If you’re doing seminary without significant involvement in a local church, as the saying goes, “You’re doing it [sic] wrong.”
Over the past two years of seminary I’ve become more and more convinced of the church’s importance in my (and others’) seminary education. It takes a church to raise a Christian. And equally so, it takes a church to form a seminarian. As such, I am convinced that going through seminary without significant involvement in a local church (i.e., not just attending, but being involved in ministry) is incredibly harmful to one’s seminary experience and formation process.
Let me share with you at least three reasons why.
1. It’s a needed supplement to your seminary education.
We learn a lot of valuable stuff in seminary. But seminary can’t provide us with all the training we need. (Get your Greek out!) It’s a para- (“alongside”) church organization, not a para- “this-is-all-there-is!” organization.
There’s a difference between writing a sermon or teaching outline for a class and having to prepare an actual sermon or lesson for real people with real life issues. There’s a difference between learning counseling theories and participating in real life discipleship. There’s a difference between learning theology about the church and learning how to develop a church budget, how elder meetings work, how to exercise church discipline, and how an average church of less than 100 people functions.
In short, we learn really valuable things in the class room. But there’s also a lot we don’t learn there.
2. It changes the way you ‘do’ your seminary education.
Notice, I didn’t say it necessarily should change what you learn in seminary. What I am saying, however, is that it will drastically change your experience of learning what you are learning.
First, it helps you to avoid confusing a means (education, learning, knowledge) with an end (ministering to real people in real life). Yes, learn the same material with the same vigor. But know why. … In fact, because you have the “why” (the end), you should study harder (the means, the “how”).
Significant involvement in a local church has the effect of pushing the “why” (ministry) to the forefront during the “how” (seminary education). When you’re significantly involved in a church, you just can’t help but think this way. You’re so wrapping up in church life, it’s automatic. When you’re in Greek class learning to make syntax outlines, you can’t help but think, “How would knowledge of this structure help me preach this text more effectively?” When you’re learning theology you think to yourself, “What are the practical implications that flow out of this reality? How does this drive worship?” When you’re in Intro to Missions class you’re constantly thinking, “How can I translate what I’m learning here into the context of my current church (or future church)?”
Second, it helps calibrate your priorities. This second point flows out of the first–when you know why you are learning what you are learning, it changes what you prioritize in your seminary education. “What questions are more valuable for me to be asking at this point?” “What electives will best prepare me for future and current ministry?” “What areas of study should I be giving more attention to?”
Yes, yes, yes! Learn about all the technical stuff. Engage with liberal scholarship. Ask the speculative questions. Knock yourself out. … But don’t get carried away by getting your educational priorities discombobulated. Keep your educational priorities straight by keeping the church in plain view.
3. You need the church.
We’ve heard the saying, “Don’t let seminary become a spiritual cemetery.” …
I’ll keep this point short because it’s rather simple: you need the church. You go to seminary. *Clapping my hands for you.* You’re not above the need for accountability, discipleship, fellowship, encouragement, etc. For any professing Christian–including you–to refuse to participate in a local church is really an arrogant statement of self-confidence and self-reliance.
The Christian life is not an individual endeavor. We know this from our theology classes, so let’s put it into practice.
* An extra note for seminarians pursuing academia.
Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Well, I want to enter academia. So, my focus should really be on academia.” Alright… You’re really doing seminary wrongly. To be completely honest, you’re the kind of person I want to grab by the shoulders and shake in order to try to wake you from your stupor!
Before seminaries existed, future pastors received their training from the church itself. As such, their ‘seminary-like’ education was marinated in the context of church ministry. I can only imagine that as a result it was much more difficult to divorce an end (ministering to real people in real life) from a means (‘seminary-like’ education). And the means would have been immeasurably influenced by the end.
But as the seminary emerged, its education became more distant from ministry in the local church. Over time professorship became more professionalized and specialized. Academia became more preoccupied with questions of liberal scholarship than with the real life struggle of parishioners. In short, to some degree (we can debate how much, but some degree no doubt exists) we have seen a distancing between academia and the church. Now we have to talk about crossing the bridge between the two when before there was no bridge to cross.
Don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying seminary, professor’s specializing, or engaging with liberal scholarship is bad. I go to seminary, have specialized professors, and engage with liberal scholarship because I value doing and having these things. But in its current culture, seminary has a lot of problems. My fear, for those of you who want to enter academia, is that you will perpetuate these problems into the next generation.
For the church’s sake, for the sake of their pastors whom you will train and the people to whom they will minister, do not do it! Be a pastor-professor. Be someone who has significant experience and current involvement in the church so that you, in your very person, can embody that bridge between academia and the church and translate it into the seminary experience of your future students.