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In my two previous posts I dealt with how seminaries can improve seminary education and how students can do the same.  This is my last post in this little series: how churches can improve seminary education.  If you’re a pastor with seminary students you may want to read the other two posts as some of the points will apply. 

On to my thoughts…

Consider Saying ‘No’ (or at least ‘Not Yet’)

One of the lamentable facts of seminary education is that students often go to seminary without a home church behind them that truly knows them well.  Most seminaries require, if you’re applying for an MDiv, a recommendation from a church.  But I wonder how many churches really screen candidates for seminary.  From my experience, not many do. 

When a young man or woman (or maybe even not-so-young) comes looking for a little help getting into seminary, consider that this person may not be truly ready.  Are they capable of ingesting a tremendous amount of information, information that empowers them for ministry, without having their pride grow along with their knowledge?  Are they seeking positions of power or of service?

Perhaps even before asking these questions, we ought to ask more basic ones.  Has this person been faithful in smaller areas of responsibility?  In the ministry experience they’ve already had, how did they do?  Have they sought to learn from them?  Have they sought out the pastors and elders?  Are they being discipled or mentored?  Does their mentor think they are ready for seminary?  Have you considered suggesting they take another year before seminary and be mentored by a pastor or elder?

There should be no rush to send people to seminary.  The church will not collapse if they don’t hurry up and take a church history class.  Let them simmer a little longer before you turn the heat up.

Meet Regularly with Your Seminary Student

I stated in a previous post the importance of students sharing what they’re learning with other students.  The danger, however, can be the lack of perspective.  After all, how much can a bunch of students in a classroom really know about how to apply what they’re learning?  Perspective comes from getting an outsider’s (preferably a wiser person’s) thoughts.

I’d strongly recommend that pastors meet regularly with their seminarians.  Hear about what they’re learning (there is a good chance you’ll learn something from them).  Find out what’s exciting them.  Ask them questions, challenge them to think more deeply.  Ask them how they would apply what they’re learning.  Challenge them to think of ways to pass along all they’re taking in to people in their church.

What seminary students often miss is the connection between the classroom and ministry.  Because they’re so wrapped up in their coursework, they often fail to apply it to church life, or even their personal life.  Pastors are, in my opinion, the key to bridging this gap. 

Enforce Anonymity

I’m picking this up from my previous post on how students can improve their seminary education, so I won’t rehash it here.  Basically, I offer two suggestions to seminarians:

  1. Find a church that is unimpressed with you.
  2. Serve in a non-visible role for a while.

It may, of course, be hard for the eager seminarian.  But churches will learn more about the character of their seminarian by how they act when no one knows who they are or what they’re doing.  So stick them in a corner where no one sees them.  A little obscurity never hurt anyone.

Never Abdicate Your Responsibility to Train Pastors

The local church should be the primary training ground for pastors.  I can find no biblical (or even logical) warrant for sending your future pastors somewhere else to learn how to lead a church.  It simply makes no sense.

Notice, I’m not saying seminary has no role to play.  I loved my time in seminary; I’m thankful for Gordon-Conwell.  But seminary is not supposed to be the primary training ground for ministers.  Seminary is where you learn certain skills that will prove invaluable for ministry.  The work of seminary can’t be replaced by most churches (unless, I suppose, you have a church staff equipped and available to teach all the same things- if so, God bless you). 

I (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) commented about the logic of seminary in my first post:

  • Christian Leader #1: How can we best train people to pastor churches?
  • Christian Leader #2: I know!  Let’s take them out of the church and stick them in a classroom for 3 years!

There are some things in life that you simply cannot learn by listening to a lecture or reading a book.  (For the record, I don’t even think this is the best way to learn the Bible.  I’ve learned more about the Bible from teaching the Bible, especially in preparation time, than I ever did in a class.  Of course, class time in seminary helped me develop those skills, so it fulfilled its role.)  I can read all the marriage books I want, but nothing actually teaches me about marriage better than being married.  My wife and I did some premarital counseling, which helped us tremendously.  We sought advice from a lot of couples.  We’ve attended seminars and got some books.  But in the end, there’s a lot of learning “on the job.” 

