Bible School in your local church

Your Church Can Easily Start A Bible School!

by Pastor Jim Feeney, Ph.D.

Summary: A local church in Anchorage, Alaska, discovered how easy it was to start a fulltime bible school in the church, utilizing only the bible teaching ministries already available within that church. In four years the annual bible school attendance had leaped to 300 students. Pastors and elders, you can apply in your local church the principles described below.

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
(Proverbs 29:18)

Yours may be a small, growing church of 50 or 100 people. Or perhaps the Lord has granted growth to three or four hundred or more. You have come to the point of asking, “Lord, what next? Where should we be enlarging our ministry in our efforts to obey your Great Commission?”

The answer for thousands of local churches of virtually any size is this: Start a bible school! Your first reaction may be, “Oh no, that’s beyond anything our local church could do.” Pastors, elders, and other church leaders, if that is your response, then I believe that the Lord has led you to this stirring testimony of how a fairly small church in Alaska started an in-church bible college that led to the planting of more than 60 new churches!

The story of Abbott Loop Christian Center in Anchorage, Alaska, can be your story, too. Let me share a brief testimony of how that church on the rural outskirts of Anchorage followed a vision from the Lord — a vision that is easily adaptable to any local church desiring to become involved in ministry training and church planting.

In late 1971 Abbott Loop was a church of about 200-250 people. Three services a week were well attended and had vibrant worship and sound, biblical preaching. As the church continued its steady growth, Pastor Dick Benjamin sensed a calling from God to begin a fulltime bible school. There was only one problem — Pastor Benjamin was the only on-staff minister! That would make for a pretty small faculty! In the following paragraphs I will share how that problem was resolved. But for the moment, let me jump ahead. Pastor Benjamin did start that bible school in January, 1972, in the facilities of the church. Within four years, the average annual attendance was 300 students. And in the three years from 1974-1976 Abbott Loop Christian Center formally sent out 354 men, women, and children on 22 church-planting teams. A major portion of those teams and their new pastors were products of Abbott Loop’s in-church bible school.

Pastors, if your hearts are stirred to undertake something like what I have just described, let me recount how it was done — and, may I add, done easily and effectively. Remember, these procedures will work for you.

First, it is all-important that you have a vision to equip the saints for ministry, and to do it right there in the local church.

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12, King James Version).

The Amplified Bible gives an illuminating translation of verse 12: “His intention was the perfecting and the full equipping of the saints (His consecrated people), [that they should do] the work of ministering toward building up Christ’s body (the church).”

This points to what many have aptly called body ministry. That is, all the members of Christ’s church contributing to the work of the ministry according to their particular spiritual giftedness. Pastors and elders, if you have a desire to maximize the equipping of your congregation for the work of the ministry, then an in-church bible school may be the next step.

Secondly — and this is a stumbling block for many churches — do you have a vision and a determination to send out trained people to do the work of the ministry in that portion of the Lord’s harvest field to which He has called them? Consider the following Scripture:

There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty (Proverbs 11:24, KJV).

• The principle here is directly applicable to local churches. When you train men, women, and teens for ministry, some of them will properly remain in your local church and be a great strength. Others, though, you will be obligated by the Lord to send out, to “scatter” them, into the Lord’s field in order to enlarge His harvest.

• Since the beginning of its bible school in 1972, Abbott Loop has sent forth over 1,000 people on more than 60 church-planting teams. At first glance one might say, “Imagine how strong Abbott Loop might have been if all those people had stayed?” Well, let me answer that from a broader, kingdom-of-God perspective. A later survey of ten of those local churches showed that the 137 saints sent out to plant those ten churches had on average multiplied in less than eight years to 2,068 saints in those new churches — an increase of 1,409%. Indeed, as the proverb says, “There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth”!

A wonderful, biblical example of a “sending-out” church was the early church at Antioch"In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off" (Acts 13:1-3).

