Music GCSE & theological training

For some reason, back when I doing my GCSEs, I thought it was a good idea to sit music. You may wonder what is wrong with that, it’s a perfectly good subject. The snag was that I determined it would be a good idea to sit music despite not being able to play single instrument, read music or do almost any of the things required to pass.

The closest I had come to any musical prowess was playing bass guitar in a handful of teen punk bands. I didn’t need to able to read music to do that. Truth be told, I didn’t really need to be able to play the bass to do that. I needed to know how to play three or four notes over and over again and that made me competent. The great thing about punk was that you didn’t necessarily have to be a technically great musician – in fact, you didn’t have to be a musician at all!

Since then, I have learnt to play the bass a bit more credibly. I have also learnt to play the guitar to a passable standard. I have even taught myself the banjo. I could do an open mic night these days and sound as good as anybody else. I can play in church and hold everyone together OK. But back during my music GCSE, I could essentially play nothing and read no music. Which, naturally, made things like coming up with a composition and undertaking some sort of performance piece a bit of a joke. Doing listening exercises where I was supposed to follow a piece of notated music was also something of a nonsense. The whole thing was a total farce.

Yet somehow, against all expectation and any level of sense, I managed to pass. Whether the expectations on the GCSE were so astronomically low that even I could pass, or I picked up just enough skills that I could fake it long enough to grasp hold of a C-grade, or the cohort that year was so appallingly bad that I was bell curved up a few notches, I simply don’t know. All I know is that I have a GCSE certificate that tells people I am, on some level, competent in music. The facts of the matter speak rather differently on the issue.

The reality is, if the training was worth its salt, I’d not have passed. You can’t really pass off a piece played entirely and exclusively on a bass guitar as a credible ‘composition.’ Nobody should be able to get through a course about music knowing little more about notation than that the notes in the spaces on the stave spell the word F-A-C-E (I think). I had no business passing that course. It did nothing to help me play the kind of music I wanted to play and any competence I ever attained I learnt myself quite some time after I passed. My teachers weren’t really trying to help me play the kind of music I wanted to play, they were really concerned about getting me to pass their exam; no more, no less.

I sometimes worry that our theological training ends up a bit like this. We very often invest time and energy into training people for ministry but then they come out of seminary unprepared for the ordinary church setup. I have lost count of the times I have heard people comment that those who train others to preach very often aren’t great shakes at preaching themselves. We give people highly contrived preaching scenarios, to people who are very unlike those we are likely to preach to week by week, and then we are passed as able preachers when we’ve only ever delivered sermons to our highly educated seminary peers. It feels a bit like the preaching equivalent of composing a composition on nothing but a bass guitar. And our teachers seem less concerned about helping us to minister in real life contexts but focus more on the kind of preaching they like to hear.

Then we want people to engage in sound exegesis and theological investigation. But all too often, these things become little more than a mere academic exercise. As somebody I was speaking to said recently, sometimes the papers we write might be interesting but, at the end of the day, they are often just a thing. We are exploring something with minimal practical use for the everyday life of the church we are likely to minister in.

I was speaking to somebody else about the, now not so recent, EFS/ERAS debate. They asserted that we want our pastors to know about that sort of thing as they think through complementarianism. But I followed that debate quite closely when it kicked off and, unsurprisingly, not one single person in my church asked me about it either at the time or since. The terms of that debate became academic very quickly and bore minimal relation to the everyday life of the church, interesting as much of it was. These exercises sometimes feel like asking somebody to follow a piece of highly stylised classical notation when, actually, they only need to play four notes on a bass in their punk band.

What we should be doing is giving our leaders the tools they need to handle these questions as they arise. All too often, instead of doing that, we give them the academic exercise of looking into these things seemingly for its own sake. We want them to prove they already have the skills, rather than training them in the skills they need to use in order to assess the relevant questions. That is if we are even asking them the relevant questions to begin with.

It is for this reason that I think our training ought to centre on our hermeneutics. This is the primary tool by which we come to understand what the scriptures are saying and how we assess what a passage means. From our hermeneutics will flow our biblical theology on which our systematic theology builds. We teach and apply the scriptures according to the hermeneutic principles we employ. If we teach hermeneutics rightly, it doesn’t matter if somebody hasn’t yet come to a conclusion on supra or infra lapsarianism yet or quite what view of the millennium they take because we will be giving people the skills to work those things out when their seminary days are long behind them and they are encountering questions in the church they simply hadn’t thought to consider before.

The big question before us is this: what skills and competencies are we trying to get our seminary graduates to attain? If our goal is to get them to hold their own in a debate about the intratrinitarian relations, then getting them to do lots of reading and produce a 3000 word essay is a credible way to achieve it. If we’re trying to get our people to teach and apply the Bible to non-seminary graduates who are sat in front of them week by week, I don’t think that approach is going to cut it. If we want our people to be able pastors who can bring the gospel simply to the lost and build up the found, I’m not convinced hour-long lectures, reading lists and academic papers are the best way to get them there.

Instead, what we need is in-context training. Training that focuses on giving church leaders the skills they need in their everyday ministries. We need to assess people’s preaching by hearing them preach, their pastoral work by witnessing them in real-life pastoral situations, their ability to defend truth by watching them engage in apologetics on the ground. Just as a teacher being taught to teach learns by doing and is assessed in the process, so we need theological training that gives the tools we need to do the job and assesses us as we are seen to be adequately putting them into practice.

There are certainly truths to be known during the course of all this. But there is more than one way to impart truth. There is equally more than one way to determine whether somebody has grasped that truth. If we focus more on skills and competencies and then taught to that end, assessing people according to those competencies, we are much more likely to get well trained pastors who understand what it means to minister the Word to real people and how to do the work that the Lord has called them to do.