Equipping people for urban mission will need more than an alternative to seminary

Regular readers of Faithroot.com will know that I’m particularly passionate about seeing people equipped to pastor and plant in our urban contexts. This means that we need to be able to identify, call, train, send people from urban backgrounds, from working class and estate contexts, from different ethnic groups. It will mean encouraging and equipping for ministry those who haven’t normally been seen as “blokes worth watching.”

One of the arguments I’ve been making is that our normal pipelines for encouraging people into Gospel ministry aren’t fit for this particular purpose. In particular, there’s been increasing discussion about how the traditional seminary route isn’t accessible for so many who clearly have the gifting and calling.  It’s too expensive and too remote. It puts people into a cultural context that is alien to them and uses teaching and assessment methods that work okay for those with an academic education up to degree level and beyond but not for those who do not.[1]

So an alternative to seminary is an important priority.  We need opportunities for people to train in context, vocational training for Gospel ministry if you like.  Slowly, I think we are getting the message across that this isn’t about dumbing things down, in offering a cheaper, easier, stripped down alternative.  We want urban pastors from urban backgrounds to be “the best possible gift” to their churches just like we want those who go through Union and Oak Hill to be.

But, as I’ve said up front in the title of this article, it’s not just about finding an alternative to seminary.  First, it’s about how we identify and encourage people to step into, develop and use their gifts. That’s why the discussion about “pipelines” and the problem with the “blokes worth watching” approach kicked off by people like Glen Scrivener and Nay Dawson is important.

And, it follows through to the other side of any initial training.  It’s about how we keep encouraging and supporting people in the lonely task of pastoring in urban front line contexts. That includes financial support and the structures to make that happen but it’s also about emotional support through prayer, mentoring, coaching etc.  I’m hoping that we can start to meet some of those needs through Faithroots.

Then there are the resources that pastors and preachers look to, both when they are at Theological College and beyond into ministry.  One of the best things about four years at Oak Hill was having 24/7 access to a theological library stocked with thousands of books, commentaries, journals, monographs, Systematic Theologies, Biblical Theologies, Church History, etc.  I’ve also been able to build up my own mini library.  That’s not something going to be open to a lot of potential planters and pastors.

  1. Books take up a lot of space and not everyone has the luxury of a church manse/vicarage with a set aside study.
  2. Theological resources tend to be expensive.  You want to get the whole of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics? That’s going to cost you a few hundred quid.  The heavy weight commentaries come at £30 minimum. Some books can be £70 or more.  Your average pastor’s library is probably worth several thousand pounds

However, it’s not just about space and cost.  Too often the books on our shelves are written by people who sit at a distance from the experience of preachers and congregations in urban contexts. Mind you, they are often at a distance from preacher and congregation in any context. How often have you wondered why the theologian has got bogged down in several hundred pages of small print and footnotes on an obscure theological question that whilst very interesting has little if any practical significance. Or what about the time when you’ve read through all the commentaries and they’ve failed to even address the one burning question you had before preaching the passage. In fact, worse still, some commentators take pride in announcing that they won’t comment on the very thing we all want an answer to.

So alongside the proposal that some of us have been making for vocational training, I want to add an other proposal.  We need to give attention to providing good quality, theologically rich, practical and accessible resources for pastors and preachers in urban contexts.

This means that we need commentaries, systematic theologies, pastoral care resources etc written by front line urban practitioners for front line urban practitioners.  It means that we shouldn’t be just asking people from those context to write books and articles about the need to reach the working classes or for racial reconciliation (even though it’s good that we are at last asking them to speak about those things).  We need to hear/ read their insights on Genesis and Song of Songs. We need to get them teaching through writing, speaking, podcasts, videos on the Doctrine of the Trinity and Justification by faith and how those things are good news for the young lad who is third generation unemployed or the kid whose just been stopped and searched for the fifth time this week. 

In fact, this is part of the aim of Faithroot.com. I wanted to start to provide teaching and resources.  I’ve been building up  a little library of early drafts of the publications page.  I’d be very happy to share other peoples’ resources here as a starting point.

I’d love to hear from others who share my concern here and are interested in seeing what we can do to change things. Please drop me a note via the contact form below.

[1] I’ve used the example of how one of the people we planted with in the West Midlands finished his formal education aged ten as he was recruited into the gangs.

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