It's the Theology!

In The Nick of Timeby Kevin T. Bauder

When I accepted my first senior pastorate, I thought that I had no illusions about ministry. I had grown up in a pastor’s home, been through four years of Bible college (which took me six years to finish), completed four years of seminary (M.Div. and Th.M.), served in an interim pastorate, worked as a pastor of youth and music for two years, and taught Greek and theology in a Bible college for two years. I thought that I knew what I was getting into.

I was wrong.

Within a month, I felt completely overwhelmed. I had no idea that pastoral ministry involves constantly juggling a dozen time bombs, any one of which has the potential to destroy the church. I had no clue about the depth to which depravity has affected the lives of Baptist church members or about the horrendous moral and spiritual problems that I would be forced to confront. I had no way of guessing how petty and vituperative God’s dear children could be.

I was not ready.

Of course, most of ministry was not the “bad stuff.” Most of it was very, very good and tremendously fulfilling. The church to which I was called was not a bad church—it was just an ordinary one, with all the usual quirks and foibles.

But I didn’t know that.

Twenty years before, the church had been grown by a young, fervent pastor whose ministry was run-and-gun evangelism, whose understanding of the Christian life was revivalistic, and whose leadership was cheerfully dictatorial. The people who had been reached under that man’s ministry envisioned the church as a great soul-winning station.

Ten years later, the church had called a pastor whose primary strength was his warm, caring, non-confrontational persona. He visited people in their homes and in the hospitals, listened for long hours to their problems, encouraged the downcast, and sought to heal the hurting. The people who were reached under his ministry thought of the church as a spiritual infirmary, a place where the dysfunctional could be made to feel good about themselves.

The most recent pastor before me had a strongly expository pulpit ministry, which drew a certain number of people into the church. For whatever reason, however, there had been conflict, and many within the church had come to perceive him as coldly manipulative and as malignantly dictatorial. Those who were reached under his ministry viewed the church as a sort of institute for Christian growth, in which Christian maturity was almost equated with doctrinal and biblical knowledge.

The church shared no consensus about what legitimate ministry or leadership should look like. Within the congregation were three different understandings of ministry and three different visions of success. In other words, whatever anyone wanted to do, two-thirds of the people thought that it was the wrong thing.

Talk about frustration.

Bible college and seminary certainly had not prepared me to face this situation. I found myself wondering, “Why didn’t we talk about these things? Why wasn’t I given better instruction?”

The fact is, however, that no schooling could have prepared me to know exactly what to do in this situation, nor in ten thousand other situations that I might have ended up in. The point of training is not to give you all the answers. No training ever could. On the contrary, the point of seminary is to give you the tools that you will need to think and study your way to the answers. And as ill-prepared as I felt (I barely survived), I cannot imagine the disaster that my ministry would have become without seminary.

My first pastorate forced me to go through the painful work of examining my assumptions and convictions. It made me ask basic questions. What is the church? What is its mission? What are the measures of successful ministry? What is the shape of the Christian life? What does Christian maturity look like? What does it take to get them to grow up? What do you say to obviously immature people who are convinced that they are spiritual giants?

Most of all, this pastorate forced me to begin asking, “What has gone wrong?” It became obvious to me that much ministry among Baptist fundamentalists was shallow, ineffective, and unstable—and it was getting worse. Given the confusion of models for ministry with which I was confronted, I felt that I had to start from the beginning and to rethink (really, to think for the first time) my own philosophy of ministry.

Eventually I was able to draw certain conclusions. Three of them are worth mentioning.

First, the problems that Christian churches and Christian people are facing today are fundamentally theological. The answers cannot be found in social sciences, philosophies, or methodologies. The problems will continue to grow until we address the false theologies—the wrong ways of thinking about God and His world—that lie at their root.

Second, if the foregoing is true, then the best preparation for ministry is theological preparation. Seminaries in particular must be careful to prepare Christian leaders who have the tools to evaluate bad theologies and to correct the bad ways of living that arise from bad ways of perceiving God. Schools that overload the curriculum with “methods” courses and that fail to prepare their graduates to think through new issues are dooming the next generation to shallow leadership.

Third, within the seminaries, even the most academic subjects must be taught with an eye to real-world ministry. Ideally, every professor of Greek, Hebrew, hermeneutics, history, or theology will bring substantial pastoral or missionary experience to his task. He will be able to show his students how their studies will matter when they reach their first full-time ministry. In other words, pastoral theology should not be something that is added on. It ought to be taught in every course in the curriculum.

Let me be clear. The best preparation for ministry is rigorously theological. Greek, Hebrew, hermeneutics, and theology are right at the heart of how a Christian leader does his work. I say this, not as an ivory-tower intellectual, but as somebody who’s got his nose bloody in the real world of pastoring and church planting. There is no substitute for the training that you get in a good theological seminary.

The Shining Light

William Cowper (1731-1800)

My former hopes are fled,
My terror now begins;
I feel, alas! that I am dead
In trespasses and sins.

Ah, whither shall I fly?
I hear the thunder roar;
The Law proclaims Destruction nigh,
And Vengeance at the door.

When I review my ways,
I dread impending doom:
But sure, a friendly whisper says,
“Flee from the wrath to come.”

I see, or think I see,
A glimmering from afar;
A beam of day, that shines for me,
To save me from despair.

Forerunner of the sun,
It marks the pilgrim’s way;
I’ll gaze upon it while I run,
And watch the rising day.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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