Previous | Next

Fall 2012 · Vol. 41 No. 2 · pp. 252–257 

What I (My Church) Would Like the School to Contribute to the Relationship Between School and Church

David Wiebe

Not too long ago I visited with one of our Canadian conference fundraisers, and we talked about the challenges of raising money for one of our schools. He told me about several conversations with donors. The conversations were broadly about our schools. They had a common theme: the schools were not helping young adults keep the faith; they were not training young leaders in the skills needed for church ministry; and they were always pushing the theological edges. They were critical of our schools. They seemed to think that schools have sold out to some mysterious demands incompatible with church life.

The church would like the school to remember that faith depends at least as much on relationship as on knowledge.

That conversation may illustrate the reason why Gerald Gerbrandt and I are exploring our theme today. It seems relevant in the North American context to have two papers explore two sides of the same coin: what the church and school would like the other to contribute to a better relationship between us. Implicit in this is that church and school are on opposite sides. I’d like to touch on this before I answer the question.

Historically, our Canadian and American Bible schools were much closer to the church. Often they were physically located within the church setting. Teaching was focused on training students to serve with skills needed in the local church. Schools were positioned very close to the church.

Today our schools are positioned much closer to the culture and its expectations. Bible school students want to prepare for careers in the wider world unless they want to train for full-time ministry. Schools have reshaped their agenda toward market-based requirements. The church lets the school go there, because we hope our students will be successful business people in our membership who will give money and leadership back to the church. It’s really a problem of our shifting position vis-à-vis our cultural surroundings.

And we now have hit some kind of tipping point. Our schools seem to have become too distant from the church. Their operations are much larger, often receiving government funds. They may fall under cultural hiring or teaching rules. The church no longer controls their agenda. So the church as institution changes its funding policies—no guaranteed funding is the common solution. Church leaders publicly critique their own schools or even malign them. Lay people pick that up and refuse to send students because the school now has a reputation of “deconstructing faith.” Donors lament that the schools’ agendas are now too edgy, and decide to give to more conservative causes.

The result is that the church-based school is in an almost no-win position: it’s too Christian for the world; it’s too worldly for the church. In North America, 40 percent of all church-based seminaries are in crisis—just as an example. And now we start to see new schools started. They are positioned within the bosom of the church and mission, under their full control, at that end of the continuum.

Still, we’re on the same side. I suggest putting church and culture on two poles with school in the middle. Church and school can actually be on the same side, but there is room to differentiate their roles in the mission. This locates the school differently in the conversation. And it’s from that vantage point I would like to answer the title question: “What I (my church) would like the school to contribute to the relationship between school and church.” I have to thank a half dozen local church pastors for contributing some thoughts that went into this next section.

Love for the church and its mission

This is clearly subjective in nature, yet over time, the nature of this love becomes visible. Perhaps the best way to explain this is anecdotally. There’s the example of Larry Martens, former president of MBBS Fresno. He was known to be a good president, but far more, he was known as a person who loved the church. His pastoral character and demeanor projected that love in every interaction with church leaders.

The late Henry Schmidt, also a former president of MBBS Fresno, was known for his focus on the mission of the church and for having both a gift and heart for evangelism. He spoke widely and consistently about the importance of evangelism and mission and the church-planting enterprise. He led many students through intense onsite overviews of church innovations in California. These road trips became legendary. As long as Henry was president, everyone knew that the seminary leaned strongly toward mission (global and local) and church planting.

Support for the church in its mission

The school in the pursuit of knowledge and a well-rounded education often finds itself ahead of the church intellectually. Sharper thinking takes place. The academy has time to concentrate on issues and work through them. This naturally places the school in a leading role.

As a result the school may be tempted to view the church as its servant, or to be more charitable, the follower of the school at the cutting edge. But Christ determined to build the church as he put it in Matthew 16. It’s the church on the mission of God in the world. And the school is a subset of that.

The school absolutely should pursue advanced levels of thinking and exploring of current issues. The church needs that kind of research and development, but the church-based school must remember its mother. Challenge the often-too-simplistic approaches found in the church, but be charitable and cooperative. Professors: as church members, let pastors and boards lead without asking for the extra rounds of discussion. And become the pastor’s friend—so you can help elevate the messages without making the pastor feel as if she/he is being criticized all the time.

Be more careful in your discipleship role

The intense and focused experience of the academy is a wonderful opportunity for discipleship. Learning expands as minds expand. This will happen to any student of any age, but especially the young adult. Further, the community forged by being together in class, in programs and the dormitory is significantly more fertile than the local church experience. The developmental tasks of finding a life’s mate, establishing one’s individual identity, identifying gifts and vocational direction, and much more are all at play in young adults who typically populate the college environment. Students have been turned over to the school by families and congregations. Expectations are high for students to come through their education with stronger faith and greater commitment to the church.

I believe our schools do recognize this. However, given the newfound freedom in leaving home, students are like transplanted seedlings: they are finding ways to put down the roots needed to be strong persons and strong in faith. They will be tested in the new soil of the academy. It’s also important to differentiate between freshmen and seniors. In terms of faith questions, try not to give first-year students a fourth-year faith challenge.

The church would like the school to remember that faith depends at least as much on relationship as on knowledge. The best track record of faithful discipleship seems to be found where students are given meaningful insights into the lives of professors. To begin with, a professor needs to exhibit a passion for God.

