Some of you have asked me about the recent trip to London. Here is a rough snapshot of my response to St. Paul’s Theological Centre.
Last week I enjoyed the opportunity to observe an emerging theological training program. Several ministers from the United States visited St Paul’s Theological Centre in London, England. Our little group consisted of pastors of large and small churches, counselors, church planters, a Bible college president, a missiologist, and a chaplain.
For five days we observed and participated in the life and culture of Holy Trinity Brompton and their college, St. Paul’s Theological Centre (SPTC). Along the way, we ate our share of fish-n-chips, toured a few museums, visited Churchill’s war room, talked in pubs and enjoyed several delightful meals.
I was personally enriched by walking the streets of London, conversing with old and new friends, and worshipping at Holy Trinity Brompton. The visit was marked by blue skies and warm, windy days. It was also marked by our desire to watch and learn ways that each of us might personally and collectively work toward renewing theological training here in the United States and in our local communities.
Our main focus was to visit with the staff of SPTC and to observe the sessions. As a quick summary, SPTC is a theological training school integrated within the local church. Students attending SPTC are typically persons training for ministry, church leaders seeking further studies, and professionals seeking to learn more about Christian faith while remaining in their chosen vocations.
Several things make SPTC unique: it’s focus on training while serving local ministry; it’s connection to the larger church; it’s commitment to intellectual and theological rigor; and it’s integrated missional model.
I’ve attempted to summarize what I observed for my own processing as well as the discussions I am continuing to have with other ministers in the region. I realize my own observations are colored by my own values and longings, but I hope this will be helpful as a summary of what stirred within me:
I felt welcomed into this mission-centered community but even more deeply I sensed a “generosity of spirit” that infused every aspect of the faith community.
This same church developed and exports the evangelistic Alpha Course to over 169 nations. The Alpha Course introduces the gospel to those who want to learn more about Christian faith in a friendly, relaxed setting. Hospitality seems to pulse within the Alpha Course and it makes sense that the community reflects embodied service and love through their acts and attitudes of hospitality.
When I was in college and considering a seminary education, my pastor warned me, “Be careful, you may lose your faith while training for ministry.” This disintegration between academic pursuit in the university and the devotional life of the church community created deep-rooted conflicts, dis-ease and dis-integration within the community of faith.
SPTC represents a large move throughout the Body of Christ to restore training within the context of the local body. Localized training (in contrast to university or seminary training) doesn’t have to compromise intellectual rigor, but rather needs to integrate that rigor within the context of the lived faithfulness of serving within local faith communities. In fact, SPTC represents a way that local faith communities can dialogue with seminaries and university divinity programs.
I appreciate that SPTC has developed it’s training within and through the support of church leaders while also drawing upon leading thinkers like Alistair McGrath, David Ford, Jane Williams, Richard Bauckham, and others.
At the same time, SPTC is training students in context. The context of relationships with other students, the context of local church communities and the context of serving in local congregations.
So I see multiple “integrations” at work in SPTC such as local/global, intellectual/devotional, and the possibility for cross-cultural integration as other churches establish training centers and share resources across cultures.
My observation of integration is directly connected to the high value placed on relationship. By relationship I mean person-to-person relationships, church to church relationships, and even church to culture relationships. How do we learn in a way that enfleshes Jesus command to “love one another as I have loved you?”
I observed a model of training that values dialogue. The student training happened within the context of worship and within the context of fellowship, so I saw the dual emphasis on speaking/listening to God and one another.
While I observed a conversation with tradition, I didn’t have an opportunity to observe the conversation with living members of the older generation. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once observed that history changes when three generations come into agreement. When the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple: three generations joined together. Mary and Joseph as parents offered their son to the aged generation of Simeon and Anna.
I’ve observed SPTC’s commitment to the youth and their commitment to ancient tradition, I hope that there is also a corresponding commitment to connect youth with the wisdom and engagement of living elders (parents/grandparents).
For students seeking ordination, SPTC seeks to place the students in church planting or ministry roles within local faith communities. As I observed the congregation associated with Holy Trinity Brompton, I saw services that offered “high church liturgical worship,” charismatic worship, youth worship and more.
The opportunity to learn and then apply that learning within distinctive settings seems to me to be the work of translation. How do we translate Gospel in differing cultures? On one level I think translating Gospel within these varied worshipping communities represents an important aspect of translation, but I also look to the commitment of SPTC to train professionals who come from business, art, healthcare and other fields. The opportunity for translating Gospel in these settings offers a great possibility for the church, and I believe there is potential within SPTC to see this work of translation enfleshed in students learning how to live/speak this proclamation in distinct settings.
This need for translation connects back to the Alpha Course. Our hosts Graham Tomlin and others helped us all to see how the vision of SPTC is directly connected to the vision of the Alpha Course. The church is on mission to proclaim Gospel. The Alpha Course provides a context for proclamation and invitation to new believers. SPTC provides the training for believers who want enter into the mission of church planting, church serving, and Gospel proclaiming throughout culture.
I appreciate the holistic vision that integrates evangelism, church community, and theology into one community.
Even as mission for the kingdom of God drives the heart of SPTC and Holy Trinity Brompton, I sensed an even great submission to the King of the kingdom.
I end with the observation that most inspired me during our stay. At one point, Nickey Gumbel told our group that the goal is not to see how big you can be but how small you can be. A moment later he said that if the ministry dies, it dies.
These two statements captured for me a “spirit of submission” to the true Authority, our Lord and King, Jesus Christ. We follow Christ into mission but there are times of danger when mission can trump personal relationship (to Christ and others). This attitude of submission toward God and one another shined in every team member we met.
This humility touched me profoundly. I have observed and known all to well the power of ambition in ministry. To see a spirit of humility pervade the work of a church that is touching millions of people around the world, stirred and continues to stir me.
As I process my time in England and with the kind people at SPTC, I am struck that what they showed us was not simply a technique or a model but a culture that has been cultivated in time and space. As we seek to learn how their work might fit into our communities, I think we can appreciate this culture of hospitality, mission and humility that seems to permeate much of their work.
It certainly stirs me to seek to learn and emulate. If there had been a model like this when I was in school, I might have stayed in the academic setting. I wanted to teach, but I wanted to teach people in a more holistic, relational setting that reflected the true content of the message.
It makes me think of story from the start of my ministry. In 1988, my new wife and I moved onto a drug and alcohol ranch. My primary function was to lead the men in a daily Bible study. At some point during the year, we began to explore the book of Romans together. I would usually introduce a passage, offers a few reflections and invite conversation. One day, a man who was deeply struggling with cocaine addiction offered a response to Paul’s message of grace. He looked up and said, “So Billy Graham needs the grace of God just as deeply as me?”
Through this broken man, I encountered a depth of God’s grace that provided redemption for us all: the righteous and the sinner. His comment changed my whole ministry. In him, I learned that ministry was about listening and speaking, about call and response between God and man as well as between man and man.
What I observed at SPTC gives me hope that churches can help people grow in faith, and ministry, becoming people who live in the rhythm of call and response, of listening and speaking.