In the previous post, we considered the rationale behind a local church model of theological education. In this post, we want to turn our attention to five potential benefits of such a church-based theological education model:
There is much to be said for the gift of modern technology and the instantaneous methods of communications we have available to us. I teach in West Africa at a pastors' college from time to time, and it is absolutely astounding that my students there can use their smartphones to download lectures on covenant theology and apologetics from some of the finest instructors in some of the finest seminaries in America and be listening or watching said lectures within minutes. What a blessing this is for the wider church, and especially the nascent church in the global south which is often so resource-poor. We have much for which to be thankful in this regard.
Nevertheless, there is still much to be said pedagogically and pastorally for traditional, in-person, physical classroom educational environments. You'll note that in West Africa, though there are voluminous resources available to the student body and denomination digitally, the leaders of the denomination still desire an instructor to come to campus and teach the students in-person, in-classroom, and provide personalized mentoring and feedback and guidance tailored to the students' needs. This is something no recording can ultimately do, and there is a strong case to be made for the advantages of in-person classroom instruction.
Moreover, I know of one professor who has noted how infrequently his students will cite their own pastor when listing the preachers who have most shaped and influenced them. There is certainly nothing wrong with appreciating and being edified by a multiplicity of strong preaching ministries, but should it be the predominant trend that one's actual pastor has a fairly minimal role in shaping one's theological education? Historically, this was not always the case and with a local, church-based program of theological education it need not be the case. What a gift it is to be instructed in the classroom in the doctrines of the faith, and then to have those same doctrines applied to the health of one's soul as one is shepherded, mentored, and cared for the same cohort of pastor-professors.
Last but not least under this benefit is the oft-overlooked asset of learning in community. Some of my very best friends are from our seminary days. I don't know that there's any way to replicate that kind of experience: a band of brothers training for a life of pastoral ministry, learning together in the same classes day after day, living as next-door neighbors on campus, interning in churches together, growing in knowledge, grace, and piety together during some very formative years. But even if that rich and nostalgic experience cannot be reproduced entirely, the value of learning together with a fellow cohort of flesh-and-blood peers cannot be overstated. Attending classes together week after week, forming relationships and friendships, discussing the assigned reading content for the class, studying together and going over each other's notes, hearing each other's question asked in class and being able to offer response and perspective when one person perhaps slightly misunderstood, the live-fire dynamic and back-and-forth exchange from student-to-student or student-to-teacher, or the fine-tuning and reinforcing of each other's comprehension during those crucial after-class discussions in the lobby: all of these intangible aspects are of immense value to the greater educational enterprise and none of these, I would suggest, can be replicated by the student sitting alone at his kitchen table, tuning in to pre-recorded lectures on his iPad.
It has been said that everyone is a theologian. Certainly, then, every Christian is a theologian. Whether they are doing right theology or sound theology is the question. But the fact is: every Christian is making theological distinctions and formulating doctrinal sensibilities, and since they are, it behooves church leaders to inform their people with a healthy and robust theological framework. Theological study can serve every Christian because every Christian is urged to love God with their mind as well as their hearts and souls (Matthew 22:37).
Not every church member will avail himself of the opportunity, but many will and many are desirous of the prospect, and in an age of biblical illiteracy and theological paucity, it can serve the church well to offer opportunities to facilitate a more theologically-educated laity.
This benefit might seem to be the most obvious, but just in case the readers of Ref21 need convincing, we might borrow from the words of Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas in this regard:
Why is doctrine important? And why is it important for every Christian?
Three reasons rise to the surface:
a. Doctrine helps us to understand the Bible as a whole. What does the Bible teach us about vocation, recreation, money, relationships, or the gift of tongues? "Brothers, do not be children in your thinking... but in your thinking be mature" (1 Corinthians 14:20). If we are to understand what the Bible is teaching us, we need to understand the message of the Bible as a whole.
b. Doctrine helps us engage the world of unbelief. We are to provide a "defense" to anyone who asks for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). Knowing the truth aids us in defending the Bible against the philosophies of our time that seek to undermine the Christian faith.
c. Doctrine helps us praise God. In fact, all truth is designed for doxology; its goal is to help us worship and praise God. When we take our eyes off that goal, doctrine "puffs up" and produces pride and factionalism (1 Corinthians 8:1). But when doctrine meets the heart, the result is always a song!
