Sustaining the mighty oaks

Lord Nelson is known as Britain’s greatest naval commander. His victories over the French and Spanish in the late 18th and early 19th centuries fueled the motto: “Britannia rules the waves.”

A story is told how, after his stunning victory over the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Nelson became concerned about the future of the navy he loved. A powerful navy is made up of many pieces, among them daring commanders, skilled crews, and well-built ships. Nelson was very proud of his crews and ships, and his confidence that his were the best crews and ships on the high seas fueled his daring.

Nelson had become aware of one small but critical danger. The ships of his navy were built of oak and to build the fleet had required vast forests of oak. Nelson realized that while he benefitted from the ancient oaks of England, the forests were being depleted. More specifically, he knew that the oak trees required for the massive beams in a battleship take 100 years to grow.

And so Nelson undertook planting oak forests.

As MBs, we have a great deal to celebrate. Our mission agency sends us inspiring videos of the good news being proclaimed around the world. Church planting teams work passionately in our cities. We have some of the largest and most dynamic churches in Canada. Workers from our churches pour time and effort into relief projects.

Most exciting of all, a generation of young men and women with energy and kingdom passion is rising up. It probably isn’t appropriate for us to be singing MB versions of “Rule, Britannia,” but many things are going very well.

Troubling development

However, there is a troubling development in our kingdom identity. Our seminary is in a struggle for survival.

It is easy to dismiss this as a minor footnote and focus on more immediate and more inspirational stories – stories that matter more.

In fact, if the seminary should die tomorrow, the impact on the churches would be scarcely as noticeable as the loss of an oak forest to Nelson’s battle group. Life would go on and the battles of the day would be won and lost, regardless. No one but the foresters would really care.

Even in the longer term, the impact could easily be ignored. There are many fine seminaries producing many fine church workers. Why worry about ours, especially when the cost is so high? But the seminary is our oak forest and without it we will suffer the fate of a navy unable to properly refurbish its fleet.

Like an inadequately updated naval fleet, eventually the loss of a strong seminary will show itself.

It will show itself in our ability to respond, as a biblical people, to the ebb and flow of theological tides, when we are being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14). The winds and waves of teaching are not a new danger. They have been part of the life of the church since the beginning. Preparing for this is not optional.

It will show itself when the very young men and women we are so proud of look for the deep structures, the hidden beams, of their faith – and we will not have provided them. Unless we invest in building these deep structures, they will be far easier prey than they should for that “great number of teachers” (2 Timothy 4:3) that continuously rises up with clever-sounding doctrines.

Investing in the men and women who carry our kingdom assignment into the future does not come cheaply or quickly. The financial cost of a seminary is huge. The time required spans generations. Such investments easily fall to the bottom of a priority list that is driven by the now.

The good news is that generations before us have already done their parts in maintaining the “oak forest.” More than half a century ago, our seminary was founded “because of the vision of the church for trained leadership that could lead wisely, theologically, and above all, biblically in a society that was rushing madly after the gods of learning and mammon” (www.mbseminary.edu/about/roots).

It is a strong vision.

In 2004, we divested ourselves of our seminary, and in the years that followed, have diverted our energy and finances into many worthy battles. But now our oak forest is in danger of disappearing altogether. It’s time to re-invest.

The oak forest needs our attention.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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