According to a person who has the opportunity to observe what is going on in theological education across the country, there are an increasing number of students in graduate theological education who haven’t grown up in the church, so they need spiritual formation while in seminary. I don’t question the need, but I question the premise that those who HAVE grown up in congregations have been spiritually formed. This is an unwarranted assumption. Some have and some haven’t.
I spent almost thirty years working with college and university students. Many came from strong church backgrounds. They were regular participants in worship services, youth programs, and summer camping programs. Many were healthy, growing believers, but many had much to unlearn.
Although most of these young adults had sat through hours of Bible study, they did not know how to study the Bible for themselves. They knew what their pastor or youth minister believed, but they had never thought through the implications of perceiving, understanding and living biblical truth. They could parrot beliefs that were not their own, but they did not know how to make up their own minds about spiritual beliefs and practices. It was not unusual for them to come to the campus minister as the “spiritual expert” to explain things that puzzled them.
Many did not know how to pray. Certainly, they could pray in public and were willing to do so when asked, but as they approached God their requests were usually superficial and lacked confidence. They might use beautiful phrases but this only meant they had heard someone else use the words; they had no idea what those words meant as one addressed a Holy God. They had the form but not the substance.
They also had a lot of unlearning to do about racial equality, the role of men and women in the church, and social justice. I don’t blame them for this. They were products of the churches from which they had come.
The joy of working with college students came from seeing a student question the traditional interpretation of a passage for the first time, expressing a prayer that reflected the deepest longings of the heart, or becoming aware that there were people in the world who needed not only the word of God but the hand of God’s people. This made the job worthwhile.
In some ways, perhaps it is easier to work with those who have not had a church background! With those folks, the “unlearning curve” is rather shallow and everything they learn is new and exciting.