Reformed Quarterly Volume 9, Issue 4
Twenty-five years ago, God took a handful of faithful men and built a seminary. They had no money, no land, no buildings, but they knew how to pray, and they believed God’s Word to be inerrant at a time when the Bible’s authority was being assaulted on all sides.
Many scoffed and said, “It can’t be done! You’ll fail!” Yet, in the face of persistent opposition, this courageous group of men accepted the challenge and pursued their vision, realizing this was the only way to assure the kind of leadership needed to build strong churches and to win people to Christ.
Today RTS is one of the major seminaries in the United States and has had a tremendous influence on the church. Approximately 2,000 graduates serve in 37 countries, building strong churches and becoming pacesetters in church planting.
A NEW CENTURY, A NEW CHALLENGE
Now, as we near the beginning of the twenty-first century, new problems confront our world and bring new challenges for RTS. While the times may not be as turbulent as they were twenty-five years ago, the evangelical church faces a grave crisis. In the next few years, 100,000 churches will close their doors — an extraordinary figure when you realize there are only 350,000 churches existing in our country.
An increasing number of people feel the church is irrelevant and not meeting their needs. The church, they say, is mired in tradition and out of touch with the world.
The church is, in fact, more reactive to issues today than proactive, allowing the world to determine the important issues. Charles Colson defines the problem in his recent book Against the Night when he says, “For years the slogan of the National Council of Churches was ‘the world sets the agenda for the church.’ This sounds socially relevant; but in fact it displaces God, who long ago set His own agenda for His church: obedience.”
Quoting Richard John Neuhaus, Colson continues, ” ‘when the church dares to be different, it models for the world what God calls the world to become. The church models what it means to be a community of caring and…character.'”
In 1989 God gave RTS the opportunity to strengthen the church and have an even greater impact on culture, both nationally and internationally, by opening a campus in fast-growing Orlando, Florida, to continue training strong leaders to plant effective churches. We accepted that challenge in faith as our founders did a quarter of a century ago. It has meant a new beginning in a new place on a new campus, with a new set of scoffers saying, “It can’t be done! Others have tried and failed!”
“But taking risks and being innovative has always been a part of RTS’s history,” says President Luder Whitlock. “While we are rooted in the Scriptures and the historic Christian faith, we are also visionary and progressive, and if we believe God is giving us an opportunity, we are not afraid to take advantage of it.”
God has blessed the opening of RTS/Orlando more dramatically than anyone could have dreamed. “When we started the seminary last year,” says Lyn Perez, Vice-President for Advancement, “we did not know if we could come up with the money or if we would have any students. We were praying for thirty students the first year and one hundred students in three years. Last year, ninety-four showed up for registration. This year we are pushing two hundred!”
Programs offered this year include the Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Biblical Studies, Master of Arts in Theological Studies, and the Doctor of Ministry, with multiple emphases including church planting. Future plans include counselling and Christian Education programs.
WHY ORLANDO, FLORIDA?
What better place to impact culture than Central Florida? According to John Naisbitt in his book Megatrends, Florida is one of the five bellweather states — states which have been found to set the trends in this country again and again. Naisbitt says, “By carefully watching what is happening now in Florida, we stand to learn a wealth of information about the problems and opportunities the whole nation will face in the future.” And RTS is better able to train students knowing the problems they will face.
Florida has a current growth rate exceeding thirty per cent — fifty-eight per cent projected between now and 2010; almost 1000 people move there daily. With its 12.5 million population, it is the fourth largest state. Orlando itself, with a 1.1. million population, is the fastest growing major city in Florida and is already a magnet city of the world; between 900-1000 people move to Orlando every week, and an average of 25,000-30,000 new jobs open up each year.
“RTS has operated in a state of two million people; now, we have a campus in a state of almost thirteen million, eight million of which are within commuting distance,” says Perez. “With the burgeoning population of Florida comes the need for effective churches and a seminary in that environment to train strong pastors to lead those churches. Yet before RTS opened, there was no resident seminary which was accredited by SACS and ATS * in the entire state. The opportunities for ministry are limitless.”
