How seminaries fail

Seminaries have created enough predictable, conventional, cookie-cutter ministers. The church needs ardent, zealous, incensed, enraged and impassioned ministers.

By Brett Younger

A light shines on them. A voice calls their name. The Spirit ignites their hearts. They feel compelled to follow Jesus, challenge the church and change the world. They long to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.

They tell someone about their call to serve Christ and are told to go to seminary, so they move far from their homes, friends and jobs. They pray, plan and commit three years and considerable expense because their souls are on fire.

New students show up on the first day of class ready to take up a cross and die for their faith. Then faculty members begin teaching them to exegete Second Timothy, conjugate Greek verbs and compare and contrast Calvinism and Arminianism. Students learn to trace the lineage of the kings of Israel, argue about the doctrine of the Trinity and preach clever, inoffensive sermons.

At our worst, seminaries invite disciples to scholarship that forgets its purpose. The impression given is that God’s grace is so complicated that you have to have a master’s degree to share it.

Teachers who have not been on a church staff since the 1980s inadvertently increase the distance between the seminary and the church. Professors become so sophisticated they are reticent to talk about giving their hearts to Jesus.

At our worst, we calm down John the Baptist. We turn down the volume. We pour water on the fire. We teach students to weigh the alternatives.

At our worst, the house next door is on fire and seminaries are teaching students to trim the hedges. The car is about to fly over the cliff and seminaries are changing the radio station. Children have nothing to eat and seminaries are teaching students to look like good ministers.

Too many students learn to be as careful, effective and political as Pharisees. They graduate from seminary and find a safe institution that will help pay off the debt they have accrued. They spend their ministries rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, fiddling while Rome burns and handing out aspirins while the world explodes.

Our seminaries can do better. Our classrooms start the day as empty boxes. The professor’s job is to be an instrument by which God fills those rooms with passion, joy and revolution. Seminary can be an electric gathering if we believe that love makes a difference, hope can be reawakened, and evil can be overcome by living like Christ.

We exegete Second Timothy to hear God calling us to “fight a good fight, finish the course and keep the faith.” We learn to conjugate Greek verbs because we need to take Jesus’ words seriously enough to struggle to understand them. We need to recognize John Calvin’s narrowness so that we will more fully celebrate the wideness of God’s mercy.

We read about the kings of Israel because God invites us to dance like David did. We argue about the Trinity because we have experienced the Spirit in surprising ways. We preach because the world lies and someone needs to tell the truth.

At our best, seminaries invite disciples to a deeper faith. We talk about how Christ transformed us because we cannot help but speak of what God has done.

At our best, seminary is a gathering of those who search for the meaning of life, join with others on the journey and ask God to show us where love leads. Students and teachers teach one another to be courageous.

At our best, we learn to want what God wants. We worry about what God worries about. We weep over what God weeps over. We push for what God pushes for.

Seminaries should not focus on ministers being efficient, effective and successful. The church needs fervor, anger and desire.

Seminaries should not produce ministers who want to maintain the church. The church needs ministers who will poke and prod the church.          

Seminaries should not encourage self-serving ministers. The church needs ministers who will set their own hair on fire for what is right.

Seminaries should be converting temple administrators into St. Francis, Martin Luther, Lottie Moon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Teresa.

Seminaries should be blessing faithful outliers, nonconformists, mavericks, eccentrics and dissenters. The church has enough people keeping rules. God needs exceptions to the rules.

Seminaries need to help ministers do the things Jesus did — feed the hungry, listen to the lonely and heal the broken.

Seminaries should not be satisfied training students to maintain institutions. At our best, seminaries are a way God stirs ministers, turns up the volume and throws gasoline on the fire.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.