We had an interesting discussion in class yesterday about the challenges of enduring church life while in seminary. My students are a joyful bunch who love Jesus and his people, but they reflected honestly on the difficulty of dealing with the disconnects between what they study in class and what they observe in church. It is soul-upsetting to critically reflect on Christian realities in classes and then to participate in less-than-ideal Christian practices on Sundays.
This led me to reflect a bit on my own struggles to maintain a proper posture toward the church while inhabiting an environment of critical biblical and theological reflection.
Unfortunately, a seminary education can sometimes (though not always) produce a phenomenon we might call “the seminoid.”
I should know. I was one.
(NOTE: Friends and family are NOT welcome to share stories in the comments below!)
The seminoid has a superior attitude toward “the laity,” an arrogance toward average Christians, a condescending posture toward the church. S/he is a “know-it-all” who trots out impressive sounding words in small-group settings, critiques church practice, and spends Sunday afternoons revisiting errors in the sermon and shortcomings in the service.
In the seminoid, the process of critical thought has created a critical spirit.
So, some advice to seminoids—or, to anyone pursuing theological education—on how to be a blessing to the church rather than a bane:
(1) Receive the church. Seminoids want to comment on the church’s failures, rebuke it, set it right, fix it. Don’t do that. Don’t see yourself in all your theological wisdom as a gift to the church. Learn what it means that the church is a gift to you. Receive it as such and give thanks to God for it. You are the one who needs to grow in Christ, not them. Of course, objectively, everyone needs to grow in Christ. But focus your critical scrutiny on your own need to cultivate the character of Christ, and let the church help you in that pursuit.
(2) Minister from your weakness. Seminoids, like others of us, assume that they minister most effectively from their strengths. That’s a wrong assumption and a perverted vision of “spiritual gifts.” It’s counter-intuitive, but we minister most effectively from our weakness. Jesus told Paul that “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9), which led him to discover that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Now, you are indeed a gift to the church, but don’t assume that you know how you are a gift to the church. That needs to be a long process of discovery, and others will probably see it before you. If you think you know, you’re probably wrong. I say this to seminoids because your initial assumption may be that you bless the church by being its instructor, its doctor, diagnosing its wrong theology and its malpractice, and prescribing right theology and proper practice. If you do this, you will not bless the church. You will burden it.
(3) Mentor a jr. high kid. Find a kid in your church (or in your neighborhood) in a single-parent home and become his or her mentor. They won’t want to hear you discourse on prioritizing biblical atonement metaphors, rhetorical strategies in Luke-Acts, the presence or absence of imputation language in Paul, or historical causes of the demise of mainline denominations. They’ll probably want to see if fart noises make you laugh, if you can hit a free throw with your eyes closed, and if you care that they’ve been hurt by the class bully. This is good for you. It’ll help you avoid taking yourself too seriously. It’ll remind you that the aim of your theological education is to make you better at spending time with such people for whom Jesus gave his life.
Never forget that Jesus highly commends spending time with jr. high kids (Matt. 19:13-15) and strongly condemns public displays of spirituality (Matt. 6:5-6).
(4) Think eschatologically. Imagine yourself in the future as a much wiser 60 year-old. As your future self, reflect a bit on how you treated others, how you related to the church. You do not want to be an old person with regrets that you hurt people, turned some off to the faith because of arrogance, or discouraged them with ill-considered criticisms.
(5) Consider silence. Memorize proverbs on remaining silent rather than talking (Prov. 10:19; 13:3; 17:27-28; James 1:19). I have a handful of regrets for saying something hurtful or stupid in ministry contexts. I don’t have any regrets about biting my tongue.
(6) Meditate on Scripture. Memorize passages about humility and servant-hood (e.g., Mark 10:45; Phil. 2:1-11; 2 Cor. 4), along with Proverbs about the speech patterns of the wise (e.g., Prov. 12:18, 23). Draw on Scriptures that the Spirit may use to orient your character according to Jesus. Do not memorize texts that you can use in theological debates to buttress your pontifications.
(7) Love the church like God loves the church. Remember that God gave his life for the church (Acts 20:28), that he loves his people. If Jesus showed up at your church, he would likely look past your church’s faults and express his outrageous love for its messed-up members. You’d rather have Jesus say “amen” to your expressions of delight in his people rather than “what’s your problem?” when you note their many shortcomings.