Ministry is, in many ways, similar.  You will learn better about how to minister by actually being involved in ministry, under the tutelage of a more experienced pastor. 

Pastors- do not give up your rightful place as the primary mentors of future pastors.  If you hold on to your responsibility and do not forfeit it, if you allow a seminary education to complement your role as discipler rather than the other way around, your seminarian will be more prepared for a lifetime of ministry than they otherwise would be.

Some Concluding Thoughts

I’ve spent three posts on this subject because I think it’s important.  Even though I’m only 30, I’ve spent a long time observing churches and seeing how they train leaders.  In fact, a large part of my job now is helping train future leaders for our churches (a job I’m probably unqualified for). 

My point in spending three posts on this is that I think the responsibility to improve seminary education falls on the shoulders of more than just the seminary, though I clearly think they have areas of needed improvement.  The primary responsibility to make sure seminary is fulfilling its function lies with the student.  The seminarian needs to make sure they’re learning, not just being taught.  And I think the local church is primarily responsible for training a person to pastor well.  If the student and the local church do their job well, seminaries will be far more effective and the future of our churches will be much brighter.

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I wasn’t intending to turn this into a series of posts, but as I was writing my previous post on how seminaries can improve seminary education I realized that the most guilty party of whatever is wrong with seminary education is getting off the hook.  That is, the student is the person most responsible for ensuring they receive a quality seminary experience.

I made some mistakes in my seminary days, and I did some things well.  But there were two separate conversations with two different people in my first week that made me realize I had to take the initiative if seminary were going to be a success.  In one case, Student A proceeded to tell me that seminary killed his spiritual life.  In the other case, Student B strongly encouraged me to put myself ahead of the other students in order to be noticed by my professors.  These conversations impacted me, though probably for different reasons than either person intended.

With that said, here are my thoughts on how seminary students can improve their seminary education.

Remember: Seminary ≠  Cemetary

The aforementioned Student A clearly felt that his spiritual life was in decline and seminary was to blame.  Is that true?  Please.  Student A hardly ever went to church.  As time went on, I realized that Student A rarely spent time with the Lord or in the Bible, outside what was necessary to get by in school.  Can he honestly blame seminary?

It’s true, seminary can be a difficult place.  It is, if you’re not just trying to slide by, a place where studying will take up the majority of your time.  Like any other schooling or work that requires much time and energy, there is a temptation to skimp on the spiritual life. 

The real issue here is this: who are we trying to please?  Will stand before my theology professor some day and have to explain to him why I let my knowledge of Calvin’s Institute’s slip?  Or will I stand before my Creator, the Judge and Savior of my soul, and have to explain why I stopped reading my Bible or worshipping him outside of the required church attendance?  I’m glad I didn’t listen to my fellow student.  My faith grew enormously during my seminary years.  I’m not saying it was easy, in fact, those were some of the hardest years of my life.  But I was stronger for having slogged through it all.

If seminary kills your faith, it’s because you were already a wounded duck.

Join a Local Church

Two things to look for in picking a local church (I’m assuming, of course, you are leaving your local church in order to attend seminary, which doesn’t apply to everyone):

  1. Find a church that is unimpressed with you.
  2. Serve in a non-visible role for a while.

Some churches are excited to have a seminary trained person, even if that person has only taken a few classes.  They’ll assume you know your Bible better than they, and your ideas are fresh and innovative.  If the people in your church are that excited to have a seminarian in their church, red flags and sirens should go off in your head.  Do not let you ego be stroked. 

Regarding the second point, my primary “job” at my church for quite a while was to set up the chairs on Sunday morning.  Every now and then I’d lead discussion in small group.  This confused a lot of my classmates, who couldn’t understand why I was in a church that didn’t have me preaching, didn’t pay me (and they still don’t) or take advantage of the “enormous privilege” of having a seminarian on board.

