By Steve Wolfgang
Over the years I have been preaching in Danville (this is my ninth) I have received numerous inquiries about our “special training classes.” It is evident that, although we have advertised in various periodicals (magazines and newspapers, secular and religious) and many brethren are aware of what these classes are, many other brethren remain unaware of what the classes consist of and what they are designed to accomplish. A few brethren consider us a “seminary” or some “unscriptural arrangement,” or a “brotherhood power center” or some other vague threat to the faith. I write this article not so much to allay the fears of the few quoted above brethren generally about what this program is all about.
Like many other congregations (may they multiply), the Danville church has for many years used a young man during the summer, or occasionally for an entire year, to work with the local preacher in what might be called an “apprentice” capacity so that he might learn how to do the work of an evangelist. In 1976, after several years of such a summertime or year-long training period for various young preachers, one of the deacons of the church (who now serves as an elder) suggested that we try a year-long program designed to serve five or six young men rather than one at a time.
At the urging of the congregation, one of the elders, Kelly Ellis, took early retirement from the school system where he had served about thirty years as a teacher and guidance counselor. Supported by the church, he and the local preacher, Royce Chandler, began such a training program. After some slight alterations, the program continued when this author moved to Danville in 1979.
All the teachers in this program have had sound educational credentials (Master’s degree and beyond); Kelly Ellis and Steve Wolfgang have about thirty-five and twenty years, respectively, of preaching experience. Although the church has employed other men (Bob Crawley and David Eakin, for example) to teach when needed, the bulk of the teaching is done by the local preacher and by brother Ellis, still an elder in the Danville church. Gospel preachers who come to Danville for meetings are asked to prepare special material to present in the day classes; in the last few years, the students have been able to study with men such as Ed Harrell, Paul Earnhart, Robert Turner, John Clark, Bob Owen, Bill Cavender, Donnie Rader, and others.
Classes meet for three hours each day (9 a.m. to noon), Monday through Friday, during each of the three “trimesters” into which the school year is divided from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, December 1 to March 1 and March 1 to Memorial Day (with breaks or vacations weeks at appropriate times). In each trimester, students study three different courses with each teacher – thus, six courses per trimester, 18 courses per year, totally 36 different courses if the student remains for the entire curriculum.
In this manner, a student who enrolls for two years receives a course in every biblical book (some are grouped together – for example, Minor Prophets, Wisdom Literature, Synoptic Gospels, etc.) as well as courses in Denominational Doctrines, Sermon Preparation & Delivery, Church History, Bible History & Geography, Evidences, and a course in “Doctrinal Issues” in which debates on topics such as Premillennialism, the Charismatic Movement, Instrumental Music, Institutionalism, Divorce and Remarriage, and other issues are read and discussed. Of course, as one might expect, there are many occasions for informal discussions on various issues or problems which arise from time to time, ranging from evolution to some brother’s position on the date of Revelation to how to deal with a wayward brother or sister (just to cite some examples).
There is no tuition charge for these classes; students provide for their own housing, meals, and personal expenses; students’ textbook costs are about $50 per trimester (the church library is available to students as well).
One advantage to the classes in Danville is that there are a good number of smaller churches within easy driving distance who do not have “regular,” or “full-time” preachers and who will often request one or more students to preach for them at various times, thus providing ample opportunities for students to put into practice what they are learning in class.
Since 1973, more than sixty young men have enrolled in these courses. Several are them are “local,” having lived most of their lives in the Danville area. But they have also come from Canada (5 students), from Chile, Mexico, and twenty states, from New York to California, Michigan to Florida.
Of course, not all of these students have stayed the entire two years – some of them have discovered that preaching does not suit them. (That is probably as useful a lesson for them – and for churches – as anything they might learn in class.) Some of them came with no intentions of ever preaching; they simply wanted to learn more about the Scriptures in order to be better able to serve in whatever way they could. One man in his thirties drove a number of miles from his home for the express purpose of better preparing himself for the possibility of serving as an elder at some future time. I have heard any number of young men say they were “preparing themselves to preach” but how many men have you heard express the desire or pursue an active plan to prepare themselves to serve as shepherds of a local flock of God’s people?
More than thirty of these students, however, are now in full-time preaching work. They are preaching the gospel in West Germany, in Canada, in Central and South America, and in 13 of the United States.
Occasionally some concerned preaching brother will express to me some reservations about the kind of classes we have here. I cannot respond to them in detail here, but I would like to consider some of the most frequently mentioned concerns.
