Cultivating Godliness in Seminary

When I was preparing to enroll at Southern Seminary to begin my M.Div. studies, more than one person counseled me to not allow my zeal to fizzle while in seminary. While some of that counsel probably reflects my membership in a tradition that is still somewhat suspicious of theological education, I suspect that many other aspiring seminarians have received similar advice. And for good reason-each of us know of someone whose faith withered in seminary, even in orthodox seminaries. By God’s grace, I really believe I loved Christ more when I finished seminary than when I started, in part because I attended two fine seminaries, but also because of some steps I took to try and cultivate godliness during seminary.

I want to share some strategies for cultivating godliness while in seminary. It is my hope that these suggestions may help some seminary students to stay close to the cross and grow in their faith while pursuing their theological education.

  1. Join a good local church. At Southeastern, we begin encouraging students as early as New Student Orientation to join a solid local church and become actively involved. My criteria for a good local church include several factors: gospel-centeredness, adheres to sound doctrine, expositional preaching ministry, evangelistic, sees itself as a servant to the community, cultivates gospel community among members, is hesitant to allow new members, including seminarians, to immediately exercise leadership responsibilities (especially teaching).
  2. Join a good church-based small group. It doesn’t really matter if it is a home group or a Sunday School class (or both) so long as it focuses on building gospel community through life-on-life discipleship, sound teaching, accountability, and outreach. In my opinion, the best small groups at least occasionally share meals together and are not by design limited to only one age group. Some seminarians will prefer groups and churches that are seminary-heavy, while others will benefit from groups and churches that have less of a seminary presence. (As an aside, lots of seminarians are looking for a mentor. I’m convinced that if you join the right church and involve yourself in the right small group, much mentoring comes naturally through gospel-centered, life-on-life relationships.)
  3. Make personal devotional time a priority. It is tempting for every seminarian to substitute class work, especially edifying assignments, for personal devotional time. Don’t succumb to this temptation! Spend regular time studying, meditating upon, memorizing, and seeking to apply Scripture. Spend regular time praying, both for yourself and for others. When you have to go a few days without personal devotional time, try to block out an extended time that you can recharge through Scripture reading and prayer.
  4. For married students, make family worship a priority. This may seem a bit awkward at first, especially for those who did not grow up in families that prioritized this discipline or for married couples who don’t have any children. But press on-this is one of the most important things you can do to cultivate godliness while in seminary. Read the Bible together, pray together, and sing together. If you have no children (we didn’t at the time) or if you have older children, I recommend working through D. A. Carson’s For the Love of God (now available online), which includes daily devotions based upon Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s classic Bible-reading plan.
  5. Share the gospel with unbelievers, especially unbelievers with whom you are building a personal relationship. If you attend an evangelical seminary, chances are you will take a class or two that requires you to engage in personal evangelism. But in addition to whatever curricular requirements you might have, try to share the gospel with others as often as you can. Consider participating in your local church’s outreach ministry. Volunteer with other area ministries. Build relationships with lost neighbors, co-workers, and/or others with whom you come into regular contact. If you are in an urban area, try street preaching. If you are near a university, assist with a campus ministry. The sky’s the limit, but do something to impact lostness, even while you are a seminary student.
  6. Commit to read at least one edifying book each semester in addition to whatever books may be required. I know this is tough for some students, especially those who read slowly. A good seminary overwhelms you with reading! But it is well worth your time to spend even five or ten minutes a day reading on a good book that has nothing to do with class. Some of the books that I think would be helpful along these lines include Paul Miller’s A Praying Life; C. J. Mahaney’s Humility; Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship; J. I. Packer’s Knowing God; John Piper’s Future Grace; Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel?; Sinclair Ferguson’s The Christian Life; Don Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life; any book by A. W. Tozer or Jerry Bridges. (Note: If you read any of these books for a class, read a different book as your “extra” edifying book-no cheating!)
  7. For those who aspire to be pastors, also read at least one good biography and one good book about pastoral ministry each semester. My favorite biographies are Courtney Anderson’s To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson and George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life. As a general rule, the older a biography (especially of a pastor or missionary), the more edifying it is-and the purpose here is edification, not academics. Good books on pastoral ministry include Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry; Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students; Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor; Tom Ascol, ed., Dear Timothy; John Armstrong, Reforming Pastoral Ministry; Curtis Thomas, Practical Wisdom for Pastors; Collin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine; D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry.
  8. In addition to your local church and the seminary’s chapel, listen regularly to good preachers. Podcast preaching that will give fire to your soul and shape your own preaching. Listen to good conferences (most of the good stuff is free) and be encouraged by pastors and others who are on the front lines of gospel ministry. If you can save up the limited financial resources at your disposal, try to attend at least one good conference a year in addition to the conferences hosted by your school. By the way, a good seminary will host good conferences that will help you grow in godliness and inform your own approach to ministry.

Cultivating Godliness in College

We have all heard the horror stories. Some of us have been the horror stories. A student grows up in a Bible-believing church where she has professed faith in Christ and participated in a myriad of programs designed to help nurture her in that faith. By the time she graduates from high school, she has been to church camp a half dozen times, participated in two mission trips, signed a True Love Waits card, and accumulated enough Christian t-shirts to “wear her witness” for a month.

