Is “M.A. in Missional Church Studies” an Oxymoron? Can Seminary Education be Missional?

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Can one prepare for Missional church leadership at a seminary? There are some who flat out say “No.” For them, true missional church leadership must be “practice” focused. Theology (academic) is too abstract, impractical, and not related to the practice of ministry in the field. Yet “practice” is what defines missional ministry. Therefore traditional seminary training has become outmoded as a means for training the up and coming leadership of the missional churches.
This is not a new argument. The evangelical mega-church pastors basically said the same thing in the 70’s. Seminary training did not teach you how to exegete for the masses. It was not connected to the “business” of doing church in any “relevant” way. And so 30 years later we have a church short on theological integrity, long on pragmatics. We have a church which the emerging churches blame for stripping the Christian church of its witness and succumbing to the cultural forces of consumerism. I suggest that the LACK of theology, the LACK of a historical sense of who we are and where we come from, and the LACK of a theology of culture is what led to the current Walmartization of American church life in evangelicalism. Does missional church leadership risk making the same mistakes? Will the missional church leaders of tommorrow follow in the footsteps of current Amercian evangelicalism by avoiding formal disciplined theological and cultural training?

I argue that we should not dispose of the seminaries. And I argue this not just to insure I keep a job (as a seminary professor). I argue we need a sense of our history, of orthodoxy, of theology and Scripture, and sense of apostolicity, an historical connection to the history that we pass down in Christ. But we should do this in a pedagogy that does not separate the learning from the field of practice. The two should be in partnership. We should do all of this in a pedagogy that is entwined with spiritual formation, community and worship. We need regular times when we bring those preparing for missional leadership together to combine formal study, spiritual disciplines, community and worship. We need communities of Christ (missional churches) where these missional leader candidates can live among and then learn, watch, and participate in some supervised ministry that is edifying a church body all the while carrying on a means to support themselves. We need coursework that engages the theology and cultural issues of the situation we face in the new post-Christendom. A combination of all these elements in a seamless relationship will prepare leaders to start, lead and develop new missional communities.

I have been asked to head a new ministerial degree at Northern Seminary with an emphasis in Missional Church Studies (M.A. C.M.). The intent of the program is to deliberately prepare missional church planters/pastors theologically, culturally and practically for ministry in the post Christendom/postmodern cultures of North America. I have suggested we will need to structure a community life where we worship, eat and pray together in monastic ways. We will need certain practices of spiritual disciplines and a worship life together. We will need to do all of the above in modules, groups that can keep the same students together in training throughout their entire program. They will come together three to four times a year for one week, two week and/or three week intensive periods of study/class time, prayer, worship and community. Their work in the field will be coordinated with education in theological and historical study. We will coordinate a network of missional churches that can feed off the interns that provide the fertile ground for the working out of our theology over time. The end will be the well prepared person, spiritually, intellectually, character-wise, and skills wise for the task, the very different task of leading a missional community in our times. They will all look different from the traditional pastoral candidates of the past and from one context to the next.

And so I remain convinced as ever of the need for a theological education that combines practice and theological disciplines. I remain convinced that the problems of church today as represented by the various forms of pragmatism in the evangelical church stem from over pragmatic, under-thought-out-practice that has little engagement with history, doctrine or culture. The result has been students that capitulate the church to the pragmatists. At the same time I am convinced we do not need overly intellectual seminaries that produce arrogant egg heads ill suited for ministry. We need a missional seminary if that is possible.

If you can buy any of this, what would be the core courses for a Missional Studies Masters Degree in Ministry here at Northern I propose the following. What do you think?

A core requisite of courses that develop fluency in the Scriptures (Old Testament and New) and church doctrine (Systematic Theology). This is just plain necessary for any pastor to navigate the terrain for his church community.

The Church’s Missional Identity in Culture
There is such a naïve understanding of the Christian’s relationship to culture in evangelicalism fostered mainly by past protestant liberal orthodoxies (H.R. Neibuhr, Tillich). One simply cannot go into the new cultural territories of missional church planting without a grasp of subtler and more critical engagements with culture. From Neibuhr to Yoder, Tillich to Hauerwas to Foucault, a sample of these readings can give all future pastors a basis upon which to engage culture as well as shape and foster a culture in their own churches.

