Dear Seminarian, Go to Church Where You’ll be Most Useful
Without a Christ-centered desire to be useful to his church, personal preference and comfort become the deciding factors. When that happens, we have become consumers, and the church is our product.
Every August, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary goes from a quiet, empty campus to a bustling community of theological education. Returning students returning from the summer, new students trying to find their way, professors catching up with old students, maybe even a prospective student touring campus all add to the excitement of a new academic year.
And for many, there’s one important question they are asking:
“Where should I go to church?”
A simple Google search will pull up innumerable articles offering advice on how to pick a church. Most of them advise prioritizing some combination of orthodox doctrine, expositional preaching, an emphasis on evangelism, opportunities to serve, and the list goes on. These are all true and important traits in a potential church, but often lacking in search process is a question I believe should be at the center of every search: where will you be most useful?
Here are three reasons you should consider this a primary question as you look for a church.
1. You are a disciple, not a consumer.
The late Latin American theologian, Rene Padilla, wrote about American Christianity with the clarity that can only come from an outsider looking in. He argued that the greatest spiritual threat facing American Christianity was the growing consumer society, where people “work to make money, make money to buy things, and buy things to find value for themselves.” True happiness in this system is not found in worship and discipleship and service to God, but rather in being the homo consumens: humanity as consumer.
Unfortunately, this consumer mentality can unconsciously color our church search. We pick churches because we connect with the preaching, or we like the music, or we feel like we can make friends there.
And these aren’t inherently bad reasons to pick a church. But without a Christ-centered desire to be useful to his church, personal preference and comfort become the deciding factors. When that happens, we have become consumers, and the church is our product.
Instead, we serve a Lord who told his disciples to deny themselves and take up crosses to follow him. The Lord told us that we will only bear fruit, we will only be useful, if we first die. The church search of a consumer is focused on preference and comfort. The church search of a disciple is focused on spiritual fruit.
As you visit churches this fall, ask yourself as you look around the congregation, “Is this really where I can be most fruitful? Most useful?”
2. There are urgent gospel needs.
A few years ago, I was meeting with an employee of the Louisville Regional Baptist Association (LRBA). He told me that of the 150 churches that affiliate with the LRBA, as many as half may close their doors in the next 10 years. Many of these churches have been around for decades, with faithful witnesses in their neighborhoods, but they are slowly declining.
At the same time, in my experience, in any given class at Southern Seminary, 80% of the students will attend one of a handful of churches in the Louisville area.
Beloved, this ought not to be so.
There is a gospel presence that is irrevocably lost in a city when 75 small neighborhood churches close their doors. I speak from personal experience as a pastor of one of those small neighborhood churches.
There are non-Christian residents in our neighborhood who will attend a service on occasion because they walk by our building every day. There are relational, and therefore gospel, opportunities simply because we have a building in that neighborhood. A few large churches with Spurgeon-like preaching, impeccable doctrine, and deep resources cannot replace 75 local churches.
Seminarians and Bible college students will not be the saviors of these churches. Of course, we believe in only one Savior of the human race. Even more, you will likely walk away from ministry at one of these churches feeling that you had received more than you gave. My point is not to develop a savior complex. Rather, there is great gospel need, and you can be part of God’s redemptive solution to that need.
And I cannot think of a better way to prepare for a lifetime of vocational ministry.
3. It will be better preparation.
I’ll lay my cards down here. I believe if students at Southern Seminary and Boyce ask themselves how they can be most useful, there will be a much larger percentage who intentionally seek out smaller churches. Not all people are called to serve in small church settings. But, statistically speaking, most of us are.
According to Lifeway Research, 67% of churches in America have less than 100 members; 87% have less than 250 members. If you want to pastor a church one day, you will likely pastor a church of less than 100, almost certainly less than 250 members.
So. If your goal in attending seminary is to prepare for your future calling, wouldn’t it make more sense to get exposure to and experience in what you will actually be doing?
Again, I’ve learned this from experience. I was on staff with a large church before I came to Vine Street. The challenges of a multi-million-dollar budget church are very different from the challenges of a small church. Seeing children’s ministry at a large church did not give me many ideas for how to lead a children’s ministry that includes nine kids, ages 1-11, and enough volunteers for only one Sunday School class. I have yet to find a curriculum that covers that age range.
In the end, investing in a smaller church during your seminary years will give you ideas that you will use in your (statistically likely) future small church ministry vocation.
We all agree picking a church is an important decision, and even more so if you feel called to vocational ministry. Theological and ministry alignment are obviously important, and a humble reliance on the direction of the Spirit is essential. But baked into that process should be a gut-level conviction to go wherever you can be most useful to the glory of God.