I chose to go to Bible and theological college in my late twenties. (In Australia, we tend to call seminaries theological colleges). I’d spent close to 10 years serving with a church planting team, and felt that I needed further equipping for ministry. I also wanted to understand my faith more and deepen my spiritual life.
I wasn’t disappointed. Theological college enhanced my gifts and equipped me for ministry. It inspired my passion for mission and enriched my understanding of Bible and theology. It further ignited my love for Jesus. I was involved in various forms of local church ministry for almost 20 years before joining the faculty of a theological college. In July 2019, I take up the role of Research Coordinator of Stirling Theological College (University of Divinity) in Melbourne, Australia. I joined the Stirling Theological College team because I’ve seen how great ministry training and theological education changes lives, who go on to change lives.
I’ve come to the conviction that the best theological colleges (and seminaries, Bible colleges, and divinity schools) seek to equip and build you up in these 15 key areas. And they work closely with churches in this ministry.
So, why go to Bible and theological college? Here are 15 reasons.
1. To be equipped for ministry and service
We all need equipping, no matter what kind of ministry God calls us to. We need effective skills in relating to others and in the give-and-take of good interpersonal communication. We need skills in demonstrating and receiving love and respect, and in forming healthy relationships. We need to learn how to lead and serve effectively. We need guidance on how to form and equip others for ministry, with integrity. Bible and theological colleges can equip us to disciple others and develop a culture of discipleship in our ministries. They can help us lead change and transition, and manage and resolve conflict. They can expose us to the skills of servant leadership. They can help us learn how to develop the next generation of leaders, who can likewise build up and develop others.
For those of us going into pastoral and other church-based ministries, Bible and theological colleges can also equip us with vital skills. These include leading change and transition and resolving conflict. They include church planting, pioneering new initiatives, and revitalizing established churches. Other skills include developing multicultural ministries, serving among ethnic and cultural diversity, and empowering youth and children’s work. We can learn to be skilful at preaching and teaching, and at pastoral care and the compassionate support of others.
Bible and theological colleges are a great place to go and get equipped for ministry and service.
2. To be empowered for witness and mission in a changing world
The world is changing rapidly, and God calls his church to join with him in his mission. Theological colleges can help us become missional leaders who develop missional disciples and churches. They can give us a passion for mission and evangelism. What skills do we learn at college, that empower us to witness in a changing world? Interpreting our culture for the purposes of faithful discipleship, community, ministry, and mission. Applying principles that will promote mission and growth. Leading others to a personal relationship with God. Helping people move toward a commitment to Christ. Practising hospitality and welcoming the stranger. Relating to people from cultural and religious backgrounds different from our own. Serving and loving our neighbourhoods.
The best theological colleges help you grow in missional leadership. They inspire and equip you for local and global mission. This way, we grow disciples, ministries, and churches that are passionate for God and his mission in the world.
3. To be a part of a prophetic movement
God calls his church to be a distinct people, with a distinct ethic, a distinct story, a distinct peace, a distinct community, a distinct diversity, and a distinct witness. The church is a distinct gathered and sent people. The church is a prophetic movement, that is called by God to show the world what the world looks like in its redeemed state. We need academic institutions. But, local churches—not theological colleges—are the primary social location for theology and ministry. We theologize as we gather. We theologize as we disperse (in schools, institutions, workplaces, families, and more). And we theologize as we join with God in his mission in the world.
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that local churches and theological colleges need to work closely together in the process of theologizing, formation, and equipping for ministry. The local church needs the support and expertise and resources of good theological colleges. Colleges can pull together specialists and resources, and offer an intensive period of in-depth study and discipline, in ways that are very hard or impossible for local churches to do. As Josh Dowton said in a response to the first draft of this blog, formal theological education offers two great benefits: “(1) Having the space to ask questions with a group of engaged people, and to genuinely follow them through to an answer. (Obviously, this should happen in the local church, but it often doesn’t). (2) Being forced not just to think about the conclusions we come to when reading the Bible, but to ask questions about how we come to those conclusions (i.e. questions of methodology).”
