Formation for Ministry in a Secular Age (3): Ministerial Practices

Gordon Smith

In part one and two of this series on “Formation for Ministry in a Secular Age,” we explored the cultural situation in which the church finds itself today and a few sources of wisdom for navigating and living in this secular society. Instead of lamenting this reality, church leaders and clergy must envision life within this society through the lens of the calling and missional purposes of God.

Key Skills and Capacities

Without doubt there are particular skills and capacities that are pertinent to this generation of Christian leaders. I would insist that we should nurture a full-orbed theological formation: immersion in the Scriptures, in the Christian theological tradition, along with the spiritual practices of the faith. We should also remain committed to formation in the basic capacities for ministry: preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and liturgical leadership.

In other words, we surely need to avoid all the pressure points that might come our way to short-change our students based upon some perceived sense of urgency. Ministry students must continue to pursue theological and pastoral formation. I would even go so far as to say that the MDiv has never been so crucial to ministry formation; the full academic and intellectual process of rigorous study has never been so vital for the life and ministry of the church.

What does theological formation look like in a secular context? To use the image of William T. Cavanaugh, what would it look like to view the church, not so much as a hospital but a field hospital (See Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World [Eerdmans, 2015]). Perhaps we are not so much in the work of preparing medical doctors for the hospitals in our cities, but for ministry that is much more like the work of Doctors without Borders.

There are four particular capacities or skills that we must cultivate in our ministry students. Although not an exhaustive list, these four capacities are surely essential for ministerial leadership at this time.

Preaching for Monday Morning

Ministerial students must learn to preach with the assumption that the kingdom of God is happening, and not simply on Sunday, but also on Monday morning. Moreover, preaching should have a view to the marketplace—the schools, businesses, art galleries, and legislative assemblies of our society. Students must cultivate a practice of preaching that has a vivid connection to the world and equips women and men to be agents of peace in this world (as they, in the language of Jer 29, seek the peace of the city). Indeed, it is important to preach the whole counsel of God. In so doing, we must foster in our ministerial students the capacity to preach in a way that speaks into the Monday through Friday life of their congregations. Ministerial students must learn to empower congregations to engage the social and cultural contexts in which they live and serve in local communities.

Advocacy for and Fostering Just Communities

To serve faithfully in our time, ministerial students must maintain a measure of understanding about the economic consequences of preaching and the ministry of the church. Ministerial formation should include basic learning about the economic dynamics of the towns and communities and cities. Preaching that is blind to the fundamentals of the economy is naïve at best, and irresponsible at worst. At its worst, such blind preaching can actually become complicit in unjust economic structures and systems.

Peace Making

Although the church has always been called to peace making, it may be that this is the particular calling of the church in a post-Christian society. Our communities and the society at large are caught up in conflict at so many different levels. Our legislative assembles are venues of conflict and discord, not collaboration and principled compromise. When we hear about conflict, on a national or local level, whether it be political, racial, economic or religious, it will be important for ministerial students to know that they have the skills to mediate, to foster ways and means for those in conflict, and come to an understanding and some measure of reconciliation.

Liturgical Leadership that is not Escapist

Ministerial leaders must learn how to bring the pain of the world into the heart of our worship. Recently, the Province of Alberta ,where I live, was blind-sided by a horrific wildfire that cut through several communities, most notably the city of Fort MacMurray. Eighty-eight thousand people were evaluated. The Sunday after this massive evacuation I happened to be the guest preacher at an Evangelical church in the province. I was stunned that this congregation did not offer prayers or commentary or mourning or anything of substance to assist the worshipping community in processing this traumatic experience. The worship leaders knew how to lead in a few happy-clappy songs. Unfortunately, they had no capacity—no sensibility—that would help them lead the congregation in prayer for those who had been evacuated, let alone for the crews who were still fighting the fire. They did not know how to mourn or express perplexity before God or cry out to God for intervention. We desperately need liturgical leadership that knows how to bring the deep pain of society at large and the individual person or family into worship. Of course, there is no better guide to this kind worship than the Psalms.

When the mayor of our city thinks about our university and seminary—in this case, our mayor in Calgary is an Ismaili Muslim—what might come to his mind? What does he associate with our institution? What are his perceptions of us?

Well, I would like it to be the following:

  • That he knows we are seeking the well-being of the city, and, as a religious community, we are empowering and equipping people to see the civic good and work for the peace of the city;
  • That he would know that we are deeply committed to justice, to advocacy for the poor, and that we will challenge unjust social structures, and that if this makes him uncomfortable, so be it;
  • That he would know that he can call upon us to be instruments of peace—finding just peace, and means towards peace—for those in conflict; that we would be masters of the art of mediation; and,
  • That in our worship we feel the pain of the city and pray for the city.

We are seeking the peace—the shalom—of the city, peace with justice, peace as flourishing, peace as the resolution of conflict, peace as radical empathy with the pain of the city.

Spiritual Practice for the Church in a Secular Society: The Call to “Interiority”

In addition to nurturing the intellectual and practical skills of ministerial students, we must also give attention to the following question: What does spiritual formation look like in this secular context?

