A prominent pastor recently argued that “seminary will become less and less relevant.” I often hear young youth ministers express a similar sentiment, stating that theological education is a fruitless enterprise for ministry preparation. As a college student, I was told the same thing by well-meaning people. They said not to worry about getting a Master of Divinity–that any old Master’s degree would do because “churches don’t care what type of Master’s you have as long as you have one.” They saw seminary education as an otherwise irrelevant hoop to jump through so they could get on with their lives and ministries. Thankfully, I had other (and wiser) voices in my life that advised me to see seminary for what it really was: a crucial formative period that would equip me for purposeful, relevant gospel ministry.
Now, I am by no means suggesting that seminary education is required for gospel ministry. Life circumstances often prevent faithful ministers from attaining a formal theological education. Neither is a seminary education sufficient for gospel ministry. Ministers in training need mentoring and practical experience in a local church context as part of their preparation for ministry. Nevertheless, I would argue that a seminary education is one of the best–and dare I say most relevant–investments youth ministers can make into their life and their ministry. Here’s why:
1. Seminary conditions you to “love the Lord your God . . . with all your mind” (Matt 22:37).
We often talk about the heart, but we tend to forget that much of the Christian walk and ministry involves the mind. Genuine life transformation comes through the “renewing of [our] mind” (Rom 12:2); in other words, the very pattern in which we think must change if we are to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. We are also called to worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24); thus, proper worship requires not only emotions but also knowledge. By the same token, we see that much of the struggle with sin takes place in the mind. Romans 1 speaks of “debased minds” that “suppress truth” and of people who claim to be “wise” but who are actually “fools.” The mind then is crucial for spiritual development–and for good reason: you cannot love what you do not know. Head knowledge is insufficient, but that doesn’t mean it is unnecessary. Certainly, you can have plenty of head knowledge and not love Jesus, but it is impossible for you to truly love Jesus without first knowing Him. A solid theological education will engage both heart and mind, equipping you to think well so you can love well. Therefore, “set your mind and heart to seek the Lord your God” (1 Chron 22:19).
2. Seminary trains you to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
As a minister of the gospel, you have an obligation to know the scriptures and to apply them properly to all of life, reaching the lost and equipping the found. “But wait,” you might be thinking, “the apostles didn’t go to seminary–and they wrote the New Testament. If they didn’t have to go to seminary to write the Word, why do I need a theological education to preach the Word?” Well, you’re right. They didn’t go to seminary. But they did have the best theological education imaginable because (warning: #JesusJuke ahead) they had God in the flesh walking around with them–for roughly three years–which coincidently is the same amount of time it takes to get a Master of Divinity. The apostles didn’t need to go to school because they sat under the teaching of Jesus Himself every day as He showed them how to properly interpret all of Scripture (cf. Luke 24:27, 44-49). Sure, you can grow theologically without going to seminary, but why wouldn’t you jump at the chance to sit under godly instructors who have devoted their lives to the study of Scripture, theology, philosophy, and ethics? They’ve been prayerfully thinking about these things for a long time, and you would do well to learn from them. After all, every pastor will be a theologian. The question is whether or not you’ll be a good one. And your students could use a good theologian these days.
3. Seminary empowers you to “always be prepared to give an answer” (1 Pet 3:15).
Long gone are the days of quick pat answers. Students today are constantly bombarded by attacks on the faith. Just this January, a Newsweek article spread some serious misinformation about the Bible. Are your students ready for that? They won’t be if you’re not. How can we know God exists? How did we get the books of the Bible? How can we know Jesus rose from the dead? Why do Christians uphold Old Testament commandments concerning sexuality but feel free to eat bacon and shellfish? These are all questions I get regularly from students–and not just from high schoolers. Middle schoolers are asking these questions. In fact, some elementary school children are asking these questions. It’s great to develop big visions, play fun games, and create hip atmospheres. But God help you if you’re not prepared to navigate questions like these–because on that day, you will be the irrelevant one.
Is it possible to be a good minister without a formal theological education? Of course. I suppose it would also be possible to be a good doctor without a formal medical education. But that doesn’t mean it should be normative for doctors to bypass medical school and head straight to surgical practice–certainly not if they’re operating on me! We want our doctors to have lots of study and practical experience before they start to see patients. Similarly, the church desperately needs ministers well-prepared to handle the Word of God and to apply it to all of life before they serve as shepherds in a congregation. So don’t listen to those voices telling you seminary is pointless. On the contrary, a solid theological education just might be the most relevant thing you can do for yourself, your ministry, and your hearers.
Header image provided through creative commons by Andreas Levers.