The Church in the Postmodern Context: Theology and Practice
A basic course in ecclesiology and the issues we face in being a church in these new cultures. An historical and Scriptural understanding of what it means to be the church is necessary to stem the decline in visible Christian life in the over pragmatized current day evangelicalism.

Christianity & Pluralism: The Challenge for Mission and Evangelism
Everywhere I go this issue of pluralism is big. It is a hurdle we all must face in our cultural witness. Any pastor entering missional territory must have a firm sense of where he or she is going on this issue.

Justice and the North American Church
I believe that both the moral majority and the political left have ruined this issue. We need to examine the ways we talk about justice from the Scriptures, in the ways we embody it as a people and in terms of social engagement. We need to examine the ways we have divide personal issues of ethics from social ethics. We need to examine how the protestant doctrine of justification by faith has contributed to separating justice from salvation. All this would allow us to lead communities of justice in ways emerging churches talk about but rarely see.

Reconciliation, Racism and Gender
We need a basic course on the issues of Race, Gender Economic Class structure that we all face in democracy and capitalism, which the church must address if we are to be a visible witness to the world. We need to examine the history of these issues in N America and then address the way current society has not overcome them and how the church of the Eucharist offers an alternative practice.

Missional Leadership
Leadership must take different forms than the business models that predominate Christian ministry. We must examine where we get our notions of leadership from, engage Scripture and practice on the issue and then find places to get shaped and mentored into the servant leadership of Christ that will be so required to foster congregations in the new worlds of Western post Christendom.

Preaching as Worship
We need preachers who are skilled to proclaim, call people out of a modern cultural malaise into the reality of Jesus as Savior and Lord, Coming King. How do we do this? How do we preach to stir and reshape the imaginations of the people to live into the life and mission of God here on earth, not just distribute information like another self-help course? This coursework/practicum will be key!

Worship and Spirituality
The theology and assumptions by which we enter and lead worship, and the spiritual disciplines, are essential for the new post Christendom, post modern landscape. We are in essence producing experience, sculpting character out of our participation in worship, the Scriptures and the ancient discplines by the Holy Spirit. People of my evangelical heritage are sorely ill prepared. This is Robert Webber’s strength at Northern. We are all praying for his recovery in Christ from his serious illness.

Theology at the End of Modernity
I don’t know about this one but I’d sure like to teach it. Would a reading course be helpful that would introduce the basic thinkers of postmodern philosophy and then the major theological engagements with postmodern thought. There will be selections from philosophical writings from figures such as Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Baurillard as well as Wittgenstein and Rorty. There will then be some selections from theological writings of McIntyre, Milbank, Ward, Hauerwas, Lindbeck, David Bentley Hart as well as some reactive evangelical writers such as McLaren, Carson and Millard Erickson. The student will then write a paper outlining his own theological and practical engagement with postmodernity. Would such a course be necessary?

Well enough of my initial thoughts on an M A in Christian Ministry – Missional Studies. Anyone out there have other suggestions? Is seminary out of date and irrelevant to the missional church pastor in training? I would appreciate any comments on the subject.

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22 responses to “Is “M.A. in Missional Church Studies” an Oxymoron? Can Seminary Education be Missional?

  1. DF,

    You said: “There will be selections from philosophical writings from figures such as Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Baurillard as well as Wittgenstein and Rorty. There will then be some selections from theological writings of McIntyre, Milbank, Ward, Hauerwas…as well as some reactive evangelical writers such as McLaren… The student will then write a paper outlining his own theological and practical engagement with postmodernity. Would such a course be necessary?”

    NECESSARY? The HECK if I know…but SOUNDS EXCITING! That would be awsome! In other words, keep that stuff in the cirriculum, whether “necessary” or not!

    And I find it interesting your discussion on the separation and need for reunification of practice and theory. There was an older (like, 30 yrs.) thesis student who taught me a lot when I was in 3rd year (the year a lot of things clicked for me). His contention was that this very separation was THE problem in the world of Architecture. Now, seein’ as how I was taught that sin was the problem around here, and I had studied some other things that made me think that “death” might be another big one (ex. “the hermeneutics of death”, from Peter Rollins Conversation on Postmodern Culture post), I was a bit hesitant to agree. But it’s interesting to me how paralled the problems are in the world of Seminary education (and the church) and that of Architecture (and its education).

