Why does a minister need to study theology?

One of my occasional irritations in life is hearing in the media someone from a business organisation – it used often to be the Institute of Directors – complaining that British universities don’t turn out graduates who are ready to do the jobs that businesses have available.

No. We don’t even try to. We are so deeply interested in turning out students who are employable that we deliberately refuse to train them for the jobs that are currently available.

It is much easier, and certainly much cheaper, to train someone to do a particular job on some sort of apprenticeship scheme than to educate them to degree level in a university. And they will be very good, better than most or all graduates, at that job.

But, unless it is very odd, that job won’t exist in five years’ time.

libraryThere may be a post with the same title, based in the same office, even with the same person doing it; but the skills required for the job will have changed. New technology will have come in, or a culture change in the business will have taken place, or something else will have happened to make the job a different set of tasks from what it once was.

If one of our graduates is going to be employable for the 46 years the government currently suggests she will have to work before drawing her pension, she needs to be able to adapt herself repeatedly to do jobs that don’t even exist yet, possibly working in industries that don’t even exist yet. We try to teach our students to be expert learners, self-motivated, capable problem-solvers – people who, faced with a new challenge, will be quick to assimilate it. Now, maybe we fail badly at that, and if so we deserve criticism, but that our graduates are not perfectly prepared to slot into today’s jobs is a criticism that I find supremely uninteresting.

What’s all this got to do with ministers and theology?

Something like this: effective ministerial training should not primarily be about training ministers in the skills they need to minister effectively today; instead, it should be about giving them the capacity to respond well to the pastoral challenges of the day after tomorrow, which we haven’t yet begun to imagine. And what they need to respond well to such unknown challenges is a thorough grounding in theology.

I am 45, not very close to retirement. When I trained for ministry, no-one had ever uttered the phrase ‘Fresh Expression’ or ‘Street Pastor’ or ‘24-7 Prayer’ or (as far as I recall) ‘Foodbank.’ A youngish curate called Nicky Gumbel came to speak to us about some exciting results of an experimental evangelism programme he had been working on that he called ‘Alpha.’ Facebook didn’t exist, nor any other social media – churches didn’t do Web 1.0, let alone Web 2.0. If I and my colleagues had left college with no more than the skills needed to minister effectively in the mid-1990s, we would be useless, or worse, to most local churches now.

Theology, properly studied, gives us the skills to respond well to ideas we’ve never encountered before.

I remember the day my friend Cid Latty, who founded the Cafe Church Network, rang me, telling me of these coffee-shop meetings that were started to give people a route into the institutional church, but that seemed to be becoming separate and lasting communities. Did this matter? We talked theology, crusty old historical theology, citing creeds and confessions. ‘One, holy, catholic, apostolic’; ‘the pure preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments.’ In the light of such definitions, could these accidental new communities be ‘church’ albeit an unusual sort of church (I still hadn’t heard the term ‘Fresh Expression’)? We concluded, yes; they didn’t look much like the churches we knew but, considered theologically, they seemed to fit (we talked a bit about sacraments…).

I’ve nearly had people trading blows in a Spring Harvest seminar over whether youth workers should be Facebook friends with their young people; I’ve been told – loudly – that giving food or flip-flops are distractions from our true mission of evangelism. I’ve heard plenty of arguments about Alpha. The answer? In every case, to talk theology, to ask how the unchanging truths of the gospel speak wisdom about this or that new development.

I don’t know what the opportunities and challenges of ministry in a decade or two might be, and I’m not going to try to predict them, because predictions of the future (outside of Scripture) are always wrong, generally spectacularly so. (I remember the day – after my ordination – when every serious business analyst was telling us that Apple would be bust within the year and forgotten in three; how did that one work out, guys?)

I do know that the right way to face those opportunities and challenges will be deep reflection on the way the unchanging gospel has been and might be applied to different questions and circumstances. So I believe passionately that the only hope for the church is ministers (and lay leaders) who know how to think theologically.

stephen holmes

Stephen Holmes

Our guest blogger Stephen Holmes is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of St Andrews

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