Here’s the thing. Great theological colleges know that they don’t exist without the church. These colleges need what only local churches can offer (local worship, ministry, community, discipleship, mission, and so on). Theological colleges must genuinely collaborate and partner with local churches in the equipping of people for mission and ministry. So, I’m more and more convinced about the close collaboration between churches and colleges in this process and mission.
Today, many theological colleges are intentionally joining with local churches to empower and release a prophetic, counter-cultural, Christ-centered movement that changes the world. I know that’s my commitment, and that’s the commitment of many of the theological educators I know. Theological college can help you be a part of a prophetic Jesus-movement, that witnesses to the rule and reign of God in Jesus Christ.
Our world is full of conflict, racism, sexual exploitation, fear, and the abuse of power. But God is shaping a people who are different. This is a radical counter-culture movement. We call this movement church. And many theological colleges seek to train leaders who are passionate about this difference. Many theological colleges I know are committed to helping students explore what it means to lead churches committed to peacemaking, forgiveness, and reconciliation. This involves pursuing peace, genuine justice, and the elimination of war. It’s about the reconciliation of people, classes, ethnicities, generations, genders, and others, in Christ.
Theological colleges (working alongside churches and within neighbourhoods) are great places to learn with others how to serve the neighbour, embrace the mentally handicapped, seek redeemed morality and sexuality, welcome the stranger, serve among the poor and powerless, and embrace suffering.
The church’s primary witness happens through local church fellowships. And great theological colleges inspire you to immerse yourself in local churches that are active in prayer, in reading and obeying Scripture, in sharing the gospel, and in getting involved in acts of freedom, liberation, justice, peacemaking, reconciliation, and love.
4. To be built up and released in your gifts
God has given you gifts and abilities to enrich the church. These gifts might include serving, teaching, leading, giving, exhortation, or a range of other things. Theological colleges can’t give you gifts. But they can help you discover your God-given gifts and enhance and grow them. Theological college is a great place to grow a deeper sense of calling, and to enhance the gifts God has given you.
5. To be inspired to grow in Christlikeness and integrity
These days, we often look for charisma and competency when we look for leaders. But the biblical focus is on Christlikeness and character and the ability to guard the truths of the gospel. Great theological colleges focus heavily on the formation of genuine Christian character. Our aim is to grow Christian leaders with character and integrity, whose lives honour Jesus and the gospel. Our hope is to release a generation of disciples and leaders who live a life worthy of God’s call. These are completely humble and gentle. They have priorities shaped by the mind of Christ. They embrace ethical standards and personal integrity in obedience to Scripture. They show conduct that is consistent with Christian teaching and values. They embrace sexual purity, especially, but not only, in relationships in ministry. They willingly observe ministerial values and professional ethics. They maintain the unity of the church and show the fruit of the Spirit.
In the Appendix at the end of this blog, I offer a list of qualities of character and spiritual life that theological colleges strive for. We do this as we help students grow and mature in Christ, and as we prepare them to lead Christian communities with integrity.
6. To be stretched in your thinking and understanding
Great theological colleges expand and challenge your thinking and understanding. They teach you to think theologically. They help you develop a Christian worldview. They expose you to a wide range of literature. This includes Scripture, missions, theology, ethics, social sciences, philosophy, and history. And they challenge you to respond to what you’re learning, and change.
At theological college, you begin to understand your beliefs in the light of Christian history, and in the light of your own particular Christian heritage and tradition. You develop a sound basic understanding of Christian history and historic Christian faith. You learn to see what God is doing today in our churches and societies. This way, you have vital tools for evaluating current church, theological, and pastoral emphases. You learn to articulate your Christian faith, especially with respect to other belief systems and worldviews.
