Archives For Pastoral Education

Steve Childers, President of Pathway Learning

Forty years ago, Steve Childers became the founding pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City, serving there from 1977-1982. Steve began helping start Heritage in August 1977 with, what The Daily Oklahoman called, “a small, faithful band” of mostly elderly people who refused to leave their rapidly declining neighborhood near downtown Oklahoma City. Their church was called Northminster Presbyterian and they had been without a pastor since 1964. Their membership had dropped from more than 700 to a handful of 13 faithful people[1] who were meeting together every Sunday afternoon in their almost empty sanctuary for worship, bible study and prayer.

They also refused to give up their vision of having a theologically conservative, evangelistic, Presbyterian church, like the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) denomination, that would truly serve their deteriorating, multi-ethnic, high-crime area of the city. Just before they were about to be told to disband by retired pastor Robert Cox, who’d been sent by the RPCES to evaluate them, Cox received a phone call from a young man named Steve Childers, who just graduated from Oklahoma State University with a business degree.

Heritage Presbyterian Church in 1977

Bob and Steve began meeting in the basement of the old church building, that was literally falling apart, to talk and pray about the great need for a new church in that community. Rather than telling this small band of faithful people to disband, Bob recommended they call Steve to help them start this new church. With no seminary education, he accepted their invitation a week later.

On August 13, 1977, The Daily Oklahoman reported the story with the headline, “Congregation, Pastor Looking for a Miracle,” quoting Bob Cox saying, “I think there is potential here, but maybe the only possible answer is a miracle.” Bob then left Oklahoma City to return to his home in Alabama. Steve began serving as their full-time “Student Supply Minister” on August 17, 1979, according to the terms of his call these people wrote by hand on a piece of notebook paper:

[Steve is] to teach in Sunday School, conduct the Sunday morning worship services, have the responsibilities of the midweek bible study and prayer meeting and serve in a pastoral capacity for all members and friends of the congregation, especially the sick, feeble, and sorrowing, following up all contacts brought to his attention. Weekly remuneration for his ministry shall be $50 per week salary and $25 for pastoral expenses.

Childers preaching at Heritage Presbyterian in Oklahoma City

Almost two years later, the new Heritage Reformed Presbyterian Church was formally received into the RPCES denomination and Steve Childers was ordained as their first pastor. On April 1, 1979, The Daily Oklahoman reported this story with the headline, “Ordination Rites Slated For Sunday,” quoting Bob Cox again. But this time he said “It’s a miracle that he’s here.” Steve continued serving Heritage until 1982 when he and other church leaders determined the church was healthy enough for him to leave to attend seminary. During that year, the RPCES merged with the PCA to become one denomination.

After seminary, Steve was the church planter and founding pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Plano (North Dallas), Texas from 1985-1995. For the next 22 years (1995-2017) he was a resident practical theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, teaching courses in evangelism, discipleship, church planting, church renewal, leadership, and missions.

Steve earned Masters degrees from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, and a doctorate from Reformed Seminary in Orlando. He has also done doctoral studies in global mission and leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission in Pasadena. He and his wife, Becky, live in Orlando, Florida, and have three daughters and three grandchildren.

Training the Trainers in a Pathway Learning cohort course in Muslim West Africa (French)

As Steve traveled overseas as a seminary professor, he learned there are millions of church leaders around the world who don’t have access to high quality, seminary-level education. In response to this critical need, he founded Global Church Advancement, continuing today as Pathway Learning, with the mission to provide these under-served church leaders the training and tools they need to develop churches that transform lives and have a lasting impact on their communities.

Drawing on the latest educational technology, Pathway Learning provides a blend of online and onsite courses that increase the effectiveness of church leaders by providing them access to affordable, seminary courses–where they live, in their language, and for their culture. This allows them to receive their necessary education and credentials without leaving their families and the churches they’re serving. Pathway Learning courses include biblical, theological, and practical studies.

In June 2017, after 40 years of ministry on the field and at the seminary, Steve began serving Pathway Learning full-time. This year Pathway Learning is launching courses in English for North America, courses translated into French for West Africa, Mandarin for South Asia, Japanese for Japan, and Italian for Western Europe. The goal of these projects is to develop an effective, scalable model for educating under-served church leaders. To date, Pathway Learning has helped train thousands of church leaders from more than 300 denominations representing over 50 countries in 7 languages on 5 continents.

Steve is looking for prayer and financial partners to help him bring this solution to many more church leaders around the world. To learn more about Pathway Learning go to www.pathwaylearning.org

[1] This core group included Jim and Irene Franklin, a retired machinist, Jim and Lucille Donnell, a retired truck driver, Humphrey and Jennie Bard, a retired newspaperman, and several widows.

