The Redeemer City Ministry Program as a Model of Ministry Preparation for the City

Timothy J. Keller
Visiting Lecturer in Preaching
Reformed Theological Seminary

An inaugural convocation address [1]

And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.

When I went to seminary a very long time ago, A. B. Bruce’s book on the Training of the Twelve was the book to read.[2] Our Mark 3 text was central to that book, especially verse 14: “He appointed twelve that they might be with him, and that he might send them out to preach.” James Edwards’s commentary on Mark says this about the text: “The simple prepositional phrase, ‘to be with him,’ has atomic significance in the Gospel of Mark. Discipleship is a relationship before it is a task. It is a ‘who’ before a ‘what.’”[3]

The essence is this: you become like those with whom you hang out the most, those to whom you relate most intensely. You are a product of a family, and you will only be changed with relationships at least that intense with others. That means that no one can be “sent out” unless they have been brought in to “be with” in a radical, intense way.

Be with whom? With Jesus, first of all. Which means that if you are trained to go out to minister, your training does have to teach you how to pray. It does have to deepen your spiritual life enormously. These things cannot be “sidebars”—optional one day seminars—in your ministry training. You are supposed to be with Jesus during those three years. But it also means to be with (in intensely relational ways) your mentors, your trainers, and with other students—your colleagues. It is only through some radical communal experience of spiritual formation that you become someone who can be sent out.

Everybody talks about this around seminaries these days, and we talked about it when I was a seminary student. At Westminster Seminary, I was both a professor for a number of years and later a member of the Board. We constantly discussed “spiritual formation” and “character formation” under many names. Everybody says, “That’s it! That’s what seminary ought to be—intensely communal, lots of time together, teaching us how to pray, looking at each other’s souls.” So you talk about somehow “incorporating it into the curriculum.” But at the faculty level, it’s hard to find room for it (what will you drop or cut out?), and at the Board level, you realize that you can’t afford it.

Over the summer, I read a book by Paul House of Beeson Divinity School, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision.[4] House looked at Bonhoeffer’s role in the German Confessing Church’s illegal, underground seminaries in 1930’s Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer took students who were being prepared for ministry, and they lived together for six months or so. There were lectures and discussion, but no papers and no grades. The groups were small—generally 8 to 20 students at a time with a teacher/mentor. House does a good job recounting the fascinating history, and then he draws some applications for today. He concludes that today’s seminaries need small classes, that professors should have mentoring relationships with their students, and that there should be no distance education at all.

It is a great read, and it certainly would be good if seminary classes were smaller and if professors were more involved with their students. Yet I sensed there was something obvious that House seemed to miss completely. Let’s give an overview of how ministerial training worked in that time.

In Europe, then and even today, there was no Master of Divinity. Theological training was conducted in the university, and practical ministry training was done as an apprenticeship. Theological training was an accredited university degree. The subjects were biblical languages, exegesis, biblical studies, church history, theology, and philosophy. The intellectual standards were high. The pedagogical vehicles for the training were reading, lecture, and classroom work. The products to be evaluated were exams and papers. The goal was academic excellence and the mastery of a body of knowledge.

Ministry training, however, was not part of the degree program. It was a non-credit sequence, with small cohorts and much more personal interaction between students and instructors and between students and students. The education was a deliberate mixture of non- formal, informal, and formal elements. This was because the goal was to take the more academic knowledge attained and to learn how to use it—use it in one’s own spiritual life, use it in one’s own growth and self-knowledge and character change, use it in the lives of others through preaching, pastoring, leading, and evangelizing. There were more formal subjects but they all had a practical cast: reading the entire Bible together in the original languages with an eye to preaching it, expositing the biblical texts that had the most to do with ministry, the doctrine of the church, worship and sacraments, doing pastoral care, how to disciple other people. It was also in your practical training time that you mastered the confessional standards of your church with an eye to catechesis.

The main pedagogical instrument for all this was intensive and extensive discussion – both in class time and just as much at meals and within a host of other planned and encouraged times of life together. The pedagogy also made heavy use of worship and prayer together, with periods of solitude and meditation. The products to be evaluated also differed from the university courses. Students were involved in actual ministry in local churches and settings, so their preaching, evangelism, pastoring, and other ministry work was constantly evaluated—by instructors, other students, and by themselves.

The students lived in community in the same location with one another and with their instructor. The day would begin with the Psalms and worship, followed by a time of silence, prayer, and meditation where they learned to practice what they had been taught. They had classes all day, meals together, and evening worship. On the weekends they ministered in local churches. For about six months it was totally communal and all about “with”—with Jesus, with your trainers, with your fellow students.

