Carl Trueman recently wrapped up a conversation on the role of seminaries in the “spiritual formation of students.” His closing paragraph will suffice as a summary:

…we should rather spend time reflecting on the matters Michael and I raised, such as the relative priority of church over seminary in spiritual formation, what the emergence of the concept of ‘spiritual formation’ as an apparently separate discipline or pedagogical calling in seminaries indicates, and why some of the things that are now taught by seminaries are by implication apparently not being taught — or at least not being taught very well — by churches as part of basic Christian knowledge and discipleship.

For starters, all learning, especially the study of God’s revelation in Scripture, ought to be “mixed with faith in the hearer,” or the learner, or the teacher, resulting in a worshipful response of love for God and neighbor. Think of Paul at the end of Romans 11. To study God’s Word–or worse, to teach it–and remain cold is Pharisaical and a tragedy.

For Christian educators, this means that (1) I ought to practice what I preach (or teach), and therefore, (2) that if I am a true disciple of Christ, I will presumably attempt to disciple my students, even outside the context of the church.

But (per Trueman) we have to consider whether local churches have in fact abdicated some responsibilities to educational institutions. Having seen some churches who’ve done a good job investing in their students, I’d like to offer some “best practices” for churches:

  1. Local churches should consider reclaiming the responsibility to disciple and mentor their theological students instead of leaving it wholly to colleges and seminaries. I know it’s easy to plug a young guy into a place of leadership because he’s enrolled in seminary, but dangerously assume that he’s spiritually OK. Young people still need to be pastored and encouraged.
  2. Local churches and pastors should consider giving young men interested in ministry opportunities to serve, lead, preach, and teach in their home churches. Serving at home has its challenges, but it’s also nice to make your mistakes and prove your gifts in front of people who know your flaws and have proven their love for you.
  3. Local churches should consider advocating for their young men and women who are interested in ministry or missions instead of leaving them to pray through what they should pursue, choose a mission board, and self-advocate for a place of service (or for missionary support) by themselves.
  4. Local churches and pastors can beef up the biblical, theological, and ministerial training of their young people. The church that I grew up in taught its teens faithfully from the Scriptures and did not dodge hard questions or deep explanations. (After all, the kids who go to Bible college aren’t the only ones asking the hard questions or capable of working through them). By the time I got to undergrad systematic theology, I’d heard much of it before. In fact, the teaching I heard during my high school years  helped me work through some particularly tough theological questions I was facing at age 16 or 17, and I’m grateful that my church took the responsibility to address them.
  5. Local churches and pastors can add to and learn from the theological study of their students. Modeling a willingness to learn and share what you’ve learned will mean a lot to a student, even if they’ve just completed their freshman year and think they know everything (i.e., a sophomore). In fact, all the more reason to engage.

I say “should consider” because I realize that these require significant time investment for busy pastors, and that many other pastors already do these things. Again, the reason I mention them is because I’ve seen these modeled by my own current and past pastors. I can only imagine that some churches feel disconnected from the discussions going on in seminaries, and that many pastors haven’t had the time to keep up with some of the reading they would have liked. But I do know a few things: that Christ ordained the local church, that pastors need not necessarily be intimidated by educational institutions, and that students will generally appreciate the input and leadership of their own pastor.

In fact, in my experience, young people who want to honor God quietly crave one-on-one discipleship but rarely receive it because they don’t ask for it. Young men and women–regardless of their level of academic Bible training–need the encouragement and accountability of other believers, and the local church is the only divinely-prescribed means of meeting that need.