With Florida’s national and international appeal, RTS’s influence for Christ can now be felt around the world. The state is characterized by a rich mix of people; Miami is the gateway to the Caribbean and all of South America and is becoming one of the world’s major banking centers.
“Florida and Orlando are the crossroads of the world right now,” says Steve Brown, senior pastor at Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church in Miami and an adjunct professor of Preaching at RTS\Orlando. “RTS has the opportunity to touch the world by the people who pass through there. Lead one person to Christ in Boston, and you’ve led one person to Christ. Lead one person to Christ in Orlando, and you may touch ten other people around the world.”
Nationally, the area is highly desirable; many major corporations and ministries are opening offices in the Sunbelt. The 1980 census showed for the first time a greater population in the South and West than in the North and East. Not only are people migrating out of the north’s industrial cities, but businesses are actually choosing Sunbelt cities for new regional offices and closing down older, northern offices.
Universal Studios just opened last spring with 3000 jobs. Triple AAA has recently moved its corporate headquarters to Orlando; Campus Crusade for Christ and Church Resources are in the process of doing the same. In addition, Prison Fellowship and Reformed University Fellowship have recently opened new regional offices in Orlando. Ligonier Ministries, which now serves some 10,000 churches, recognized Orlando’s potential as far back as 1983 and moved their headquarters from Pennsylvania.
QUALITY FACULTY, QUALITY PROGRAM
A strong Orlando resident faculty includes such nationally known figures as R.C. Sproul, Ronald Nash, Roger Nicole, and Richard Pratt. Regular visiting faculty include Steve Brown, Carl Henry, and Sinclair Ferguson. These intelligent scholars are committed to making a difference in our culture for Christianity and increasing the effectiveness of the church.
“While we think we have brought together some of the sharpest minds in the evangelical world,” say Whitlock, “RTS/Orlando is more than a contemporary think tank. It is a community of Christian leadership that has a commitment, a passion for changing the status quo and bringing orthodox Christianity to its fullest expression in culture today. The time is right; all the elements are in place to accomplish this — the faculty, the location, the historical undergirding. We are poised to help provide the leadership of the church for tomorrow.”
Richard Pratt, a bright young scholar with a Ph.D. in Old Testament Theology from Harvard, exemplifies such commitment. Unusually gifted as a communicator, Pratt was one of the first faculty members at RTS/Orlando, pulling up roots in Jackson to help start the seminary.
“Training church leaders is the most effective way the church can express what it means to be a servant of Christ,” says Pratt. “My personal goal as a professor at RTS is to make people aware of the broad-ranging services, especially in the Old Testament, that the church should perform, for example, applying the word to our involvement in helping the poor and helping establishment justice in our world.”
In the same way that Francis Schaeffer challenged the generation of the 1960s to embrace the Christian mind, so R.C. Sproul, president of Ligonier Ministries and Acting Dean of the Orlando Campus, is challenging the current generation–to prepare Christians to bring the mind of Christ to bear in culture today. The seminary is in a position to speak to that new generation, training new leadership to move another step ahead in terms of influence and the growth of the church.
“The Orlando campus greatly augments the overall outreach of RTS,” says Sproul. “Anywhere a seminary is planted, history indicates that churches spring up in large numbers in geocentric circles emanating from the center. RTS\Orlando will be such a core-center for the spread of Reformed Christianity outward into the whole of Florida and into the southeastern quadrant of the United States — an expansion which will virtually double the potential influence of RTS’s ministry. In addition, RTS\Orlando also has a warm co-operative relationship with Ligonier Ministries and the Orlando Center for Church Planting.”
“Our big commitment is still to be biblical through and through,” Whitlock says, “in order to help people take the truth of the Bible and apply it to the world in which they live. We intend to do this by developing growing churches and vigorous ministries.”
* SACS is The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and ATS is The Association of Theological Schools