As a professor who spends a great deal of time with young people — and with others who spend time with young people — I get a lot of questions about life, God’s call, and preparation for the future. One of the more common questions comes from those who feel a call to vocational ministry and in particular to student ministry. The question has to do with preparation. How much formal preparation? How much experience?
What should be my next step?
I recently talked to a young man who had tons of experience in terms of interacting with and being in front of people. An ultimate fighter for a while, he fought in front of large crowds and met multitudes of people. After meeting Christ and spending time overseas doing missions his perspective changed. When he and I visited, I found him to be hungry to become better prepared. He wanted to be the best ambassador for Christ possible, so he asked a lot of good questions about ministry.
I gave him the standard line I give. I do not know who said it first, but it is good, basic counsel: you take care of the depth of your ministry and God will take care of the breadth of your ministry. I still believe that.
Let me elaborate. Both depth and breadth matter, after all. None of us want to be theological nincompoops, and we all would rather be more than less effective as we minister. Balance matters in terms of ministry preparation. Most young men I meet who feel a call to serve in a pastoral or other leadership role do value both depth and breadth. But I find that balance too often is not appreciated enough. In particular I see this in those preparing for ministry other than the pastor, such as worship leaders, or student pastors.
I meet plenty of extremely gifted student pastors who have a knack for relating to a younger generation. They move naturally into ministry opportunities and thrive around people. Many are also excellent communicators. And, I have met aspiring worship leaders who have a lot of musical ability but whose ministry ability – like basic interpersonal skills – of an aardvark. I have noticed a trend–while certainly not always the case, at times the more gifted and naturally capable demonstrate a corresponding lack of appreciation for formal equipping, including theological training and equipping in specific areas where growth is needed. Many times that comes from those who supervise them who would rather–unknowingly or not–get the most out of these gifted young leaders they can without something like education hampering them.
I have on occasion talked to gifted students who had a pastor seek to lure them away from finishing their education with the opportunity of a “great ministry” but one honestly more focused on filling an immediate need in the church than the long term best interest of the student. On the other hand, some young leaders figure they did not seem to need theological training to get where they are to this point, so why bother? Such a disposition sounds great on the surface but smacks of remarkable shortsightedness and hubris. These young leaders could use a little time with a hefty book on theology as they tend to overvalue their experience and undervalue their theological acumen.
There is another side: some are long on love for study and short on interest in actual ministry experience. Teaching at a seminary allows me to encounter more than a few who greatly value depth. They love theology, biblical languages, and many enjoy debate. All well and good, however, in some of these I see a lack of appreciation for the practice of ministry. These fellows need to get out of the library and tell somebody about Jesus. Or go to a nursing home and volunteer. Or something, just DO something.
So here is the advice I find myself giving more and more. If you are young in ministry and have had more than the normal opportunities to practice ministry, you need to give more attention to your education. Get that degree. Do not see formal education as a necessary hoop to jump through; see it as essential to your own discipleship. Take time to think long and hard about the long-term ministry you hope to have. The fact that some teenagers who cannot articulate a most basic understanding of the gospel think you are too cool for school should have no impact on your desire to serve Christ with all your mind (Romans 12:2). I have met enough young men who are emotionally passionate about Jesus but neither intellectually rigorous nor appreciative enough of discipline to be prepared for a life of ministry.
But for the young theologian who enjoys bantering about everything from Bart Ehrman to Wittgenstein, here is my advice: get yourself hip deep in a local community where you are investing in some ministry to the broken world that exists all around you. Get out of the library and into reality.
A professional seminarian is as unattractive as a theologically underdeveloped “youth guy.” So if you are young and seeking to follow Christ as a minister of the gospel, sign up for a class (we have great online classes at SEBTS), or go volunteer at a local student ministry. Just don’t stay where you are.
Just one final word: what I said above does not actually apply to a young minister starting in ministry, but for any follower of Christ. It also applies to those of us with years of service to Christ under our belts. Grow deep, reach wide, and be busy for the Master.
Note: originally posted at www.alvinreid.com