EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, SBTS President R. Albert Mohler Jr. discusses the 2016-17 academic year with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders.
CS: Going into the 24th year of your presidency, what are you most thankful for?
RAM: I’m most thankful that as we look across the landscape of theological education and even Christian higher education that the Lord has allowed Southern Seminary to be so strong. I could not have imagined when I came here in 1993 that we would have the largest Master of Divinity class in the history of the Christian church. So all that’s been incredibly affirming of God’s blessings on the institution and the direction we’ve taken in the last near quarter-century, and the joy of it is something I couldn’t have known until we reached this point. I am now old enough and have been president here long enough that the sons of some of the students who came when I was first president are now here as students. That’s something that the Lord’s let me see for which I’m really thankful.
CS: You once lived in Fuller Hall.
RAM: I did, Fuller 135.
CS: What’s the significance of the upcoming renovations?
RAM: I should say we lived in Fuller Hall when we were married, and we had so little we had to live in Fuller because it had furnished apartments. It’s a part of Southern Seminary’s history, but the fact that it has existed and served the seminary since the end of World War II until now underscores the fact that it needs dramatic updating, like putting in adequate fire suppression and accessibility. One of the happiest dimensions of this is the fact that we cannot do without Fuller Hall, that the enrollment of the institution — both in terms of the seminary and of Boyce College — means that we’ve got to have Fuller Hall not only ready for capacity but for a greater capacity than we’ve had in the past. The genius of the renovation plan is that within a matter of about 24 hours one of these Fuller units can be transformed into either married student housing or Boyce College housing depending on the need. So that will give us a great deal of flexibility to our housing.
CS: What is your greatest fear for seminary students?
RAM: I think the greatest danger to a seminary student or to a college student is being disconnected from a vital gospel congregation. And the good news is that Louisville and the surrounding communities are now home to so many biblically-committed, gospel-centered churches that will eagerly welcome students and families from the seminary and from the college. We find our grounding, our encouragement, our sustenance, our center of gravity for fellowship and spiritual growth is in the context of a local church, and I want to encourage students to become actively involved in the local church as a functioning member as soon as possible.
CS: You say now there are many healthy churches. That wasn’t the case when you came here. How does it feel to know that as a result of what Southern Seminary has done in the past two decades, there are so many flourishing local churches in this community?
RAM: Part of the visible evidence of what God has done in this community is in the congregations in concentric circles beyond the campus — in Louisville, Jefferson County, the Long Run Association, and the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Expanding out, it’s really clear that Southern Seminary has made a difference. And it’s locally traceable to those who have graduated from Southern Seminary and become pastors, but also in terms of the active involvement of seminary faculty and staff members and students in the lives of these local churches. Mary and I are thrilled to be members of a church that tells that story. Third Avenue Baptist Church was not really connected to the seminary in years past and was a church in marked decline. There was a very real question as to whether the church would exist in this generation. And now it’s filled with largely young people. Mary and I, and Craig and Selwyn Parker are some of the oldest people in the congregation, but we’ve got construction going on right now expanding the seating in the church that just a matter of years ago was ready to close and is now verbally committed to the gospel. It defies the wisdom of the world that here you’ve got hundreds of young Christians in their 20s coming for a service where we basically sing hymns and listen together to a one-hour sermon. And there continues to be a need for students and members of the Southern Seminary faculty to become involved in churches where they can have that kind of influence, being yeast in a congregation that can help to bring about revival and renewal and revitalization.
CS: How would you encourage students in terms of preparing themselves for preaching and finding opportunities to preach?
RAM: Preaching is learned by doing. There’s more to it than that. I think every preacher learns a great deal by listening to other preachers, reading about preaching, and thinking about the task of preaching. There’s much to be taught in the classroom about preaching and yet even the structure of the classroom experience indicates that preaching is most fundamentally learned by doing. Preaching doesn’t begin for most of us in a pulpit. My first opportunity to teach the Bible came when I was 16 and didn’t seek the opportunity, but my father — who was a Baptist layman directing the Sunday School — assigned me to teach first graders as a 16-year-old when he had a teacher who was absent. I have missed very few Sundays from then until now in teaching somebody the Scriptures. I didn’t know what I was doing as a 16-year-old. I had to learn how to do it, but I learned how to do it by doing it.
My first advice is don’t wait to be invited to stand in the pulpit. Somebody needs you to be teaching the Scriptures somewhere right now. I think that used to be more obvious to seminary students in a way we’ve got to get back to. For instance, as a seminary student, I taught and preached at times in nursing homes in the Louisville area organized by Walnut Street Baptist Church. I taught youth and college students in Sunday School. I had opportunities to preach that came because people had heard me speak in some other context and invited me to come preach. I became pastor of a church at 22 years old in Trimble County, Kentucky, and those poor people were subjected to a 22-year-old preacher who did not then know how little he knew about preaching. But I learned a lot because that congregation helped to teach me how to preach. So don’t turn down an opportunity to preach, but don’t wait for that opportunity to be defined by a pulpit. It might be that you need to learn how to teach and preach the Scriptures right now by learning how to teach the story of Jonah to a group of wiggling first-graders.
CS: Boyce College has a new dean. What can we expect for the school’s future?
RAM: Boyce College is one of the best stories in Christian higher education, and the next chapter in the story is going to take place with Matt Hall as the new dean. And we are seeing the maturation and growth of the college year by year and even semester by semester, and Matt has exactly the right skill set to lead the college into its next chapter boldly and well. We see a record enrollment of students in the business as missions program. We see the development of the Honors Program in the college. We see the addition of a new sport, in terms of women’s volleyball. Recently I was walking through the Honeycutt Center and just paused to look at every square inch of that facility being used for exactly the purpose it was built, and in large part by college students on that weekday afternoon. It makes me very happy.
CS: What events are you hopeful students will attend this fall?
RAM: The entire Southern Seminary and Boyce College experience is now seven days a week, 24 hours a day in a way that it was not when I was a student or even when I came as president. Southern Seminary’s campus is now in many ways the crossroads of the evangelical movement. There will be lectures and visitors and events that are not going to take place anywhere else. The reality is every member of the Southern Seminary family is pressed for time, and the demands on our time are greater than I knew when I was student. But I would encourage students to understand that this campus has unprecedented opportunities that are never going to be experienced again.
And I want to remind us all as to what Fall Festival is designed to be. We’ve become such a large institution that we wanted to create at least one opportunity big enough that just about every member of the Southern Seminary and Boyce College family would make it a priority to be there with family and children. So don’t miss that.
CS: Our Fall Festival theme is on space. Did you ever dream of being an astronaut?
RAM: I grew up in Florida, and I was consumed with interest of space. My grandparents’ lake house was so close to the cape, I was able several times a week in the summer to see rockets taking off from Cape Canaveral. This was during the height of the Cold War. Most of them were unannounced. Most of them were military. But I saw almost every one of the Apollo missions take off, and my cousins and I — stretching aluminum foil outside the front door of the house, attaching that to rabbit ears — were able to get a fuzzy image of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon in grainy black-and-white picture. Then when we moved a little farther south in the state, my Scoutmaster was on the flight director staff at NASA and got to take us Boy Scouts up there for a launch, and we got to go into the vehicle assembly building. I can just tell you, for a boy my age that was about as good as it got.