Analysis of the AG Trust: part two

“Let’s keep our brightest and our best.”

“The data shows [sic] that if we can get our AG students to attend one of our AG schools, they have a much better chance of spiritual survival.”

These statements, made virtually sentences apart best summarize the fundamental disconnect between the church and the academic worlds, though my remarks will cover more than this.

At last, the Assemblies of God has realized that it costs too much to attend an Assemblies-sponsored university!

This is the component of the Trust that is the most frustrating: great, because students desperately need the assistance, and not-so-great for a number of reasons.

First, it fails to acknowledge the scores of AG alumni who are saddled with overwhelming debt loads. If money were blood and the Assemblies a body, this is putting a band aid on a deep puncture wound, untreated for 70 years. To recognize this is to the credit of the denomination; to those who are just finishing off their loan payments, just starting their loan payments or just finished defaulting on their student loans, this is icing on the cake.

True to the nature of millennial movements, the Assemblies of God has acted reactively instead of proactively, reactionary instead of prophetic. An endowment or trust fund-type program is long, long overdue. And, to embark on this enterprise now is bad timing: university endowments are losing money, as this story from the Indianapolis Star bears out. A trust or endowment that is not managed well will not bear interest worth handing out to students, much less any interest at all, and the last thing the Assemblies needs is to run this ambitious effort like a pledge drive or with faith promises. A down economy will not make faith promise-givers promise-keepers. (With all apologies to Bill McCartney.)

And, make no mistake, this economy has come unhinged from reality. What is happening in the markets, in my most amateur opinion, is not reflective of reality. In a time when funds are losing value by the week, is it worth the risk of thousands of church dollars? As I said in part one, less dollars means more troubles up top, not to mention pastors’ salaries being threatened. Can a church, right now, afford to pay pastors twice, which is the essence of the Next Generation fund? Can many churches really afford to pay pastors at all?

Now, to speak directly to the aforementioned quotes, what kind of quality does the Assemblies expect from its youth when they imply that their best and brightest will walk away from faith if they don’t go to their schools? What kind of best and brightest are we raising, if we have come to expect them to, under statistically realistic circumstances, fail?

The logical fallacy put forward here says that Assemblies of God-sanctioned schools are academically rigorous and spiritually vibrant, and your kids will fail without it.

Youth pastors: your kids are going to fail.

Senior pastors: your kids are going to fail.

Parents: your kids are going to fail.

What the AG Trust unintentionally says is that, according to UCLA, A/G churches are blowing it at a two-thirds clip, but they’d rather put the blame on an 18-year-old who either cannot afford a Christian college or chooses to go to a secular institution!

In a not-so-incidental twist of irony, Ralph Riggs, the man for whom the Trust’s scholarship is named, put it this way: “If they are lost, we are to blame.” [Wood, “Passion for the Future,” p. 8; italics mine]

The reality of the matter is that quality and quantity are not any more connected than Genghis Khan to the assassination of Lincoln. Big youth groups do not show that the ministry to youth is successful. Big churches do not mean that the ministry to the community is successful. Church-going children is not sufficient evidence for meaningful development.

All of these things are neglected when people choose to hide behind polling or statistics. In this case, a scare tactic is substituted for meaningful examination of the reasons why the students are leaving the faith at a conservatively-estimated 70%. (The statistics I had heard while involved with Chi Alpha were not the same as the ones promoted by the AG Trust. Those numbers were closer to 90%. Much more ominous a number, much more revealing than a simple fraction. Regardless, the truth is that the pattern is growing more and more marked as we march along.)

The old, 20th Century church model said that the church needs to be all things to all people, a one-stop shop for all things Christian, a bomb shelter from the evil, nasty outside world. That obsolete thinking–a paradigm that never really worked in the first place, mind you–helps guide the AG Trust; in this case manifested as protection of youth from the world around us. These same kids are–right now–either hopelessly disconnected, or well-exposed. The raw either-or of the predicament shows that the Assemblies hasn’t done a very good job developing people, much less preparing students for ministry or life. Who should worry about backsliding when our students are either too invested or not at all? Over-investment is not a sign of health: it’s a sign of overcompensation.

Riggs, again, looms large: “If they are lost, we are to blame.”

My bias is coming out most obviously here: the AG Trust gives reason for Chi Alpha to worry about the legitimacy of the support from A/G churches, the General Council and US Missions. While Wood’s contribution to the COCHE report delicately walks the high wire between support of AG colleges and Chi Alpha, the fact is that this is an overt attempt to give the moral and financial highground to AG schools, especially when many churches and youth pastors tend to view non-AG-school-attending graduates as less valuable. When coupled with the fact that the statistic used from UCLA is a statistic borrowed directly from Chi Alpha’s research department, this line of thinking grows less conspiratorial and more legitimate. Anecdotally, a recruiter from an Assemblies of God university told me as much with a straight face. This isn’t a partnership or networking, they simply don’t trust Chi Alpha to do its job.

Speaking of Chi Alpha’s job, the three-fold mission of Chi Alpha is as follows: 1) Protect the Investment; 2) Reach international students; 3) Reach the campus with the gospel, essentially in that order. Chi Alpha is a branch of US Missions. Missions organizations exist to spread religious belief. Why, then, is the principle method of growth coming from church kids?