For many people, the first year or two of being challenged to think in new ways can be a bit daunting. But, they quickly discover how this time at college enriched their faith and understanding. Hopefully, they leave college with a keen interest in the Bible and theology. Theological colleges aim to inspire you to a lifetime of growth in spiritual passion, biblical and theological understanding, and ministry and mission skills.
7. To be equipped to understand and apply the Bible
I loved learning how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible at theological college! At college, you learn to interpret the Bible accurately for yourself. You develop an appreciation of the big picture and the plotline of Scripture. Hopefully, you grasp a clear understanding of the Christian gospel, and a capacity to share that with others. You are equipped with an ability to convey and apply the truths of Scripture to your own and others’ lives in effective ministry. Great theological colleges help you gain skills in interpreting, communicating, and applying the great truths of Scripture. You learn to accurately explain the Scriptures, apply them to life, and communicate their truths. And you develop the ability to preach and teach competently in the context of ministry.
8. To be exposed to a global and historical faith that is deep and wide
Most of us who go to theological college have only been exposed to the faith of a small group of churches. But when we go to college, we discover a Christian faith that is diverse, deep, and wide. We learn about the history of biblical Israel and the church. And we’re exposed to Christian books and thinkers from many generations, cultures, and traditions.
The best theological colleges expose us to discipleship, faith, theology, and mission from the West and the western traditions. But they also introduce us to the Christian faith and traditions of the East, the developing world, Indigenous communities, and immigrant/diasporas churches. The is one of the reasons why I launched The Global Church Project. At college, we discover a stunningly diverse and global Christian community.
9. To be given access to outstanding leaders and scholars
One of the things I loved about theological college was having access to world-class specialists. I was given the opportunity to spend time with some of our country’s most outstanding theologians and Bible scholars, and most accomplished preachers and pastors.
I’m proud to say that at Stirling Theological College our faculty aren’t academics who lock themselves away in their rooms. They are passionate about raising up men and women for service and ministry. And they are actively involved in local church ministry themselves.
The best theological colleges employ faculty who are exceptional scholars and leaders. These are dedicated to shaping and equipping Christ-centered disciples to impact the world. They are committed to equipping the whole believer to take the whole gospel to the whole world. You have access to these kinds of outstanding leaders and scholars at theological college—and for many of us it is a life-changing experience.
10. To be inspired to love Jesus more deeply
Picking up on the words of Terry Walling, I tell my students that finishing well in ministry is about being more in love with Jesus when you finish than when you began. I want to grow more deeply in love with Jesus every day. I want that passion for Jesus to shape my ministry and my relationships. I want it to transform my college classes and my teaching. At theological college, you have the chance to spend time with godly people who love Jesus deeply, and who will inspire you to do the same.
11. To be inspired to step out in faith, to pioneer, and to rely on God
Going to theological college is often a step of faith. For many students, going to college comes with real financial challenges. It comes with professional and personal sacrifices. From the outset, students are stepping out in faith and taking a risk. They are venturing into the unknown and relying on the promises of God. What they often discover is that God responds to their faith. He blesses them in ways they could never have imagined. Hopefully, they also discover that the risk-taking spirit that brought them to college is the same pioneering spirit that the church needs today! The church needs leaders who step out in faith and experiment and innovate. We need leaders who rely completely on the power and presence of God.
Today, many theological college programs focus on equipping pioneering ministries. They realize that the future of the church is found in apostolic, innovative, pioneering work. Pioneering ministry can take many forms. These include cross-cultural experiments, church revitalizations, church planting innovations, fresh expressions of community and discipleship, and bi-vocational and entrepreneurial ministries. At Morling College, we’ve created church planting and missional leadership programs. We believe that theological colleges should help raise a generation of pioneering leaders.
12. To be inspired to build a vibrant personal relationship with God
We need a vibrant personal relationship with God to sustain ministry and discipleship for the long haul. At theological college, you’re introduced to practices that help you do this. You spend time in prayer and reflection. You’re encouraged to have a personal encounter with God. And you’re challenged to apply God’s truths to your life and ministry.
