The battle over a proposed sale of American evangelism’s ‘Missions Pentagon’ raises questions of missionary strategy and nonprofit accountability. What responsibility do ministries have to their founder’s vision—and to those who sacrificed to fund it?
We take it for granted now, but R.C. Sproul, who died Dec. 14 and whose memorial service was Wednesday, was the pioneer in taking seminary into our homes, with us on the walking and jogging trails, and in our cars and churches. He invented distance learning before the term became popular.
He was also the leader of the resurgence of reformed theology over the past 50 years.
Conferences featuring Sproul and other pastors and teachers attracted thousands of people and prompted the movement that journalist Collin Hansen described, in the title of his book, as Young, Restless, Reformed.
Sproul’s influence emerged in the 1970s. In the 1950s and ’60s people had been coming to salvation in Christ through all kinds of parachurch ministries mostly launched after World War II. The Billy Graham Crusades were the most well-known, covered as major news events in the cities and towns where Graham preached. Other young people were embracing Christ through Young Life ministries for high schoolers. Youth for Christ clubs were growing in other schools. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes offered their huddle groups for athletes. Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru, was offering the gospel of Christ on college campuses. So was InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the Navigators.
The young R.C. Sproul thought the Christian movement was too shallow theologically. People were not thinking deeply enough from the Scriptures. They needed to go to seminary. We were theologians whether we knew it or not, and we needed better theology.
Sproul could have taught at plenty of seminaries. Aspiring pastoral candidates were inspired by his capacity to teach systematic theology and defend the Christian faith through apologetics. He could give an understandable definition of concepts such as Dynamic Monarchianism, Nestorianism, or explain how Immanuel Kant messed up our thinking by putting noumenal ideas outside the category of knowability.
Sproul worried about the man or the woman in the pew, the layperson who would seldom get to take a seminary class. Those people needed what the seminaries were teaching. He was not an ivory tower intellectual, though he could easily hold his own in high-level debates with unbelievers or believers. He even played the devil’s advocate in a fun debate with his mentor, John Gerstner. He lost the debate, but Gerstner consoled him with an assessment that he was at least a good devil. Sproul was an avid sports fan and could talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers or his golf swing as easily as theology.
After a short time as a teaching pastor in a Cincinnati church, he launched the Ligonier Valley Study Center in 1971 near a small Pennsylvania town called Stahlstown. Men and women started flocking to weekend seminars or weeklong classes on the Enlightenment or the doctrine of Christ or the sin nature of humanity.
In starting the study center he had appreciated the L’Abri ministry of Francis Schaeffer in Europe and modeled the study center along the lines of students living with families. He also followed Schaeffer’s example in having a heart for the lordship of Christ over all areas of life, befriending Charles Colson as he was launching Prison Fellowship in the late 1970s and hosting prison inmates at the study center. A funny story tells of R.C. lecturing on the importance of authority in the morning, then arguing with some faulty umpiring in an afternoon softball game. The inmates on the other team started chanting “AUTHORITY, R.C.! AUTHORITY!” The inmates were holding the teacher accountable.
Sproul hosted labor-management seminars in the late 1970s, supporting a reconciliation ministry led by Wayne Alderson to bring the influence of Christ to bear on the Pittsburgh-area conflicts between workers and management in the steel industry and other businesses.
He offered his lectures and classes on the then-cutting-edge technology of cassette tapes for audio listening. He offered VHS tapes for television viewing.
By 1984 Sproul saw the limits of the campus approach, with people coming to stay in homes and dormitories in a rural place in western Pennsylvania. The ministry moved to Orlando, closer to a big airport, and Sproul started traveling more, teaching in churches as a kind of one-man visiting seminary. Sometimes he teamed up with other pastors and seminary teachers, but he was usually the star, the name drawing several thousand to learn more about God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ.
The content of his teaching was controversial in the larger American culture. He believed the Bible was true, and he was a key leader in a movement to defend the Bible as having no errors. Yet he believed the Bible should be read in accordance with the literary form of the particular book. As a Calvinist, he could be controversial in asserting that God sovereignly calls people to salvation in Christ, under the assumption that we are morally responsible but God is still the boss of it all. He believed we are more sinful than our natural instincts would suggest, or total depravity. In other words, he was outside the mainstream of popular American life.
At a personal level he had a pastor’s caring heart for people. He avoided the fiery televangelist style. He thought the Bible has answers for the world’s problems and wanted to offer them in a winsome manner.
In contrast to other more well-known Christian leaders, he stayed away from politics, generally sticking with his gifts in theology, apologetics, and philosophy.
His skills in communication blossomed in a new way in his later years. He had written plenty of top-selling serious books, but with grandchildren he started writing books for young children. He would teach big concepts like the imputation of Christ’s righteousness or justification by faith through simple stories, such as The Prince’s Poison Cup or The Lightlings.
Whether he was writing for children or speaking to adults, Sproul brought the theology of the Bible to the common person. Theology can be abstract and hard to comprehend. R.C. Sproul made it easier to comprehend and taught us to love God not only with our hearts and souls, but also with our minds.