[JMH = me; TMA = Thabiti M. Anyabwile]
JMH: Dear Thabiti,
Thanks for your service to us, brother. If I may, I’d like to ask you for some advice that applies to my particular situation, and then I’d like to put it on my blog that it might benefit others.
Moving from one seminary to another takes me out of a role at Baptist Church of the Redeemer, where I have been serving as pastor of preaching, to a new city (Louisville) where we’ll be looking for a church for our family to join. This is going to be a radical change for us in terms of church life. In addition to the ways I’ve been involved (preaching, worship planning, song selection, involvement in pastoral conversations and situations, etc.) my wife has been heavily involved in ministering to the ladies at our church. Redeemer is a church that was planted only three years ago, so, we’re accustomed to seeking the Lord, consulting with a relatively small group of people, and then doing what we think will most honor the Lord (whether that pertains to nursery furniture, a ladies’ Bible study or book club, or even a place to meet!). We certainly have our preferences on music style, preaching style, and ministry style, and we’re leaving a congregation we love that sings songs we love and does ministry, we think, in a healthy way.
I suspect that for various reasons there are others like me, who go from being involved in shepherding a congregation to looking for a new church to join. How would you advise us? What kinds of things would you suggest we look for as we seek a new church home, and how can we be healthy church members?
TMA: Jim, that’s an excellent question. Actually I can identify with you quite a lot. When my family moved from N.C. to Washington, D.C., we moved from a 3-year old church plant into a situation where we knew next to nothing about the church scene. We loved that church and we set about the task of finding something like it in many ways. Actually, that’s the first piece of advice I’d have for someone in this situation. Don’t look for a church that is “like” your previous church, particularly if the likeness you have in mind involves a host of secondary matters. Our preferences can be the death of a good church search. Hold them up to the light of Scripture and be sure to cultivate an accepting heart for other believers who do things differently in secondary matters (Rom. 14). Look for the essentials first: a church holding a sound doctrinal stance, that preaches the gospel faithfully, that preaches the Scripture expositionally, and that at least encourages a strong “one anothering” culture. With the word and a strong membership culture, so many other things have fertile soil in which to grow. That would be my short list, I think.
As for being healthy members, overall it’s probably helpful to find a place where you think you can grow spiritually. When the Lord moved us from NC to DC and Capitol Hill Baptist Church, I went from being one of three elders backing up the senior pastor in preaching and teaching duties to being #49 on the depth chart at CHBC. It was clear to me that I knew less than most everyone there, and more important than how much I knew or they knew, they were living so much better than me it seemed. I felt like the entire family would grow spiritually in ways that really mattered—holiness, humility, love, joy, righteousness and so on in Christ. So, search for a place where you’ll grow spiritually, even if it’s a place where you’re one of the smartest guys there.
I think there are some temptations and sensitivities you can bring to a church given your labor as a pastor and professor. The temptation would be to either try to influence the church in pride (“I’ve been a pastor and professor and you should do it this way”) or to assume that you should have more access to the pastors than other members (“I’m a pastor; I can help. Why don’t they ask?”) Either attitude, left unexamined or unidentified, could create strain and difficulty in a new church situation. Be careful of the temptation to say, “I wouldn’t do it that way.” There may be pride and a judgmental attitude there. Instead, pray and look for the mindset that says, “I want to support and follow the leaders in any way I can.” As a member, we’re called to that attitude without regard to our history as pastors. Support the leaders the Lord has called to that place, and perhaps go out of your way to let them know of your support and that you’re not judging them. Be a good leader to the other sheep by modeling the kind of submission you perhaps experienced or longed for in your previous church situation. And that’s one of the unique sensitivities a former pastor brings to a new church. He knows what it’s like to be the shepherd and for the sheep to misunderstand. With that sensitivity, you can model so much of what nearly every pastor wishes his people understood.
Beyond that, be healthy church members by attending regularly, giving your life to the people there, sitting joyfully, humbly and eagerly under the leadership and teaching of others. Pray fervently and without ceasing for the leaders, the members, and the ministries of the church. Give generously and so on.
JMH: Following up on that question, do you have thoughts on how seminary professors in particular can be healthy church members?
TMA: Again, you bring perspectives and resources that most members will not have. You can be helpful in your area of expertise, or connect the church to seminary-based resources. When the elders or the church is working through a particularly knotty problem, you may be in a position to deliver some expertise. Only be careful. Remember you’re not in a classroom but in a living breathing church where histories and cultures are always at play. Be sensitive to who those people are.
Another way you can be a healthy member is help the church leaders fight the mistaken impression that “the seminary is where it’s at.” Your participation in the church will help with that. But talk often of the seminary’s parachurch support role for the church. Encourage seminarians to cultivate that understanding. Encourage more young men with gifting to consider the pulpit rather than the academy.
JMH: And lastly, how can seminary students be healthy church members?
TMA: Seminarians should think of themselves primarily as church members, not “seminarians.” I think a lot of men see themselves as ‘tweeners levitating somewhere between their previous church and the church or mission field they’re headed towards. They’re in a kind of suspended animation. And often a seminarian can suffer spiritually as they float out their in academic space somewhere. The church suffers too without their gifting and service.
It will be tempting to think of their studies as a special status that obviates their relationship to and responsibilities in the local church. But they are primarily Christians, and as such should be active in a local church body as members not seminarians. We don’t excuse other college students from the expectation that they should be active in a local fellowship; and we shouldn’t do it with seminarians either. So, they should join a local church and plant roots. They may be leaving in a few years but learning to love a church quickly will help them learn to love new members quickly when they’re pastors or when serving in highly transient areas.
And like seminary professors, students should be humble and patient, avoid judging others and asserting unimportant preferences. They should see the church as the main classroom of Christ, and the classroom as an auxiliary. Given that, they should seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. And by God’s grace, they will as they humbly receive the word (Jam. 1:21), receive grace through the various administrations of God’s gifts (1 Peter 4:10-11), and are equipped for service until they reach maturity in Christ, the Head (Eph. 4:11-16).
JMH: Thabiti, hearty thanks for these helpful and edifying thoughts. I am particularly grateful for the way you have applied the truth of the Scripture to the situation we face. May the Lord continue to bless your ministry!