Training Christian Leaders: An Urgent Need

David Helm, executive director of The Simeon Trust, is pastor of the Hyde Park congregation of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago. He will join Albert Mohler, Mark Driscoll and Don Carson on a panel, “Training the Next Generation of Pastors and Other Christian Leaders,” during The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 national conference in downtown Chicago. Registration is now open for the conference, which offers three rounds of workshops. I corresponded with Helm to learn more about training Christian leaders.

Why train?

This is probably the most important question. For a lot of pastors, it comes down to a desire to see gospel ministry carried on into the next generation and beyond the borders of their own influence. This, alone, is enough. It is biblical. The apostle Paul trained up leaders everywhere he went, because the growth of the gospel through the work of others was an integral element to his own view of church ministry. For me (and the amazing pastoral team I am a part of), the question becomes one of my own commitments to training, as a pastor, rather than outsourcing it to seminaries or other training programs. Put differently, where is my urgency?

My urgency comes from four convictions on the present state of training in the modern church.

  1. Wicked men have already beaten us to the punch. Very simply, false teachers have no problem training their followers to lead people astray. This reality is clear according to 2 Timothy 3:1-9. People will be trained for ministry no matter what we do. So, we ought to offer an alternative to the false teachers.
  2. Weak people already rule the world. Because of the proliferation of false teachers, there is an abundance of people who have no grasp of the gospel both outside and even inside the church. This is probably most apparent in mainline churches. They are filled with wonderful, moral people who want good things. But they can, at times, also end up being little more than social activism organizations. The reality of the gospel has no effect on some of them. They don’t recognize the gospel. And ultimately, those kind of churches end up doing away with God’s Word altogether.
  3. Strong-willed men are already leading the way. By “strong-willed,” I mean consciously and purposefully untrained people. In our country today, more than ever, we have people entering full-time ministry with absolutely no formal training. And while I think there is nothing magical about “formal” training in the sense of a seminary degree, this trend often implies to the impressionable among us that training is unnecessary. Combined with a growing anti-intellectualism, this degradation of training—whether by formal education or field experience—is becoming incredibly dangerous. Handling God’s Word in a church ministry context is something that requires some skill, skill that is conveyed through training. Again, the issue is not credentials. The issue is whether or not people entering ministry believe that handling God’s Word well is important.
  4. Well-meaning men have lost their way. This is probably most evident in the way our own churches tend to hire ministers. Typically, pastors think about hiring additional staff for two reasons: (1) to take some less desirable facet of ministry off their own plate; or (2) to fill in gaps in the ministry coverage of the church. In other words, training takes place to address perceived deficiencies in the current ministry. But neither of these is Jesus’ reason for training up apprentices in Matthew 9. He gathers his disciples in order to create ministry. He, very simply, trains them and sends them out to find new ministry opportunities.

Describe the work you’re doing right now to train the next generation of pastors and Christian leaders.

Right now, we train in two different ways.

RESIDENTIAL TRAINING

First, we have worked with a few churches in the Chicago area—primarily the one I am a part of, under the leadership of Jon Dennis, Holy Trinity Church. For about ten years Jon and I have offered an internship program called the “Chicago Plan.” The internship was designed for young men (and more recently, women) who are headed into full-time vocational ministry. The full six-year program starts pre-seminary (candidacy: two years) and functions as a kind of complementary practicum throughout seminary (internship: two years) and finishes with full-time, hands-on immersion in ministry (residency: two years). We occasionally have some students who enter at a later stage, but we generally prefer to get students from the beginning.

The program itself brings together what we think are the three essential elements to good training: classroom instruction, ministry exposure, and mentorship. Our classroom instruction consists of a 90-minute meeting every Monday that includes instructional lectures on preaching and teaching, lectures from guest speakers and academics on particular issues of biblical studies or ministry, practice times for the students to work on their own preaching skills, book discussions, and weekly Greek exegesis sessions. Ministry exposure is where the student is involved with ministry in the church. For students in the first few years of the program, it is simply teaching an adult Sunday school or leading a Bible study or even helping out in the children’s or youth ministry. Over time, responsibilities increase. In the later years, it is full-time functional pastoral ministry in a church plant. Mentorship consists of a series of small-group and one-on-one meetings, both formal and informal between students and their mentor pastor. The point of the mentorship is that the student will accompany and learn from a pastor in every activity of ministry.

ONLINE TRAINING

Second, the Charles Simeon Trust trains men and women more widely through the Simeon Course on Biblical Exposition. This course is a 30-week online training program for people who want to get better at studying and teaching God’s Word. It consists of a series of online videos and interactive exercises (ideally done in groups of six to eight) as well as readings and practice preparing sermons or expository talks.