Not every pastor can be a seminary instructor; nor should he be. On the other hand, there are many pastors that would enjoy and probably benefit from trying their hand at delivering and instructing collegiate or graduate-level theological content in a classroom environment.
If you're anything like me, you find that you learn a subject matter best and obtain greater mastery over it when you are required to teach it. Reading is good, but having to distill and communicate the content of a subject matter has served me even better in deepening my understanding of historical theology, church history, and systematic theology over the past few years. Having such an opportunity can help drive the pastor/instructor to become a better reader, student, aspiring scholar, communicator, and--ideally--teacher of truth. This can help to serve not only the life of his mind and ministry, but also the life of the congregation in the long run.
A secondary benefit here for the pastor is a shared distribution of labor. In the region where I serve, our Reformed churches tend to be smaller, with pastoral staffs consisting of one minister, two tops. There are people to be visited, funerals to preached, hospitals to be frequented, community functions to be attended, letters to be written, bulletins to be prepared, worship services to be planned, media to be uploaded, counseling to be had, weddings to be officiated, jails to be visited, interns to be mentored, people to be loved, studying to be done, and sermons to be prepared. Add on top of that meeting the desire for a robust theological education at a higher level to be taught among the congregation, and the prospect sounds overwhelmingly exhausting.
But if, as BRITE has done, we can pool together our resources and energies, and one man teaches covenant theology, and another man teaches church history, and another Greek, and another Old Testament, and so forth...well, suddenly the goal doesn't seem quite so insurmountable.
In my short tenure in ordained ministry I have met numerous ruling elders and deacons who have expressed a desire to be able to study at a level that their pastor has enjoyed--to be able to learn and glean from the robust and rigorous biblical and theological content that we pastors often take for granted--in order to inform their own ministries within the local church. I've even run into several ruling elders who sometimes consider themselves to be "second rate" elders due to their perceived lack of formal theological training. I find this to be patently untrue when I learn of the heart, character, and doctrinal apprehension of these men, but just the same: to strengthen them with deeper biblical instruction and theological grasp, to better equip them as they visit, prepare Bible studies, pray, counsel, and even preach--what a wonderful opportunity that could be!
Here is such an opportunity. Oftentimes elder/deacon/officer training is helpful: covering the basics of the Westminster Confession, Presbyterian polity, theological high points, church history etc. And--we should be quick to note--education and instruction is no substitute for years of learned wisdom and experience. Nevertheless, what a gift it is to be able to give a ruling elder training and facility in systematic and covenant theology as he strives to grow in his own aptness to teach and grows as a fellow-laborer in shepherding the flock of God. What a help to the deacon to be given deeper instruction in ethics or pastoral counseling as he tends to the needs of mercy and physical care for the members of the flock he serves. What a wonderful opportunity to give to the youth volunteer, the Sunday school coordinator, or the women's Bible Study leader a greater understanding in hermeneutics or biblical theology as she seeks to plan lessons and curriculum for multiple age groups or lead a study amongst a group of people from varying theological backgrounds and all sorts of baggage of theology that is best "unlearned."
Wherever seminaries have been planted, they have served to bolster the health and strength of the local church and congregations in its general region. This is part of the reason why some seminaries have adopted the multiple-campus model: more biblical orthodox schools of theology in more places serves to bolster more churches.
This is not unlike the thought behind the strategic creation of some church plants or campus ministries. Turning the tide on theological anemia is an endeavor which will take years--decades!--not days. But if a theological school or training center can be established, and if it can begin to have an impact on the theological mind and life in the pews, and if local pastors and planters and offices and churchmen can be raised up and trained in that setting and sent back into their local contexts whether to revitalize or to start a new work, then the robust teaching that is being exported from that center can begin to take root and--eventually, Lord willing-- have a profound effect on the church in that region (both Reformed and non-Reformed) for generations to come.