    Sorry I certainly don’t have any “suggestions”. I would hate to see seminary go down the tube (I’d like to go to one maybe some day???)…I’d shutter at the prospect of a pragma-ecclesia and the direction toward thoughtlessness that would go. “Pure experience” doesn’t sound fantastic! 🙂 Unfortunately I think Architecture’s pretty much already there! At least architecture’s still (supposedly) “interest-ing”.

  2. I think your on the right track David.

    Theres a need for a new kind of teaching and skill set. I trust this new program begins to bring about changes at the seminary level.

  3. Having recently completed an MDiv at Biblical Seminary, I heartily concur with your thoughts on the role that seminaries can and should play in the life of the church. And I think that your comments about the relationship of missional church leadership to traditional seminary trining is spot on. Can I ask – do you see a growing anti-intellectualism in some portions of the emerging/missional church? Obviously this doesn’t apply to the movement as a whole – there are a lot of folks who are deeply influenced by theological and philosphical studies – but yet I seem to continue to encounter folks who downplay seminary or academics on some level. Thoughts?

    As to the course list, I think it sounds excellent. And if you can craft something that blends the practical and academic elements, then so much the better.

  4. I would argue that the basic format of the sermon should be changed somewhat. Not that we should get rid of preaching, but we should certainly seek out ways for a preacher to engage with the church (perhaps even in dialogue) while he’s preaching. Sustained monologue sermons don’t engage people’s attention; neither do they honor the Biblical idea of the “priesthood of all believers” (which, I know, really has nothing to do with preaching). We must encourage our congregations to actually engage with Scripture in ways that are true and meaningful–even if it means moving away from the comfort of a monologue sermon (which, in my opinion, is usually nothing but a spiritual “speech”).

  5. David, I won’t comment on the curriculum tonight, just say that this is an exciting and needed direction. As you well know, there is no formation apart from community. And community to be both biblical and faithful must be a hermeneutical community. Frankly, this direction is one of those things planted deeply in my own heart, and the core of much of our local dialogue around learning community (DLCs). If your own institution supports you in this direction, it is a grace and a gift to you.. and will become so to the broader body of Christ. One day I would like to “teach” in such a program.. though I think the better word would be “participate” and live out my life there. My guess is you are familiar with Parker Palmer? If not, you need to be.. he will inspire and encourage you in this direction and probably provide some more grist for your own reflection and planning.

  6. David, I am realizing that the central difference you are articulating is context. In some ways this parallels method.. but it is not really technological in nature. It is more “concrete,” rooted in a visible and local, and human, reality. While I have enjoyed the DMN program I am in, it is somewhat transitional in nature, still too dependent on lectures and papers. That part of reflection is important.. but it is only one dimension of learning. In our local theology group we watched the movie DERRIDA. That was closer to an immersive experience. I almost felt like we had conversed with him together. I’ve been thinking what would be interesting would be to spend a day serving at the drop in center with these guys… 🙂 While we all have our own ekklesial context, I think we have to integrate theological reflection with action, and its tough to find models.

  7. Well, I definitely agree that we should not or even cannot separate learning from the field of practice (is this even possible???) and much New Testament theology is not propositional in nature but is theology that arises out of the needs of the moment (boy isn’t THAT a scary thought!), but my “thinking out loud rant” tells me that sometimes I’m bothered by the “professionalization” of the pastor such that there continues to be divide between clergy and laity such that the clergy end up not being in the “know” of how to live as cultural Christians. But this is just me and my blabbing my 2c’s worth and I don’t even know if it has anything to do with anything about this post frankly. 🙂

    I appreciate you seeing the need for preparedness (excellent suggestions by the way) on both fronts, and I’m not against the professionalization of pastor per se, but this is just one of my personal hang-ups.

  8. From an interested “layperson”:

    Whose/which systematics would you use as the baseline, and why?

    I was reflecting on the word “preach” today. We know that in the NT it is the verb form of euangelion, to announce the good news. I would love to hear of a preaching course that teaches people how to figure out how to announce the good news in many contexts. I have been very influenced by NT Wright, and I think one could do a lot worse than study his sermons, published on line at the Wrightpage and in the book “Following Jesus”. I long for the day when I hear a “preacher” who catches me up from the specifics of the text into the bigger picture of The Good News. Not just sin management, but the Direction in which God is moving things, and how my/our life now relates to that. Simply reading Wright’s sermons engenders worship in me.

