For years, Caleb Bartel wanted to deepen his understanding of the Bible and theology.
“There’s really not a way to get that from just a Sunday morning sermon or just Sunday school,” said Bartel, who attends Central Church in College Station, Texas. “You can grow on your own, absolutely, but you’re not getting seminary-level teaching.”
Bartel never felt called to become a pastor. He’s a home remodeler and a married father of five, which makes seminary impractical. But the 33-year-old is now getting the chance to study theology thanks to a program at his church.
Congregations across the country are implementing in-house theology programs, designed to engage members like Bartel who aren’t pursuing professional ministry but still want to study theology, church history, and the Bible. Some programs, like Central’s, are designed to replicate formal theological education, just without the seminary setting or the tuition bill—which can easily run up to $16,000 per year. Others aim to be more accessible.
That’s the kind of thing Tyler Johnson at Redemption Church in Phoenix started doing 20 years ago. He wanted to make the gospel understood and applicable among people who might never read the Bible in Greek or know how to pronounce exegesis. Along with fellow church planters, he launched a one-year theology program called Surge, open to anyone who would commit to about a school year’s worth of weekly meetings.
“It just feels like a lot of the deeper theological stuff gets outsourced to Bible schools,” he said. The church planters wondered, “Could we do this inside, at communal levels, at tables?”
The church planters started with a list of books and articles they felt broadly encapsulated the church’s tagline, “All of life is all for Jesus.” They turned that list into a curriculum. The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen and Salvation Belongs to Our God by Christopher J. H. Wright were foundational texts.
At each Surge meeting, participants gathered in groups called Tables and heard from pastors, guest lecturers, and the authors of the books they were reading. A few times a year, the Surge Tables from all participating churches met together for intensives.
Two decades later, Surge has expanded to include dozens of churches across Arizona, each using the same core curriculum.
Pastor J. T. English—formerly of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, and now lead pastor at Storyline in Arvada, Colorado—had similar convictions that the church should reclaim its place educating the people of God.
“Too many churches have transferred the responsibility of discipleship to nonprofits, seminaries, colleges, and other organizations,” said English, whose 2020 book Deep Discipleship makes the case for theological training for laypeople at the local-church level. “Christians should not have to leave the local church in order to be disciples.”
In 2015, English started The Village Church Institute in Texas. Almost 500 people applied that first year, which surprised English “because of how rigorous the program was.”
The in-church programs had one big thing in common with seminary: There were a lot of books involved. The curriculum is deliberately academic. Students are tasked with memorizing Scripture and reading texts by theologians including Athanasius, John Calvin, and Herman Bavinck.
Similar to Surge, The Village Church Institute is a one-year program with weekly two-hour sessions, including lectures and group discussions. Students write and submit doctrinal statements. They compose and recount the “story of Scripture” in 20 minutes.
Daniel Patterson, Central Church’s executive pastor, said whether or not lay Christians learn big theological words, understanding Christian doctrine is essential. And although churches feature theological teaching in sermons, Sunday school, and Bible studies, Patterson said deep study isn’t always possible or prioritized in the life of the church.
“For our weekly corporate worship gathering, the primary thing it delivers is worship,” he said.
Central members also learn the Bible at midweek Life Groups, but the focus there is community, he said. So the theology program, which started in September, is where the church puts learning at the forefront.
The program is open to anyone, including people who aren’t among Central’s roughly 3,000 regular attendees. Some take the class as part of the process of becoming an elder, but many see it just as a way to grow in their knowledge of the faith.
Over 100 people signed up this year, including Bartel, the home remodeler.
“When I finished college, I wasn’t really aware of programs or things that I could do to continue to grow in my faith other than go to seminary,” Bartel said. “I just want to apply this to the stuff in my life that I’m already doing, in my work, with those that are around me.”
Forest Park Church, a small Acts 29–affiliated congregation in Waldorf, Maryland, is in its second year of the Core Classes program, which runs through the school year, as well as the church’s more intense and book-laden Training Program. Pastor Neil Grobler credits English’s Deep Discipleship for prompting him to start the classes at his 200-person congregation.
“We need about four elders, but the church is not going to be able to afford four pastors. So most of them are going to be lay leaders,” Grobler said. “But I do think theological training is going to be important for them.”
Grobler has an undergraduate degree in biblical studies, but he hasn’t gone to seminary. He’d like to someday. But as a pastor, he thinks it’s the church’s job to offer robust theology to all Christians.
At the beginning of Forest Park’s inaugural Core Classes last year, he said he was unpleasantly surprised to find “deep biblical and theological illiteracy” among his incoming students.
“People knew the many stories of the Bible that they grew up hearing in Sunday school,” Grobler said. “But they had a hard time seeing how these stories point to the one big redemptive story of God in the Bible.”
Certain Christian teachings, like the doctrine of the Trinity and the idea of Jesus as fully God and fully man, were new concepts for some.
The pastors who have implemented these programs are adamant that they don’t mean to supplant a seminary education for aspiring clergy. Some even partner with accredited seminaries to offer class credits or degrees. A few years ago, Surge in Arizona launched a partner ministry called The Missional Training Center, which offers an accredited degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Students of The Village Church Institute in Texas can also earn credits toward degrees at Dallas Theological Seminary and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Though most of these programs lean toward Reformed theology, Johnson and the other leaders of Surge have expanded the program across denominations. This year, Surge includes Presbyterian, Anglican, Pentecostal, and Baptist congregations. The churches host their own Surge Tables but gather for occasional intensives.
The model highlights Johnson and his team’s original motivation for starting Surge, which was named in part after the US military’s “surge” of troops into Iraq in 2007.
Johnson balks now at the use of militaristic language, but the heart of the program, as well as others like it in churches across the country, remains the same: to teach everyday Christians that God made the world, that Jesus came to save that world, and that truth should mark the lives of all believers—including pastors and plumbers and everyone in between.
Maria Baer is a contributing writer to CT based in Columbus, Ohio.
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