The course has been really helpful to people all over North America for three reasons: it has a flexible format, it requires practical engagement, and it features a breadth and depth of quality instructors. The course’s flexible format means it can be done by anyone anywhere. All that is needed is an Internet connection. It is ideal for both young men and women in training, engaged in church-based internships, as well as for pastors already in the pulpit and in need of a refresher course on preaching. It is even available for seminary credit through our partnership with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

The practical engagement required in the course makes it more than just an intellectual exercise. You can learn a lot about expository Bible teaching from watching the videos and reading the materials. But developing skills requires practice. From interacting with others over the instructional videos to actually preparing sermons and sermon outlines to be critiqued by your small group, the course helps you improve your skills at teaching God’s Word.

Finally, we have worked hard to quality instructors. We have gathered a breadth of instructors from different ecclesiological traditions, but all reformed evangelicals. More importantly, we have gathered instructors who have a long history of expository preaching in churches and a depth of expertise on the subjects they are teaching. As a result, our course features instruction from preachers and teachers such as D.A. Carson, John Woodhouse, David Jackman, Mark Dever, Phil Ryken, Kent Hughes, and many others.

Based on your experience, how would you assess local churches in their efforts to raise up new, younger leaders?

Personally, I am really excited about a lot of the things I’ve encountered. A lot of larger evangelical churches seem to have embraced this important mission of training up the next generation of biblical expositors that the gospel may continue to grow. Usually, this takes the form of a post-seminary type of internship (or possibly during seminary depending on the proximity of the church to a seminary). Places like College Church in Wheaton or Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia have done a really great job at giving formally trained guys a place to get their hands dirty in ministry for a couple of years.

That said, I would challenge these types of programs in a few ways. First, they need to think about getting young men (and women who will teach other women) earlier. Presuming seminary (which is not always possible) and then trying to funnel that seminary training into a particular church context is probably a little harder than it needs to be. I think it is simpler to help a young people develop the right instincts for ministry before seminary rather than to try to reshape them after seminary. Second, these church-based internships need to be more thoughtful about synthesizing the formal training of seminary with the practical world of church ministry. A young man leading the college ministry of a church while attending seminary classes part-time, unfortunately, lives in two different worlds. Seminaries seem to be leaning a little more on the academic side of their mission at the moment. For the most part, this is fine for seminaries. They really excel at this part of training. But, a lot of the time, the connection between the Greek exegesis done in the classroom and the real-life care of souls in a weekly Bible study is lost. The connection between study of the Word in a classroom and the proclamation of the Word in a church is lost. And seminary students come out with a mental picture of “the pastor” that resembles “professor” a little more than “preacher.” I think churches, particularly mentoring pastors, need to be thoughtfully engaged with each student in training and helping them make those connections.

I would also pose a third challenge—though more for the unconventional, but still church-driven, church-planting initiatives that have become prominent in North America as well as the seminaries themselves. There is something of a trend, within these networks, of providing a comprehensive training that functions as a kind of alternative to the comprehensive training in seminaries. Comprehensive training is a good thing. But it also carries with it a danger of dulling the focus on “the main thing.” That is, if handling God’s Word and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ is one of 17 things in the curriculum, students can lose sight of the fact that it is the central thing that drives everything else in the curriculum. God’s work is accomplished in this world through his Word. Our programs and cultural engagement may help facilitate the expression of his work in our world, but they will never accomplish it apart from his Word. If we do not get that first bit right, the other 16 things in the curriculum won’t really matter. And so, my challenge would be: Consider moving toward a more precise focus on the exposition of God’s Word.

If a pastor wants to train the next generation of leaders, where do you suggest he begin?

Just start. An internship is really easy to set up and completely worth the effort. Pick a handful of young guys and start investing a few hours a week into them. Those few hours will improve their capacity for ministry and likely improve the overall quality of yours. After a year or two, you will also have dramatically widened the scope of your ministry. You’ll have more people trained for and engaged in ministry than you do presently—and all without having to hire a single person.

So, just start. I would be happy to talk with anyone about how we have set up our internship program at Holy Trinity Church and give more explanation than the above. As far as the content of that investment of a few hours per week, there are several options. The Simeon Course on Biblical Exposition would be a great place to start. Matthias Media (here in the United States and in Sydney, Australia) and the Proclamation Trust (London) both publish many resources that would be really helpful as well.

How would your advice be different for lay leaders?

My advice wouldn’t be very different. Handling God’s Word is handling God’s Word. Whether you are the senior pastor or a lay leader in a church, you cannot afford to take lightly the teaching of the Bible. The Bible is dangerous in the right hands and can be devastating in the wrong hands. So get trained. Obviously, in-person training programs and church-based internships and residencies will be presumably less practical for lay leaders. But, there are (at least) two things that a lay leader can do. First, get access to training that does meet your needs. The Simeon Course on Biblical Exposition is one mechanism for getting a small group together to work on the skills necessary to handling God’s Word. But you could also get into a preaching class at your local seminary or maybe participate in a church-based training program on a part-time basis. But mostly, get practice. Second, get feedback from good Bible teachers. Don’t be afraid to ask your pastor to give you critical feedback on your Bible teaching (ideally before rather than after). Ask him to help you improve. This kind of mentorship is incredibly valuable.

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