Moreover, professors need to tell their stories. Personal faith stories—including the struggles of faith and the questions faced by professors themselves—humanize the faith experience. Students may be asking certain faith questions for the first time. This may shake their confidence. They need to hear professors outline how they have worked through such questions personally. It reassures a student, even though answers may not be readily apparent. Everyone has a story, and in faith, such stories are how faith is passed from one generation to the next.

Add asset-based Instruction

Add asset-based to deconstruction-based instruction. This suggestion came to me from a pastor who feels that the Christian college leans far too much toward deconstruction. In the process of teaching critical thinking, college students are challenged to take apart many of the things they have been taught thus far. Students need to challenge what they’ve learned. That includes taking apart things they have been taught thus far. But for many students, the assets they thought they brought with them also don’t seem to count any more. Perhaps unjustly, the academy appears to devalue practical assets useful in the church as part of the deconstruction/reconstruction agenda.

Asset-based instruction may simply consist of training for useful service in the local church. The church needs singers and musicians trained to lead in worship. The church needs people who can lead a basic Bible study in a small group. The Mennonite Brethren church is eager for effective church planters. If the nature of the training is too far removed from where the local church typically finds itself, people may assume that the school is simply more interested in deconstruction than helping out.

Communicate with your best

Send out your best communicators. The professors who speak well—and especially those who exegete the Scriptures and teach with authority—win over the people of the church to the cause of the institution. Live communication is far more effective than advertisements through the various media.

The president, then the professors, and finally the recruitment and development officers are the face of the school. Each one can and must work to establish a relationship of trust with the pastors of the church, and then with the members. Sometimes it’s done simultaneously through effective communication with the congregation in a worship service.

Finally, students are also major communicators. Teach your students how to communicate their newfound ideas and explorations in ways that don’t throw off pastors and members.

And be patient with the church. Not every church member is a student or reads extensively. By nature, discipleship and the shaping of a congregation is slow, with varying degrees of success and failure. Church development is therefore much slower and less professional, messier than what is possible in a school environment—be it the quality of study, the type of issues that are being addressed, or even the quality of the choir and the music program. Cultivate an attitude of understanding and patience—attitudes are easily perceived.

A framework for cooperation

Ted Ward, a Christian education specialist and professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, drew up a framework for discipleship that distills the biblical record into a few key ideas. His framework might be useful for our quest to bring church and school closer together.

There are three God-ordained modes of growing the people of God. They are God-ordained in that not only are they exemplified in Scripture, they are commanded or called for in some way. What are they? Didactics, markers, and community. Didactics can be teaching, preaching, lecture, writing, storytelling and other formal and informal ways of conveying ideas, truths, and values. Markers are the acts of the people of God that mark progress and the acts of God for his people. Physical markers were standing stones and places—Ebenezer, the twelve stones at the Jordan crossing, and so on. Rituals such as the Old Testament shema—Deuteronomy 6—“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” recited regularly by everyone. The church observes baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For Anabaptists, we add the refusal of the oath, standing for peace, sacrifice of lives for our ideals. Heeding the call to mission and church planting are markers. Community is found in congregations, small groups, learning cohorts, work groups, task forces, and recovery groups focused on following Christ, just to mention a few.

These three God-ordained modes lead to obedience to two commands: Remember! And Walk! To remember is to learn the “whole counsel of God” as the Apostle Paul puts it. To walk is to live out all that counsel of God. Together, remembering and walking result in discipleship, modeling the kingdom character, and witnessing to our world.

I believe that the church and school are especially fruitful when working in complementary fashion in this vision-framework. Both institutions have the capacity to deliver didactics, markers, and community—but they do look a bit different in each case. The school has significantly more time for didactics and community activities. From the church point of view, I would ask the school to consider and evaluate how its activities in these three modes complement that of the church. I suggest the school pay special attention to markers. Grades and diplomas are significant markers within the educational system, but the church is looking for practical markers. Some schools for evangelism, for example, require its grads to plant a church. That’s a marker choice which sends a signal that the school is on the same page missionally as the church.

Duane Friesen, in Artists, Citizens, Philosophers (Herald Press, 2000), talks about “focal practices” for the Christian community. By definition, focal practices are ways of being and behaving that express a particular discipline. For example, pianists have developed over time specific practices critical to forming skills and the mindset needed for good playing.

For Christians, focal practices are things we put into practice to live the Christian way of life. They are not just ideas but are actually performed. They are done over and over, not just once. They are done together, not individually. Friesen’s idea adds weight to Ward’s model. The God-ordained modes are areas of focal practice: they are critical, not optional; they must be lived out over and over again; they are not just ideas, but actual practices done amongst people, trial and error, with mistakes and corrections, and real-time successes.


In conclusion, what I wish from the school is a signal that we are in this together. There is so much power in a school. That power can make a huge difference in the overall enterprise when church and school are aligned. But if not aligned, that power can lead to drifting apart, where the school may contribute to the larger society but send confusing signals to the church. For the sake of faithfulness and witness, we need each other in our quest to grow the people of God.

David Wiebe was the executive director of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches for ten years. He now serves as the executive secretary for the International Community of Mennonite Brethren. He and his wife Valerie reside in Winnipeg, where they are members of the Westwood Community Church. They have three grown children.

Previous | Next