My father is and has been an Assemblies of God pastor for the whole of my life. Not only this, but, as we have lived mostly in more rural towns, and as we generally were not very involved with other fellowships (although my first girlfriend was the daughter of a Baptist preacher!), my upbringing was perhaps unique to many my age; that is, we were of a “Classical Pentecostal” breed, experiencing a very full range of ecstatic manifestations of the Spirit whereas my experience at North Central University has revealed that many/most kids now in college had a much broader Evangelical heritage, and they sometimes spoke in tongues. I want to make it crystal clear that I look with pride on this heritage. My father is a model of godliness and of a Spirit-led man.
Nonetheless, after two years in Master’s Commission, and three semesters at North Central, I have left the AG for a charismatic Episcopalian church with no intention of coming back.
The reasons for this are complex and difficult to explain, I do not know that even I comprehend them fully. I am planning on becoming ‘ordained’ and I hope by God’s will to teach in a Seminary or Divinity School. This Study came to my attention and I was eager to read it. “Perhaps, I thought, there may be growth coming for my beloved AG” Sadly I feel that this hope has been disappointed. I cannot speak for all young ex-AG’ers, but I can say that there are a rather large group of people that I know personally who would be in agreement with me on almost all points.
Also, before beginning, let me acknowledge that this Task Force Report seems to be incredibly compressed. I fear that perhaps, had I had access to the full range of research which went into this Conclusion that many of the things about which I am frustrated would have been addressed. But I have searched in vain for this research and so I can only comment on that to which I have access. I hope to be forgiven if I misunderstand any parts and if I comment on things that have been addressed but not given full detail in the Report
Let me first give praise for certain observations and recommendations. One of the most significant recommendations is to diversify race, gender and age in the “Commission on Doctrinal Purity.”(p9) Fantastic idea. This praise might also be extended to where you “Encourage Diversity” (p5) Also commendable is your recommending “Health” to be emphasized over purely numerical growth (p7) This is important because in this society of competing truth-claims, it is the life of integrity and holiness in a Church that will indicate to non-Christian that their claim has more merit than others. It also fulfills the “Great Commission” to make disciples, encouraging a more holistic understanding of ‘salvation’ which extends to “this earth as in heaven” instead of one or the other (a ‘social’ gospel vs a ‘heavenly’ gospel).
In three semesters at NCU I accrued more debt than I will likely have for the rest of my undergraduate AND graduate education. So to assist with educational debt is huge. But even here one might be tempted to ask more intimate questions as to why education is so expensive for our schools and how to remedy that rather than simply giving money away. If we really want to help potential ministers, might it be a more honest recommendation to encourage the students to get a Liberal Arts type degree at a public institution and then attend a more affordable seminary? With my government aid and money from my job I am currently attending school for free. When I left NCU I think that credits had approached over $400 each, yikes! Also the issue of the quality of education at these schools is not addressed. Often classes could be incredibly hit or miss. I took Textual Criticism with a world expert, and Bible Interpretation with a Pastor with no graduate education.
It was insightful to notice that the renewal of an older congregation is not appealing to younger ministers who do not want the baggage of an established congregation (p7). What 28 yr old wants to argue hermeneutics or who wrote the Gospel of John with a 65 yr old board member? Nobody I can think of.
The removal of preaching requirements (p8) is significant as it continues to shift the understanding of ministry and leadership away from authoritative and central leadership, to shared involvement in ministry by the various giftings of the Holy Spirit. It is a quite Pentecostal recommendation, to be heartily praised, as are all the other more practical recommendations surrounding the apparent difficulties of becoming ordained.
In spite of these commendable recommendations, I must also comment on what I feel are some the inherent weaknesses in the Report.
To start, I feel that the whole Report represents an incredibly shallow demographic. By your own account the ‘listening’ focused entirely on young ministers and students from Evangel, CBC, and AGTS, as well as online forums(p2) That is to say you interviewed only people who were already ministers or studying to become ministers, ALL IN SPRINGFIELD! There is no mention of people such as myself who have left, and others who are considering not becoming credentialed, or who are considering leaving the AG. It seems to me, as noted on your blog, that potential candidates are not just passing on ordination but they are also leaving the AG for less restrictive groups. These people do not seem to have been engaged, or if they have it is not apparent in the body of the Report. Consider this statement in the Report: “John M. Palmer interviewed ministerial graduates…” (p3) If “most of those we interviewed are in agreement with all of the 16 Fundamentals” (p4) then how diverse could this group have been? How could it possibly have fully addressed why younger people are leaving and/or not becoming ordained? In this way I feel that the very foundation of the entire Report is built on ‘sand.’
