Many Bible college and seminary towns have the same dilemma—how to get seminary students out of their peer group and into the life of the local church. Students flock to local churches, especially to those with vital preaching and evangelism ministries, yet can often be found clustered together in a circle talking about their studies and experiences.
After spending years in a classroom with their classmates, in a church with their classmates, they then expect to be called to ascend the pulpit and preach to a congregation made up of people of all ages, life situations, and callings. Many congregants will have decades of Christian growth beyond the grads. Other parishioners have walked through depths of suffering and struggle that new ministers have little acquaintance with. Yet those nearing graduation ambitiously expect to shepherd a congregation of Christ’s sheep. For all their education, they may have less acquaintance with the body of Christ than they would had they never embarked on study.
Undoubtedly part of the problem is that college and seminary students desperately need to be shepherded themselves to grow in knowing and loving the body of Christ. Another, perhaps greater problem, is that many don’t yet understand and know the Good Shepherd very well. In the worst cases, while they may have a head for learning theology, or a vision of themselves orating in a pulpit, they do not have the heart and mind of Christ at all.
What is the answer?
First, the core of a ministry student’s pursuit needs to be to know Christ, to know His heart, His love for His church. Second, students need to be encouraged to engage in the whole life of the local church: pursuing knowing, loving, and learning from the whole church. Growing towards a healthy and fruitful ministry does not mean abandoning study but applying it with the realization that there is a lifetime of learning to take place in knowing the Lord and his people.
A healthy, integrated balance of study and service to the whole body of the local church—under the leadership of ministers and elders—is the best route for the formation of new ministers. It is the best route because it is the biblical pattern. We see it in Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and the disciples, Paul and Timothy: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Paul exhorts Timothy, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” in the context of relationship with the whole body of the church (1 Timothy 6:11).
A student’s life should be marked by things like having coffee with a seasoned elder, visiting the elderly, helping the sick, building relationships with families at different stages of life, and ministering to children. This kind of ministry training will do the most to help young men grow in loving the church as Christ loves the church.