Do church planters need a theological education? Should those of us guiding potential church planters encourage them to get a theological education? We’ve all heard the well-worn put-downs that seminary can be a spiritual cemetery and that people just need Jesus, not exegesis. There is some truth that seminaries can be ivory towers that are far removed from the realities of ministry and the changes in the culture. But as Mark Twain once said, “Don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.” In other words, seminary is not only the way to get a theological education, but it can sure help if approached in the right way. When we approach our theological training as a next faithful step in preparing for God’s mission, it will equip us rather than trip us up.
A friend of mine who regularly assesses church planters shared with me that sometimes his network doesn’t give a green light to a potential planter because they lack a theological grid. This shows up when they preach a sermon without understanding the passage’s biblical context, when there are inconsistencies in their theology, or when they seek to adopt someone else’s methodology without regard to the culture they’re trying to reach. So it’s not that a seminary degree is required, but what is required is to be able to think biblically, theologically, and missiologically. For most of us, seminary can train us to do so.
Here’s a simple test using two questions: When was the last time you thought through something to completion and articulated it? When was the last time you wrote a paper? The answer to both questions is likely the same, meaning that most of us don’t think deeply about something unless we have read and written about it. This is part of the purpose of theological education—to train planters to be “reflective practitioners” who act and then have the capacity to reflect on where God’s Spirit is at work in their community.
Most planters are wired as activists, which means that reflection doesn’t come naturally. So we need to continually move back and forth between practice and theory, using what Mark Lau Branson calls a “praxis-theory-praxis” model. But if we’re not trained to think theologically, we can quickly devolve into an “error-trial-error” model that’s largely driven by what works (or doesn’t), regardless of whether it is biblical or honors God or respects people. Being able to think theologically and missionally about things like budgets, core team make-up, and marketing helps us to bear lasting fruit rather than be a flash-in-the-pan plant.
Long term, it’s not just about whether or not a planter gets a seminary degree, it’s about cultivating a learning posture throughout your whole life. The world is changing rapidly, and leaders who are wedded to specific models and techniques will likely get left behind when the culture changes yet again. Instead, a good theological education equips us to be agile so that we, like the Apostle Paul, can say “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” because we chose to maintain a lifelong learning posture.
At Fuller’s church planting program, we are seeking to holistically form church planters through spiritual formation, theological reflection, and missiological competencies. May God lead you and those you influence to produce lasting fruit in the form of new disciples, reproducing churches, and church planting movements.
Len Tang is the director of Fuller’s Church Planting Program in Pasadena, California, which offers an MA/MDiv emphasis in church planting, a certificate, and a year-long cohort. Len is a Fuller grad and is also planting Missio Community Church in Pasadena.