To explore the answer to this question, I lean into the wisdom and insight of Louis Dupre, former professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale University (See “Seeking Christian Interiority: An Interview with Louis Dupre,” Christian Century [July, 1997]: 654-660). Dupre speaks directly to the secularism of our time before referencing the remark of Karl Rahner “that Christianity in the future will be mystical or it will be not at all” (655). After he notes the significance of this observation, he stresses that “to survive as a genuine believer, the Christian must now personally integrate what tradition did in the past” (655). In other words, I would add, the Christian and the church will need to cultivate the capacity to be deeply Christian when this is not reinforced by the social context and cultural sensibilities in which we live. We must develop deeply religious sensibilities—the capacity to live with a deep appreciation of life in the Spirit that fosters our ability to live in dynamic union with Christ (John 15.4).

Dupre observes that this requires the development of an interiority—not as a way of being disengaged from our society, but as a means of fostering the very spiritual resources that will equip and empower the church to engage our culture. As he puts it, “Even the contemplative is responsible for the civilization in which he or she lives” (657). Later, he notes: “A genuine Christian interiority must provide the inspiration for a humanism capable of living a vigorous, free and open life within one’s culture, whatever its condition…. The spiritual Christian is not involved in constant polemics with the surrounding secular world. Since that person’s force and strength comes from within, he or she can grant society and culture their full autonomy” (657).

This is a rather liberating observation. It is not as if we are wringing our hands or bemoaning our state, but rather—at peace with God’s purposes, our world, and ourselves—we can be true to our Christian calling and live with the potential for minds that are set on things above (Col 3:2). In response, I would suggest that theological education and leadership formation needs to include the cultivation of the practices and sensibilities that will include:

  • A recovery and full embrace of the practices of prayer and discernment, the capacities to live with a deep awareness of the inner witness of the Spirit, in and through our prayers, something that we will learn even as we lean into the masters of discernment in our Christian heritage and as we learn, as did the ancient church, to allow the Psalms, as Dupre notes, with regard to Henri Nouwen, that he “had the Psalms always nearby to bring ‘before God’ the passing moods and attitudes of the day”
  • A reaffirmation of the vital place of the sacraments in the life of the church and of the individual Christian—something that the pre-Christian church recognized as vital but which Calvin and Wesley viewed as indispensable to the life of the church and to their own lives, sufficient that for Wesley it was his pattern to have communion twice a week (see his sermon, “The Duty of Constant Communion” here) as a way of reminding us that true mysticism is deeply grounded in the tangible and concrete acts of the Christ-ordained acts of baptism and the church (on a side note, our insistence on sustaining a once-a-month, first Sunday of the month observance of the Table is simply nothing other than naïveté, and the failure to give grace to those who so urgently need food for the road in a secular age),
  • A reaffirmation that critical biblical study is essential to the life of the church for both lay leadership and clergy, as is the spiritual practice of reading the Scriptures with an open and eager heart, eager to “receive the Word with joy given by the Holy Spirit” (see 1 Thess 1), which suggests to us the ancient practice of meditation, and
  • A reaffirmation that our personal interior practice needs structures and forms of accountability, including spiritual friendship and spiritual direction, ways and means by which our interior life is nurtured and strengthened by grace-filled conversation and by which we are actually accountable for our interior lives, not living in isolation but living and working with and wrestling with our inner demons while attending the work of the Spirit, while in the company of others.

If we foster a practice of prayer and discernment, a deep appreciation of the sacraments, biblical meditation, and spiritual friendship and accountability, we have the capacity not to be consumed by the spirit of the age, which is fear. We can know the grace of that peace that transcends understanding and the courage that is required to be both fully present to our world and emotionally anchored in the love of God.

We must lean into and draw upon the wisdom, resources, and admonitions from our respective theological and spiritual traditions. Wesleyans must read Wesley; Mennonites must read Anabaptist sources; Reformed church leaders must read spiritual guides in that tradition. We must also learn to draw on the wisdom from the Other—with Catholic Christians reading Luther and Calvin, Evangelicals reading John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila, Christians in the West reading Orthodox writers all with this conviction that perhaps no tradition has all the spiritual resources we need to live in these challenging times.


As may be self-evident, when it comes to forming pastors and church leaders for our day, I conclude that there is nothing to gain and everything to lose by shorting the process. It is not wise to proceed by thinking that church leaders need less theological and spiritual formation than a generation ago. More than anything, a full-orbed theological program of study, complemented by a richly textured approach to spiritual formation, is indispensable for our ministerial students. We neither serve the church nor prospective church leaders well by suggesting that they shorten their course of studies or that abbreviated approaches to ministerial formation are adequate for our day.

[This essay is an adapted and revised version of an original essay written by Gordon T. Smith, “Formation for Ministry in a Secular Age: Equipping Clergy and Laity for the Church in Exile,” Didache: Faithful Teaching 16:2 (2016). ISSN: 15360156 (web version)– Used by permission. Copyright (c) 2016 by Gordon T. Smith.]

Posted Apr 23, 2018