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John Frame & Steve Childers record Q & A session for Applied Theology Project books and courses

Frame and Childers draw from their more than 70 combined years as seminary professors to help you renew your mind, heart, and life in this excerpt below from the first chapter and lesson in the Applied Theology Project: A Systematic Theologian and a Practical Theologian Apply Theology to Life by John Frame and Steve Childers. Sign up below to receive the latest updates.

So, Why Do We Study Theology?

We saw earlier how theology can be understood as a “study of God,” based on the meaning of the word theology. But the word logos, from which we get the word, theo-logy, conveys not only the idea of the study of God, but also the knowledge of God that is the result of that study. This brings us to a fuller  definition of theology as a study of God in Scripture to know God. But how can we, as mere creatures, know the creator? Isn’t it arrogant, or even delusional, even to claim we can know God?

Here we raise  another foundational pillar in our study of God. The Scriptures teach that God is incomprehensible. Through the prophet Isaiah, God declares his incomprehensible ways:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isa 55:8-9).”

In the New Testament, the Apostle echoes Isaiah when he writes,

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways (Rom 11:34-35)!”

Although the Scriptures teach God is incomprehensible, they also teach that God is knowable. Because God is incomprehensible does not mean he is unknowable. Of course, we cannot know God exhaustively and completely. Only God knows himself at that level. But we can still know God. Paul describes his knowledge now in comparison what his knowledge will be like in the age to come:

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor 13:12).”

Three Levels of Knowing God

Frame records lesson 19 of 24 in the Applied Theology Project.

In his classic book, Knowing God, J.I. Packer describes three types or levels of knowing God: 1) knowing about God, 2) Knowing about godliness, and 3) knowing God personally. These three ways of knowing God should not be understood as being contradictory but complementary. You must know about God in order to know about godliness and to know God. But the problem is you can know about God without being truly godly, and without really knowing God.

In all my (Steve) years as a seminary professor, I’ve known people who know far more about God than I’ll probably ever know. But I’m deeply sorry to say that some of them did not really know God. I’m not saying they were not sincere followers of Christ. But the testimony of almost all who were close to them, including their closest family and friends, is that they understood and taught the bible very well. But they did not seem to know the God of the bible very well.

Just as you can know a lot about a person and their ways and not really know that person, so you can know a lot about God and about godliness, i.e. spiritual disciplines, and not really know God. Our reason for studying theology is not merely to know about God and about godliness, but to know God personally.

Our reason for studying theology is not merely to know about God and about godliness, but to know God personally.

Prior to his conversion, the Apostle Paul knew a lot about God and godliness, he used the term righteousness, but he didn’t really know God. As part of his list of religious accomplishments, Paul included:

… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless (Phil 3:5-6).

After reciting his prestigious, religious resume, giving clear evidence of his knowledge of God and godliness, Paul says he counts all that knowledge of God and godliness as nothing, in comparison with truly knowing Christ as Lord:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:8-11).

A Deeper Knowledge of God

The word Paul uses here for “knowing” Christ is the most common Greek word gnosis that can have a range of meanings according to its context.

Sometimes, when Paul wants to convey the idea of a deeper, more full, and intense knowledge, he uses the word epignosis adding the Greek preposition epi to the front of the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis).[1] In Colossians 1:9, Paul tells the Christians at Colossae that he is praying they will be filled with this deeper knowledge, saying:

“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge (epignosis) of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”

The deeper knowledge of God’s will Paul refers to here, is not just a general knowledge, but a knowledge rooted in “all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”

Sometimes, when Paul wants to convey the idea of a deeper, more full, and intense knowledge, he uses the Greek word epignosis.

We see this again, in Philippians 1:9, when Paul tells the Christians at Philippi what he is praying for them, using the same Greek word, epignosis:

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge (epignosis) and all discernment (Phil 1:9).”

The deeper knowledge Paul prays will be theirs is not merely a general knowledge, but a knowledge rooted in all discernment. When the Apostle Paul refers to the Jewish people, his dearly loved family and friends, he writes,

“ Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved (Rom 10:1).”

Paul then describes the kind of knowledge about God that was held by his beloved Jews:

“For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (epignosis). For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness (Rom 10:2-4).”

Paul is saying that the Jews have a sincere knowledge and zeal about God and about godliness (righteousness), but it is not a true knowledge of God (epignosis).

Eternal Life is Knowing God

Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, the Bible tells us He lifted up His eyes to heaven and prayed to the Father on behalf of all His followers, saying,

“And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3).”

Although Jesus uses the more common word for knowledge here, gnosis, the context makes very clear that this knowledge of God is the very essence of eternal life–not merely knowing about God, or about godliness–but truly knowing God with a deeper, more personal, saving knowledge, that can only be found in Jesus Christ.

Frame summarizes it for us this way: “If you say that theology is ‘knowing God,’ you make it a personal activity, rather than an academic one. Knowing God is something more than knowing about God. It is a personal relationship, like knowing a close friend.”

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[1] J.B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, London: Macmillan & Company, Limited, 1927, p. 136

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