There are a handful of books I hear about over and over, intend to read, but for one reason or another have a hard time getting to. When I finally do get to a book like this, it is almost always rewarding.

Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith was such a book. It was published more than a decade ago and has been widely read. I finally got around to reading it a few weeks ago. And now I can see why I’ve heard so much about it. This is not intended to be a review of the book, but my initial reflection on theological education that was prompted by it. (I do recommend reading it, if, like me, you haven’t gotten to it yet.)

Here are some key questions towards the beginning that drew me in:

What if education, including higher education, is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires?

What if we began by appreciating how education not only gets into our head but also (and more fundamentally) grabs us by the gut – what the New Testament refers to as kardia, “the heart”?

What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions – our visions of ‘the good life’ – and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking?….

And what if it had as much to do with our bodies as with our minds?

What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” (17-18)

These are fascinating and important questions!

My interest was further piqued by his summary of the purpose of the book on the next page:

This book is out to raise the stakes of Christian education, which will also mean raising the stakes of Christian worship. The goal is to get us to appreciate what’s at stake in both – nothing less than the formation of radical disciples who desire the kingdom of God.” (19)

In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith seeks to correct the misunderstanding of people as primarily thinkers or believers that is prevalent in many parts of American Christianity. In this problematic approach, formation is aimed at the head and not at the heart. It  is primarily cognitive, rather than embodied and affective. Smith uses a variety of avenues to try to help the reader see that the culture understands the role of desire. This is why advertising, for example, targets our hearts and not our heads.

And this is why the culture is so much more successful in forming people than the church.

Smith turns to Christian higher education in the final chapter of the book. Let me set the table with two key quotes from the beginning of the chapter:

If Christian education is not merely about acquiring a Christian perspective or a Christian worldview, what is its goal? Its goal, I’m suggesting, is the same as the goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor….

If something like Christian universities are to exist, they should be configured as extensions of the mission of the church – as chapels that extend and amplify what’s happening at the heart of the cathedral, at the altar of Christian worship. In short, the task of Christian education needs to be reconnected to the thick practices of the church.” (220)

As I read Desiring the Kingdom, I found myself trying to apply Smith’s ideas to theological education, particularly the training of clergy for full-time service and leadership within the church.

It seems to me that much of so-called mainline theological education fails to do what Smith envisions, not so much because it continues to be overly concerned with the life of the mind in a way that ignores the heart or the cultivation of desire. Seminaries seem to me increasingly concerned with forming desire. The problem is that it is not always clear what informs values about what we ought to desire. Put differently, Smith’s goal: “the formation of radical disciples who desire the kingdom of God” requires a degree of clarity regarding theological commitments. (This may be a difference between my own context and that of Smith’s. While I agree with him about the ultimate importance of forming radical disciples who desire the kingdom of God, I also see a need for greater clarity and coherence in theological commitments for this to be possible.)

Mainline theological education largely exists to prepare people to be pastors in Christian churches. This is a very specific purpose. And it is unavoidably connected to a host of values, beliefs, and convictions. But this is also not the only reason that mainline seminaries exist. Someone who wants to get a PhD in Religious Studies, for example, will often start by pursuing a Master’s degree. These students may or may not be Christians. As a result, in many mainline seminaries there is something of an ambivalent relationship between Christian commitments that are unabashedly designed to form radical disciples of Jesus and academic work.

One way seminaries address this tension is by creating extracurricular offices and programming that provides spiritual formation for students who elect to participate in it. And this is a logical approach given the dominant assumptions for much of contemporary theological education. My purpose here is not to be dismissive of these efforts. Rather, I want them to be lifted up as essential and centered in the curriculum itself.

It is strange to me that the church would require a specific degree for ordination and also accept so little control over how students are formed while in seminary. This is all the more odd when you remember that these institutions were themselves founded and funded by these churches.

If Christian education is best thought of as Christian formation, and if the task that is most needed is shaping our hearts and teaching us to love rightly, how might this change the way that students are prepared for ministry during their time in seminary?

First, if seminaries put discipleship at the center, there would need to be careful thinking about the places where there is overlap across denominational or confessional lines where fruitful formation within the Body of Christ can happen.

Second, there would need to be clearly demarcated denominational or confessional spaces where overlap would not be fruitful. The key is that there would be distinct space for different denominations or confessional traditions to gather and seek to cultivate desire for this distinctive embodiment of the Christian life. This should be integrated within the curriculum. There are already examples of this happening in many seminaries with denominational “Houses of Study” that are largely led by denominations that require that seminaries allow them more input in how their students’s are formed in seminary.

What would this look like practically speaking?

My sense is that few people would actively resist bringing greater attention to formation of the heart within seminary life. In fact, most seminaries already recognize that this is an area that can be improved and have worked hard to address this deficiency. But, again, my sense is that these are almost always activities that occur on the periphery. They are voluntary and tangential or entirely outside of the curriculum.

To give one example: Generally speaking, learning how to pray is not generally seen as a core competency in order to graduate from seminary.  But surely prayer is something that a pastor needs to be able to do well. Surely prayer is something that one needs to practice in order to become more effective. And to Smith’s point: a person who is becoming a radical disciple of Jesus Christ who desires the kingdom of God will surely be a person who spends significant time praying.

Embodied practices like prayer, searching the Scriptures, worship, receiving the Lord’s Supper, etc. are not at the center of mainline seminary curriculum.

I suspect most committed Christian laity would find this to be surprising. Aren’t these the very places seminary students most need to be proficient if they are to be effective leaders in the church of Jesus Christ? These are not the only areas where pastors need to be capable. But they are surely areas where pastors do need to be capable.

I conclude with three specific ways a seminary curriculum could help students who are preparing for full-time ordained leadership become radical disciples who desire the kingdom of God.

Mark time by practices of corporate worship

The conversation about whether attendance in chapel should or should not be required misses the mark in my view. Rather, the goal should be a seminary experience that would simply be unthinkable without regular corporate worship. I imagine someone saying, “I don’t know what that would be, but if we aren’t regularly gathering together as a community to worship the Triune God, it certainly is not seminary.”

Integrate Scripture reading, prayer, and discernment with instruction

Classes would have rhythms of reading Scripture and praying together. It would not be seen as unusual for a class to pray in the middle of a session. This would not be an irresponsible interruption to the information that needs to be covered, or an unwarranted intrusion into student’s lives. Students would be learning to discern truth and the voice of the Lord, even in the classroom. Space would unashamedly be given to this in the learning environment. Learning to hear the voice of God, for example, with all of its struggles, frustrations, joys, and breakthroughs would be centered in the seminary experience, not pressed to the margins, viewed with skepticism, or ridiculed.

Gather in Class and Band Meetings

For Wesleyan/Methodist students, small group formation in groups like the class meeting and the band meeting would be essential. This was the first practice that came to mind as I read Desiring the Kingdom. (I know, big surprise there.) Classes and bands teach participants to look at their lives through the lens of the gospel. And these groups help students notice and voice the places where they have experienced God’s goodness. And they teach participants the blessing of inviting people into the places where they have struggled to be faithful or have felt distant from God. Wesleyans believe that growth in holiness happens in community. Therefore, it is essential that Wesleyan “social holiness” is integrated into seminary curriculum.

Desiring the Kingdom is an important book. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t. What do you think about the role of theological education in forming desire for the kingdom in students? How is this being done well? How do you think it could be done better?

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.