I’m thankful that my pastors were unimpressed with me.  They were not swayed by what I knew.  They cared just as much (if not more) about how I lived.  I set up chairs (and still do) because there was a need.  But “waiting in the wings” taught me a valuable lesson- I am called to a church, not a job.  If the church needs me to set up chairs, then that’s what I’ll do.  If they need me to teach a Bible class, then I’ll gladly do that.  But I’m there to serve the church, not the other way around.

Fellow Students are Fellow Learners, Not Combatants

Student B mentioned above had a penchant for debate.  That’s fine, many of us like a good debate sometimes.  But his advice to push myself ahead of the pack forgot one simple premise: my fellow students are brothers and sisters in Christ.  My job is to encourage and build them up.  My job is to place their needs ahead of my own.  Philippians 2:1-4 (and a host of other Scriptures) do not cease to apply because I’m in school.

My advice is to avoid the temptation to make yourself known.  One lesson I learned from my father is this: if you keep your mouth shut and work hard, the right people will notice.  What if they don’t?  Well, I’ll refer you to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Then your father, whos ees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Beyond that, I’ll say this: I learned just as much from the back-and-forth with other students during meal times as I did listening to lectures.  Outwardly processing (not competing) with classmates is probably the aspect of seminary I miss the most. 

Don’t Just Be Taught- Learn

Seminary professors should be excellent teachers.  They should prepare and teach in a way that challenges the students to think through the  Bible, theology, culture, etc.  Your classroom experience ought to impact your thinking in powerful ways.

But learning well is more than listening to a lecture.  It’s about engaging the material.  It’s about researching.  I learned a lot in seminary.  But I learned just as much on my own outside of the classroom as I did listening to the professor.  That isn’t a knock on the professors.  In fact, I often would hear a little nugget in a lecture that piqued my interest and would spend time outside of class looking into it more.  My professors inspired me to learn on my own.  That’s a huge compliment to them.

If your desire is to learn from great minds, you will have to do more than be taught by them.  You’ll have to follow their example and learn to learn.  You will not remember everything you hear in class, that just isn’t possible.  But you will remember what you research.  In order for your seminary experience to be a success, and for seminary education as a whole to improve, the student will have to take the primary responsibility off the professor and put it squarely on himself.  The seminary student is the person most responsible for learning well.

There is so much more I could say, but I’ll stop there.  I do have one more post in mind, how churches can improve seminary education.  I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of this post:  the student is the person most responsible for ensuring they receive a quality seminary experience.  A seminary education is an enormous privilege- not a right, a privilege.  For it to accomplish all that it was intended, the student will have to make it happen.

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Being Conformed to Christ in Community: A Study of Maturity, Maturation and the Local Church in the Undisputed Pauline Epistles, by James Samra.  This book is the published version of Jim Samra’s Oxford dissertation in the Library of New Testament Studies series.  Full disclosure: Samra is the senior pastor of a church in Michigan, where my wife’s uncle also pastors.  He (my uncle-in-law) is the one who gave me this book because he thought I’d be interested, and he was right.  It is a rare dissertation that makes me say, “this would make a great teaching in the church.”  In fact, I think some of this work might show up in his upcoming release, The Gift of the Church Being Conformed to Christ in Community is a bit dissertationy, which keeps it from being ideal for church goers, but the fruit of Samra’s labor begs to be distilled in a more popular format.  For Samra, the process of maturation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ, and this process is intended to be lived out and aided by life in the local church (note the emphasis on ‘process’).  To give a taste, Samra sees 5 components to the process of maturity: 1) identifying with Christ; 2) enduring suffering; 3) experiencing the presence of God; 4) receiving and living out wisdom from God; and 5) imitating a godly example (p168).  While this book showcases Samra’s skills as a New Testament scholar, I was more blessed by his obviously pastoral concern for the church.  I look forward to his next book.

Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World: Defending and Sharing Christ with Buddhists, by M. Tsering.  I remember hearing an Asian pastor once say “it is 10 times harder for a Buddhist to come to Christ than a Muslim.”  The opinion was obviously observational, and perhaps hyperbolic, but gets at a major issue in sharing Christ with a Buddhist: the Buddhist worldview is far removed from a Christian one.  This book deals specifically with Tibetan Buddhism, which is, in many ways, quite removed from the earliest (some might say ‘purist’) forms of Buddhism.  Tsering gives an overview of the religious history of Tibet, showing the movement from early shamanism to modern Tibetan Buddhism, which is essentially a combination of Buddhism and shamanism.  He surveys the worldview of Tibetan Buddhists and the struggles of reaching them with the gospel (both historically and strategically).  There are wonderfully helpful tidbits throughout the book.  Anyone interested in the intersection between Buddhism and Christianity, or even in cross-cultural missions more broadly, would benefit from reading this book.

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I just finished listening to Matt Chandler’s sermon from the 2009 Desiring God Conference (you can download the sermon here).  I found his story of how he ended up pastoring The Village Church in Dallas funny and fascinating, particularly his transformation from anger towards evangelicals to pastoring a church in the middle of the evangelical Bible belt.  I found this quote to be particularly powerful:

In December of 2002, despite my anger towards evangelicals, I became the pastor of a church of evangelicals in what Christianity Today called ‘the center of the evangelical world’.  And despite the fact that my heart had always burned for the prodigal, God sent me to the older brother.  … And I’ll tell you when all of it hit heavy on my heart is sitting in those testimony videos, sitting in those baptism services, and who I had seen to be my enemy and be an enemy of the gospel, had actually been a casualty of religion.

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This post is part of the continuing series known as Resource of the Month, where we highlight one particular resource for Christians and churches and show how it can help us in our walks with the Lord and ministry.  This month Brian and I have chosen to highlight the church, specifically the local church, as a resource.  This post focuses on one particular way the church (the gathering of Christians) can help each other.

In our circles, where not only the Sunday meeting is attended but smaller groups (which we call “Faithgroups”) are also emphasized, you won’t have to wait long before you hear someone quote Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (TNIV).

We apply this in any number of ways, moving beyond the “official” church gatherings (the aforementioned Sunday meeting and Faithgroups), and include meeting together in homes for dinner, discipling others, accountability, etc (many of which happen in our Faithgroups).  All of these fall under the application of the verse above.

But why was the author of Hebrews so intent on his readers meeting together regularly and purposefully? 

I think it’s easy to miss the connection with the verses around Hebrews 10:24-25, specifically what comes after it.  When you read verses 26-31, it seems like the author switches gears and begins a new topic, the problem of believers falling away.  But, the writer didn’t simply move on, these verses are connected.  If you are reading a more dynamic equivalent translation (TNIV, NLT), you might miss this connection (fans of the NASB & ESV cheer loudly). 

In fact, the writer gives us a clue that he is about to tell us why it’s important to continue meeting together when he uses the little word “for” (gar in Greek).  I’ll give verse 26 from the NASB translation: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…”  You can read the rest of the section for yourself to get an idea just how bad this “falling away” or “deliberate sinning” can be.  (Note: I’m well aware of the theological debates around these verses and the issue of someone “losing their salvation”, but I’m not going to address this here, since the point of this post stays the same.)

The author of Hebrews lets us know that regularly meeting together to encourage each other to live faithfully is vital in keeping us from falling away from our faith.  He knows, and we should too, that there is a day (or “Day” if you prefer) when God will judge us all, and you do not want to be on the side of those who “trample the Son of God underfoot” or “treat as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them” or “insult the Spirit of grace.”  Such people need to hear the warning in verse 31: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

But God has not left us alone to fight against sin and temptation.  He has given us each other.  He tells us to assemble together, not to meet a requirement or get a star on our Sunday School attendance chart.  He tells us to meet together so we can build each other up and keep each other from sinning.  We are given the responsibility to restore each other when we do sin (Gal 6:1, I deal with that verse here).