An educational ministry such as this is most certainly not the church nor is it a substitute for the church. Nothing can substitute for the reign of King Jesus within the church and the work of the Holy Spirit through the faithful, biblical church ministry of the Word, sacraments, and discipline. But an endeavor such as this is one that can come alongside the church, bless the church, and invest in the good of the church. Rather, it is a tool in the service of the church, striving for her good, and for the bolstering of her health for generations to come.
Sean G. Morris serves as the Associate Minister of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA) of Roanoke, Virginia and as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education.
Theological poverty is rampant in the majority of the Western Church today. North American evangelical/Protestant churches are suffering an endemic deficiency with regard to biblical and theological understanding. This is no new assessment,1 and the consequences to our spiritual health have been dire. One need only refer to the penetrating and embarrassing survey provided by Ligonier Ministries in their recent "State of Theology" report. Formerly-basic tenets of the faith and fundamental principles of Christianity that were intended to be catechized to and understood by children are now misunderstood or ill-comprehended by the majority of self-confessing conservative Protestant adults. Consequently, our spiritual health is anemic, our piety lacking, and our moral and ethical sensibilities on once straightforward issue are now in shambles. How is a pastor, elder, or Session to respond to this problem?
If we are committed to the ordinary means of grace--and by extension, the ordinary means of spiritual growth--it stands to reason that we trust that God's Word, applied by God's Spirit to do God's work. In this day and age, it's safe to say that God's people need more of God's Word, not less; more doctrine, more theology, more Scripture, more understanding, and more study of the "faith once for all delivered to the saints." Mere intellectual, cognitive apprehension of these matters is not a full-proof solution nor guarantee of godliness among God's people. It is, however, a target at which we want to aim.
If we believe in the engaging and transforming of the heart through the mind in the life of the Christian believer, then we must begin by targeting the mind with doctrinal meat, and not milk. Theological education should be happening in our churches on a regular basis. Theological education is, at a fundamental level, Christian education. While our corporate worship services require expositional sermons from the text of Scripture--and not academic lectures--there are, no doubt, other venues in the life and ministry of a local where Christian education and doctrinal instruction take place: in our Sunday schools and Bible Studies and small groups and midweek teaching occasions.
But what about opportunities for more advanced theological studies, both for the congregation member who would like to learn and for the pastor who would like to teach, but isn't a part of a seminary faculty? Some churches do have wonderful theological training programs as part of the regular teaching schedule within their church,2 but many churches--especially smaller churches--simply do not have the student base, resources, staffing, or schedule flexibility to pull off such a program. But what if several churches pulled together to accomplish such an endeavor? What may be insurmountable or impractical for one may be doable if shared among several.
I can only speak with reference to the model or paradigm with which I am most familiar, namely, the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education (BRITE). BRITE aims to be a parachurch ministry--pooling the resources and energies of several different Reformed and Calvinistic congregations and leaders in our area--that exists to serve the wider church in our region. We desire to be a center that provides theological education and training for folks (whether officers or laity) who need or desire it, to assist area pastors in such an endeavor who are unable to do so themselves, to provide continuing education, to be a resource for church officers and ministry leaders, etc.
In short, our desire is to serve those who cannot avail themselves of the opportunity and blessing of a traditional seminary education--whether due to financial constraints or to station in life--and to serve them and invest in the health of the local church by bringing the seminary to the pews.
Models of Theological Education
What our institute is endeavoring to accomplish is nothing novel. I suspect that the aim of BRITE is much the same as the aim of other church-based theological initiatives in our day and earlier. One thinks of the Pensacola Theological Institute, the early days of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology founded by James Montgomery Boice, the ongoing annual Theology Night at Tenth Presbyterian Church, or even the renowned Pastors' College founded by the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon. For our region's needs, the church seems to have been best served by establishing a sort of theological college and training center, with traditional curriculum plans and degree criteria, as well as the occasional conference and seminar. Both laity as well as church officers and pastors have enrolled in our courses and have attended conference offerings.
