The Bible School Movement Continues
by Andrew Kneeland
This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 Connections magazine. Reprinted with permission. For more information about Connections Magazine, click here.
Few would dispute the fact that our country is growing more secular and less tolerant of evangelical Christianity. By and large, our colleges and universities are not friendly to the Christian faith, and young people every day face competing worldviews and challenging issues that they haven’t been trained to deal with.
If there was ever a time to ensure our young people are established in the Word of God and adequately prepared to live in a hostile culture, it seems to be now. The Bible School Movement seeks to address this problem, but it’s important to know that it isn’t anything new.
We might think the challenges of our times are unique, but this rising trend of secularism and relativism in our schools and across our country is not a new phenomenon. Young people are leaving the church in droves and evangelical pulpits are bending to the various whims of the culture, but it was a similar environment with similar concerns that prompted the original establishment of the Bible School Movement in the late 19th century. In fact, equipping the saints has been a Lutheran goal for centuries.
The emphasis of lay person involvement in the ministry is something that has been near and dear to the heart of Lutherans even since the Reformation. Martin Luther said, “A simple layman armed with the Scriptures is greater than the mightiest pope without it.” A main thrust of the Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers,” encouraging the common people that access to God was given through the Means of Grace, not solely through bishops and priests. Every believer has the privilege to read the Word of God and to be used to further His Kingdom. This remains true today. We need Christian doctors and teachers, and Christian plumbers and electricians, but mostly we need Christians to be prepared to share the hope of their faith with an increasingly hostile culture.
This need for young people to be trained was discerned by D. L. Moody in 1886 when he founded Moody Bible Institute, and led to the birth of what would be known as the Bible School Movement. The desire of the school was to combat spiritual indifference and secular influence by providing two years of Bible teaching and training for young adults as they prepared to enter the workforce or attend university. Several similar Bible colleges branched out from this original effort, including Lutheran Bible Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota, back in 1919. There were also institutes founded in Seattle and Southern California. These schools had the Bible as its main curriculum and textbook, and strived to teach and equip a generation to be better prepared to go out into the world in the name of Christ. That was the intention of the original Bible School Movement, but many of these colleges have either closed or rebranded and re-purposed themselves. We can use Lutheran Bible Institute (LBI) of Seattle as a case study in analyzing the various reasons for the struggles or closure of these former hubs of the Bible School Movement.
LBI of Seattle became Trinity Lutheran College in 1999 in an attempt to increase enrollment and improve financial stability. Along with the name change, though, came an increased effort to broaden the academic appeal of the school. Jeremy Osterwalder, program director of Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute in Camrose, Alberta, cites the danger of wandering from a Bible school’s original purpose. Osterwalder stated:
LBI Seattle started to offer more and more liberal arts and less and less Bible and missions-based courses. They lost their mandate for which they had been established. A lot of these Bible schools think that they should offer a course that makes it seem worthwhile, and over time Bible and missions gets minimized and they start to cut them. It’s not always an overnight, drastic drift; sometimes it’s gradual.
Pastor Jim Johnson, currently of Good Shepherd Free Lutheran Church in Camarillo, California, was both a student and later dean of the Association Free Lutheran Bible School in Plymouth, Minnesota. He observes that transitions like the one that happened at LBI Seattle will often lead schools astray and says that often the demise of these large Bible schools was a result of secular pursuits. Johnson states:
The quest for academic validation and scholastic prominence caused many of these schools to veer from their mission and call from God. They moved from being first-class Bible and missions training centers to second-class academic institutions.
But while the closure of many of the larger Bible schools might cause some to think the Bible School Movement is failing, Johnson would argue that on a grassroots level it’s actually alive and well:
I believe the Bible School Movement is declining among mainstream denominations and I believe that it is declining among Lutherans in the world, but if you are to study what is happening where churches focus on Bible teaching, urban evangelism, global missions, and training for Christian service, you will find the movement to be alive and well. The country is filled with these Bible schools, and their future is good.
Johnson cites a 2012 report that claims there are 300 Bible colleges in the United States, and about 30,000 enrolled students in North America alone. The close relationship Bible schools have with churches, Johnson says, improves their odds of survival. He states:
Wherever the church of God, wherever the people of God are being converted, and where living congregations prevail, Bible schools prevail and grow. [But] where there is a lack of souls who are being saved there will be a lack of Bible schools and Bible colleges — and by default — a lack of pastors, teachers, and missionaries.
Johnson has high praise for the Bible School Movement, and doesn’t question its value to a young person’s life and walk with Christ:
Without question, I learned more in two years of Bible School education with 90 students and six faculty, most of whom were pastors with master’s degrees, than I learned in five years at a major university with 40,000 students and approximately 50 teachers with advanced and terminal degrees.
One common complaint against Bible schools is the perceived inferior quality of education. Many Bible schools are not accredited by a supervising agency, and many more Bible schools are small programs run on shoestring budgets and are simply unable to offer “official” credit for coursework. Prospective students throughout the years have seen this as a detriment to enrolling, and young Christians have often preferred to jump right to the secular universities in order to further their education and begin their career.
This question of value is an important one. From a secular point of view, there might not be much value in attending a Bible school before continuing on with your education. It might not make much fiscal sense to postpone your entry into the job market, but having a solid, spiritual footing can make all the difference in the world when facing attacks on your faith. “From a worldly or secular perspective, it isn’t anything worthwhile,” Osterwalder said of his LBI program. “But [what we’re doing here] is absolutely necessary. It has kingdom value and kingdom worth.”
There is still a need among young people for systematic study of the Word and practical training for service in the Kingdom of God. Secularism is running unopposed in many or most of our colleges and universities, and by and large our young people are unprepared to withstand the attacks on their faith and worldview. Philosophy professors and science teachers all across the country openly criticize and mock Christianity, and force their impressionable students into a dualistic view of the world: that science and facts are in one realm and spirituality and values are in another realm, and they should be kept separate. In an interesting dichotomy, hard sciences instructors are becoming more objective — i.e. Darwinism is the only acceptable answer — while philosophy teachers are becoming more subjective and inclusive of all customs and belief systems.
If they are unprepared, our young people will be in for a rude awakening in the “real” world of college campuses and secular workplaces. They must be instructed that Christianity has an answer to these postmodernists and relative thinkers. Christianity is not a crutch for the weak, it’s a systematic and comprehensive worldview that demonstrates Christ and His love for mankind. This is an important foundation to be laid in our young people’s lives, and there are Bible schools across the country that are doing phenomenal jobs at training our young people.
What can we as Christians do to encourage the education and training of our young people and support the Bible School Movement? We can encourage our churches not to ignore the issues of the day; nothing is accomplished by burying our heads in the sand. The Gospel isn’t proclaimed and the Christian is not prepared to interact with the culture. We can encourage our Bible schools to remain firmly rooted in the Word of God and not be distracted by extra-Biblical pursuits.
But perhaps one of the most significant things we can do to help support the Bible School Movement is to encourage our young people to invest several years of their life in focused study of the Word of God. We can remind them of the immense value this will have in the future, and encourage them that time spent studying the Word of God is never a waste.
The challenges faced in our world today aren’t unique, nor are they insurmountable. But being trained, equipped and prepared to face the culture we live in makes a world of difference when it comes to reaching the lost for Christ.
Founded in 1964 by the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (www.aflc.org), the Free Lutheran Schools include a two year post-secondary program (Association Free Lutheran Bible School- www.aflbs.org) and a four year pastoral training program at the Masters of Divinity level (Association Free Lutheran Theological Seminary- www.aflts.org). The Free Lutheran Schools Corporation is a candidate member of the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS, www.tracs.org).