We were not saved so that we could become an “army of one.”  We were saved into a community, bound with other believers by the empowering presence of God, His Holy Spirit.  While this is not the only reason, we do need to continue meeting together so that we do not fall away, so that we can live out the words in Hebrews 10:23: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”

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As I considered the local church for this RoTM (RoTNMaaH), I began to think of the ways that it has been a part of my life as a follower of Jesus.  One of the first things that came to my mind was how I’ve been blessed by the diversity of the local church.  A clarification is in order, however.  It seems to me that today the concept of diversity has, quite oddly, taken on a more narrow focus than one might expect.  The mention of the word typically calls to mind different races: Asian, African-American, Latino(a), etc.  Diversity tends to be a synonym for multi-culturalism or simply a plurality of races.  This is especially apparent in light of the buzz around Obama’s historic inauguration and cabinet appointees.  This notion of diversity isn’t wrong, of course, but there is a broader sense of the word that comes to mind when I consider my experience in the local church which is independent of race.  I speak of the simple diversity of persons, or more specifically, backgrounds.

This was especially striking to me a few months ago on a weekend on retreat with about thirty people from my congregation.  The purpose of the retreat was to share our personal testimonies, so we spent our days in a large circle doing just that.  I was struck, awestruck even, by the tremendous diversity among the testimonies shared that weekend.  So many different people, from so many different backgrounds, all telling vastly different stories of God’s enduring faithfulness in pursing them and calling them to faith in Christ.  It was a perfect case study of unity in diversity; one body, many parts.

The local church has been an excellent vehicle for me getting to know brothers and sisters all over the demographic map.   As such, I’ve known deep friendships with people who I never would have met in any other capacity, and I’ve been exposed to personalities, histories, and gifts I might not otherwise ever experience.

I believe that the diversity of the Body of Christ is one of the most powerful encouragements available to us through participation the local church.   I could spend many paragraphs on the manifold blessings of diversity within the church community, but the one on my heart lately is the simple fact that it speaks to the inexhaustible grace of God in reaching so many different people, through so many different means, at so many different times.  God is still changing lives, and the diversity of these lives within the church is revelatory of His awesome power.

This fact is a counter to the pessimism one might feel in response to our fallen world.  There is no paucity for examples where we might heave a saddened sigh at some tragic news.  “How will that woman ever recover such a loss?  What chance do those children have?  How can he or she live a ‘normal’ life anymore? How will those wounds ever heal?”  The testimonies of the Church body answer the question: “By the awesome power of God.”

It is an encouragement to me as a parent when I wonder how my son will navigate through the jungle of lies that will surround him every day, or how he will weather the inevitable suffering that is a part of life.  Here again I can consider the testimonies of my brothers and sisters, who collectively have walked similar (often more treacherous) roads.  How will my son remain in the Truth? The same way my many brother and sisters have: By the awesome power of God.

God is the one who has redeemed, and will redeem, countless millions for His Glory.  Indeed, the whole earth shall be redeemed with them.  The Church is one of many indications that His redemptive power never rests, and His reach knows no bounds.

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RoTM: The Church

Danny and I have been negligent about our Resource of the Month (RoTM) posts, and since this one is coming in the middle of Janurary, it shall be our RoTNMaaH: Resource of the Next Month and a Half, despite the unfortunate phonetic coincidence that the acronym sounds “rotten.”  Regardless, join us for the next 6 weeks as we write about the Church.

