For some of you, you’re looking at this and saying “huh?” That’s OK. If you don’t want to delve into church business, statistics and other nonsense, I don’t mind; feel free to peruse other posts out here. No hard feelings.
Several months before I allowed my ministerial license with the denomination in which I was raised to expire, I received a package introducing and outlining a trust designed to help provide payment assistance for would-be ministers’ student loan costs. In that package was a pamphlet, some additional materiel and, of course, a pledge form and return envelope.
The AG Trust is a great idea, but, with all sincerity and good will intended, too little and too late. I hope to spell this out clearly over the next week or so.
A few years ago, the denomination’s Commission on Christian Higher Education (now referred to as the Alliance for Assemblies of God Higher Education) released a report entitled, “Is the Lower Cost Worth the High Price?” The report, a collaboration between then-Secretary, now-General Superintendent George Wood, Christian college consultant Steven Henderson and the director of Assemblies of God Christian Higher Education, Dayton Kingsriter. The resulting product was an impassioned plea for greater enrollment of Assemblies of God high school graduates into A/G colleges and universities.
While the reasoning for the report was ostensibly to protect Christian youth from the dangers of backsliding at a public or private secular institution of higher learning, a glance at the statistics from the past two to three years shows a stagnation of growth in the fellowship, essentially zero growth in the higher education sector and a general “brain drain” of laypeople and ministers from the denomination. (Summary and comprehensive statistics can be found here.)
[In the interest of full disclosure, I am a former minister in the Assemblies: my license lapsed at the turn of the calendar year. That said, I hold no grudge against the denomination. The reason I write about this is because I spent a number of years working in the campus ministry arm of the A/G (Chi Alpha) as a student, volunteer, intern and candidate for ministry. So an enterprise attempting to energize an under-appreciated, under-utilized demographic gets my attention, as well it should.]
The Trust is rooted in three initiatives: “church multiplication”, “training new leaders” and “research and development”. For reference and ease, quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from the AG Trust’s official website, aogtrust.org.
“We must have vibrant, evangelistic new churches reaching out to the 18,000 communities in the United States that are without an Assemblies of God church. With your help, the Assemblies of God Trust will help make it happen.”
There are a number of problems here. First, the stated goal is to invest in areas where there is no present church affiliated with the Assemblies. These communities are likely small to mid-sized towns and cities. Said towns and cities are a small percentage of the state or general populace. Speaking from a purely fiscal perspective, why should this denomination spend thousands of dollars on planted churches in communities that are either 1) a blip on the map; or 2) stretching thin the supply line for pastoral support?
In all likelihood, smaller cities and towns already have entrenched churches, which already have the cultural highground. Why would the Assemblies risk planting churches in these areas? Further, if there was an Assembly in one of these communities in the past and it shuttered (the ugly upshot of the Decade of Harvest, according to Blumhofer, et al), would it be prudent to plant a new one? And what of church planters; many of whom are decidedly uninterested in rural or smaller communities detached from urban areas? Given the targeted demographic, the black-framed glasses-wearing, soul-patch fronting former youth pastor cum home missionary doesn’t fit the bill, in my opinion.
Second, an analysis of the converse of the above quote betrays another picture entirely. Here’s what it says: “We have stagnant, self-interested established churches reaching out to the x communities in the United States that have an Assemblies of God church.” [x is, of course, the variable of communities that have A/G presence.] Granted, that’s not true, there are great Assemblies churches as well as less-than-stellar ones. This could very well be an accdiental example of overstating the need, in this instance, throwing every other A/G church under the bus. When we consider that the prospective charter membership is comprised of ministers, A/G college alumni, select laypeople and those already established churches, it’s smart to pitch the trust in a way that doesn’t stomp on toes.
…but here’s the problem with being nice: it doesn’t solve the problem, the problem being that the big picture is bleak, growth is at zero, an entire demographic (18-30) has almost entirely abdicated the movement and where there are congregations, they are graying. Where there are gray hairs, there is less income; less income, less offerings; less offerings, big problems up top. So, they’re essentially selling a revolution to the bourgeoisie, should the trust be effective in stimulating the economy of the church, against whom they would revolt! I don’t get the feeling the Bolsheviks or Sandinistas asked for permission before taking over, much less an allowance to make it happen.
As an aside, one is forced to ask a question of A/G management: Is the converse statement true? If not, why are most church planters entering suburban/exburban America and places where there are already Assemblies churches in proximity?
Concerning the established churches and established ministers, the preferred way to enter full-time ministry is for a would-be pastor to go through Bible college. Should a freshly-graduated Bible college alum head out straightaway into planting a church? If established churches balk at the idea of having a young senior pastor, and those in campus ministry–a field, I would argue, that is pitted in direct competition with planting–aren’t allowed to head straight out from the college to the field, why have a church planting major?
Additionally, what meaningful difference is there between those in pastoral studies and church planting? That question goes two ways: educationally (is there a dichotomy in curricula and why?) and institutionally (is there a departure in philosophy and why?) Most of all, why plant when you all but admit that the way you do spiritual business is failing, or at best, not optimal? If most pastors go through the Bible college experience, what, if any, difference is there between a church planter and one headed into traditional church ministry? To borrow from one of my seminary professors, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Statistics of church plant closures are nearly impossible to come by, and probably with good reason. Anecdotally, and I have offered this elsewhere courtesy a public statement from a faculty member of an Assemblies of God Bible college, 90% of graduates who enter full-time ministry are out within ten years of graduation. (When factored against a statistic like nearly nine of ten Evangelical youth group-going, high school graduates walk away from their faith after one semester at a non-Christian college or university, the problem becomes much more striking. More on this in the next part in this series.) A fair and reasonable guess is that the successes of these plants are dwarfed by the failures, while an educated perspective goes on to say that many of those who do ‘succeed’ do so by adopting to the methods of the traditional Assemblies of God church model. The dressing is a little different, the coffee may be a little better and there may not be an organ, banner or tambourine in sight, but the end result is probably something that is more or less more of the same.
And what is to come that, 30, 40, 50 years down the line, will rescue church plants from a legacy of mediocrity? For that is what Superintendent Wood all but says about the current state of the union.
I would love to be wrong on this, but if the Assemblies of God is staking their future as a movement in casting wide the seeds of church plants, it doesn’t appear to be an idea that is considerate of current socio-political cultural motif, a wise investment of money and energies, or presented in a way that adequately or accurately stresses the necessity for such capital.
Respectfully submitted for your consideration. Part two forthcoming.