I've always encouraged Bible college and seminary students not to go to a church filled with students from their school. I call that a "seminary church," but it is broader than that of course. Yes, there are always exceptions, however, if you are a student, I'd generally encourage you to either get involved in a church or plant a new church that was not predominantly filled with seminary students, staff, or faculty.
It's not because I don't love seminaries. I do. And, I even love churches filled with seminary students. There are times when that kind of environment might be best and you need to go where God leads you. However, in general, I just don't think it's usually best.
Not everyone shares my opinion, of course. For those who advocate being in a seminary church, they point out that this could be the one time you see church done in accordance with the values or practices of the seminary community. They consider it an opportunity for modeling what should be rather than throwing the student into what actually is.
I understand their point. However, it is for those same reasons (and others) that I think just the opposite is true.
When you go to a seminary church, you miss out on one of the great opportunities for ministry and mission. If you have moved from another place to where your seminary is located, you will need to get involved in a new community of faith. That church can and should be your testing ground, not your echo chamber, for the things you learn in seminary. If you came straight from college to seminary, this is even more essential. You need a place to practice, not just a place to enjoy.
So here are four things I think you gain by not going to a church centered around your seminary, but rather being involved in church planting, church revitalization, or other ministry outside of the seminary context.
1. First, you gain an early understanding of real world ministry.
Keep in mind that I serve on the faculty of two seminaries—this is not anti-seminary. But at those seminaries we're aware of the "bubble" that such institutions create.
The seminary bubble is formed in the echo chamber of theological discussion and discourse often by people who are less involved in boots-on-the-ground ministry. Ideas often surface, emphases are often created, and they are widely affirmed inside the bubble, but are less frequently applied successfully outside of the bubble.
The fact is that what you are learning in seminary needs to be lived out (even tested) in the churches because it is the churches that the seminaries are to serve. And if the bubble bursts every time we leave its protective confines, it is helpful to learn that before you relocate your family again to your first ministry role.
You do not want that to be the moment you first try out what everyone at seminary knows is best but few outside of seminary have actually applied in the churches of your denomination or tradition.
2. Second, when you go to a seminary church everything looks easier and better than it really is.
When the sharpest seminary student or the faculty is the pastor, preaching seems to take on a wonderful, ethereal quality.
When the Bible study or Sunday School classes are upper-level students or staff, we become convinced that this environment is the norm—but it is not. It is like looking at an airbrushed photo of a model in a fashion magazine and thinking this is what women look like in the real world.
The best thing for you is to learn that churches are made up of people who are changed by the power of the gospel but still living lives rooted, not in theological academia, but in the everyday, practical world. They are auto mechanics and retirees, schoolteachers and the unemployed. They are the kinds of people you will be serving alongside with the rest of your life. Sometimes they are grumpy, sometimes they are kind, but all the time they are worthy to engage.
The best thing that you could learn right now in seminary is what real people are like, how to relate to them, and ultimately how to be a peer with normal people rather than a spectator of the extraordinary people that often make up a seminary church.
3. Since seminary churches attract students your opportunities for ministry are limited.
There is probably already a fellow seminarian serving in youth and students, and senior adults, and every other imaginable area of ministry at a seminary-centered church.
While a declining church a few streets over has no one to work with the students, you're the third person in line to be the assistant junior high youth pastor at the seminary church. Instead of missing out on valuable experience for you and helping a church in need, go to that declining one, find a new plant (or for that matter, start a church). Be a part of an essential team, rather than an unnecessary appendage on an over-clericalized team.
Often in a seminary town, students who once were called to preach decide to stay in their seminary church. And, the small group leaders are soon seminary graduates who want to stay connected to the bubble while working at a convenience store. They end up creating the most educated small group leaders in the world—while no one is planting a new church in Montreal or Madagascar. I get there are reasons to stay—but staying in the bubble should not be one of them.
4. You need to learn that mission is not something you engage with after graduation.
Actually, this may be the most important lesson of all.
It is easy to observe, as I have over the years, student after student who dive deep into the bubble thinking that upon graduation and the entrance into real world ministry they will suddenly be able to relate to normal people, engage the unchurched in conversation, and move in and out of relationships among people who are disconnected from the theological enclave from which they come. But the fact is, they can't. And if that is you, you won't either.
The impact of isolating yourself in the bubble is not exclusive to one theological expression. If you have only been living out your theology or mission views with other seminary students, what will you do when you're serving at a church in a declining rural community or a declining church in an urban context?
With no practice outside of the bubble, you probably will be disappointed with the place God sent you to because you can never replicate that ideal. Why not, instead, take your seminary or Bible college years and learn the theology and live the mission in an intentional engagement during those years?
Bubbles always burst.
For me, coming to seminary burst some bubbles of my own private hubris. I thought I knew the Bible well and found out that it was much richer than I ever imagined. Seminary is designed to bursts some bubbles—to tear down some exegetical fallacies, theological shallowness, and pastoral pragmatism. It did all of that for me and for that I am thankful.
But if you are not intentional about where you put into practice all you have learned, seminary can create a bubble as well.
The attraction of the seminary church is that you get to be around people you admire and who share your values. You are able to be part of a church with your theological peers and heroes. I get it and I am not mad at those who choose that path.
But the classroom is a better place to develop those relationships. Instead, keep your feet on the ground and let the world be your class for ministry and mission.
You can serve the body of Christ while you seek to reach a lost world—even while learning how to do that better through the blessings of a bible college or seminary education.
I had a few friends—presidents and faculty of such institutions—review this article to make sure it was not just me. It was not. ;-)
Feel free to give a different opinion in the comments. I'm actually interested in more of the positives, perhaps even beyond what I mentioned here.