    All your other topics appeal to me as well, and I would bunch them under the general heading “The Meaning of the End of Dualism in the Church” 🙂

    Great thoughts, David. Hope you are truly heard, at your institution and by others.

    Dana Ames

  9. I’d put sexuality in there with gender/race. I’d also run justice as a theme across classes, and not let it be treated as a ‘special-interest’ issue. I suspect that’s already part of your thinking…

  10. Dave,

    I am writing a paper that encompasses this very topic. Good timing, good topic and I have to say that I agree for the most part. I’d like to take a closer look. But my question is one regarding value of seminary and/or theological training. What does the Church need to do to realize value from those who have been schooled in the seminary? What do we (as those schooled in seminary) need to do to demonstrate the value we bring?

    Peace of Christ to you,

  11. It sounds like the worship and leadership course is partway there, but I wonder about a course in “leadership and spirituality.” It seems like these two areas have been disconnected and that needs to be addressed. Similarly, while issues of language and culture and hermeneutics are going to be scattered thru all these courses, in particular the first and last one, I wonder about a course in language, culture, and authority. This would be a chance to talk about our norming models in relation to the development of hermeneutical community, and in the context of the loss of agreement on interpretive frameworks. There is a practical component here that could be integrated into life settings.

  12. These comments have simply been off the charts! Thanks so ssooo much … My return comments are all “in sympathy”comments. In agreement with David Johnson … I think preaching has to be understood theolocially liturgicaqlly … I probably have a lot more questions to ask of him and Doug Pagitt … concerning the assumptions cultural and otherwise that drives the notions of “dialogical or progressiove dialogue preaching” … I do think we need to understand all of this and of course I’vce gone on adnauseum on expository preaching here at this blog, over at Out of Ur and in my book. I am not in total disagreement but have some important questions about why and what you think such method accomplishes. I think anonymous goes more towards the direction I wish to go ..

    Len … extraordinary thots .. as always thanks … and jenell .. I think sexualkity is a crucial topic that we are all so awash in and messed up in … and never have we needed an understanding of all our assumptions and where they came from … and then a theological Christ-formed vision for sexuality and gender in His church .. I teacxh a course on all this .. I’ll include it in the proposal! Thanks

    As far as systematics?.. well I guess for me I’d start with Barth … and from whence he came … then maybe mcClendon, Grenz, Migliore, and Shults … But there are reasons I go this way that I would have to explain some day …
    thanks all… please .. any other comments? I need em …

  13. Seeing as seminary isn’t really my thing (I couldn’t even finish one paper…), I would love a complete reading list for each of these courses.


  14. Thanks Mike .. if anyone else is interested in a reading list on these courses …or the ones that get finalized…let me know (e-mal me)We won’t have them complete until the summer. But if you’re interested please e-mail me … and I’ll keep you all on a file to e-mail you the course reading lists when they are ready ..
    David Fitch

  15. Back again, thanks to Len 🙂

    WRT sexuality, a great resource for me has been Ronald Rolheiser’s “The Holy Longing”. His chapter on the subject is very good, the best I’ve ever read. The overarching theme of the book is actually “desire”, which is another subject that gets written off, except to discuss it negatively. I so appreciate his viewpoint.

    Are the AEF lectures going to be made available afterwards, for those of us who can’t go?

    Dana Ames

  16. reverend mommy …

    We are all praying for Bob … and waiting to hear the results of various therapy in about four weeks… we have hopes that Bob has years more with us … not just months

    Blessings DF

  17. D.F.,

    You mentioned somewhere up there in this post that there is a need for study of systematic theology, I think you said, “pretty much because we just gotta have it”, or something along those lines.

    That didn’t sit well with me. From what I’ve noticed, so far, this seems to be where we differ. I am coming to a point, however, of looking for a properly ordered relatinship between systematic theology and the actual life of a community (or spiritual formation), rather than throwing any and all systems to the doghouse. My coming to this new realization has been through a process of pain and struggle…not just through some stoic contemplation (just to give a glimpse of where I’m coming from).

    I say all that to ask if you have any more thoughts on this. There seemed to be much more behind your “becuase we just gotta have it” than what you’ve shared so far. I’m wondering if you have any futher thoughts on the matte, and how they might pertian to what I’ve shared above about my struggles (probably shared by others in various or very different ways).


