The root meaning of the word seminary is “seed bed.” This metaphor helps me grasp what a good seminary is and what it should seek to become as times change and the church faces new challenges to the kingdom of God. Seminaries exist to serve the church and, by extension, the world. They exist for mission.
The first seminaries were created during the Middle Ages to mature young men for the priesthood. Much as tender seedlings were grown in a nursery until they were ready to be transplanted seminaries sought to prepare leaders for the church of that time. During the Protestant Reformation emphasis on the priesthood of all believers brought profound changes to the educational models of the time. Changes were relatively modest until the twentieth century. More changes than ever came about following World War II. The “new” world was open to the gospel in a way not previously experienced and travel made it possible for people to study all over the world. Seminaries in America changed in a number of ways, especially as women began to take a deeper role in formal church leadership. Seminary education was eventually developed so that various types of leadership for the church, not just male priests or ordained ministers, could receive a quality education.
Last week I wrote about current developments in seminary education. I featured two schools in my recent posts: Northern Seminary in Lombard (IL), located in the metro-Chicago area, and Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield (PA), which is in metro-Philadelphia. Both schools are among the few evangelical seminaries in America that have self-consciously embraced the missional paradigm. And both are open to the ecumenical paradigm though Northern has had more history in this area because of its American Baptist affiliation since 1913. (Biblical had origins in a more fundamentalist independent context but has clearly moved far beyond this cultural context over the last fifteen years.)
Both Northern and Biblical recognize that God calls leaders into kingdom service and when he does call the place to serve might be anywhere. Some of those called will become pastors of existing church congregations. Some will serve in rural areas but the majority will now be more likely to serve in urban and suburban settings. Many will become leaders in job training, helping provide healthy food and safe housing. All will stress the hope of Christ and the good news of his kingdom. Both schools train men and women. In several cases husbands and wives are even trained together.
One of the common qualities that you soon discover about both of these schools is that they do not think students learn only in a classroom. Yet, and this is important, neither seminary has sacrificed the quality of educational experience that contemporary students need in order to become better trained, and more deeply formed, spiritual leaders.
Northern and Biblical lead the way in innovation. They are truly seeking to equip the church to change the world. They hold fast to their evangelical heritage while at the same time they re-imagine what the church and nation will look like in coming decades. This is how they seek to intentionally prepare graduates to serve missionally. They believe, simply put, that Christ’s mission is essential to the calling of all churches and that mission is more than evangelism. Mission is about engaging with hurting people, broken communities and struggling neighborhoods. They also believe that each day invites Christians to engage with their mission field. Good leaders will show and tell the only eternal story that motivates people to follow good leadership.