When we stand in front of students, or sit down with them, what are the burning issues in their minds? Probably not the pros and cons of dynamic Christology or a revisionist view of Thomas Cranmer.

For instance, many of our students are of an age when they are either falling in love or longing to do so. And falling in love with someone who is falling in love with you is still the most lovely, intense experience on earth (except listening to our lectures of course). Or maybe they are looking forward to a strange and little understood future and wondering about themselves, who they are and what they can do (rather than who you, the teacher, are and what you can do). We compete for the students’ attention against formidable opponents.

Looking back over my journals kept while I was at college, I note that at one time my two great concerns were whether I was called to the ministry or not and why a stunningly beautiful Portuguese girl refused to go out with me. The lectures had to compete with all that. In case you are interested, I have now been married to that beautiful girl for almost 40 years and we entered the ministry together on leaving college, all by the grace of God.

Nowadays, with a larger proportion of older students in some of our colleges, student heads and hearts are often deeply involved with home, children, finding the money to live while studying and keeping a dozen balls in the air at the same time – balancing the commitments of college, home, church, job and much else. Again, this is pretty tough competition for their attention.

And yet it can work, and it works in three ways;

Firstly, there can be an intensity about the learning experience at college or seminary which, for a while blots out all other thoughts and feelings. We speak glibly about the power of ideas but many of our students are capable of feeling that power in a glorious way. They laugh when they see something clearly, frown when their pre-suppositions are at risk, challenge statements, rush off to the library to read more. And when the ideas are theological, they touch even deeper into their hearts and minds.

Secondly, for all, but especially for the down to earth students who do not become so emotionally involved in theological ideas, we can relate what we teach to their lives, needs and feelings. What does the text under consideration say to the 21st century 21 year old about love, relationships, faithfulness and the future? What does Christology have to say about how they regard their own human-ness?

Thirdly, as teaching in theological education is ministry of the Word, we can and should rely on the Holy Spirit to stir the heart and make useful and exciting the material we give. This does not absolve us from working at the first two issues but does say that we as teachers have a co-conspirator inside the very heart of the student to give our words power.

The competition between our teaching and the hopes, worries, loves and cares of our students is a reality and is intense. We cannot teach well without taking it into account. But I have seen that competition won, again and again, by teachers who are passionate about what they are teaching, understand the needs and thoughts of their students and see their work as ministry aided by the Holy Spirit.

Otherwise, in this most intense of daily competitions, we do not stand a chance.

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2 Comments on “Competition”

  1. Drew Gibson Says:

    As a card-carrying Practical Theologian, I wonder if the dilemma you talk about is as much of our own creation as it is of culture or the ‘times we live in’ or the nature of student romance. Theology and the academy have always been uneasy bedfellows, or, at least from a Christian perspective, always should have been.

    I’m preparing a sermon for Sunday introducing the book of Proverbs and the difference between academic theology and the pursuit of wisdom can be very stark. Teaching theology can only be valid as part of the pursuit of wisdom and the heart of wisdom is that it is a lived response to understanding the mind of God. When teaching theology is abstracted from the pursuit of wisdom, it is divorced from the whole purpose for which it exists and students have every right to gaze wistfully at lovely girls form Portugal (or in my case, Portglenone – I assume we had the same linguistic and cultural barriers to overcome). I think I’m affirming your second point but perhaps broadening and deepening it so that it becomes not just a pragmatic option but an absolute necessity.

    Making, for students, the connections between Christology and cricket is of the essence of doing theology. If we cannot makre real, vital, intrinsic connections between the great ideas in all their splendour and the ordinariness of everyday life then what’s the point? This is by no means to be understood as a dumbing down of academic theology, if you ask me what were the most influential books in my Christian walk they were by Bosch, Moltmann and Gutierrez and I’ve found Aquinas, Calvin and Barth thrilling (in parts!). One of my strongest criticisms of contemporary praching is that, not having done the academic hard work, especially on the text of Scriptute, preachers are simply trite in their practical applications and devoid of spiritually refreshing insights.

    Teaching good quality academic theology should be a key way of delving deeper into the mind of God Himself so that the mind of Christ is more fully formed in us. If we, as teachers, can’t do that, then we should give up. When I look at a class and see blank faces, my first reaction is to mentally upbraid them but, afterwards, I have to look at myself and resolve to make the connections for them in a way that does excite, even entrance and, hopefully something else beginning with ‘e’ that means ‘work out in their lives’.

    • Thank you Drew. I couldn’t agree more. In the end, we do not make theology relevant to our students. If it is not relevant, it is not proper theology at all. It has to be the solid bridge rooted on one side in good “academic” study of the Word and on the other in good relevance in the world and lives of people.

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