Growing up in New England, the start of winter meant the beginning of the snow day season. I remember the feeling of expectation and excitement that welled up in my heart when snow was in the weekday forecast. I’d wake up, look out the window, and rush to the radio, eager hear my school called. I doubt I ever listened so intently to an otherwise dull list of school names. The benefits of a snow day were twofold: (1) no school, and (2) playing in the snow. So powerful were these childhood emotions that the feeling sticks with me to this day; I’m still excited when it snows. The difference is that now I have no good reason for excitement.  Snow means little more than inconvenience, perilous travel, and back pain.

We got about six inches this past Sunday in Boston. Since I was serving in the worship band (a ministry that requires me to get to church a few hours early), I checked the cancellation web-sites (my, how times have changed) before I cleaned off my car. I didn’t want to get to church only to find out that our pastor had called off our service. He hadn’t. As I drove in on the snowy roads, I wondered to myself, “When is it appropriate to cancel Sunday worship service?”

The question nagged at me, because the more I thought about it, the harder it became to answer. The reason, I believe, is that the cancellation question really asks a bigger question: How important is Sunday worship service? Indeed, why go to church in the first place? We could probably write a book here, hence our decision to explore (the C)church over the next few weeks.  However, if I had just a few sentences to spend, I’d say that we go to church for (1) worship, (2) community, and (3) hearing the Word preached. Negatively, we don’t go to church to (1) throw God a bone, (2) earn our salvation, (3) feel good about ourselves (i.e., self-righteous).

The other meta-question asked by the prospect of cancellation is “Why would you cancel church in the first place?” In the case of a snow day, I propose two broad categories of answer: (1) Safety – it is unsafe to travel, (2) Pragmatism – nobody will be there anyway.

So, tackling my meta-questions in reverse order, I find more tensions than answers.  The pragmatic “nobody will be there anyway” reason for cancellation is valid:  Why labor for hours in travel and setup, or spend money on heat and electricity for a few (if any) congregants?  Fair enough, I guess, so long as the reclaimed time and resources are better spent.  Against the validity of this claim is the awesome truth that our God can be decidedly impractical.  How do we resolve the tension?  Ask God.

Regarding the reasoning from safety, we may ask the fair question, “Why risk injury or accident for church?”  What if the governor declares a state of emergency and it’s illegal to travel?  Against this, of course, is the conviction afforded us by looking to countries like China, wherein millions literally risk their lives to illegally attend a worship service in the cold darkness of a cave.  I would guess that a few inches of snow would not deter these brothers and sisters of ours in the least.  How do we resolve the tension?  Ask God.

Working back to the first question, “how important is worship service?” we can notice that in many ways the answer is a barometer for somebody’s feelings about church. It could also serve as a barometer for a given church’s efficacy at ministering to its congregation.  I submit for now that worship service is very important (more on this over the next few weeks).  If you should feel otherwise, you might ask yourself why.  If it’s because of your church, perhaps you’re there to be an agent for positive change (prayerfully, lovingly, and thoughtfully implemented without subversion), or, you might need to move on.  Ask God about it.  If it’s not because of your church, perhaps there are heart issues upon which God is placing His finger, or past wounds that need healing.  Ask God about them.

We might also think outside of the proverbial box, too.  “Church,” of course, is not the building we attend, and there is no hard requirement that we have to go there to worship, connect or be edified.  In the case of a snow storm, perhaps people who live near one another could gather together in houses.  Or, perhaps a simple phone call could be made to a brother or sister for prayer and connection over the phone.  The pastor could e-mail sermon notes, record it and post it on a web site, or families could have their own worship service.  Here, I think, is the key to my point above.  If service is cancelled, or it is truly insane to attempt travel, we ought to put the reclaimed time to good use.

In my personal experience, the church has vascillated between being a spa and a gym.  Sometimes, it’s immensely refreshing and I can’t wait to go again.  Other times, I dread going, labor at participating, and feel sore days afterwards.  In either case, I’m the better for having gone, and it’s been good for me.  As for the snow, since God gives it to us in the first place, it only stands to reason that He’ll tell us what to do about it if we ask Him.

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