Most of the critics of this program seem to be concerned that it might be an unscriptural arrangement of some sort (specifically, questions have been raised about whether other congregations are involved in this work, or whether by accepting students who have been members of other congregations we violate principles of congregational autonomy). Other concerns expressed to us are that such a program might wield too much influence, or seeks to be some “brotherhood power center,” as one critic put it.
First, let me state plainly that this program is the work of one local congregation, overseen by its elders. It accepts no funds from other congregations, nor does it charge the students who come for the teaching imparted to them. The teaching is done by the elders here (one in particular, though other elders have spoken to the classes at various times), and the local preacher who works with the Danville church. No other congregation participates in this work in any way. In the few instances where we have used teachers who were not members of this congregation, we have paid them for their services, just as we do those preachers who come here to preach in gospel meetings. We would oppose any unscriptural co-operation of churches as quickly and as vocally as our most outspoken critics.
Some have charged that by the act of accepting students who come from other places that we are “dependent on other churches” for students. There are several responses to such fuzzy thinking. First, what do these students (or the churches from which they may come) give to the Danville church? The truth is, the congregation at Danville does the giving – teaching free of charge – and the students are the recipients. Second, if the concept mentioned above is true, then are congregations which allow non-members to attend their gospel meetings for the purpose of teaching them “dependent” upon other churches, or denominations, or the world, by so doing? If not, why not?
But the most critical issue here is that such thinking’ betrays a diocesan concept which is almost breathtakingly Roman Catholic. Scripture certainly nowhere teaches that a Christian is to be limited in study and/or training to the locality where they happened to obey the gospel. The truth is, the students who come to Danville do so as individuals and not as the representatives of some congregation. Again, we would oppose unscriptural concepts in this regard as quickly as anybody else – including some of our critics.
What about Danville’s program as a “center of influence”? Obviously, it might become just such a thing, despite our best efforts to prevent it. Of course, the same potential criticism could be made about congregations which conduct widely-advertised “lectureships,” or preachers who hold many meetings, travel widely, and/or edit journals which circulate among the brethren. Most thoughtful brethren recognize, however, that the potential abuse of something which is right in itself is not a legitimate reason for condemnation. We have attempted to be conscientious about encouraging those who have studied here to go out and start their own such programs, especially those in foreign countries, rather than simply encouraging others to come to Danville. It would be marvelous if every congregation offered similar opportunities for Bible study, and churches should be encouraged to do so.
What does it take for a congregation to do this work? First, it takes a membership which is committed to such a task. Because of the demands of teaching, the local preacher may not always be able to do all of the constant “visiting” or other activities that some congregations, due to a denominational concept of the evangelist as “pastor,” impose on the local preacher. A congregation which takes seriously the work of an evangelist as preacher and teacher of the Word is the first prerequisite.
Second, it takes an eldership committed to the work. This program would not have begun or continued to exist without the services and commitment of Kelly Ellis, who not only helped plan and design the program, but took early retirement (foregoing three of the bestpaying years a school-teacher can expect) in order to devote himself fully to this program. This type program is not one which could be undertaken by the local preacher or any one man. At least two are necessary in order to do the job properly. In like manner, it requires the dedication and commitment of not just one elder, but the entire plurality of overseers. Danville is fortunate to have had such a group through the years.
Third, it takes a preacher who is capable of doing such a job. This means not only one who can perform in the classroom (in addition to all the other tasks expected of him in other congregational duties), but who can relate to the emotional and spiritual needs of six or eight young men each year – taking time to work with them in a variety of ways as circumstances develop or the occasion arises. It also means being able to share their interests and engage in some occasional relaxation and/or recreational activities with them – be it bowling, softball, basketball, or whatever. It can be a draining job – emotionally, spiritually, even physically – which requires the preacher to have the committed support of his family, the elders, and the membership of the congregation.
But as one who has been privileged to work in such an environment for the better part of a decade, I can attest that it is worth whatever tribulation, anguish, or “hassle” such a program may bring. The benefits far outweigh the drawbacks in such an arrangement, and, as with most teaching assignments, I believe it is the teacher Who can benefit most of all.
It is my wish that this brief explanation will impart information about the Danville church’s “special training classes,” and answer some basic questions sometimes asked about it. But above all, it is my prayer that other congregations may be encouraged to develop or extend their efforts, to the extent of their opportunities and abilities, to encourage other young men to preach the gospel. It does not necessarily need to be a program similar to the one in Danville. There are many expedient ways to do the job. But do it we must. Truly, the fields are white for harvest, and the laborers far too few (John 4:35; Luke 10:2).
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 2, pp. 48-50
January 21, 1988