Dr. Varughese John is the Dean of Students and Head of the Department of Theology and History at the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) in Bangalore, India. He has been a frequent contributor to and participant in Sola Media’s Theo Global initiatives since 2015.
Dr. John, what insights about spiritual life and Christian maturity can you share from your experience with students at SAIACS?
In the early days, the student body was primarily comprised of seasoned missionaries and pastors taking a break to study for a season. But over the years, class composition has become a mixed group of mature and young students. The average age of students applying to SAIACS has decreased, with many coming straight out of undergraduate programs. This means that the ideal graduate profile of the school has shifted to intentionally include spiritual and ministerial formation along with academic excellence. In pursuing this balance, we are guided by a conviction B. B. Warfield expressed in The Religious Life of Theological Students when reflecting on the religious life of theological students:
Learning, though indispensable, is not the most indispensable thing for a minister. Before and above being learned, a minister must be godly. Nothing could be more fatal, however, than to set these two things over against one another. . . . Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God?
How are SAIACS students led in both academic and spiritual formation?
SAIACS curriculum is aimed at the formation of students toward holistic development.
Engaging the Head. Loving the Lord with our minds is what academic life at SAIACS seeks to achieve. Academic rigor requires engaging divergent views that could make evangelicals uncomfortable. Yet good scholarship is not only aware of other views on a topic but is also capable of engaging them without compromising the evangelical faith.
Engaging the Heart. A statement ascribed to Bishop Handley Moule cautions us, “Beware of an untheological devotion and of an undevotional theology.” We at SAIACS are careful that our academic life does not err toward “undevotional theology.” Seminaries are known to address the head, cultivating deep understanding. Yet seminaries ought to be a place where students can cultivate deep affections, too, given how central our motives are in serving God.
Engaging the Hands. Integral to our curriculum is also the enabling of skill. Preparation for Christian ministry does not automatically result from attending neatly structured classes with clearly laid out lesson plans. Skill in ministry requires the intentional orientation of students to the “messiness” of ministry. Our students are required to belong to and engage in various local churches and nongovernmental organizations (like homes for the elderly or orphanages) for the purpose of ministerial formation. They go out in small groups to serve in these existing ministries in and around SAIACS.
What are some of the practical ways SAIACS leads its students in engaging in this holistic approach to spiritual development?
I will highlight four key ways:
Faculty Mentors. Each SAIACS student is assigned a year-round faculty/staff mentor to walk with them on their spiritual journey. The purpose of mentoring is to help and assist in the spiritual growth of students during the course of everyday life. Mentors help with work-life balance; they offer a listening ear to questions that students wrestle with; and they provide prayer support and encouragement in the face of problems, physical ailments, or spiritual struggle.
Worshiping Together. In addition to students’ relationships with faculty mentors, they have opportunities for spiritual formation through regular chapel meetings. Attendance is mandatory for faculty, staff, and students at SAIACS. The sermons are often challenging—some quite boring as well!—but their goal is to inspire and enable the students to persevere in their calling. The sermons often touch directly upon spiritual growth through the exposition of a passage from Scripture. For instance, the message preached from the chapel pulpit just this morning warned the community of the twin dangers of legalism and libertarianism. The community was encouraged to look to Jesus, our model and our hope.
Sports and Spirituality. Team sports are an integral feature of SAIACS life. Matches between student teams (called “cell groups”) not only bring intense competitive spirit onto the playground but also make visible each student’s true character. This provides frequent opportunities for cell-group mentors to cultivate attitudes of mind and heart that help build community and cooperation and address those that do not.
Prayer Initiatives. The SAIACS community is committed to prayer. We have just completed forty days of prayer, in which each member of the community set apart time to pray and intercede for one another. In praying this way, we acknowledge that we are sustained by the mercies of God and constantly rely on him for our needs.