A Model for Assessing the Seminary’s New Curriculum…and Your Church’s Ministry
What are the marks of a good pastor? A good sermon? A good education class? A good teacher? These questions are asked not only at your church, but also at Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS). How does CTS know whether it’s doing a good job of preparing pastors for the church? What assessment model would help the seminary evaluate whether its education is working?
CTS has developed a four-point model to organize and assess its new Master of Divinity (M.Div.) curriculum. The model has been in use for several years in the seminary’s evaluation of sermons—some of you may have noticed it when you filled out sermon evaluation forms. Seeing how it works with sermons makes it easy to see how it works with the seminary’s new curriculum, as well as with your own church’s ministry.
Four Marks of a Good Sermon
Whenever I ask church members what makes a sermon a good sermon, their answers always come down to the same four things: First, the sermon is biblical. The sermon’s message is rooted in the text of Scripture. Second, the sermon is authentic. Here the person of the preacher is in view. The preacher is sincere, passionate, and humble. She clearly believes what she’s saying. Third, the sermon is contextual. The preacher knows his audience and the overall context in which he’s preaching, and can design clear, compelling sermons appropriate to that context. The preacher knows the difference between preaching in a high school chapel or a jail, and designs and delivers the sermon accordingly. Fourth, the sermon is life-changing. The sermon challenges people to a better way and calls them to Christ and to be transformed by the Spirit.
These four marks of a good sermon can be arranged visually with a circle that captures the movement from the Bible as the source of the message, through the person who preaches, to a particular audience and ministry context, all with the goal of gospel transformation.
This circle is helpful for evaluating preaching in general and sermons in particular. Sometimes pastors preach biblically-based sermons with loads of personal sincerity, but the sermon doesn’t connect with the audience—it’s dull or unclear or disorganized, and consequently not very life-changing. At other times preachers are authentic and their sermons sizzle communicationally and even move the heart to change! But the sermon has nothing to do with the Bible. And still other times, a sermon may be biblical, contextually and communicationally right on the mark, and may call the listener to change, but the preacher is arrogant or condescending. A sermon is only good if it touches all four points on the circle. The same is true of a good seminary education.
Four Marks of a Good Seminary Education
CTS is using essentially this same circle to design its new curriculum for training pastors. Graduates must be adept at all four points on this circle.
In the new M.Div. curriculum, the message represents a thorough grounding in Scripture, including its original languages, as well as learning how to interpret Scripture from a Reformed perspective and design sermons that mine the rich treasures of Scripture. The person represents the ongoing spiritual and personal formation of the student, growth in prayer and the spiritual disciplines, and the development of pastoral intelligence, empathy, humility, and honesty. Mentoring groups, vocational mentors, and congregational internships are some of the components that aid in this formation. The audience represents a capacity for discerning what is contextually fitting in ministry. Courses in missions, world religions, and church history, as well as cross-cultural internships, will help students discern and engage various ministry contexts to function effectively in an increasingly cross-cultural world. Finally, the goal of all ministry is to form communities of disciples, to lead in ways that build up the church and accomplish the mission of God. To this end, students develop competence in many ministry practice areas such as the following: discipleship, evangelism, apologetics, leadership, worship preparation, preaching, pastoral care, and ethics.
Just as the preaching model helps to evaluate a sermon, this circle of ministry lends itself well to the assessment of the seminary education that pastors receive. Few individual pastors are equally gifted on all four points of this circle. For example, some pastors are biblically grounded (message) and spiritually mature (person), but have difficulty understanding their church and its community (audience), and aren’t sure how to help the church figure out its ministry direction (goal). Other pastors struggle with personal spiritual maturity; they are self-absorbed, or lack charity or self-control (person). Still other pastors fall for self-help preaching that is not grounded in the gospel (message).
So, what if the seminary surveyed pastors three years out of seminary as well as the congregations they serve, and the surveys consistently revealed weakness in one of these four areas of ministry? The seminary then has important information that can lead to program changes, with the goal that as a group pastors graduating from Calvin Seminary will be strong at all four points on this circle of ministry.
Four Marks of a Healthy Congregation
This four-point circle is also helpful for evaluating your own congregation’s ministry. Congregations must be biblically grounded, healthy in their fellowship and life together, connected to their community, and forming disciples. Perhaps the following questions can help your congregation use this model to assess its ministry.
1. Is it clear to virtually any church member that the Bible is the vital source of our church’s faith and life?
2. Does our church’s use of Scripture—in worship, prayer, discipleship, small groups, and evangelism—nurture our congregation’s faith and deepen its spiritual life?
3. Is it clear to an engaged church member that our church is Reformed? Asked another way: As our church engages the riches of God’s Word in ministry, do accents such as the sovereignty of God, unconditional grace, creation, covenant, the seriousness of sin, the cosmic scope of redemption, and the Holy Spirit’s renewing work pervade our church’s understanding of Scripture and of God’s work in the world today? Do they animate our ministry?
1. How can we assess the spiritual maturity of our congregation? Do we pray regularly? Are we able to personally testify to God’s work in our lives?
2. Do our church members love one another? Do we love to be together? Are our relationships with one another strong enough that we can be truthful with one another?
3. Do our church members love the outsider? Does our church’s fellowship pull people in or push people away? What kind of people does it pull in? What kind does it push away?
1. What are the spiritual needs of our particular congregation? How do we assess whether we’re effectively ministering to children, young adults, middle-aged and older members?
2. What are the needs of our surrounding community? What ministry opportunities does God have for us because of the specific context of our church? How do we connect with our community?
3. How do world events and broad cultural trends—from Facebook to religious pluralism to the explosive growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere—impact our church and its ministry?
1. How is God using our congregation to transform lives and communities locally and around the world?
2. Does our church have a clear sense of mission and purpose that helps us keep focused on transforming lives in our congregation, community, and world?
3. Are the ministries of our church aligned with that purpose? For example, if our church’s central purpose is to develop fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, how do our ministries—from worship and church school to Bible studies and the benevolence fund—feed into that purpose?
By now you have a deeper sense of these four points on the circle and how far-reaching they can be, not only for the seminary but also for your church as it assesses its ministry.
Finally, you may have also noted that this circle of ministry, like the gospel itself, is deeply incarnational. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14 this way: “And the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” The points of this circle make it clear that Christianity is not an abstract set of propositions that floats in the clouds above, but rather a living Word that comes to us in Jesus Christ; that moves through us to others, and through others to us; that is radically local in particular congregations and places; that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is making all things new.
We at Calvin Seminary are excited to be partners with the church in this great mission of God.