I had the unique privilege of teaching my course, “Unity in Christ’s Mission,” January 10-14 at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I had been to Knox many years ago to speak at a commencement service. It was a day-in and day-out experience so I got very little flavor for the faculty or the students. I remember arriving at the last minute, because of weather problems in Chicago. I also remember speaking to Dr. Kennedy after I preached, but only briefly. And I had breakfast with a few members of the faculty on Saturday morning before I flew to the West Coast. Other than this brief encounter I did not know much about Knox, nor do I recall knowing a single graduate from the seminary over the years. (Most Knox students have been from South Florida.) This all began to change in June, 2010, when I was introduced to President Ronald Kovack and Dean Warren Gage, along with their new theologian, Michael Allen (photo right). Michael completed his PhD at Wheaton two years ago. Soon after I met these good brothers I was invited to teach a J term (January or July) class for doctoral students. I picked January 2011 without even a prayerful thought! (So much for my imminent piety.)
Knox has undergone some significant changes in the last few years. It is now rebuilding from the inside out. The chairman of the board is my close friend, Dr. Luder Whitlock, the former president of Reformed Theological Seminary. Luder is clearly one of the brightest and most innovative Christian leaders in higher education in the world. A few others involved in the transition at Knox are people that I have known in other contexts. The close association of Knox Seminary with Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church remains. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) who I wrote about last year when the congregation at Coral Ridge was divided over his ministry, is also directly linked with the seminary. I worshiped at Coral Ridge on Sunday, January 9, and sensed a renewal of mission and passion that was pervasive. I also had the opportunity to get to know Tullian better through personal conversation over lunch.
Knox Seminary is forced to become more creative in their delivery system because of their history and what they now face in the future. I see this as an extremely positive outcome. One aspect of this is a deep commitment to online education, which some schools offer but very few have done enough with yet. A student in a Moscow cafe, as the president notes in the school’s recent report, can watch a class online, download notes, take tests and respond.
Technology merging with God’s Spirit, meeting opportunity which He has provided is causing a complete paradigm shift in the way we think about theological education outside the boundaries of our local campus. The new paradigm is the hybrid model—traditional education on campus in the traditional classroom setting, and distance learning, video classes that allow the student to attend class and interact with the classmates and professor while in a remote location. How cool is that?! We now have over 400 students signed up in South America, with admission applications on file.
Knox needs only $108,000 to produce cohort classes in six Latin American countries and most of their students will be given scholarships out of these funds. Think about that for a moment. Traditional education could cover less than ten students on that amount of money.
And Knox is going on the road this year. But this is not the traditional way seminaries have done this. They are not spreading out across the U. S. by sending faculty to remote multi-site campuses, a thing done for nearly twenty years by major schools who wanted to attract new students and meet budget, etc. They are, for example, going into Cuba this year to teach and equip leaders. This has never been done since Castro came to power!
My friend Al Jiron, Dean of Students and Admissions at Knox, notes that the scenario is the same all over America. Men and women believe God wants them trained to become better leaders. Many will not enter the pastorate but want solid training. Knox intends to deliver it and they are on track to do it well. Knox has seen the vision I have promoted for over five years—take theological education into the home of the students wherever they live. Create a state-of-the-art theological training and distance curriculum that will serve many applicants who can never move to Florida. Says Al Jiron, “Our students are our mission.” Amen.
Dr. Warren Gage, Academic Dean (photo right), is a delightful and creative scholar with a vision for the future as well. He recently wrote about the late Dr. Kennedy once saying that someday the church would carry the gospel to the ends of the earth by “yet undreamed of” means. The day is here says Dr. Gage and the Internet is the means. The tools for a vision like that of Knox Seminary are there for all to use. I thank God these wise and faithful brothers and sisters are dreaming a truly great dream. I will be cheering them on and doing anything I can to help them reach their goal. May God bless Knox with even greater opportunities and donors to make this a great reality the world over. You want to make a kingdom difference, invest in a vision like this one! You will realize more kingdom impact for your investment in such a mission than you will in a hundred large building programs that are generally unneeded. (I’m sorry if that is offensive but it is, in my mind, simply obvious and true!)
Jonathan G. Smith, Dean of Distance Education, adds:
Gospel-centered theological education must meet the 21st-century challenges of instructing pastors, teachers, missionaries, and laypersons that are spread across the nation and the world. . . . by recognizing and even embracing the pattern our Lord has presented to us through the media of Holy Scripture, not only are we encouraged to follow this pattern, but rather we are mandated by none other than God alone to embrace what he ordained. This is the very heart of Knox Virtual: designing instructional media that carries on the great tradition of Christianity to be a media-based faith, rooted in history and grounded in truth. By making the biblical pattern the center of all that we are doing, Knox will become the leading seminary of the 21st century.
Jonathan might be a bit zealous about Knox’s unique role but I love his zeal. Every school ought to follow suit and get really serious about training missional leadership for the future. I hope to see something of how Knox Seminary does this and will prayerfully support them as much as possible.