What kinds of practices do I encourage in my students? Actively taking “time out” to consider how to align your life with God’s word and will. Making sure your knowledge of biblical truth is moving beyond information gathering to personal application. Living in a Spirit-filled way, according to the prompting, fruits, and guidance of the Spirit. Consistently making space for prayer and intimacy with God, and fellowship with his people. Embracing a love for time with God and in the Scriptures (and personal habits that sustain this). Cultivating a rich devotional life, including regular prayer and study of the Scriptures. Being committed to the local church, and being an active participant in a local church community. Exploring your ministry vocation in local churches and other ministry and mission opportunities further afield. Joining regularly with a local church in service and ministry and worship. Joining with other believers in loving and serving your local neighbours and neighbourhood.
College life—worship, prayer, devotions, Bible readings, missions, service, retreats, and more—is designed to inspire and equip you to build a vibrant personal relationship with God.
13. To be introduced to life-giving and lifelong relationships
Many people form lifelong friendships while at theological college. I know that I made some of my closest friendships during my time at college. I’m still in contact with people that I went to college with, twenty years after we graduated. There’s a special bond between us that will last a lifetime. For many of us, these fellow students become ministry peers. The friendships remain long after the lecture notes have faded.
14. To be motivated to be a lifelong learner
In The Making of a Leader, Robert Clinton writes: “One of the striking characteristics seen in effective leaders is their desire to learn. They learn from all kinds of sources. They learn from Scripture. They are pressed by their situation to see new truth in the Scriptures and in the situations themselves. They learn about their own uniqueness. They build on the natural abilities they have. They acquire the skills needed by the challenges of the situations they face. They learn to use their spiritual gifts. Effective leaders, at all levels of leadership, maintain a learning posture throughout life” (p.180).
One of the goals of theological education is to inspire and motivate you to become a lifelong learner. Read more books. Discover new ideas. Go to seminars and conferences. Enrol in courses. Learn from experiences. Listen to family and congregations and the voice of God. Be a lifelong learner who seek to continually grow and learn.
15. To be equipped to make and multiply disciples
One of the reasons the church is struggling in the West is because we’ve failed to make disciples. Church attendees and consumers of religious services are not the same things as disciples. Discipleship is about following Jesus and his Lordship and his mission in the world. Discipleship is about recognizing that there is one great story in human history—this is the story of God the Father and of his salvation in Jesus Christ. It’s the story of the triune God renewing and redeeming all creation in Jesus Christ. Discipleship is about repenting and choosing to join fully in Jesus’ story. It’s about submitting myself and my plans and my energies completely to his rule and reign and Lordship.
At theological college, we challenge students to pursue true discipleship. And we equip students to make and multiply disciples. Our passion for multiplying leaders, ministries, and churches—and our enthusiasm for theological education and ministry training—is ultimately about our passion for making disciples.
Final Thought: Making theological education and ministry training available to all
It’s important to remember that many people have no access to seminary education. This is the case of many in the global church. When I travel in those parts of the world, I see their hunger for learning Bible and theology and ministry skills. One of the challenges facing us today is how to support these churches. How do we help them gain affordable access to training and education, while supporting and developing local educators? How do we support access to theological education and ministry training, without repeating the mistakes of colonialism? Among other strategies, this will involve investing in strong local theological colleges. As they build capacity and nurture local educators, they also train and equip local pastors, evangelists, theologians, and church planters. Established theological colleges in the Global North and Global South can partner with such colleges (and with churches wanting to establish new colleges). They can do this for the sake of supporting and growing indigenous and local education and churches.