She then goes off to college, where our freshman is faced with a number of temptations, some of which were not even on her radar in high school. There are the obvious vices like sex and drugs, both of which manage to find their way onto even the best of college campuses. There is also a new sense of freedom; gone are the days of asking for permission to go to a particular event, checking in with mom and dad about changes in plans, or (at many schools) being home in time for curfew. If a collegian is not careful, this newfound freedom can lead to newfound compromise.

Another more subtle temptation is busyness. There are countless activities in which to be involved including clubs, athletics, campus ministries, parties, pep rallies, concerts, informal gatherings with friends, etc. Many of these are worthy pursuits, but if a student is not disciplined with his time, the sheer number of possible activities can choke out his spiritual life by leaving little time to pursue a stronger walk with God.

All too often these and other temptations overcome the Christian student, and before long he has ceased attending a local church (if he ever did), is uninvolved or only half-heartedly involved in a campus ministry, is nurturing habits that are questionable at best and blatantly sinful at worst, and is hanging out with folks who he would have never considered befriending in high school. And he is not making these new friends so that he can share the gospel with them.

Every year thousands of Christian students enroll in college and downplay, redefine, or walk away from their faith. It really does not matter whether the college is a secular university or a Christian private school; threats to the faith abound at both, though the dangers manifest themselves differently on every campus. But college does not have to be the reef upon which one’s faith is shipwrecked. There are many ways students can actively cultivate personal godliness on even the most hostile of college campuses. Let me suggest some strategies for cultivating godliness during the college years.

First and foremost, every student needs to cultivate his or her personal walk with God through spiritual disciplines such as regular personal Bible study, Scripture memorization, private prayer, fasting, and personal evangelism. None of these other suggestions will get very far if a student is unconcerned with personal spiritual growth, even when nobody but God is watching.

Second, collegians need to become vitally involved in a local church. This may seem obvious to many readers, but it is surprising how counter-cultural a notion church membership is to some young adults. But there is almost nothing as important as committed involvement in a Bible-believing church. The vast majority of the time that the word ekklesia appears in the New Testament, it is referring to a local congregation of believers. It is among local churches that Christians covenant with each other and commit to hold each other accountable. It is among local churches that the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are observed. It is among local churches that seasoned believers are able to mentor and encourage younger Christ-followers. I greatly appreciate parachurch campus ministries and dorm Bible studies (as will be clear below), but there is simply no substitute for active membership in a local church.

Third, many students should consider becoming involved in a campus ministry devoted to reaching and discipling collegians. This is especially true of students attending a college where none of the nearby local churches are interested in having a meaningful ministry among college-aged adults (unfortunately, it happens). Some of the better campus ministries include Campus Crusade for Christ, Campus Outreach, The Navigators, Baptist Collegiate Ministries, and Reformed University Fellowship. The quality of each of these ministries varies from school to school, so students should do their homework before signing on with a particular group.

Fourth, collegians need to establish a network of accountability. This network can come from a local church or a campus ministry, and ideally it involves two different levels. The first level is a peer group, whether it is a Sunday School class, dorm Bible study, or a campus ministry-sponsored small group. What matters is that the student feels the freedom to confess his struggles and commit to receiving godly counsel from fellow believers. The second level is a mentoring relationship with an older Christian who has “been in the shoes” of a college student. All too often this type of relationship is missing in the lives of Christian students. Many churches offer the opportunity for interested collegians to be pared with a mature believer who can combine biblical counsel and a good free meal from time to time.

Fifth, students need to read good books. Fortunately, most college students are in the habit of reading anyway, so they are often open to reading edifying books, even if they only have time to read a couple of extra books a year. Furthermore, there are some authors like Jerry Bridges and John Piper whose books are both enormously popular with collegians and in many cases are written with college-aged adults in mind. Other solid authors who seem to be fashionable among collegians (at least the ones I know) include J. I. Packer, John Stott, Mark Dever, A. W. Tozer, C. J. Mahaney, Tim Keller, and Tullian Tchividjian. Also helpful, especially if you are struggling with your faith on a secular campus, are the apologetic works of authors like J. P. Moreland, James Sire, Peter Kreeft, and Lee Strobel.

Finally, collegians need to maintain as close contact as possible with their families and home churches (assuming they have moved away to attend school). It is easy to virtually walk away from your pre-college life when you move off to a new community and begin school. But students need to continue to nurture close relationships with their parents (especially those with Christian parents) and their childhood churches. These relationships are reminders of God’s past grace, and during difficult times in college, can be reminders of God’s faithfulness and future grace.

College does not have to be a roadblock to Christian growth or the end of faith itself; in fact, many non-Christian students first meet Jesus Christ during their college years. But there is no denying that for many young believers, college is anything but a means of grace in their Christian lives. Fortunately, this does not have to be the case. If collegians are willing to take the initiative in actively cultivating godliness during their college years, then this period of life can be filled with spiritual milestones, greatly influencing the type of Christian man or woman the student is becoming.

So if you are a Christian collegian, let me urge you to pursue a stronger walk with God, even as you pursue your degree. And if you are the parent of a Christian student (or future student), encourage him to make the most of his college years for the sake of the gospel and not squander this critically important season of his life. I would also recommend that all Christian college students or future collegians (and parents!) read J. Budziszewski’s How To Stay Christian in College (NavPress, 2004).