Yesterday, I had the privilege of listening in on a panel discussion between D.A. Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, David Helm, and Ligon Duncon, here at the 2011 Gospel Coalition Conference in Chicago. The topic of the conversation was “Training the Next Generation of Pastors and Christian Leaders.”
The whole discussion was fascinating (and helpful), but one of the most interesting (and, I think, important) questions asked was, “What is entailed in the ministry of the Word? What role should seminaries/churches play in training church leaders to handle God’s Word in different ministry contexts other than simply preaching?”
I was impressed by the widespread agreement among the panelists that there is much more to the ministry of the Word than simply preaching on Sunday. David Helm, pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, reflected on a time in his ministry when he focused an inordinate amount of time on preaching while neglecting a more personal, individual Word-ministry among his flock. He noted the harmful impact that this inordinate focus had on his church.
The most helpful comments, in my opinion, were from Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Driscoll distinguished between two important facets of Word ministry: the air war (preaching the Word) and the ground war (helping people to understand and apply the Word in the context of community). He pointed to his church’s small groups and their centrality in his church’s strategy to truly disciple people. He reminded us that,
We can tell people to read the Bible [or any other kind of teaching], but unless we have a mechanism to move them along, it’s a stated value but not an enabled value.
Later, he summarized his philosophy of Word-ministry:
Information in community with application leads to transformation.
I think each phrase in that statement is important. We need information, the truth of the Gospel, the stories and propositions of Scripture. Without this truth, we are without a solid foundation.
But we also need information in community. God’s plan from the outset was to create a community of people, a family. We are meant to live in relationship with one another. In our union with Christ, we are necessarily united with all others who have been united to Christ. But this theological reality must translate into a striving to create and foster the practical experience of the relationships that already exist in Christ. And communal reflection on God’s Word (and don’t just think of a formalized “Bible study” time, complete with folding metal chairs, bad coffee, and the repeated refrain, “What I really feel this passage is saying to me is…”) should hold an important place in the experience – the practical expression – of this community.
Third, we need information in community with application. Information is worthless if it is not applied. The truth should be digested and it’s nourishment carried into new and growing life. Theology must be understood and studied as fundamentally practical, not simply as an exercise in esoteric reflections on irrelevant abstractions. The stories and propositions of the Bible must be connected to God’s people today. And community is critically important and helpful in this pursuit.
Fourth, all of this leads to transformation. Transformation is the goal. It must be the goal, not in such a way that the other elements mentioned are neglected, but the goal nonetheless. Along these same lines, Driscoll later cautioned us not to “set our sights so strictly on precision [information] that we forget about conversion [transformation]…precision is always for the sake of conversion.” This isn’t to denigrate the importance of precision! Precision is necessary for conversion! But our focus on precision can become inordinate if it leads us to forget the true telos of precision: transformation.