In our country, and only in our country, these two aspects—the theological training and ministry training—have been fused into the single, three-year MDiv program. The positive benefits (which outweigh the negative aspects) have been these. The American seminary institutions, particularly the evangelical and confessional ones, have rescued academically excellent theological education from the liberalism of the modern research university in the West. It saved theological education from heterodoxy, and that is an enormous accomplishment.

So our seminaries, unlike Bonhoeffer’s seminaries, took over the academic part of theological education from the universities and “saved” it. But the problem is that now when you load all the ministry part of seminary education into the MDiv, an academic degree, you also lose a lot. Here are just three parts to the problem.

First, the pedagogy used for the academic subjects (languages, exegesis, theology, history) tends to be used on the practical subjects (preaching, shepherding, leading, evangelism) when the two ways of learning should be fairly different. No offense to any biblical language instructors who might be listening, but students don’t need to talk over a meal with their instructors about optative and subjunctive moods. They don’t have to process the content they need that way. They can get that online or in a lecture. They can master that in truly academic settings and ways.

But you can’t learn to pray that way. I probably could come up with a set of edifying and informative lectures on prayer. But that will not teach students how to pray. It will take much more than that. In fact—as I look at this room—I could not teach this many people at once how to pray. Teaching people how to pray—how to bring their joys and sorrows before God, how to watch their own heart in his presence—can’t be done just through lectures and tests. That has to be done in community, in relationship. So the MDiv tends to merge very different pedagogies.

Secondly, the admission standards for the two programs—academic and practical—are quite different. To be admitted to the academic classes you mainly need to be academically qualified. You may not know yet whether you want to do ministry or what you want to do with your life. That’s fine. You can still take theses courses and master the material and learn. But for ministry training, you need to know where you are going in life. You need to have some sense of call to the ministry. You need to be willing to suffer for your faith and for the people you are trying to reach. Those who get into academic training and ministry training are sometimes two different groups of people. If you are going to do ministry, you need the academic training, but lots of people who would profit from the academic training should not be in the ministry sequence. You need to screen and admit candidates not once but twice—once for the theological, and once more for the ministry.

Thirdly, you really cannot cover enough of the needed practical topics within the MDiv. If I remember, Reformed Theological Seminary made an effort in the 1980s to put more practical material inside the MDiv—more classes on preaching and so on. But the effect was to strain the academic. Students were not coming out theologically and Biblically knowledgeable enough, and RTS adjusted back to a more classical curriculum.

This is another reason why, in the Redeemer City Ministry program, we believe that practical ministry training needs to be given its own, dedicated curriculum. Most experienced ministers learn quickly that there are too many subjects that are not even alluded to in seminary. The first time you face a financial crisis in your church, you say, “just what seminary prepared me for.” Right? And I should add that for our New York City program, the list of practical topics gets even longer. There are at least five things you need to learn here, in the city: You need to learn cross-cultural communication, non-western Christianity, urban anthropology, urban sociology and social systems, and how to exegete a neighborhood. Those are all subjects that are every bit as important as the other subjects in a traditional practical theology curriculum. If you try to load all of that into an MDiv program, you shortchange the amount of stuff you can actually do for ministry training.

As you know, here in New York City we will not be offering the MDiv at this time. But now you can see that I don’t think that this two-phase program—the M.A. (Biblical Studies) degree followed by a “City Ministry Year” of non-credit, mentored practical ministry—is “second-best.” It is not “the only thing we can do under the circumstances.” It is a way to make ministry education in our country even better. Actually, there are four ways in which what we are planning to do here in the city may be unique:

  1. It will be the only Reformed, evangelical education with a classical theological curriculum offered in New York City.
  2. It will be a unique blend of online education with a residential learning community. We think we can merge these to get the best of both worlds.
  3. We are training people in the city for ministry to the city. This is extraordinarily rare, not to say unique, among evangelical seminaries today.
  4. We are recognizing the distinction between theological training and ministry training, but we are not pitting them against each other. We are doing them in tandem, with each side having an eye for the other.

I really do think that we will not only produce ministers for the cities of the world, but also advance theological education in the country. We’ll see.

To the students gathered here this afternoon, remember that you are here to be with each other, to be with your instructors, to be with Jesus. We are here to say at this convocation, “this is not what we are, but this is what we want to be.” Thank you for being willing to be the first through our doors.

  1. An address delivered by Dr. Keller at the inaugural convocation of Reformed Theological Seminary—New York City and the Redeemer City Ministry program, September 10, 2015.
  2. Bruce, A. B. The Training of the Twelve; Or, Passages Out of the Gospels, Exhibiting the Twelve Disciples of Jesus under Discipline for the Apostleship (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1877).
  3. Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 113.
  4. House, Paul R. Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015).