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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  • I haven’t read the book, but I perhaps could’ve written it.
    My background is Calvary Chapel, the original, back in the early 1970s. I loved listening to Chuck Smith’s teaching. I ordered The Word for Today tapes when I was in the Air Force stationed in Greece. When I left the AF I went to Bible college (Multnomah), but it was a bit of a struggle because so much was academic. Seminary was even harder because it was 100% academic. The biblical education at Multnomah was essential, but more emphasis needs to be places upon a deeper Spiritual life in academic settings.

    • Calvary background as well. Chuck Missler / Dave Hunt / = dispensationalism up to by eye balls, plus multiple conspiracy theories led me to believe I was mature and on the pulse of biblical end times.

  • It’s Sunday morning June 23 2019 as just finished my prayer that God would pour out His Spirit again like the first years after I asked Jesus in my heart. The last years have been a fight against everything, ending in a burn-out in the beginning of this year after a year in which my daughter got leukaemia. In this burn-out I noticed how spiritually poor I had become after 6 year theological college and 8 years as a Baptist Pastor. In this dessert I remembered the precious times I spent in silence with Jesus as I regularly went to a monastery, even in times my wife became very sick and was in intensive care for two times where the fought for her life. But after that I registered and went to a theological university. Al this learning and applying methods to my life and church life brought nothing than poor spiritual life. I also remembered I felt the emptiness at the theological seminary, the pride of professors in having so much knowledge. They competed for having read as much books the could, for having a good position. In their theses you’ll find hundreds of footnotes and a long bibliography, and before class they showed up as masters. First I admired them, now I feel sorry for them and know they failed in being a spiritual mentor to me, they failed in helping me to fight the enemies of spiritual life because they are imprisoned themselves. They failed forcing me on my knees and sit beside me, instead of that they forced me to many books, doctrines and methods. It’s past and do not admire them but feel sorry for the students who entre this circus with many religious clowns
    There’s a song in my mind, daily, from Lauren Daigle and it’s called “I’m loosing my religion” That’s a challenge every day, but a good longing.
    I’m back on track, with my own little monastery at home, using my old Jewish Tallit and Teffilim. 1 our a day with Jesus before the Father. Tears, regret and comfort in an everyday pause at my little monastery, finding my way home again.
    And Jesus is good to me, His name is praised and Fathers love above all. Amen

  • Hmmm.

    This recurring anti-intellectual trope has been around for years. I remember this same weepy-eyed pleading in my seminary days back in the 70’s with the same results – goodbye Historical Theology departments, truncated Greek and Hebrew requirements, Cumbya and hugs vs.sound exegesis and biblical exposition, shallow theology, etc.

    Does emotion precede, and result in, the intellectual? Or does knowledge inform the heart? When one stands at the foot of the cross and weeps giant crocodile tears apart from the knowledge of Who is on that cross and why is He there, does it count for anything? But if one quietly weeps because they first know and understand the God Who has done this thing, and why, then genuine biblical emotions are on display.

    Some day, it would be interesting to read a Tripp or a Gibson write about the dangers of over-emotionalizing the faith/pastorate at the expense of knowledge. I doubt that it will happen. In ten or twenty years, Tripp and Gibson ver. II will appear and write the same books again, and more seminaries/churches/believers will slip further into that giant anti-intellectual abyss of vanilla theology, knowledge, and understanding.

    Let there be light.

    • JRS, agree completely here, and I bet Tripp and Gibson would, too: “But if one quietly weeps because they first know and understand the God Who has done this thing, and why, then genuine biblical emotions are on display.” The plea of the article is to bring the heart into the classroom along with intellectualism—to approach the object of study (God) the way he commands: with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength, not just one’s mind.

      But yes, the opposite is also a danger. I like the way you say it, “anti-intellectual abyss of vanilla theology.” We don’t want that, either.

      Thanks for commenting,

    • I spent eight years getting a ThM because I also worked full time. My classes were rigorous, and I welcomed that, because a deeper understanding of God’s word only infused my heart with gratitude and a sincere desire to serve him more faithfully. I was deeply committed to growing spiritually and maturing in my walk with Christ. I hear the pain in others’ voices, and I recognize that it is genuine, but I cannot pretend to understand why this happened to them. In all honesty, I feel exactly as JRS does, since I have been a believer for 62 years and have observed the devastation of church decisions based on emotion rather than a clear understanding of the import of biblically sound doctrine.

    • There is truth on both sides of the issue, that is what makes the balance difficult.

    • Anyone with the faintest idea of the national religious academy, its mainline gilds, and its overt hostility to the very thing Gibson addresses would not have written your glib response.

    • My emotions are as much a part of who I am as my intellect. In fact, the first parts of my brain to develop were my HPA systems / fight, flight. I came out of my mother feeling and around the age of three, my thinking brain “turned on” and I began to think about how I am feeling. What enters me, goes first to my “emotional brain” and then I have a thought. My emotions create thoughts and I can then use thoughts to affect my emotions. Emotions are thoughts are delightfully intertwined and to have one without the other, would be known as an organic brain disorder. Much like being on the Spectrum. My emotions are messages from my deepest self. My emotions are not facts, they are feelings, but it’s imperative that I listen to them and investigate what they need/are asking for. Are they telling me the truth? The way to resolve an emotion, is to feel it.

  • The conflict is not between intellect and emotion, but between an Enlightenment-based, intellectualized, and detached study of information about God (“The demons also ‘believe’ and tremble”). Traditional theological education offers much good content, but not the emphases of Jesus, Himself, the very founder of Christianity, after all. See:

  • It is my dream to teach by case study the “every day in every way” ministry at seminary or college after serving for 30-40 years while serving another 20-30.

  • I attended seminary and someone gave me the somewhat morbid, but very wise advice to take classes from the older professors who might die next. I took classes from guys that had led churches, and some had led seminaries. Their pastoral love for their students shined through in their teaching. They stood apart in how they spoke truth in love, in how they handled argumentative students, and how they reverenced the Word of God. They could teach the text of scripture, help students cultivate our own reverence for the text, and help us apply the text to our lives and future ministries. What a treasure!

    • Shawn,

      That’s good advice. I took a class with the late Grant Osborne at TEDS several years ago. He was in the winter of his life, and his lectures and demeanor were so pastoral and warm.


  • I think it is false to lay the blame solely on academia for killing devotion to God. It’s a matter of the heart really, regardless of your vocation and calling. To be honest, I know many people who were passionate about devotion to God and served with fervor who have left the ministry and Christianity. Some had advanced degrees but many did not. Rather, it’s the heart of person that leads him astray. And this wicked heart will get you eventually whether you’re in academia or not.

Written by Faithlife Staff