• Barnabas and Saul — later known as Paul, the apostle — were among the leaders at Antioch (they were “in the church”). In obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading [vs. 2], the Antioch church “sent them” away into what developed into Paul’s remarkable apostolic, church-planting ministry in Asia Minor and on into Europe. Several principles apply:
  • • Qualified ministers will be found “in the [local] church”. Pastors, there are saints with much potential for ministry in your church.

  • • The church was willing to “send them off” for ministry. Pastors, seek God for the release in your spirit to do the same in your congregation.

  • • And note: these were highly qualified ministers (Paul and Barnabas!) that were sent. Be willing to send the best. In the church that I most recently pastored in southern Oregon, we sent one of our pastors out to plant a new church, as well as sending our only evangelist to the mission field.
• Pastors, elders, and other church leaders — If (1) you have a vision to equip the saints for ministry and (2) you have a willingness to send some of them out to further the growth of God’s kingdom, then let’s now look at the simple details of starting an in-church bible school [Note: some churches prefer to use the term "bible college" or "bible institute" or "school of ministry"]. Once again, we will draw upon the successful experience of Anchorage’s Abbott Loop Christian Center. I might add that my awareness of these events comes from being personally involved in Abbott Loop’s ministry training and church planting ministries. For most of the 1970s and part of the 1980s I was a member of the ministry staff there, was Dean of its bible college for four years, and functioned as the Outreach Coordinator over the church-planting ministry. So I speak here as an eyewitness.

• FACILITIES — This was not a problem. We simply used the existing church building for our bible classes. Pastors, hold your bible school right there in your church building.

• FACULTY — Here is what Abbott Loop did. The church had grown enough to add Associate Pastor Dick Strutz to the church staff. He became the Dean and primary teacher of the bible school.

At that time (late 1971) I was working in Air Traffic Control for the FAA in Anchorage. I was invited by Pastor Strutz to become an off-staff bible school teacher. That gave us a faculty of three — senior pastor Dick Benjamin, associate pastor Dick Strutz, and myself. I continued to work in the FAA for three more years, and my work shifts enabled the school to schedule my classes during my time off from my FAA work. In 1975 I came onto the church and bible school staff fulltime.

Each of the three of us had demonstrated the gift of bible teaching (Romans 12:6-7) — “And in the church God has appointed ... apostles ... prophets ... teachers...” (1 Corinthians 12:28). This is important. Bible school teaching requires a disciplined mind, a willingness to teach line-upon-line at great length, rather than the inspirational preaching that may come forth over the church’s main pulpit.

In sum: Pastors, look among your staff and elders for men who have shown a bible teaching gift. Very likely that will include you. It is entirely probable that the two or three teachers needed to launch a new bible school are right there in your midst. That is all you need to begin.

• CURRICULUM — Focus initially on essential, mainstream courses — such as Bible Foundations, the Gospels, Pastoral Epistles, the Book of Acts, Romans, etc. As the bible school grows, enlarge the curriculum. Begin to use additional staff members as teachers with their varied gifts. At Abbott Loop, as the church and bible school continued to grow, we incorporated a number of our pastors and some new teachers, plus our evangelist, into the faculty. One caution is in order here — be certain that these prospective bible teachers can discipline themselves to complete the course objectives. Some cannot, and they should not be asked to teach. For example, I assigned an experienced pastor to teach a course in Ephesians. Well, due to his lack of discipline, by the last day of classes he had gotten only to verse 17 of chapter one! So be careful in evaluating potential teachers. It is good that they bring varied gifts to the bible school pulpit. But they must have the discipline to accomplish the course objectives, rather than to wander far and wide.

• WHEN TO MEET — Great variety is the key here. Meet whenever it works best for you and your potential students. In our case, by the early 1970s Anchorage was a major, cosmopolitan city. Employment was available at all hours and on weekends. So we found that our students had no difficulty attending classes in the mornings, Monday through Friday, when we began the bible school. Here are some suggestions:

• Hold a new bible school on a weeknight — say, a Tuesday or Friday evening, with perhaps three 45-minute classes separated by short breaks.

