Spirit-Led Excellence, Pt. 6: More Than

May 29, 2023

by Anthony Blair, President of Evangelical Seminary and Professor of Leadership and Historical Studies; David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary, and Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University; President, Sioux Falls Seminary


They were called Pietists (“pious ones”) by those who berated them. They began as a movement among German Lutherans in the late 1600s under the leadership of theologian Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705). In his seminal book, Pia Desideria (“Pious Desires”) Spener argued, among other things, that small group Bible studies, a novel idea at the time, were a wonderful way to help each other grow spiritually. He advocated for gentleness when in public arguments with fellow Christians or unbelievers, instead of the hostile denouncements common in that era (and our own).

And, more than anything, Spener insisted that “it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.” In other words, what he and other pietists were advocating was the holistic integration of head, heart, and hands; or, when applied to theological education, of content, character, and craft. That’s where we left off in our last post, where we determined that we dare not be content with content; i.e. that however important our ideas, doctrines, and principles, they alone were not sufficient to be fully formed as a disciple of Christ. Yet this was the trap into which much of theological education had fallen; we had designed curriculum, learning activities, and degree programs to teach theological content to learners, even if they emerged still immature spiritually or ill-prepared to practice ministry effectively.

The effects of this off-balance over-emphasis on content were devastating. It was not just, as we recounted, that leaders of denominations and congregations were telling us too often that the people upon whom we had placed our academic imprimatur were not prepared for the roles entrusted to them. Sometimes, in fact, the student’s rejection of the content offered to them caused them to lose their personal faith; we’ve all heard the “slip of the tongue” that going to seminary was attending “cemetery.” Even that did not deter the trend; over time, the diploma on the wall and the academic credentials on a resume were the qualities sought after. These constituted the path to career success. And so, despite the warnings of Scripture, we who served in the academy or led in the church often aspired to be called “master” and “doctor,” so we could lord it over those who were not so titled. The whole enterprise had turned upside-down from the way that Jesus had discipled his own followers.

Fortunately, we began to wake up from this travesty. Slowly, over the past generation or so, theological educators began paying attention to the integration of what was being learned in class with the life of the student. But the methods of doing so, still predominant in much of education, were not well integrated. Sometimes we blithely added classes in spiritual formation, under the hopeful assumption that mere content on being formed as disciples would somehow miraculously result in the actual formation of learners. And then we added content on practice and called it “practical theology,” giving lie to the inherent assumption that the rest of our curriculum was not practical, nor intended to be.

When pushed to move students out of the classroom, at least on occasion, seminaries invented “field education” and “practica” and other such means to help students learn and practice ministry skills. And, indeed, many of these efforts were helpful—far more so than merely sitting in a classroom talking about practice. But they were still largely regarded as “add-ons”—things to be done only after the “important” content was learned, and then under the direction of the learned faculty far more often than that of the experienced practitioner. As good as all these adjustments were, they simply did not help enough.

Content was not enough. Adds-on were not enough. A re-imagining of the educational journey was needed. And that’s why Kairos exists. We reject the reductionism of the old model and instead embrace a holistic understanding of knowing that utilizes all three dimensions, much like the Pietists did 350 years ago. Nor do we believe that these three components of content, character, and craft are separate from each other. Rather, they are inextricably woven together. Every Spirit-led life event, conversation, book, class lesson, theological musing, Spirit-filled experience, or act of service is an opportunity to learn content, character, and craft, all at the same time, for this is how we, as humans, have been created. We don’t do life in silos, and neither should we attempt learning that way either. This is why we measure proficiency in all three aspects for every single learning outcome in every single Kairos program. They are the for the Spirit-led life the electron, proton, and neutron that holds an atom together.

And content, character, and craft are our measures of excellence as well. This is why we have suggested that our standards of quality, albeit startlingly different from many others in higher education, are not less-than, but actually more-than. We are not offering lower quality, but actually a greater aspiration worthy of those who would follow Jesus. And when this kind of intentional, holistic integration occurs, under the direction of the Spirit, incredible things tend to happen. The pietistic movement that began with Spener expanded far beyond its Lutheran origins, and infected the Moravians, created the Methodists, permeated the Reformed churches, found a foothold in Catholicism, influenced the Quakers, launched the Brethren groups, and sparked the “awakening” revivals of the 18th century. May the Spirit continue to guide us, for the glory of God in this generation.

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