A morning I’ll never forget

James Morrison, Crosslands tutor and PhD student

When your boss asks for a word, it can be an unnerving experience. Did I do something? Did I say something? Even if you can’t think of anything, the nerves don’t go away. They tend to get worse.

This happened to me one Tuesday morning in February last year. What made the situation especially alarming was the fact that I had been part of a church leadership meeting the night before. So when Simon asked me to take a seat, I couldn’t help replaying the previous night’s meeting in my mind.

‘James, there’s something I would like to talk to you about,’ he explained. ‘I’ve been praying about it for a few months now.’

It wasn’t last night’s meeting, then. That was a relief.

But then I started reflecting again on Simon’s last few words. ‘For a few months’?

‘Oh, boy’, I thought to myself. ‘He must be really concerned about something!’

An even greater shock

So, you can imagine my surprise when Simon explained that the reason he wanted to speak with me was because he thought I should consider doing a PhD.

I was half-way through the third year of the four year MA with Crosslands. Simon had often asked me about my studies. We would discuss my assignment choices. We would talk about what I was reading. And we would bat around the implications of what I was learning for our own lives and our church.

But Simon’s suggestion still came as a shock. Sure, I knew a handful of pastors who had done more advanced study. I had even spoken to a few of them about it. Yet, I had never given a PhD any real thought for myself.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because of the amount of work that’s involved. Perhaps it was because I assumed there would never be the opportunity. It might even have been because I had this idea that advanced theological study was rather disconnected from real life.

As I look back, it’s hard to say why I had never thought about doing further study. But whatever the reason, this was about to change.

A year later . . .

In February of this year, my local church decided to support me through a PhD. I am aiming to do it part-time over the next five years, alongside my work as a pastor.

I am aware that not every local church is in a position to free up a member of its pastoral staff to do advanced theological study. Indeed, even those churches that could, normally choose to invest their resources elsewhere. So why do this?

Why study?

It’s a fair question. It’s also one I was asking myself for much of last year. Churches often find it challenging enough to care for their own people and help them to share the gospel with others. Should they really be adding theological research to their to-do lists?

As I have been exploring whether I should do further study, I have been growing in my conviction that theology is for the benefit of God’s people. In Ephesians 4:11-14, the Apostle Paul famously tells the church in Ephesus:

And [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

If the church is to grow in Christ, it needs people doing theology at all levels. Yes, it needs people to be preaching and teaching in the regular life of the local church. But it also needs people reading, reflecting and writing on the often complex issues and ideas that affect the church at any given moment. The church has always needed this. But, as the church in the UK comes under increasing pressure from wider culture, it needs it now as much as ever.

And the church all said …

I suspect that many Christians would say a big ‘Amen’ to that, at least in principle. The difficulty comes when you consider whose job it is. If churches are already busy with things like evangelism and pastoral care, why can’t universities just take care of the more complex stuff?

This is how things have been done for the last three centuries or so. However, in recent years, there has been a growing recognition that this has not been best for the church. As advanced theology has been done in the academy and not the church, two things have happened.

In the universities, theologians have become preoccupied with concerns that often have little to do with issues local churches actually face. As Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson point out in their book The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, ‘The result is a lot of theological heavy lifting that fails to generate much in the way of doxology or spiritual formation.’

On the other side, the church has been left bereft of people able to provide intellectual leadership for the crucial issues it encounters. They continue, ‘As theologians moved from churches to universities, the theological red-blood-cell count within the pastoral community, and within congregations, fell markedly.’

Obviously, we are painting with a broad brush here. Some theologians have been able to serve the church from within traditional universities over the last 300 years and we should thank God for them. Theological colleges have also played a valuable role in training people for ministry. However, it is interesting to note that many seminaries and bible colleges have been trying to tighten their connection with the local church in recent years.

So the point remains. From Augustine of Hippo to John Calvin to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the theologians who have been of most help to Christians down the years are those who forged their theology from within the local body of believers. This is not a coincidence. As theology is done within the Christian community, it doesn’t distract from mission and discipleship. Rather, it helps mission and discipleship.

This is the reason I am doing a PhD.

How you can help

Theology is for the church and is best done within the church. This means it’s a community project. Whilst I will never be an Augustine, Calvin or Lloyd-Jones, I do want to share as much of my learning as I can with other ordinary Christians like myself.

One way I hope to do this is through this monthly blog. Every four weeks or so, I’ll be sharing one thing I’ve learnt from my studies and applying it to life. Because I am going to be studying church history for my PhD, there will be some talk about how our Christian brothers and sisters have thought about things in the past. But because they are our Christian brothers and sisters, there will be plenty of practical help for us today.

Joining the journey

15 years ago, a member of my family walked from Edinburgh to London without any shoes and without any money. It was a challenging journey. But, as they met people on their travels and shared with them the reason for their walk, many supported them day by day. Some people gave food. Some offered a place to stay. Some even walked bits along the way.

I am hoping that this blog can be a little bit like that. Whilst my journey is a different one, I will be no less reliant on the support of family and friends as I do my PhD.

Because, you never know. Whether it be something as large as a PhD or as small as reading something from church history, the Lord may use this little blog to inspire you on a theological journey all of your own.

Will you join me?

This article is taken from a regular newsletter James is writing on his PhD journey. For more articles and audio, please feel free to subscribe here.