Pastoral Ministry: Kill Your Academized Christianity

Pastor walking into classrom

When students ask for recommended books on pastoral ministry before entering seminary, I usually have Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling at the top of my list. Tripp points out many of the common heart problems related to pastoral ministry. But this book isn’t just for students. I think every seminary professor should read it too. Tripp writes out of both professorial and pastoral experience.[pullquote]

Strive to be a professor who is concerned about heart application as much as theological information.[/pullquote]

Tripp exhorts readers to make the classroom more pastoral. Here’s a word to all professors:

I am convinced that the crisis of pastoral culture often begins in the seminary class. It begins with a distant, impersonal, information-based handling of the Word of God. It begins with pastors who, in their seminary years, became quite comfortable with holding God’s Word distant from their own hearts. It begins with classrooms that are academic without being pastoral. It begins with brains becoming more important than hearts. It begins with test scores being more important than character.1

Tripp goes on to critique theological education:

If you would go back, let’s say, a hundred years, every professor in the classroom would be a churchman. He would have come to theological education by means of the pastorate. In these men there burned a love for the local church. They came to the classroom carrying the humility and wisdom gained only by their years in the trenches. They taught with the hearts and lives of real people in view.… They came to the classroom knowing that the biggest battles of pastoral ministry were fought on the turf of their own hearts. They were pastors who were called not to quit pastoring but to bring pastoral love and zeal into the ecosystem of theological education.

But over the years theological education began to change.… Academized Christianity, which is not constantly connected to the heart and puts its hope in knowledge and skill, can actually make students dangerous. It arms them with powerful knowledge and skills that can make the students think they are more mature and godly than they actually are.2

Bring a pastoral heart to the classroom. Learn to shepherd students. Address particular sins like self-righteousness, lack of gratitude for the gospel, impatience, lust, greed, the wrong perspective on ministry, lack of real communion with Christ, and other heart problems.

This emphasis also means addressing the preaching motives of students, which can be hiding in “subtexts” in sermons. Subtexts are the messages underneath one’s message. When a person’s heart is not in the right place, the subtext may be, “Aren’t I great?” or “Isn’t our church great?” Aim to fill students’ affections with Christ, so that the subtext of every sermon is “Isn’t Christ great?”

If a student’s ability surpasses his or her maturity and love for Christ’s glory, then he or she is a walking disaster zone. Unfortunately, I can rattle off a list of names of students (and professors) who are no longer pursuing ministry, or are no longer in ministry because they failed to tend to their own heart. Strive to be a professor who is concerned about heart application as much as theological information.

Students also need to be taught to make all of their theological studies and the preaching professor’s class an act of spiritual devotion. In an address to theological students, B. B. Warfield emphasized the importance of maintaining a vibrant walk with God while studying:

It is possible to study—even to study theology—in an entirely secular spirit.… Whatever you may have done in the past, for the future make all your theological studies “religious [spiritual] exercises.” … Put your heart into your studies; do not merely occupy your mind with them, but put your heart into them. They bring you daily and hourly into the very presence of God; his ways, his dealing with men, the infinite majesty of his Being form their very subject-matter. Put the shoes from off your feet in this holy presence!3

Pray that your classes will have a sense of divine glory to them and that students will want to “take notes on their knees” as they consider the God who has called them to preach.

pastoral ministry blog postThis article is adapted from Training Preachers: A Guide to Teaching Homiletics.

Scott M. Gibson (DPhil, University of Oxford) holds the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching and is the director of the PhD in Preaching Program at Baylor University/Truett Seminary (Waco, TX). He is cofounder of the Evangelical Homiletics Society and the author or coauthor of several books on preaching. 

  1. Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 52.
  2. Tripp, Dangerous Calling, 53–54.
  3. B. B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students (reprint; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 5–6.
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