Last time we looked at some pointers for preachers who have had formal theological training. This time let’s ponder the situation for those that haven’t. There are many, many preachers, in many denominations, in many cultures, that are doing wonderful ministry without ever having had the privilege of formal training. Here are 10 pointers for the “formally untrained” preacher:
1. Don’t wallow in insecurity because of a lack of formal training – Most of the “formally untrained” preachers I have met would love to be able to study in a Bible College or Seminary. There are undoubtedly great benefits from being able to do so. However, God knows the circumstances of your life and He is thoroughly committed to developing your character and ministry. There is no need for insecurity because of a training path you have not been able to take.
2. Don’t be proud of your lack of a degree – Some of the strongest critiques of the arrogance that can result from formal training have come from people who reek of pride. Why the pride? Because they haven’t been “formally trained.” They are self-taught. They are self-made. Sadly, they are often also self-absorbed and self-deceived too. The “formally untrained” preacher can be wonderfully godly, but this person can also be horribly arrogant and painfully unaware of what they don’t know.
3. Recognise the first of two big weaknesses of “self-taught” ministry: a lack of exposure – It is hard to know what you don’t know if you have always chosen what you have read and studied. A formal curriculum helps to force exposure in areas you might never choose otherwise. I remember a conversation with a man who claimed all he needed was his “library of 66 books” (i.e. just his Bible). In the same conversation he revealed his commitment to a major heresy, but he had no idea.
4. And note the second of two big weaknesses: a lack of critique – While there are a lot of problems with Bible schools, there are some great benefits. One is to have your thoughts challenged. You have to express your thinking on paper, and you then get those thoughts shot at by someone who knows a lot more than you. You get to discuss with fellow students over lunch, who also are happy to test your thinking with alternative viewpoints. A “self-taught” preacher is in real danger of carrying untested thinking through life, into the pulpit, and straying theologically as a result.
5. Beware of trying to sound educated in ways you are not – Actually, this could have gone in the list for the seminary trained preachers too. It is tempting to try to sound more knowledgable than we actually are. For instance, having read some commentaries, it is tempting to drop a Greek term and its definition into the message. Please don’t. Anyone who has studied Greek will spot a lack of awareness, anyone who hasn’t might be impressed by your knowledge and there is a chance you will preach error. The goal in preaching ministry is simplicity that communicates truth and serves the listener, rather than complexity that communicates nothing and serves the preacher’s ego.
6. General critiques of people with training are unbecoming – Some trained folks are worthy of great critique, but don’t generalise (and typically, don’t verbalise either). I remember one preacher I used to enjoy who suggested that everyone with a PhD is insecure and gave a harsh alternative for what the three letters stand for. I am not sure what benefit his listeners derived from this critical spirit, but I know his shelves were full of the fruit of the labour of numerous PhD’s. Tearing others down to strengthen your own position will always come across poorly.
7. Grow – Lean into your walk with Christ with an inquisitive spirit, a disciplined reading schedule, a passion for ministry and you will grow. Do that for a decade and your ministry impact will add up to much more than a highly educated, but spiritually stagnant minister down the road. (And if the highly educated individual is not stagnant, but is also growing and thriving? Then praise God and press on!)
8. It is hard to know what you don’t know – I’ve met many people who assume seminary is a place to learn obscure theological trivia. Actually, the best theological training is not about probing the frontiers of obscure theoretical theology. Rather, it is about probing the very foundations of our faith and discovering the richness of the Gospel. There are a lot of people with a very “thin” Christianity who are convinced they know all there is to know (that is worth knowing). They are wrong. There is a rich Christianity that standard fare evangelical preaching knows all too little about. Perhaps you could get a taster in Mike Reeves’ The Good God, for instance.
9. Get training – Don’t miss opportunities to attend training courses, seminars, workshops, etc. Is there a Bible school where you could take a single course? Diligently hunt the best books to read, as well as well-informed people to engage with in conversation. Pray about finding someone who can mentor you in some way. Not going to Bible school is not a commitment to solitary learning – look for conversation partners who can help you think, and nudge you to read things you never would otherwise (Luther, Sibbes, Edwards, etc. or maybe a book about early church history like JND Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines).
10. Being in a seminary is a privilege, so is being in God’s school – But taking pride in either is dangerous. Be sure to keep up your conversation with the ultimate conversation partner – God himself. Ask him questions, write them down, see how you learn and grow. Pride always manifests in an “I don’t need you” attitude. It is ugly irrespective of educational opportunity or lack of it. Humbly walk with Christ, prayerfully engage with him through your study of the Bible and he will equip you for every good work.
What would you add to this list of pointers for preachers who have not been “formally trained?”
16 thoughts on “10 Pointers for “Untrained” Preachers”
I recognize elements of all 10 points in me at one time or another. One thing I might add is to find or prayerfully ask for someone that can disciple you. God has graciously provided a man like that in my life; we meet once a week simply to have discussion and prayer. He is 10 years older in life and in ministry, and I learn much from his humble and gracious counsel.
Thanks Dave – that is a great point . . . I am tempted to add that in. In fact, I will slip it in. Much appreciated!
