Culture / Theology

Seminaries in the Crucible: What is Being Forged? (Disruption in Theological Education, Pt. 1)

Theological Education Is Being Forged

In the crucible of numerous disruptions on multiple fronts, a new form of theological education for mission in the post-Christendom West is being forged – or so many of us carrying on the work of theological education pray. 

By now it is a cliché to observe that higher education in the US has been in serious upheaval;1 but this might be more true among theological seminaries.2 Student enrollment has been plummeting while financial woes have been mounting. The reasons for this are manifold, but two central factors are: 

    1. The increasing number of churches closing their doors (especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic but true even before spring 2020), and 
    2. Shrinking demand for new clergy as the post-Christendom reality in the West continues to deepen its roots. 

The economic realities of the pastorate have dramatically changed — more and more churches that do remain open can only afford part-time salaries for their pastors, and as a result we have been witnessing the rise of bi-vocational pastors.3 Pastors living in this still emerging reality increasingly juggle vocational ministry with multiple other jobs, and simply cannot afford taking on the student debt that seminary requires. Additionally, over the last few decades, we have witnessed increasing generations of new pastors enter ministry without undergoing formal theological education of any kind, not only because they couldn’t afford it, but on account of seeing little to no relevancy in the traditional theological education that seminaries provide.

The relevancy challenge bears serious consideration, as it is not simply a brash dismissal by the uninformed pastor ignorantly dismissing the enormous and rapid cultural changes afoot in our world. Initial questions of relevancy that emerge include the following:

    • Can theological seminaries, originally created to supply the needs of the Church in a bygone Christendom world, remain up to the task of equipping pastors for mission in our secular, pluralistic, increasingly urban and globalized world? 
    • Can a model of education formed in the West, with its attendant biases and racial power structures, truly produce ministers who have the ability to lead in the multicultural, global Church, in step with the missional Spirit of the Savior of the nations and the gospel of cosmic reconciliation? 
    • Can the kinds of theology that we usually teach in our institutions, still in many ways firmly rooted in the scholastic tradition of the West, really produce ‘theologians on the way,’4 equipping ministers less for the ivory tower and more for the street? 
    • Can our seminaries address the concerns of the spiritually wounded, deconstructing younger generations departing the church of their parents en mass? 
Can theological seminaries, originally created to supply the needs of the Church in a bygone Christendom world, remain up to the task of equipping pastors for mission in our secular, pluralistic, urban and globalized world? Click To Tweet

These questions of relevancy have been voiced for a long time from the margins of the Church, but the status quo bias within church and seminary leadership has remained stubbornly resilient. The many upheavals of the past few years — political polarization, a global pandemic, racial reckoning, economic turmoil — have made these questions that much more pressing towards the surface. Tragically however, will the seminary, and the Church the seminary empowers, actually hear? It is far too easy for these questions to be drowned out by ever more shrill voices that call for circling the wagons and a return to the ‘good ol’ days’ of Christendom. 

Transformation for the sake of faithful mission has faced daunting opposition before from the very body that has been called to lead this faithful mission. However, as renowned missiologist David Bosch first wrote over three decades ago, within crises lie not only dangers but also opportunities.5 The dangers are all too obvious; let’s not forget, though, about the opportunities. A new form of theological education for mission in the post-Christendom West might yet be forged.

A Clarification of Calling for Theological Education

Times of crisis can send us into a tailspin of frenetic activity, grasping at straws promising survival. It can also provide a moment of clarity. Specifically, it can help us soberly ask, “What are we about? What is the purpose of theological education, anyway?” 

During the last few decades, higher education as an industry has been drawn in to the siren call of the neoliberal6 marketplace, and theological education has not escaped this pull. The logic of the marketplace remakes the seminary into a retailer of degrees and credentials signifying spiritual authority to paying customers who should be known primarily as students or apprentices. Marketing, branding, and making the sale can overshadow the substance of theological and spiritual formation of such church leaders. 

The logic of the marketplace remakes the seminary into a retailer of degrees and credentials signifying spiritual authority to paying customers who should be known primarily as students or apprentices. Click To Tweet

With the erosion of trust in ecclesial institutions like denominations and seminaries, along with the authority that they have historically conferred, non-denominational churches and entrepreneurial founders of independent church plants have increasingly opted to be their own theological educators. After all, complaints that seminaries don’t teach pastors what they need for ministry practicalities is already commonplace. Aren’t we better off forging our own church growth methods, gleaned and McGyvered from the MBAs and the whiz kids of the tech startup world? 

The results from the approach of the Church Growth movement have been mixed at best, and we are only now grappling with the fallout. Church growth at first appeared exponential, but after several decades, a darkening pall hangs over the whole enterprise. This has been well documented in sobering fashion by “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast and the “PreachersNSneakers” Instagram account. Like many seminaries and higher education administrations, pastors and church planters also appear to have been swept up into the false hope of a neoliberal approach to church multiplication that promised exponential new growth but instead gave us the bitter fruit of countless ministry leadership failures. 

Rather than the promise of a wildly successful ministry or the status of a celebrity stage, the goal of theological education has always been to raise up and equip men and women who will help guide the people of God on mission in our world. The seminary has never been another academic institution that exists to extend its own institutional life; rather, its purpose is for the sake of serving the mission of God in our time and place. The primary goal of the seminary is not to produce theological lecturers, academic researchers, gifted orators that fill pulpits, nor to train entrepreneurs who have a nose for new shares in the spiritual marketplace. In contrast, the seminary exists to raise up kingdom servants who will take the gospel across cultural boundaries, whether that is to unreached people groups or to younger generations within our own congregations. As seminaries face existential crises all around, perhaps the silver lining is in the possibility of rediscovering this calling.