The Report seems almost preoccupied with making the credentialing process valuable and simpler. While this practical aspect may very well be important it seems to me to be disproportionately covered. If you were to compare the ordination process for the AG to other systems I believe you will find it significantly easier than most. It was not even on the radar as to why I did not become ordained. Also lost in this almost single minded emphasis is the question of the various roles ‘credentialed’ ministers might fill and how various requirements might better enable the AG to excel in congregational ‘health.’ That is to say that we should value and expect a classical seminarian education for senior pastors. It is a great fault that the majority of Pastors in the AG are not encouraged to know even basic Greek and Hebrew for proper study, or an informal grasp of Church History, or a more broadly ecumenical and representative understanding of theology and hermeneutics. These are basic requirements for many pastors in other fellowships. Perhaps if more pastors had this more thorough education; then this knowledge and grace would filter out into the congregation, so that it would not be like pulling teeth from a lion to bring new life to old and dying churches who refuse change because of idiosyncratic local theologies propagated by uneducated readings of Scripture. In the same way, youth ministers might be better prepared by requirements in the Liberal Arts, and Music Ministers in theology and liturgy. While we might not need to require these things for credentialing, they should be strongly encouraged so as to create a healthier church as compared to a larger church or a church with more credentialed ministers.
It may seem like a good idea to “enhance awareness of role models within the AG”(p4) but that has not worked out well in practice. Gordon Fee might be a great example. With the passing of Bruce Metzger Fee is now one of the single most skilled Textual Critics in the world. He is also a Pauline scholar and a world expert in Pauline Pneumotology. And he is AG! But anytime he would critique the AG and offer helpful recommendations he has been ignored and patronized by the powers that be. What does this teach potential ministers? That critical thought and conflicting exegesis will promptly be set aside and largely marginalized, even if you are one of the best in the world.
At many points in the paper you recommend creating a better image and public relations for the AG(p4, and 9 among others). While this may or may not be a helpful recommendation for getting more ministers credentialed, its overemphasis demonstrates the willingness to engage with surface tensions (how pretty we are) but not with deeper issues such as question concerning the Distinctives and the Fundamental Truths (how honest we are). One sees this in the continuous mention of the need for new approaches to ministry (p2,3,5,7) but only petty attention to deep areas of theological disagreement. Case in point, recommending the abolishment of “Question #39” on tobacco, etc.(p8) is a minor step in the right direction; but it does nothing to actually address the completely different hermeneutics that lead to having this question in the first place.
Which brings me to my final and most passionate critique. To me, the single most significant reason why I left and which is a major concern for other potential candidates, is the inflexibility of doctrine and intolerance of discussion. While it is true that you say: “In our research, we heard repeatedly that doctrinal issues present a substantial barrier to many who might otherwise seek credentials with us”(p4), it is significant that, as mentioned above, your interviews were primarily done with people who for the most part actually agree with the Fundamental Truths. Not only this but you repeatedly mention only the need to allow discussion. Which shows just how narrow we have become, that discussion itself is not even allowed publicly and must be pleaded for. What is more, you say in the same paragraph that “We believe our doctrinal positions are based upon a sound biblical hermeneutic” It may just have well said, “We know we are right, but many want to talk, so lets talk and listen” But there is no mention of CHANGE being a possible result of discussion. In that case what is the point? The discussion must presuppose the openness to change in actual doctrine. Not to do so is merely patronizing the questioners. And it is not just the Fundamental Truths, but the incredible number of position papers regulating thought. Has anyone read the paper on alcohol lately? Shameful piece of eisogetic apologia. The closest thing the Report gets to as far as real engagement with this topic is the recommendation to remove Question #39, which as I stated above does not go nearly far enough. And while certain bits in the beginning of the paper mention how important this topic is, it does not actually recommend addressing the problem. Instead, a couple of mentions of ‘listening’ are heard. But there are no stipulations on what that ‘listening’ process might entail. And this is easily the greatest failure of this paper and the whole Task Force. With love, I say “shame on you” for neglecting this and lacking the courage to stand up for the potential ministers and what they really feel.
It would be a shame for me to end on this note, let me say just how deep my love is for the AG. Even as I am becoming a member of a different fellowship, I do not look at us as separate. Rather we are one in Christ as there is one God, One Lord, One Baptism (or is it two? 🙂 ) I pray earnestly for the health and growth of the AG, and if my input at any other time might be beneficial feel free to call me up. We could go get a beer.