A Confession: My Fear of Living, and the Hope of Today

I remember it well, though it’s been more than forty years since I first heard the gospel. The twelve-year-old who shared Christ with me presented the gospel this way: he met me at the seventh-grade classroom door and said, “It’s a good thing you lived through the night . . . because if you hadn’t, you’d be in hell right now.” His approach seriously lacked tact, but truth he did not lack. I was destined for hell apart from the gracious move of God in my life.

Needless to say, you don’t sleep well when you hear the gospel in that manner. Every night, I tossed, so frightened about not waking up that I could not easily close my eyes. That pattern continued for more than eight months before I became a follower of Christ at age 13. Only then did I genuinely sleep again, and never since then has death been a fear.

That doesn’t mean I sleep well now, though. I still toss and turn like before, but fear of death is not what keeps me awake. No, my fear this time is life. Dying does not scare me, but living does.

I fear, for example, I am living well – teaching at a seminary, preaching regularly, leading conferences, traveling – without really caring that my neighbors are often living for nothing that amounts to anything eternal.

I am afraid my wife and I are so ingrained in our way of life that we would battle hard against God if He changed our plans. What would we do if God required of us what He demanded of Abraham – to leave all behind and seek His city (Gen. 12:1-3)?

I am concerned I’m so busy that I sometimes miss people who are hungry, hurting, homeless, and helpless. Yet, their needs are real, and Jesus’ expectation that we minister to them remains (Matt. 25: 31-46).

I am also afraid I sometimes work more for my glory than for God’s. I make no claim to be famous, but I would be lying to say my ego isn’t stroked when I see my name on a book cover or a conference brochure.

Having no children, I fear I will live my life “successfully,” but leave behind no next generation to carry on the work of the gospel. I know that little matters if the mark I leave is as fleeting as life itself, but the time needed to invest heavily in others seems so limited.

I read of almost 2 billion people who have little or no access to the gospel, and I worry my American lifestyle weakens my efforts to get the gospel to the ends of the earth. I am terrified that I can live so easily without grieving over thousands of unreached people groups around the world.

In fact, I fear that somewhere in the world is a non-believer seeking truth in the wrong place, a new believer longing for a mentor, or an entire congregation pleading with God to send them training—and I will be so occupied doing other “good things” that I miss the opportunities. The door is open, and I will have missed it.

No, it is not death that scares me. What scares me is the possibility of coming to the end of life, looking back, and seeing little but wood, hay, and stubble to be burned in the fire (1 Cor. 3:10-15). It’s living in such a way that I could not face my own mortality with the confidence of Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

A dying world demands that we be willing to put our lives on the line to get the gospel to them. That kind of radical obedience likely means changing the way we live at some level—and that’s frightening.

At the same time, though, this truth I know: God has given me this day to serve Him with all of my being. What I do right now will determine whether my life will have made a difference when the Lord calls me home. Present-tense radical obedience must trump my future-tense fears—and in that hope I press on today.

 

Chuck Lawless is Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

Why I Believe in Online Education for Ministry Preparation

When I first began teaching ministry students years ago, I wrote on a chalkboard. The overhead projector was revolutionary. Little did we think about teaching via something like the Internet, with seemingly little or no classroom interaction. I, along with many of my colleagues at the time, questioned the pedagogical value of online education when it arrived forcefully on the scene.

No longer do I have as many concerns. In fact, I see value in online education for ministry students.

  1. Online education introduces students to a global world. In my current online class, I have several students who are serving the Lord in various countries around the world. They bring a cross-cultural view to the virtual classroom, and their insights have been both informative and challenging. These students represent thousands of internationals and/or missionaries who have opportunity to study because Internet options are available. I am, I believe, a better professor, and my students are better educated because of these global conversations.
  2. Online education affirms the value of the gospel. As evangelicals, we stand on the position that the gospel is truth; we view it as the only hope for a dying world. If we truly believe what we claim, and if we accept our calling to make disciples of all peoples (Matt. 28:18-20), how can we not at least consider a delivery system that allows us to train more of the world? The delivery system may stretch those of us not raised on the Internet, but the product should be worth the effort: more global disciples of Jesus.
  3. Online education encourages student participation. We often assume otherwise, but my experience is that online interaction is often stronger than classroom interaction. In a residential classroom, some students will never speak unless required to do so. The situation is the same in a virtual classroom (that is, some will not post unless required), but students are often more willing to interact when studying online. I have seen online discussions and chats that far exceed the depth of in-person classroom conversations – and I am convinced the medium facilitates that process.
  4. Online education assists churches in carrying out their responsibility to train. Ideally, believers will learn first at the feet of local church-based leaders who invest in young lives. Educational institutions can provide the accredited training while the church provides the hands-on, mentoring-based training. Not all churches fulfill this responsibility, but more and more are accepting this calling. Online education makes these partnerships possible. Indeed, online training can assist churches in equipping leaders to minister in a technologically driven world.
  5. Online education allows students to remain in their ministry settings. A Christian university or seminary can easily become a place to hide from the world, a cocoon that insulates us from the people we are called to reach. Church-based training – when it emphasizes doing the Great Commission – helps keep students in the real world. To expect them to leave healthy ministry settings for a formal education makes little sense if legitimate accredited training is available via the Internet.
  6. Online education requires teachers to think missiologically. We cannot ignore how our students learn. Our calling as educators is to teach, which means we are obligated to help students learn. We have a responsibility to reach them. For a generation that does not know a world without the Internet, we have two options: use the medium to teach them, or ignore the medium and risk missing an opportunity to train them. The latter choice is missiologically illogical to me if we believe in what we teach. Even if we consider online education less than ideal, we must admit we lose our voice if we choose to ignore the prevalence of the Internet medium.

