Discipleship ministries need deep church engagement

From 1992 to today I’ve had a nearly uninterrupted connection with Bethany College/Bible Institute. I’ve been a student twice, a volunteer, intern, and IT support. Bethany ran for 88 years, which means was connected with it for ¼ of its life. It has been almost impossible for me to write about the school, it’s death and future possibilities because the grieving has been hard. I knew my friends and former colleagues were grieving as well. It was hard watching it die. Like so many others I felt I had a lot invested in the school and I know others were more connected.

I’m convinced now that any discipleship ministry needs to be deeply connected to and responsive to the local church. Up until the early 2000’s Bethany had something called the Convention. Delegates from the churches would come, see the budget, ask questions etc. It wasn’t generally that exciting but it was a form of connection and accountability to the local church. When we ended that we lost something.

There is a natural fault line between academics and local church leaders. Academics do tend to favour the perspectives of those with higher academic credentials. Some local church leaders view academics as out of touch with on the ground realities and can be suspicious of the more nuanced theological perspectives of academics. These are just tendencies and don’t have to be the reality. It takes intentionality on both sides to maintain a fruitful connection.

Any institution needs to get outside it’s own echo chamber. There is a deep temptation to listen to our supporters and subtly dismiss our critics as people who don’t “get it.” True critical engagement is very difficult because very few people want to hurt anyone’s feelings. When we tend to describe everything we do with spiritual language it is hard for anyone to point out the flaws in what is going on. When honest people see the flaws or have reservations they tend to not say anything. If a culture develops where almost all the feedback you engage with is from supporters it can lull you to thinking you have broader support than you actually have.

Transparency is something I think most Christian institutions struggle with. In most institutions, Christian or not, there is the “inside story” and the “outside story” on sensitive issues. The inside story it is the full account and the outside story is the sanitized version. This strategy is legitimately used to protect people’s dignity or privacy. However, there is always the temptation to sanitize merely to protect the image of the institution. We see the institution as God’s work and we convince ourselves that we are protecting God’s project. This is flawed because if it is God’s project a negative response isn’t going to derail it. If things are so bad we need a miracle to keep going, you might as well be honest and stop trying manage people’s perspectives.

Sometimes the hardest person to be honest with is ourselves. This is true of a community as it is with and individual. Some very difficult realities at Bethany were not acknowledged until it was too late. It can be difficult to sort things out. I know that not everyone agrees with me on some of the issues I believed to be pressing. One thing that is impossible to disregard is the outcome and how surprised people were inside and outside the institution when everything unfolded at the end.

I hope that any future endeavours will avoid the same mistakes. It is vitally important to remember whom we serve. We serve God and his church. Any discipleship ministry will not stay healthy or viable for long without transparency, critical intentional engagement, and accountability to the local church.


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