Friday, 18 September 2015

Joyful Intercessors

In the training colleges of the Salvation Army across the globe, group support and cohesion both in training and after is catalysed by giving each year's intake of cadets a "sessional name". I
have been knocking around the fringe of William Booth College long enough to have seen the 
 Disciples of the Cross (the high-flying DoCs), the Heralds of Grace (or rather more lowly HoGs), the Messengers of Light (a term surely only in use biblically for Satanic beings), and now the Joyful Intercessors. 

At WBC, London, my wife has already photographed them all; Facebook has already suggested I befriend most of them, and I have even met some of them. We have Hammonds (new and improved?). We have the Annual Callum. We have a lovely influx of continentals - I've met France, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic - and the nation-state of Yorkshire is, as ever, solidly represented. They seem bright and eager, keen and friendly and slightly nervous. All normal then. 

Beyond the cadets of the Salvation Army colleges around the world, a far larger number of other students are also beginning theological studies. Few denominational setups have quite such a focussed programme as TSA, where, if you complete the course and make your covenant, you will be ordained as a minister and will have a guaranteed job, but nevertheless, many new students have their hearts and minds focussed on future ministry in church and mission. 

What can be said to these new students? 

1) Enjoy your time at college. 

You will feel busy. You will feel pressured. Deadlines will loom. If you have been years out of full-time education, essay writing will feel like climbing Everest with advanced arthritis. Some of you will also have your brain stretched horribly by working all the time in a second (or third!) language. 

However bad this feels, remember that college is an oasis of peace and tranquility and time compared to the demands of your future ministry. Sorry to say it, but it is true. Not only are time pressures lighter now, but you are surrounded by people who will become your friends, and some of those friendships will last for ever. The future will probably be tougher and lonelier. Don't complain: enjoy! 

2) Recognise that this really is foundational 

You have time now to think through issues that you have never had the time to tackle properly before. And you will never again have such a chance to explore theological and practical thought-contours. Well-chosen essay titles given over the next years will stretch you, will make you think, and will stay with you, if you work hard at them. Essays I tackled at college on John 1, on the witness of the Spirit in assurance, on Rastafarianism, on the Prophets as Covenant Policemen - all have stuck with me through nearly 30 years now, becoming part of my substructure of thought. Ditto for practical ministry stuff. Make the most of it!

3) Remember that this is not "normal"

I'm not a fan of theological training that takes people away from the normal rhythm of church life. But colleges are with us, for good or ill, and we need to learn to live with them. There are ways of minimising the abnormality though!

As far as is possible during your time at college, be a normal part of a normal corps/church. Get to the meetings. Hear the word. Pray.  Take part in social events. Play a genuine and unassuming role in church life as much as you can. 

Above all, do not regard your "status" as a cadet/student as putting you a cut above the "ordinary" members. We are called together to live for Christ. So let's show that. Remember, the greatest Christian leaders you know and have ever known have been the most humble. Isn't that so? 

4) Guard your heart and mind

Many people go into ministerial training with a relatively simple faith - even simplistic. You've believed that the Bible is "true", that Moses led a vast company of Israelites out of Egypt, that the miracles of Jesus really happened, that Paul's letters come from God, that the doctrines of the church are to be signed up to without great thought as to other "options", that there is a heaven to seek and a hell to flee. You may well feel over the next few weeks that suddenly all of that is in meltdown, that nothing is certain any more, that the simple light of your faith is all but being blacked out by what feels like a tide of cynicism and even direct unbelief. Amongst the loudest voices in that will be some of your fellow students who seem keen to vie with one another as to who can seem most knowledgable, most critical, most radical.  

Just remember: when you seem to be presented with just two roads, there may be a third way. When simple faith is mocked, and a critical, liberal, unbelieving, progressive path is placed before you as the attractive option, there is a way out. The best transformation of an unthinking fundamentalist is not into an intellectual liberal but into a thinking believer. Someone who has read widely, tested their thinking, recognised strengths and weaknesses in their upbringing, and who has held fast to a profound biblical faith even in a highly critical climate. 

5) Maintain your personal spiritual priorities 

If the intellectual foundation of your faith may feel under attack, so can your personal walk with God. Theological training is a bit of a hothouse environment, and unfortunately a hothouse can grow weeds as well as the desirable plants. If you have any tendency to become professionalised, handling the Bible and Christ's gospel as if they were a commodity at your disposal, as if the delivery of a sermon was just a job to do, then that tendency will probably start to rear its ugly head here. If the approval of teachers and session colleagues matters more than Jesus' approval, if looking good in front of fellow professionals counts more than actually caring for the person in front of you who doesn't know you from Adam, then college will start to show it. 

I dropped out of Christian ministry because professionalism did for me, from the inside. I ended up committing adultery - but I'd slipped a long way first. And I think that issue went all the way back to the start of my ministry. What matters ultimately is not essay marks or accolades. What matters is a life of love - walking in love to God and neighbour. Whatever else you get from college, don't let it rob you of that. 

God bless you, keep you, teach you and use you! 

Photo credit: Sarah King

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