Let me be clear: I believe in campus ministry. I devoted my career in ministry–even, as it turns out, sacrificed my career in ministry with the Assemblies–to the cause of reaching college students. My internship with a noted chapter of Chi Alpha taught me something very profound, amongst other things I value greatly: a ministry can exist on a campus without ever being a part of campus. The majority of students in that organization were church transplants, many of whom came from the same churches. I do not say this with malice or any ill-will toward my chapter, I have great friends there and I value my time spent there, but the reality is that, whether in church or elsewhere, numbers do not tell a whole story, and responsibilities can be shirked when the numbers will deflect criticism.

What I’m getting at here is that big Chi Alphas and Assemblies colleges can suffer from the same problem, but instead of raw numbers for XA, one can look at percentage of capacity or enrollment ratios for the colleges and commit the same logical fallacy. Enrollment is up, things are great! We have 100 students, things are great! Enrollment is down, what’s wrong with us? Our XA was at 100 but is now at 25, what’s wrong with us? The campus ministry gets more credit for growth, and more criticism for declination. The college may get less overt criticism, but continues to get funding; while a Chi Alpha campus missionary might well lose his or her income!

Indeed, this tells a better, more true-to-life story, and offers a better message: if we are really interested in seeing our students keep the faith, they need to be out where their faith can be tried and tested, not where they are assumed to be righteous. As one of my mentors once told me: the easiest place to backslide is Bible college!

If that weren’t enough, here’s a dirty little secret: according to people who know, Chi Alpha consistently produces better pastors and missionaries than their Bible college counterparts, both in terms of longevity and in terms of spiritual reproduction.

That is not to say that the AG Trust is worthless because AG schools are worthless, that would be a misunderstanding of what I am trying to convey. As I submitted in part one, and am reinforcing now, our churches are not doing the job they set out to do, but instead are suffocating in self-interest, protecting the Assemblies instead of engaging culture. Again, reactive instead of prophetic.

While we’re here, it must be at least taken into consideration that because the denomination, like other denominations, has a tendency to protect itself, that domestic missions efforts have to be to parts of our society that are decidedly not covered by our core demographics. In this way, Teen Challenge and inner-city efforts are celebrated, not unlike the overt preference of the Assemblies to overseas missions. The fact of the matter is that the fellowship is comprised largely of white, upper to middle-class families of middle age and older people. Teen Challenge and inner-city efforts are different; like missionary efforts to non-Eurocentric nations, they share an exotic quotient.

Efforts like Chi Alpha, though, end up muddied by the fact that the majority of college students are the product of white, upper to middle-class families. It is no surprise that churches tend to ask what they get in exchange for campus ministry support, or hold funds hostage in campus cities unless the Chi Alpha missionary funnels students into their pews. Is it any surprise that churches have young adult or college and career ministries in direct competition with a Chi Alpha chapter, or worst of all, don’t even know (or care) that an Assemblies-sanctioned ministry is at work in the midst of campus life? Or those churches will support international student ministry efforts but eschew XA? Cynically stated, foreigners are sexy, Americans just need to get involved in a church. (Or Bible college. I digress.)

Arthur Holmes put it best: Christian colleges do not exist to educate, but indoctrinate. (Ironically, Holmes was a professor at Wheaton.) They are in the retention business first and foremost. Statistics like those the AG Trust offer, coupled with the fear tactics the AG Trust and its partners have a tendency to employ, only make Holmes’ argument all the more accurate. (Why else would Evangel–the AG’s preeminent, if not only, liberal arts university–catch so much flak? Or have a strong alumni financial support network?) If the Assemblies of God is to place the future of the church in the hands of its offspring and trust its fate to be vital and transformative, it will not do so by pushing A/G colleges or creating a trust fund, though those may be well-intentioned and good ideas. It will do so only by building and developing real people to survive and thrive in the real world, a process that, when applied to college-aged people, happens too late. That kind of development comes from healthy churches and healthy families bringing up well-adjusted, disciplined kids.

Additionally, at last check, most colleges and universities in the Assemblies are either land-locked or suffering from enrollment decline. So many Assemblies high-school graduates cannot go to an A/G school not only because it’s too expensive, but also because they physically can’t be there. And because many of those schools for whatever reason have an allergy to off-campus living, the problem can’t be solved aside from building funds and property development.

And for one final reason, numbers drives for Assemblies of God-sponsored institutions of higher learning, both financial and physical, cannot work:

Most Assemblies of God high school graduates simply don’t want to go.

The numbers, as they are, bear this out. The fact that graduates reject Bible college is not the same as them rejecting their faith. Cost can be overcome, provided students want to be there. Harvard, Stanford or a solid state school are all a world apart from Southeastern or Evangel. I’m not picking on Southeastern or Evangel, either; the fact remains that, for whatever reason, these campi are not atop many prospective students’ wish lists.

Sometimes, the better course of action is to respond to the reality of big-picture situations than force your way to an unlikely ideal. The Trust, unfortunately, is clearly neither a response, nor is it likely to move the Assemblies toward its ideal.

Respectfully submitted for your consideration. Part three forthcoming.


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