The goal of theological education has always been to raise up and equip men and women who will help guide the people of God on mission in our world. Click To Tweet

The Centrality of Missiology in Theological Education

Call me biased — I am a missiologist, after all — but in order for the missional calling of the seminary to be fully realized, missiology needs to take its place at the center of the theological curriculum. As missional theologians are fond of reminding us, theology is what happens when the church participates in the mission of God. However, the reality is far different: Theology has often been separated from the life of mission. 

Theology serves the church on mission, but centering theology, as systematic theology has done traditionally, results in theology for its own sake — a kind of theology that is often only good for pointless arguments and unending controversies, a character the Church unfortunately displays far too often. By contrast, healthy, integrated theology needs a purpose bigger than itself — and that purpose is found in the God who is on mission to reconcile the world to himself and invites his people to join him in this work. Theology comes alive when it equips God’s people with the vocabulary to converse about the good news of Jesus within our particular context in meaningful, winsome, and holistic ways. It needs the wisdom and skills to imitate, in our own time and place, the incarnation of the Son who entered into our world in order to reveal the Father. 

Traditional systematic theology has often seemed unconcerned about such matters. But contextual theology, historically relegated to the margins of theological education under the umbrella of missiology (which itself existed as an optional extracurricular activity in the seminary), has worked hard to enter into the realities where real people live. Contextual theology seriously engages with the suffering wrought by injustice and oppression, working to craft a faithful articulation of the gospel that affirms the dignity of marginalized cultures in our midst. 

In the post-Christian West, contextual theology is urgently needed to provide the Church with new language and imagination to listen to and converse with our secular neighbors, our pluralistic communities, and our deconstructing generations, all about the hope that we have in Christ. This is a missiological endeavor, the work of constructing local theologies and building contextually faithful churches, not ‘over there,’ in some far-off foreign mission field, but right here in our own neighborhoods. Is our leadership being properly equipped to lead the church in this work, meaningfully engaging the cultural concerns of our own context with the gospel? That is the core question for the seminary’s reason for existence. 

The work of constructing local theologies and building contextually faithful churches is a missiological endeavor, not ‘over there,’ in some far-off foreign mission field, but right here in our own neighborhoods. Click To Tweet

In order to faithfully carry out the work of contextual theology, students will need the skills to sit at the foot of culture as well as under the authority of Scriptures. We will need wise biblical theology on the one hand and deepening ethnographic skills on the other — to listen both to the voice of the scriptural witness and to the lived theology of the culture — and to learn to harmonize them. In other words, missiology provides the integrative framework and sets the agenda for all the other theological disciplines. For instance, homiletics is reframed as missional preaching and intercultural communication; apologetics must provide tools for peaceable Christian engagement with world religions. 

This is in line with New Testament scholar’s Dean Flemming’s declaration that we need more intercultural leaders in the mold of Paul, a Jewish legal scholar and an Apostle to the Gentiles — a “wanderer between two worlds.”7 We need to think less Paul the systematic theologian, and more Paul the intercultural missionary leader as the ideal model for our training. 

Not only does missiology need to be central in the seminary curriculum, it also needs to set the vision for the leadership of the institution. How the seminary functions and operates forms and educates the student, not only what information it imparts. The seminary needs to move into the neighborhood, becoming embedded within the context of churches and ministries seeking to carry out their work in cities and towns — a truly incarnational education. Unlike a denomination, a seminary is in a unique position to not only train and disciple future leadership, but also to convene various local Christian leaders, explore and research pertinent questions and concerns common to them, and help mobilize them as coworkers and fellow students in the kingdom. Lifelong learning programs will need to see its own potential in this light. The seminary has the potential to play a key role in contextual mission and continual learning that remains to be tapped, if the paradigm can shift from the ivory tower to a local mission. 

The seminary needs to move into the neighborhood, becoming embedded within the context of churches and ministries seeking to carry out their work in cities and towns — a truly incarnational education. Click To Tweet

An issue that is relevant to this new pathway is online education. Seemingly overnight, Zoom classrooms have become the norm, and by necessity, seminaries have gone almost entirely online. This has reshaped our expectations of theological education delivery. Certainly, we thank God for Zoom classes and recognize their benefits. But difficult questions persist. Is online education appropriate for forming incarnational ministers who carry out contextual ministry? How does online theological education escape the trap of reducing theological education to consuming free floating Gnostic ideas and techniques devoid of context — especially the asynchronous version of it? This remains an open question that demands careful consideration by educators and students over the long haul. We should not rush to what seems most convenient or cost-effective in the short term, for in the long run we may pay a far more significant cost.

In any case, the seminary cannot remain apart from the reality on the ground; it must demonstrate that we are in this kingdom work together in this unique time and place. Leadership and faculty who embrace an identity as co-laborers in a larger mission will be able to remake the seminary in service to that mission. What would such a seminary look like? I am not entirely sure, but it would be a worthwhile work to explore that further in Part 2 of this article. 

*Editorial Note: Part 2 of Kyuboem’s article posted on January 26th.

 


 

Arthur Levine and Scott J. Van Pelt, The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021).

2 https://religionnews.com/2022/06/03/seminaries-poised-to-sell-amid-shifts-in-theological-education/. Accessed January 24th, 2023.

3 https://www.christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/2017/december/new-normal-9-realities-trends-bivocational-ministry.html. Accessed January 24th, 2023.

4 I borrow from the words of Orlando Costas here.

David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 2-3.

Neoliberalism can be defined as “a modified form of liberalism tending to favor free-market capitalism” (2019 MacBook Air Dictionary Application, accessed January 24th, 2023).

Dean Flemming, Contexualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 125.

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