June 21, 2013
Friday Five Interview: Philip Ryken
Are Christian colleges adequately preparing students for ministry? We ask the president of Wheaton College.
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Dr. Philip Ryken. He is the president of Wheaton College. Prior to his appointment (2010), Ryken was the pastor of the iconic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He is the author of several books, including Loving the Way Jesus Loves and Grace Transforming. He is a contributor to the Preaching the Word commentary series.
Today we talk to Dr. Ryken about moving from the pastorate to the academy, the future of Christian higher education, and how pastors and scholars should interact.
You recently moved from the pastorate of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church to the presidency of Wheaton College. What has been the biggest adjustment moving from pastor to president?
To be clear, I am still engaged in gospel ministry. From the beginning of my conversations with Wheaton's Presidential Selection Committee, I made it clear that the only kind of college president I could be is one who viewed the presidency as a form of pastoral ministry. My calling and ordination are for life.
That said, I have left behind pastoral ministry in the local church—at least for the foreseeable future. Probably the biggest adjustment is moving from a multi-generational community to one that is dominated by college students. I grew up with college students and have always enjoyed working with this age group, so the students are a joy. I do miss the special bond that a pastor has with the children of the church, however, and the exceptional privilege of performing baptisms, which is rare for me now.
There is also some difference in the immediacy of the leadership I offer. In a local church setting, the pastor has an opportunity to speak to the whole community every week and to set vision for ministry through preaching. When I preach at Wheaton, it is mainly to students, with some faculty and staff sprinkled in. And I don't preach every week, so I have to take maximum advantage of my opportunities. Also, the structure of a college is more hierarchical than a church, so the influence I can exercise in the daily work of the college is more indirect.
When I think of the adjustment from Tenth Church to Wheaton College, what stands out the most is moving from the city to the suburbs. All of us miss the dynamic pace of urban life, and the amazing diversity of people we lived and worshiped with in Philadelphia. But we also embrace the opportunities we have in Wheaton to give students a vision for the wider world and to connect the campus to Chicago.
What are some ways you would counsel pastors to be more scholarly and scholars to be more pastoral?
Like a lot of Presbyterians, I have always admired the ideal of the scholar-pastor. When I was a student at Wheaton in the 1980s, John Piper gave an outstanding chapel message on the ministry of Jonathan Edwards. I still have the notes from that talk, which strengthened my desire to be a pastor. Later, my doctoral work on the Scottish minister and theologian Thomas Boston enabled me to get an inside look at the life and ministry of a scholar-pastor. And I have tried to live out this ideal in my own life, getting the best education I could get and staying somewhat involved in the scholarly world while spending most of my time in pastoral ministry and writing mainly for ordinary people in the church.
As far as encouraging pastors to become scholars, the main thing I would recommend is being absolutely committed to doing the incredibly hard work that preaching the gospel requires—really laboring in the Word of God. It is difficult to preach well. Biblical exposition is a strenuous, life-long calling that demands a commitment to serious study of the Bible. It is good for pastors to read widely, including in theology, and some pastors have the gifts and calling to pursue other forms of scholarship. But the most important thing is to be a student of the Word.
When I think of scholars becoming more pastoral, I think first of my colleagues who teach Bible and Theology at Wheaton College. All of them use their gifts actively in the life of the church. They preach, teach Sunday school, and serve in other ways. Nearly all of them do some of their writing at the popular level. They understand that biblical and theological scholarship is not an end in itself, but is intended to serve the spiritual life of Christian laypeople. This is one of the core values of our department.
Not every scholar has the gifts to be a pastor, but every scholar can make a commitment to live in community with the people of God, to build relationships with neighbors who are outside the church, and to keep the spiritual needs of their friends in mind when they read, write, and lecture.
Some are questioning the ability of Christian institutions like Wheaton to fully train people for ministry. Why would you encourage a young person to choose a Christian college or seminary?
Expressed in this way, I agree with the concern: Christian colleges and seminaries are not able "fully" to train people for ministry. But we do have an important role to play in advancing the kingdom of God.
To start with Christian colleges, I have to say that I am disappointed that only three percent of evangelical students attend a Christian college or university. That percentage seems much too low to me. I certainly have no problem with Christians who have strong convictions going to a secular school; many evangelical students thrive in this environment. But the moral climate on most residential campuses is debilitating to the life of faith; what takes place in many dormitories is appalling.
Contrast that with the opportunity to live, worship, and learn on a campus full of spiritual peers and godly mentors. The best Christian colleges and universities offer something unique: the opportunity to go deep into the Christian worldview and develop habits of mind and life that will last for a lifetime of kingdom service. I like to say that a Wheaton education, specifically, prepares a young person for all the callings of life: not just the calling of everyday work, but the calling to be a good friend or neighbor, serve in the church, help out in the community, accept the responsibilities of citizenship, be a godly husband or wife, father or mother. In choosing a college, we choose who we will become, and this is determined largely by our relationships, not by a body of knowledge. At a Christian college or university, students spend some of the most important years of their lives with faculty and friends who will influence them for Christ.
The role of a seminary is somewhat different. In my view, students should only go to seminary if they have a fairly strong idea of what God is calling them to do. Unlike college, seminary tends not to be a very good place to figure out one's calling. But in pursuing a calling to ministry (broadly construed), a good biblical and theological education is essential. That is not to say that any seminary can do the full work of preparation for ministry. I like to tell students that seminary will give them roughly half of what they need in the way of preparation; the other half will come from serving in a healthy church, sitting under faithful preaching, and learning from a godly mentor in ministry.
Your latest book is Grace Transforming. Does the church today adequately communicate the message of grace?
I'm not sure the church has ever adequately communicated the message of God's grace, but in its healthiest seasons it has tried to do so as well as it could. Speaking as one preacher, I can't say that I have ever done justice to communicating any aspect of biblical truth. Thankfully, my preaching is as covered with the righteousness of Christ as any other aspect of my life and ministry.
One reason we always need to communicate the grace that God has for us in Jesus Christ is because the human heart is always trying to justify itself by works. So the challenge of communicating God's grace—however adequately or inadequately we do it—is perennial. The chapel messages that make up Grace Transforming came from my first year at Wheaton, but it's not a theme I have left behind, or ever will.
As a long-time pastor and now college president, what is one piece of advice you would give to a young pastor or church leader?
Keep it simple. The Christian life is only as complicated as we make it. So trust absolutely in the goodness, the grace, and the sovereignty of God. There is no need to worry about anything. If you have a need, God will supply it. If you lack wisdom, he will give you direction. If you have trials, he will bring you through. If your gifts are limited—as everyone's are—his Spirit will still be able to use what you offer to make an eternal difference for Christ and his kingdom.