I want to keep coming back to the point that when I talk about training pastors and planters for urban ministry, I am not asking for special allowances or a dumbed down syllabus. Remember that my argument is that people from a working-class background are as capable as people from a middle class background. My argument is that there are different ways in which people access learning.
Secondly, I think I may have hinted at times my view that there is a bigger challenge. To me, the conversation about theological training feels like it is happening within an assumed context. The context we continue to talk in is one where the country is essentially a Christian one and the church is established. Optimists hope for some Gospel growth and pessimists see our role as managing the accelerating decline of the church. Both moods still miss the point.
We are not a Christian country and we need to get the established church concept out of our minds. We are here as missionaries in a country that is not Christian (complicated by the fact that it has had significant exposure to both the Gospel and distorted versions of it over a long period of history).
What does this mean?
- It means that whilst many of us enjoyed substantial aspects of our training for ministry, there is always that sense of how much we were not equipped and prepared for. So, the feeling is that we are preparing for contexts where we will primarily pastor 3rd/4th/5th generation believers and maybe baptise a few of their children. These people have grown up churched and they know the right things to say and the right ways to behave. This doesn’t prepare you for day in day out engagement with people who are hungry but also “messy” and with no starting point. I suspect as well that there are increased challenges when you do this from an existing church context that are different to having a fresh start.
- It means that we don’t have the luxury of sending people away to seminary for 3-4 years knowing that the church they will go to serve in is ticking along nicely with existing staff and they will slot into the vacancy. We have people who are already alert to the need and getting on with Gospel work who as they do so become increasingly aware of their need for further training but stopping to train means that the work stops. We also have lots of areas where there simply is no Gospel witness at all and we are constantly appealing for people to come.
- This is also the reason why I have argued that training needs to be framed missiologically so that from my perspective I frame training in terms of The Science of Missions/Subversive fulfilment approach of Bavinck and Kraemer (see here).
The question some of us are raising is whether the “wineskins”/trellises (pick your old or new metaphor) are up to it. This isn’t just about making some allowances for a few nor some tweaks to content but thinking again about the systems and methods for training.
 Also, because I think the level of training is necessary. This is why I also have made the point that we must be careful not to let anyone confuse this concern with being against particular skills because they are associated with middle class values. For example, you have someone who is gifted and passionate but because of life circumstances they barely engaged with school. The result is at best a minimal functional literacy. Now, the challenge is that a lot of knowledge they will want to access is written, including Scripture itself. Now, there’s another conversation going on about the extent to which every congregation member needs to be able to read Scripture and the benefits of hearing aurally, however I would make 2 sub-points. 1. That the pastor should desire a level of literacy that enables him to interact closely with the text of Scripture. 2. That historically, what has happened for churches in poor areas is that a hunger for God’s Word means that converts want to learn to read. So, don’t confuse reading and writing with a “middle class” value. This does mean that we may want to re-think some things and consider the potential place for a modern version of the original Sunday School to help equip people.