Thursday, 7 May 2009

On children's ministry: or, where to find the most impressive person in Princeton

A place like Princeton is full of impressive people. While I was there last year, you could meet local scholars of tremendous intelligence – people like Peter Brown, Jeffrey Stout, Robert Jenson, Bruce McCormack; or you could go and hear visiting speakers like Talal Asad and Jacques Berlinerblau.

But I must admit, the most impressive person I met in Princeton was a kindly old chap named Tom. He was a volunteer teacher each week at the church Sunday school. I must confess I was surprised when a friend told me that this man was none other than Thomas Gillespie, the former president of Princeton Seminary.

When I heard this, I replied: “He used to be president of the world’s greatest seminary. But now God has finally entrusted him with a real ministry!”


I like to think that all his decades as a pastor, scholar and seminary president – all those years of speaking and writing and teaching and managing a billion-dollar endowment fund – all this was simply God’s way of preparing him for something truly important: to tell the children stories and sing with them and help them with their colouring pencils and glue.

25 Comments:

Richard Beck said...

That's a great story.

You need to come up with a list of theologians, living or dead, and how they would fare in a Sunday School class with children. A best and worst list. With snippets of possible dialogue with the children.

roger flyer said...

The Kingdom of God is everything in the world turned upside down.

kim fabricius said...

It is a rare and blessed grace to be truly useful.

Logan said...

It seems patronizing to imply from an academic blog that Sunday School teachers are more important than theologians, presidents, etc. Isn't this implying something to the effect of "We can take for granted how important theologians are. That's why we spend all of our time reading and discussing them. But in order to make Sunday School teachers feel like they are important too, we'll declare that they, paradoxically, are the most important."

That is probably a little harsh, and as a young theologian I agree that Sunday School teaching is in fact as important as academic work. But why the hyperbole?

Richard Beck said...

Logan,
I don't know if it is hyperbole given Mark 10. 13-14. Which side of that story do you want to be on?

Logan said...

Richard,

My point isn't that running a seminary (or a country!) is actually more important than teaching children. I think that different members of the church have different callings.

My point is that it's sometimes too easy to make exaggerated statements about the greatness of a ministry one isn't involved in, as this implies that one's own discipline is the truly important one, the one that doesn't need hyperbolic praise.

Mark said...

I believe he taught the Sunday school class even before his retirement. Perhaps it was his way of reminding himself why a seminary is worth running at all.

Logan said...

Let me add that I agree %100 with declaring a seminary president who teaches Sunday School the most impressive person on campus! (I just think both positions are equally impressive)

Anonymous said...

Logan's right. Its more patroizing hyperbole for the shock and awe(ful) effect. Presidents of seminaries are actually more important than Sunday school teachers, because they are the ones who will hire and fire all the theology professors who will teach generations of pastors and future Sunday school teachers. Without them, we'd probably have even more uneducated social misfits and hacks than we already do. Can you imagine how bad Sunday school teachers would be without good Seminary Presidents? Puh-leaze!

Drew Tatusko said...

The point is that the ability to come down out of the very abstract rhetorical clouds of doing doctrinal theology, parsing the variants of jods and accent marks, shaking hands with nasty people in order to keep the board of trustees happy, and on and on is a beautiful thing to do that more resembles Christ's work than taking sides in debates between Milbank and Hart, Plantinga and Dennett, for example.

I think Ben did a post on how to become a famous theologian a while back and that is maybe what teaching a good Sunday school lesson can do to ground you again so you don't play that horrid game.

Diogenes Allen was also known to give some fantastic adult Sunday school classes at Trinity Episcopal. His best books were written out of that kind of environment (see, Love, Temptation, and Three Outsiders for three - all of which everyone should read - seriously).

roger flyer said...

Wasn't there a certain someone who supposedly summarized his theology-- "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so."

And then sang it for his pre-schoolers?

Theological Arsenal said...

I think your post is a little silly.

Does the ear wonder why it's not a foot, or the nose why it isn't an ear? Man... I wish I could find something like that in the Bible... hmm...

The simple fact is that it DOES take a particularly special person to do BOTH, but to question the "realness" of his ministry as a president at a seminary does not build up the body... questioning the validity of theological exposition and questioning simply encourages the church to become a bunch of uneducated people. God did not ask us to disengage from our brains, and I think it's QUITE clear that some of us are wired to be intellectual and to serve in this way.

On a completely different tone... my verification word is "ebarth" which sounds like a great name for a theology blog...

Bengt Rasmusson said...

I think Henri Nouwen was another theologian who can teach us a lot about "theological greatness" and the importance of "inutility".

stormface said...

@ roger flyer,

Never heard of him, never happened, impossible.

Anonymous said...

I took Exegesis of Galatians from Dr. Gillespie at PTS in the fall of 1999. Even though the class met at 8 o'clock in the morning, he forbade cups of coffee in his classroom. ("You won't be able to carry a cup of coffee into the pulpit").

Wonder how he does with the kids...

Bob said...

I'm inspired. This reminds me of the time a certain "distinguished professor" left his (so-called) dignity behind when he yelled out my name and waved across campus to me with large gestures.

It was the most important thing I learned from him.

roger flyer said...

@ Bob-
There you go! That is lovely. Nice moment.

roger flyer said...

Dear Mr. Stormface-
"I'd like to introduce you to my sunday school teacher. He's an important man. And he loves Jesus."

roger flyer said...

@ TA-
Dude, you are the terminator of the theo-blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

What relationship does Princeton Theological Seminary have with Princeton University?

Patrik said...

Anybody doubting the importance of Sunday School should go investigate the modern Coptic Church.

::aaron g:: said...

Rowan Williams apparently was a "hopeless" Sunday school teacher...
(Rowans' Rule, p. 113)

steph said...

The high falooting pontifications of academia will have less influence on the future of the world than the children and those blessed with the ability to teach them. :-)

I enjoyed this post!

Pastor Joelle said...

Geesh people...get a grip. It was just a nice point about Sunday School teachers....and you look for insults?

My catechism says that we are to obey the 8th commandment by explaining our neighbor's actions in the kindest way. Try that and you won't feel so insulted all the time.

steph said...

I'm not insulted Pastor, and it wasn't just a nice point, it was a very good point on the importance of teaching children.

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