On behalf of us without “formal” training is it possible to put together a “best books” reading list? It is often a hit and miss. I benefit and recommend what you have suggested so far. Thank you.
Thanks Mikael – it’s hard to do a definitive best books list because it really depends on the person, what they need and what they’ve already read. For instance, some people read The Good God and then should go on to Christ Our Life for more of the same. For others, going to Martin Luther’s Freedom of a Christian, or his commentary on Galatians, would be a good next step. It depends what people have already read and what their interests are. I think anyone who is preaching should be pursuing good Bible awareness, getting grounded in hermeneutics, engaging with some of the greats of the past, and reading about preaching too . . .
Have you thought about building a short curriculum aimed at lay preachers for reading? Especially those who have limited time ?
Thanks Phil – see my comment to Mikael. It is hard to give general curriculum since every lay preacher is unique! Maybe I will give it some thought and post something . . .
There is an absolutely wonderful resource online and its free (or pay what you can)!
It was founded and is run by Bill Mounce (who wrote, among other thing) “The Basics of Biblical Greek” which is the standard 1st year Greek text in most US seminaries. It is evangelical in content and features lectures by some of the best Seminary Professors. Their aim is to make quality, seminary-level training available to all, world-wide.
I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn and go deeper in their faith. You can find it at https://www.biblicaltraining.org/
Several reading lists are available to give a preacher some ideas about what to read. They may also help one avoid the danger of only reading from one perspective. Some helpful lists can be found here: http://bestcommentaries.com/libraries/
Those without formal training should not be preaching unless underneath a formally-trained pastor while pursuing formal training. Uneducated preachers have only their subjective, individual senses of “calling” and special “anointings” to understand and articulate the deep, complex truths presented in scripture. The truths of God require meticulous study within a community providing the scrutiny and accountability that helps prevent the auto-didactic errors you mentioned above.
Why would anyone who truly understands the sanctity of God’s very words want to take a position of potentially mishandling them and being subject to judgment, except for their own vanity and ambition?
I remember one of my professors at seminary telling me about a significant denomination in an African country. He had a relative working in that country as a missionary. He said that entire denomination only has two pastors who’ve ever been to Bible school of any type. Probably the majority of pastors across the world have no access to the kind of privileged training you describe here. Then there are other denominations that have always trained in-house and in-ministry. I am personally very thankful for the formal training I was privileged to receive, but I know that many don’t have that opportunity. Thus I think your final sentence could be perceived to be a little harsh. Thanks for reading the post and engaging with it! Peter
Your response is a man made contrivance, not a biblical precedent. Seminary is a wonderful place to train men, but it does not make men fit vessels.
I would ask you this question. If seminary training is necessary for fitness in the Lords ministry, how should I respond the the ministry of such lights and spiritual giants like Charles Haddon Spurgeon or D. Martyn Llyoyd Jones?
These men and many like them had a fitness for ministry no seminary could do more to prove.
Even our Lord Jesus Christ, when choosing disciples didn’t choose from among the elite educated men of his day but chose simple fisherman. Paul was the towering exception, but before his ministry was truly effective he had to learn from the Lord.
Seminary doesn’t make the man, God does. Seminary is valuable, but it is not invaluable.
That is to say, anyone without formal training cannot preach the truth from the word of GOD. I would beg to differ. Peter never had formal training and he preached one of the greatest sermons of all time. You are dismissing the power of the Holy Spirit to fill anyone to serve the purpose of GOD. I have not been seminary trained, but I can assure you that I am doing exactly what GOD has called me to do in leading the small church I lead to a closer walk with GOD. I’m not the smartest man in the world, but when I speak with those who have received formal training, I am usually right on. Formal training often leads on to trust more in training than on GOD, which defeats the Spirit’s purpose, or at best hinders His work.
Michael, thanks for your comment. I am not sure if you read the post, or just the title, but I hope you didn’t feel critiqued by the post. Warmly, Peter
I find it interesting that there are those who actually seem to believe that one should not be a preacher of the gospel unless they have received “formal training”.
I am thankful that opportunities exist for seminary or other types of formal training,however we must not become so arrogant in our thinking as to discount what Almighty God can do with a man committed wholly unto Him.
I shudder to think of the eternal implications of those countless souls won to Christ by the preaching of a few ordinary fishermen if those men had not obeyed the calling of their Lord because they lacked any “formal training”.
Though I have no formal seminary training, I do very humbly preach at 2 separate Nursing Homes and conduct a Bible study at another. At the Bible Study, there is an Orthodox Priest who was once a Protestant Chaplain in the Navy. It is a most humbling experience when preparing for the preaching and the classes. The research time for me is quite time consuming because I don’t want to err in God’s Word. On the other hand, if there were no volunteer Chaplains at Nursing Homes, there would hardly be anyone introducing the Bible or Jesus Christ to these wonderful people whom I serve. It is indeed an honor and a privilege to be able to love those who society discards.
Although I’m not trained formally in the ways of the Seminaries, I approach this “calling” with loads of Biblical research and Humility.
Thank you, Peter. May God bless you in this important ministry and thank you for commenting here. Peter