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?”