• A larger curriculum can be taught on a Friday evening and Saturday morning basis. Five or six classes can easily fit this time frame. And there is very little disruption to most people’s work and family schedules.

• A full curriculum can be taught weekday mornings. At Abbott Loop we initially tried Monday through Friday mornings. Over the years we settled on Monday through Thursday mornings. This is somewhat similar to the apostle Paul in Ephesus, where Paul “...took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years...” (Acts 19:9-10). At Abbott Loop, our students could earn a diploma upon completing the equivalent of two full years of daytime bible college.

• LESSON PLANS — This was entirely each instructor’s prerogative. At the outset, we generally supplied stapled handout sheets to the students. Each teacher had written his own lesson plans. As the school grew, our printing department was able to incorporate each teacher’s written lessons into bound lesson books.

The common denominator in all classes was that the main textbook was always the bible. We studied the text; we taught the text. All else must be secondary.

• RELATIONSHIP OF THE BIBLE SCHOOL TO THE CHURCH — From the outset we determined to keep the bible school completely within the local church and under the spiritual oversight of the pastors and elders. I agree entirely with that approach today, 35 years later.

Pastors, make bible school one of the few major emphases of your local church’s ministry. Keep a spiritual watch over it; visit it often; teach in it, if your schedule permits. Use your church staff and elders to counsel the students.

Keep up-and-coming ministers in the church and train them there. Here are some advantages of doing ministry training in the local church instead of sending your students off to seminaries:

• In seminaries they come under the instruction of faculty who in the vast majority of cases exercise “teacher” gifts. That is helpful, but it is insufficient. By contrast, if the students remain in the local church and its bible school, they are exposed to the broader influence of pastors, elders, evangelists, and more, in addition to their bible school teachers.

• The bible school students, as they learn and grow, add much vigor and life to the local church.

• The students in turn are strengthened by the broad-based ministry of a full local church, rather than the somewhat narrower focus of centralized seminaries.

• Bible school students who remain in the local church can remain under the personal guidance of their pastors and elders.

• In the local church, the students can find multiple opportunities for hands-on ministry experience.

• In the local church, future pastors (and other ministers) can be provided with meaningful internships in a church environment.

At Abbott Loop, we always kept the bible school under the oversight of the ordained ministry staff and the elders of the church. That allowed us ministry staff members to get to know the students well. We taught them, we counseled them, we helped them prayerfully consider their callings. And if the callings of men involved ordination, it was the local church (not the bible school) that ordained them.

In sum — Pastors, it is far easier than most church leaders realize to start an in-church bible school. You already have the building. Most likely among your current staff and elders/deacons are those with a bible teaching gift who would be willing to teach. Textbooks are simple — just use the bible, and allow each teacher to create his own handouts, if so desired.

In Alaska we started simply with a vision from God and a small upstairs classroom. Twenty-five students that first year grew to 50 the next year, to 100 the following year, then to 300 students for each of the next three years. The bible school brought great life and youthful energy over into the church and its services. Conversely, the local church and its services and its multifaceted staff and ministries provided needed input, strength, and inspiration to the bible school students. Vision grew dramatically. Before too many years had passed, that local church of 200-250 had grown to 1,400 and eventually sent out over 1,000 trained people on church-planting teams.

Pastors, if any of this has struck a vision in your heart, go for it! Without undue strain on your resources, you can turn your local church into a ministry-training and church-planting center.

God bless you as you undertake this marvelous work!

Post Script: For those churches in need of a ready-made, bilingual video bible school, I highly recommend the International School of Ministry curriculum assembled by Dr. Berin Gilfillan. It is available in over 65 languages [and as of February 2013 is in 142 nations!].

An excellent online bible school curriculum has been developed by Pastor Bill Scheidler and can be found at Church Leadership Resources. This can be a helpful adjunct to your local church's bible school.

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©2007, James H. Feeney. Copyright statement.