I know that critics will still object to my conclusions. Some argue that the Bible itself assumes that ministry training will occur only in face-to-face settings. I grant that the scriptures do not speak of contemporary technology, but that silence does not equal prohibition. My hunch is that the Apostle Paul, who sought to be all things to all people, who often corrected and taught from a distance via correspondence, and who longed for others to know and follow Jesus, would welcome a delivery system to train more believers.

Others may argue that online learning, by its very individualistic and private nature, encourages cheating. Even if that conclusion were rock solid defensible (and it’s not), in-person test proctors and online content checkers can lessen the possibility. More pointedly, the student who cheats is dealing more with a conflict in the soul than a problem with a delivery system. The same student would likely be tempted in a residential classroom as well. Repentance rather than educational reform is in order.

Still others contend that the best education is person-to-person, face-to-face. The results are mixed, but enough studies have shown online education to be as effective as classroom education that we cannot assume the validity of this conclusion. Moreover, online education does not prohibit a personal approach. Online options that provide face-to-face interaction exist, and they are continually improving. I have often had significant personal, challenging, instructive interaction with students sitting in their rooms in another part of the world. Global ministry increasingly demands those kinds of virtual conversations, and we must prepare for our students for that world.

Further, those who assume a residential classroom fixes all of the above concerns are misreading contemporary education. Busy students who rush to the classroom, attempt to focus for an hour, and then quickly return to their fast-paced lives see the classroom as only a means to an end. It is possible to be isolated and alone in a class with dozens of other students, whether online or on a campus – and we must work in either case to develop relationships. Cheating can occur in a classroom as well as online. All in all, on-campus education is significant, but it is not a cure-all.

Here’s the bottom line for me: a delivery system does not determine if the education is good; the teacher does. Good teachers who believe in their content will figure out how to connect with students and lead them to learn, regardless of delivery mode. They will also help us to improve both on-campus and online learning, simply because they are committed to educating. Strong teachers will learn to do online education well – and strive to lead students to learn.  We who are preparing the next generation for ministry must not ignore this opportunity.game download

WHY CHURCH LEADERS NEED TO CONTINUE THEIR EDUCATION

I admit my bias here. I am a seminary dean and professor, and I believe in education. Students help to pay my salary. They have become my friends, my mentees, my children in the faith. Graduates make me proud.

My reason for writing this blog, though, goes beyond these thoughts. If we are doing the work of God, we must give our absolute best. I desire to be part of a team that trains and sends out the strongest leaders in the world – leaders who make a difference in the kingdom of darkness. Those leaders never stop learning.

With those thoughts in mind, here are ten reasons why leaders should continue their education:

1. The Christian life is about growth. We are babies in Christ at new birth, yet called to continual growth and maturity (Heb. 5:12-14). Always, we are to be in the process of God’s conforming us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). If we reach the point of assuming we’ve “arrived” and need no further training, we are instead neglecting our Christian responsibility.

2. A willingness to learn is a sign of humility. Education is seldom easy. An openness to become a student again, to be held accountable for assignments, and to be evaluated by others is a sign of the kind of humility all leaders should exhibit. We need no more arrogant leaders, and the education process can sift out our pride.

3. We always face theological issues. The authority of the Word of God, especially when evaluated against sacred documents of other world faiths, continues to be an issue. We must increasingly defend the truth that a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to God. The doctrine of the Trinity is at times an issue when evangelizing around the world. Continued education can help us be better prepared to respond to these types of significant issues.

4. We continue to confront new ethical and moral issues. When I started in ministry over thirty years ago, I did not imagine ministering in a culture that affirms same-sex marriage. Internet pornography was not even an option. Never did I envision ministering to Sally, who actually began life as Sam. Issues like these are not, of course, separated from our theology, and further education equips us to minister in this changing culture.

5. The people we lead are frequently still learning. At least in North America, we often minister to educated parishioners. They are teachers, engineers, physicians, and accountants. Many of our congregations include professionals for whom continued education is assumed, if not required. Thus, they recognize the value that continued training offers for their spiritual leaders.

6. Distance learning options allow us to continue education without leaving our ministry. Gone are the days when education required students to move to a campus. Today, the Internet offers unprecedented opportunities for continued training without evacuating significant ministries. Southeastern Seminary now offers masters and doctoral degrees – including the PhD – that do not require full-time residence in North Carolina. The relocation obstacle to continued education simply doesn’t exist anymore.

7. Learning within a group of peers is important. Many opportunities for advanced training include small group, peer-to-peer learning that focuses on particular aspects of leadership. Few educational options are as valuable as these. Each student brings his/her own knowledge to the classroom, helping to build a community of scholars. Peers become not only classmates, but also prayer partners. Education thus becomes not only content-based, but also life-on-life.

8. We often learn better after leadership experience. Learning apart from practical experience is not insignificant, but it risks becoming only theory rather than life application. Frankly, it’s easy to decide how to be a leader until you actually have to be one. The best students I know are those who leadership experience gives them a grid through which to evaluate concepts and programs. These students are those who choose to continue their education throughout their ministry.

9. The discipline of learning is important. Let’s be honest: even leaders sometimes get lazy. We rely solely on yesterday’s learning to face today’s issues. We talk more about what we have read than about what we are reading. Personal preparation for daily ministry becomes more surface review than intense study. Continued education, on the other hand, challenges us to return to rigor and discipline.

10. Continued education stretches our faith.  The obstacles to further training are real. Too little time. Too few dollars. Too many years out of school. Too many other responsibilities. Too much risk of failure. Here’s the bottom line, though: sometimes we just have to trust God to help us do what He expects us to do.

Contact us at Southeastern if you’re interested in further studies!