Appendix: Spiritual and personal qualities that theological colleges strive to instil in you
Here are some qualities of character and spiritual life described in the Bible. These are exemplary rather than exhaustive. Great Bible and theological colleges strive to help you grow and mature in these areas, as they work with local churches to prepare and support you to lead and serve:
- Poor in spirit. Willing to mourn or be persecuted for righteousness sake. Merciful, meek, and pure of heart. Peacemakers, who hunger and thirst after righteousness. (Mt 5:1-12)
- Seeking first the kingdom and God’s righteousness. Boldly and fearlessly proclaiming the Gospel. (Matt 6:33, 10:26-33)
- Demonstrating the characteristics and qualities of a servant. (Mk 10:35-45)
- Serving the Lord with humility. Faithful proclamation of the Gospel. Obedience to God’s leading. Considering one’s life worth nothing save obedience to Christ. (Acts 20:17-24)
- Keeping watch over oneself and the flock as faithful shepherds. (Acts 20:25-35)
- Offering one’s body as a living sacrifice. Being transformed by the renewing of the mind. Using one’s gifts enthusiastically. Never lacking in zeal. Keeping one’s spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. (Rom 12:1-13)
- Honouring all members of the Body of Christ and their unique spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12). Demonstrating the qualities of love described in 1 Corinthians 13.
- Setting forth the truth plainly. Preaching the Lord Jesus Christ. Persevering under trials. Fixing one’s eyes on what is unseen and eternal. (2 Cor 4:1-18)
- Living by faith not by sight. Making it one’s goal to please the Lord in view of his return. (2 Cor 5:1-10)
- Committed to the ministry and the message of reconciliation through Christ Jesus. (2 Cor 5:11-21)
- Living by the Spirit rather than gratifying the desires of the sinful nature. (Gal 5:16-21)
- Demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)
- Crucifying the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Living by the Spirit, while keeping in step with Him. (Gal 5:24-26)
- Living a life worthy of God’s call. Being completely humble and gentle and patient. Maintaining unity in the Church. (Eph 4:1-6)
- Humbly using one’s gifts and ministry to prepare God’s people for works of service. Building up the body of Christ toward maturity and the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph 4:7-13)
- Speaking the truth in love with a view to the whole body growing up into Christ. (Eph 4:14-16)
- Considering everything loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ, for whose sake they have lost all things. Seeking to be found in Christ, having a righteousness that comes by faith. Striving to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, attaining the resurrection from the dead. Pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of them. Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. Pressing on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called them in Christ. Following the example and pattern of those who have exemplified this life. (Phil 3:7-17)
- Proclaiming Christ. Admonishing and teaching with all wisdom in order to present everyone perfect in Christ. Struggling with all Christ’s energy, which so powerfully works in them. (Col 1:28-29)
- Being above reproach. Being faithful in marriage. Exemplifying an honourable family life. Being temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. Having a good reputation in the world. Keeping hold of the Gospel with a clear conscience. (1 Tim 3)
- Holding firmly to and teaching consistently the truth of the Gospel. Training oneself in godliness. Setting an example in speech, life, love, faith and purity. (1 Tim 4:1-12)
- Faithfully serving through one’s spiritual gifts, while watching life and doctrine closely. (1 Tim 4:13-16)
- Blameless, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Instead, being hospitable, loving what is good, self-controlled, upright, holy, disciplined, and Gospel-focused. (Titus 1)
- Being a shepherd who is eager to serve and self-controlled. Resisting the devil. Standing firm in the faith. Being an example to the flock. Being a servant leader who is clothed with humility. (1 Pet 5:1-11)
- Building themselves up in their most holy faith. Praying in the Holy Spirit. Practising mercy. Hating sin. Being passionate for the Gospel and salvation. (Jude 20-23)
Graham Joseph Hill is Interim Principal and Director of Research at Stirling Theological College (University of Divinity) in Melbourne, Australia. He has planted and pastored churches, and been in theological education for twenty years. Graham is the author or editor of six books including Global Church (IVP, 2016), Healing Our Broken Humanity, (IVP, 2018, with Grace Ji-Sun Kim), and Salt, Light and a City (Cascade, 2017). He also directs The Global Church Project.