Whenever I hire a staff member, I will always get around to asking what he did in seminary. Where did he go to church? How did he serve when no one was paying him to do the job? If the Holy Spirit and a man’s calling don’t compel him to love and serve the church, he won’t do it well for a paycheck either.
One could probably enumerate dozens of reasons why a seminary student’s faithfulness to a church during his years of training matter, but I offer six that stand out.
Many of God’s commands can only be fulfilled in a local church. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:24-25). “Obey your elders and submit to them for they are keeping watch over your souls . . . ” (Heb. 13:17). “Unto Him be glory in the church . . . ” (Eph. 3:21). Church membership and participation are not optional for followers of Christ. The church is God’s Plan A for teaching, training, accountability, correction, and a host of other essential activities in a Christian’s life.
While I enjoy and delight in private worship or in small groups, nothing can supplant the corporate worship of the saints assembled together to exalt the name of Jesus in psalms and hymns and to hear the Word preached. The angels watch in eager wonder when the church is assembled, but surely they must scratch their angelic heads in disdainful amazement at anyone who claims to be redeemed and even called to ministry who thinks so lightly of Christ and his bride that he considers church attendance optional. Corporate worship establishes a mental soundtrack for my week as the gospel songs we sing continue to play in my head. The Holy Spirit uses the preached Word to effect change toward Christlikeness. I need weekly worship to make the rhythm of the new creation beat smoothly.
The first week I was in seminary, I visited local church pastors, introduced myself and learned about them and their congregations. One pastor in particular resonated with my heart. We placed our membership in that church and Tanya and I volunteered for any jobs in the church that we could do.
Because we were willing to do small things, the pastor eventually gave us greater opportunities. In fact, before the end of our first year there, the pastor had asked me to preach a dozen times, including exclusively filling in for him while he was on an extended mission trip. I learned a great deal from that pastor and still use many of his notes on pastoring in the pastoral ministry class I have taught at Southern for nearly two decades. He commitment to shepherding and evangelism shaped and imprinted my life, and I am grateful that I did not miss it.
4. Body Life
Seeing my fellow believers each week reminds me of my responsibility to serve them and to be mutually accountable. Part of church participation is “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” and “provoking one another to love and to good works.” The gospel needs no loners. We are part of a body. We have different gifts and functions, but severed from the body we are dead and useless. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to God’s children, but then he gives those believers to churches so that they might fill needs there.
Married seminary students, especially men, need constantly to remember they have a responsibility to provide rich, robust fellowship and biblical training for their wives. A young pastor in training has the joy of regularly interacting with other students, with professors, and even with pastors at seminary, while the wife may be working or at home with children. The church is a way to ensure that other family members are growing in the Lord and in the Word even as they forge appropriate godly relationships.
Nearly every opportunity afforded me to serve in churches can be traced back to previous service. Just as David killed a lion and a bear before he faced Goliath, I had to be trained in smaller ways before I got greater avenues of service. Had I not been faithful during seminary, and had we not plugged in and served willingly, I am convinced that my name would never have been on many future lists that presented great prospects of gospel impact.
The experience gained, the relationships forged, and the doors opened to those who use their seminary years to serve in a church—even if in an unpaid position—will prove a blessing throughout the rest of life. Perhaps the greatest benefit of all, however, is that it teaches seminary students to love what Jesus loves and to live to hear Jesus say, “Well done.”