Ash trees are dying at an alarming rate all over the Midwest. The culprit? The Emerald Ash Boer. These trees, however, aren’t dying overnight; it generally takes about 3 years for these insects to kill their host. Nevertheless, unless some drastic intervention occurs, once they show up they not only kill the tree they infect, but they quickly proliferate and infect all the surrounding Ash trees. The results are visually devastating; it’s an eerie thing to see an entire grove of dead trees. Soon Ash trees will be a very rare thing in this part of the country.
Regrettably, it looks like American Evangelicalism is suffering a similar fate. However, before continuing, it must be clearly stated that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is not dying. Jesus is the Lord of the universal, invisible church; and as such he is continually building his church, his body, and his kingdom. That is why the question is put as “is American Evangelicalism dying,” rather than “is the church dying.”
The Lord Jesus Christ has promised that his bride, which is the church, will enter eternity with him. Consequently, since the Lord is trustworthy and faithful we should not think that his church is dying—it’s not. Nevertheless, we also shouldn’t ignore the facts that not only are local churches losing influence in their communities, but that they are also disappearing all across this country.
That being said, the numbers do not lie, and they indicate that the American Evangelical church is in poor health. At this point you may be wondering what exactly are the specific numbers that I am referring to. I’m referring to the enrollment of the top 10 “Evangelical” seminaries in USA during the academic year of 2015/16 as compared to that of 1995/96. If one combines the enrollment of “full-time” students of all these seminaries in the academic year of 1995/96 it comes to a total of 12,273 students. Now jump 20 years ahead to last year, and the total number of full-time students attending the top 10 seminaries is a paltry 10,925, that is about an 11% decrease.
Some may think that such a decline is not a big deal. However, in 1995 the US population was only around 266 million, while in 2015 it grew to just under 321 million, which is an increase of over 20%. So, while the US population grew more than 20% over the last 20 years, during that very same period the enrollment of the largest Evangelical seminaries in American declined 11%. My friends that is not a sign of health; and pretending it’s not really an issue is just whistling past the graveyard. To put it simply, if American Evangelicalism were a stock, it would have a “sell” rating.
Now I recognize there are some qualifiers, such as more students are attending seminaries part-time, mostly because of the high price of education and the ever increasing cost of living, which when combined mandates that they work either part-time or full-time jobs. Technology has also made easier for students to not have to relocate in order to attend seminary, thus allowing them to remain involved in their ministries while whittling away at their programs. And for many this is a good thing. But having been a student at two different leading Evangelical seminaries, as well as teaching at a few others, I can personally vouch for the fact that there is a great benefit for students that dedicate themselves full-time to their studies while also avoiding other distractions. If one were to survey seminary professors, most would acknowledge that being a part-time student is less than ideal. A period of dedicated focus is not a great expense when preparing for a lifetime of ministry. The bottom line is this, even with the advent of online education, enrollment at America’s Evangelical seminaries is not even keeping pace with the country’s population growth. In short, we are losing ground, and that is a bad sign. Although a few seminaries have seen some growth, they are the exception rather than the rule (FYI: only 3 of the seminaries on both the 1995/96 and 2015/16 lists saw any growth, while another 3 completely fell off the list).
So what can be done to reverse this trend, or can it even be reversed? I think the jury is still out on these questions; but I can make a couple of suggestions. The first is pray for more laborers (Luke 10.1-2). Jesus said that the harvest is always present—the problem is not with the harvest, instead it’s a dearth of workers. Consequently, Jesus commanded that those present must first pray for more laborers, and then, after having prayed, they were to go out and lead people to Christ. The good news is that the Lord’s plan of action is not complex—and thank heaven for that! Secondly, I would recommend that we repent of out lackadaisical approach to Christianity. While writing this blog it struck me that it’s rare today to hear sermons calling for greater sacrifice to the cause of Christ. The average sermon today seems more focused upon life management than on repentance and dedication to the Lord. I know that this is only anecdotal evidence, but I don’t think it is far from the mark. Let me put it this way, over the last several years how many sermons have you heard calling you to surrender all for the cause of Christ, his kingdom, and global missions? Today I hear more about “Christian cruises” than about surrendering to Christ. Lastly, I would recommend that if churches are going to start equipping and calling students to full-time Christian service, then they begin establishing grants and scholarships in order to provide significant financial aid so that students can focus more on learning and training, and less on being baristas in coffee shops. Additionally, this also means that churches that hire seminary students stop sucking all the energy out of their “employees.” It is not uncommon for churches in seminary towns to depend far too heavily upon seminary students, which inevitably means these students have less time to focus on their studies. Many a church has sent students off to seminaries only to find that after a year or so they have flamed out because they’re burned up by another church that simply used them without any consideration for why they were at seminary in the first place.
At this point there is one glaring reality that keeps slapping me across the face, which is that those who attended seminaries 20 years ago are currently leaders of the American churches today. In other words, however you may assess the health of America’s modern church, the reality is that those responsible for it now were the products of America’s seminaries 20 years ago. From this glaring observation one thing is objectively clear—not all seminaries are worth supporting or attending. Not all seminaries are created equal. More specifically, we should only send our people to seminaries that are firmly committed to the inspiration of the Scriptures, the truth of the gospel, and to the orthodox Christian Faith as received from the apostles. Sending people to seminaries that are focused on the latest trends in ministry and church growth will only ensure the steady decline of the American church. There is one unassailable fact about trends: they always change. What is considered effective and in vogue today is old hat and passé tomorrow. Consequently, training ministers to chase trends instead of focusing upon the Lord and his word inevitably means that their education will be obsolete after 10 years; while their understanding of the scriptures will be virtually non-existent. While trends always change God and his ways do not. The Lord Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13.8); and “the word of God endures forever” (Isa. 40.8); and lastly, there is no other name given to people by which we must be saved (Acts 4.12). These truths never change. Although it may appear that the American church is slowly disappearing like Ash trees all across the country, the Lord Jesus Christ and his church will be victorious, not only in this age but also in the ages to come. Amen.
(The stats used for this blog were generated by ATS and can be found at this following website: https://juicyecumenism.com/2016/08/01/americas-largest-seminaries/)
Contributed by Dr. Monte Shanks. Dr. Shanks is a professor at Liberty University.