Prior to the rise of the modern seminary model and the scholastic-university model before that, it was common to find in-house or local methods of theological education, mentoring, and training.3 Small cohorts of ministerial candidates, mentored and taught by a man in the ministry (oftentimes the candidate's own pastor) were the standard norm. One thinks of the cathedral schools of the medieval church or even the Genevan Academy founded by John Calvin as extensions of this simple model.
This is not to argue any demerits against the theological seminary. This author stands as a happy and grateful graduate of one such institution. Rather, this is simply to recognize the potential benefit and blessing that can come when the content, opportunity, and ethos of the seminary campus and curriculum can be transplanted back into a local church context. Moreover, the benefit and blessing enjoyed by the seminarian-turned-pastor can also be extended to more than just the pastor, and can serve to edify his congregation and the wider church. In a subsequent post, we will consider a few of the benefits that accrue from church based theological eduction and training.
2. One thinks of the Centerpoint School of Theology put on by our friends at First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, SC).
3. For an insightful treatment on this subject, see Justo Gonzalez' The History of Theological Education (Abingdon Press, 2015).
One of the benefits of having young children while being a pastor is that it affords you the opportunity to get plugged into the local school system. When we first met with someone who worked at the school, we told them the name of our church. Their immediate response was, "Oh we used to go there! It's a great church! But...there just weren't enough teens for my kids to have friends." I also heard this from another person who had visited our congregation.
When I shared this with a friend of mine, he told me that he has had similar experiences. He noted that he had followed up with two families who had visited the church he pastors; but, that they ultimately decided to go elsewhere. Their reasoning was the same. The sound preaching of the Word was there--and that was the most important thing for them--but there just weren't enough young couples their age with whom they could connect.
As I was relaying these two episodes to a mentor, who is himself a retired pastor, he wistfully looked to the corner of the room and mused to himself, "You know, if every family that complained we didn't have a big enough youth group had just stuck around we'd have had the biggest youth group in town!" If I didn't laugh, I would have cried.
There are a lot of things that people look for in a church. Those things can be superficial (e.g. "the building needs to be beautiful"). They can be substantial (e.g. "The Word needs to be preached faithfully"). Others are understandable (e.g. "I want people my age with whom I can connect"). Often the things for which visitors are looking are things that lie outside of their control. For instance, a visitor may like certain things about a local church but cannot change the pastor's preaching. But, when visitors leave a church because of its composition (e.g. young, old, racial or otherwise) they are giving up on a church because of one aspect of the life of the church that they actually have the ability to do something about.
What amazing things would happen in local churches all over our nation if people attended solely for the sound ministry of the Word of God and then contributed their time, talents, and treasures to help make the church what it could be in other areas that are secondary, tertiary, preferential or understandable. What if, instead of seeing the church that isn't there, we saw the church that is there?
One of the things that the Apostle John sets out for us in the book of Revelation is how Jesus views seven churches. He views some as faithful but small (Rev. 2:9). He views some as needing to repent over serious issues (2:16). There is one church that Jesus sees as having a great reputation and seeming healthy on the surface, but which He explains is actually dead deep down (3:1). This last church in particular shows us that first impressions are often deceptive. If someone had shown up at the church of Sardis they would have said, "This church is respectable. They have a good reputation. They look good. And wow, check out that youth group. Sure, they're a little spiritually sleepy (3:3), but you know, every church has its problems."
When we consider the seven church that Jesus addresses in the book of Revelation, we find that He takes issue with almost all of them; and yet, He doesn't simply walk away from any of them. When it comes to the secondary issues, what if we all started seeing the church that Jesus sees? What if we all said, "You know, the church isn't what it should be or could be...yet; but, maybe the Lord will use me with my time, talents, and treasures to make it a place that can meet the needs of the saints? Instead of seeing the church as a place where people serve me, what if we all started to see the church that Jesus sees-a place beloved by Him (that may not be where it should be yet) and in which God may use me to build it up?