a prospect. They knew that they would have to graduate, go to a village, start preaching and evangelizing and, over time, plant the church that they would then pastor! Why this difference? Because in North India there are very few churches and the Christian percentage of the overall population is less than 1%. In N. India, pastoral training is evangelistic training, since there are so few Christians. Evangelistic training must lead to church planting since there are so few existing congregations. In India, to “plant” a church has little to do with buying land and building buildings. To plant a church is to gather new communities of believers who unite themselves together for prayer, worship, witness, and service.
This contrast between India and the USA helps to illustrate the major challenge that is facing the churches of North America. Even if you grant that our seminaries are doing an excellent job producing great pastors and teachers, this will not be enough. In the midst of our increasingly secularized society, we can no longer simply produce pastors and teachers. We need to learn from the lessons of the Indian church. We need to also train evangelists and church planters! We need to train and equip men and women in the skills and practice necessary to effectively evangelize a whole new generation in the USA who know little to nothing about Jesus Christ, the Christian message, and the revelation of God’s Word. We need to train leaders who can oversee dozens of new lay led, bi-vocational churches. In other words, our seminaries must not only train pastors and teachers for established churches, but also train evangelists and church planters for the teeming millions in America who have not heard the Gospel and will likely never enter into the doors of an established church. We must recalibrate our thinking to see ourselves as living in 21st century north India, rather than in 1950 United States. Interestingly, we will also be learning what it was like to be a Christian in the 1st century. And those 1st century Christians brought the mighty Roman Empire under the sway of the Gospel through faithful preaching, evangelism, and church planting!