  18. Jason … my reference to prerequisites on this post are to the basic Biblical coursework (NT , OT ) and theology coursework that I think are necessary to lead any gathering thru faithfulness to Jesus Christ in these times. I believe you must be able to interpret the Scriptures faithfully … this takes more than a casual read but an understanding of the historical interpretation given us down thru the ages thru the aspostles, and preachers of the church. You just can’t lead a congregation with a “dropped out of the sky” interpretation … In these times interpretation is so very important … Likewsie, faithful interpretation requires understanding of the basic historical doctrines, where they came from, wnhat they mean. This need not be “systematic” in the typical scientific textbook approach of the fundamentalists … a better way is “creedal”… or the entire “drama” or “narrative” of doctrine. But to think we can lead a congregation without the background of the “Trinity,” “justification – sanctification”… the various historical ways fo understanding ..to me would be perilous . Lack of such a historical girth has gotten us where we are at in the pragmatic churches, where we have commoditized Jesus to beyond historical recognition. (The Life You’ve Always Wanted byu Joel O.)
    I hope this helps

  19. DF,

    That actually helps a lot. I know I always go back to my architecture stuff, but that’s what I know. What you say reminds me of how a plan of a building isn’t “dropped out of the sky”…even if the architect THINKS it is! AND…it reminds me of how much history and/or training is BEHIND that plan…whether it be training of an academic variety or an “unconscious” cultural/contextual kind of training that actually seems to be more typical, or that seems to reign moreso. Also too…reminds me that my tests in my history of Architecture class…there were SOME “true/false” and/or “multiple choice” questions…but they were a small portion of the testing. That reminds me of what you say, “…need not be “systematic” in the typical scientific textbook approach of the fundamentalists”.

    As I hear folk like you say helpful things like this, my concern about systems is able to be more articulated and shot more clearly at its target too. I think…much like how you speak of expository preaching in your book…it has a lot to do with CONTROL…”Pan” is, figuratively, the “god” who “holds things together” (or so we come to imagine). I think in the picture you just painted God is left in his rightfully ordered place as the one who holds things together from the center. With your idea of study of systematic (whatever), man isn’t trying to usurp God in that way.

    I am learning and growing. Church sure is an interesting animal.

    Thanks and God bless,


  20. David, Your comments are all good. But can I propose another starting point beside the curricula? First let me give some thoughts
    1) As a college ministerial student I was not prepared for what I needed to face in 24 years of full time sr. leadership. What I was taught did not really prepare me. With over 80 hours of seminary training I also discovered that it did a good job of filling my mind but little to prepare me for the real work in the trenches. I expect many will disagree and tell me they were prepared. My general course were most helpful! Really!

    2) Truth is we cannot really make a missional difference with a new list of relevant classes in seminary education. Why can’t we invest another wineskin for training – internships – releasing – and ongoing training. From experience real learning cannot just be a mind thing – real learning is on the job with mentoring/coaching etc.

    Dave – Great discussion points!

    Consider this: Let’s not send kids to Christian Colleges for ministry prep. When they do go m any emerge with so much debt they often cannot serve in ministry jobs and deal with living expenses as well as paying off the debt. Seminary does even more to offer education of the mind and does not result in real learning that comes with actually doing it.

    Why not use our Community Colleges for generals and let’s create on the job regional training centers with necessary courses in Theology and Mistry as suggested earlier. We will raise up Missional Great Commission disciple driven leaders who:
    1) Make disciples who make disciples who make disciples.
    2) As disciples are made God will do what He said He will do, “I will build My Church.”

    The Missionary Church Midwest District under the direction of Supt. Steve Ortmann is launching this pilot program in the District with the goal of regional training centers and mentoring and coaching without the debt and with all licensing and ordination requirements taught in the Training Centers. The nice thing is two-fold: Students are prepared for the real deal and 2) They don’t have the debt to pull them down.

    Oh I can share so much more… But since we are stuck in the Institutional carry on as usual deal – I fear, few will likely see become open enough to see it.

  21. A couple of thoughts:
    Discipleship in the Missional Church
    Ethics in the Missional Church (the Holiness Code)
    Public Preaching and Missional Teaching
    Coaching for Excellence
    Exegetical Biblical Studies
    Equipping All God’s Missionary People to reach the Postmodern generation

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