My title is big and broad, I understand. I believe, simply put, that contemporary theological education is failing to produce true leaders. We teach to our level of competence and the competence of most of our best schools is to teach courses that are helpful but not necessarily centered on the missional reality of the church. Generally speaking our seminaries fail to clearly grasp the gospel of the kingdom. Even where they do grasp the kingdom message (some teachers get it as evidenced by their academic writing) most have not learned how to put this message into practice. The kind of changes that are needed to produce real change at the congregational level is not being unleashed by our schools.
Please do not misunderstand me. I believe in higher education. I do not believe that it is desirable, in most cases, to put men and women in pastoral leadership who are not intellectually and spiritually prepared to serve well. What I reject is the idea that a 200-year old German model of seminary curriculum is the best model to base a good education upon. I also do not believe that those who train pastors should be so far removed from the everyday life of the local church. Our present system takes men and women out of the church, sends them off for higher education, gives them degrees in ministry and theology and then sends them back into schools where they will become the primary shapers of the next group of pastors. Something about this is wrong. Maybe this is why Catholic seminaries require their teachers to be active priests, not just teachers and academics.
If the church needs to recover a kingdom-oriented, missional understanding of its calling, a recovery which I believe is critical in a cultural context where the Christian faith has lost its impact on society and (most) congregations, then it is very unlikely this will happen in our present system. Reform is desperately needed. Some institutions are willing to talk about this reform but very few are changing nearly as fast as we need. The reasons are complex. I do not believe the answer is revolution, which would mean we burn down the house and start over. This is why I invest more than a little time of my own time in this discussion week-in and week-out. I love the church and believe that a good education is still very important for church leadership. I am not persuaded, however, that much of what we do to train leaders for the church is working very well.
If I understand the times in which we live then we need creative, fresh and theologically alive places where a good education happens and real practitioners are taught how to truly serve the church. Until theoria (theory) and praxis (practice) are closely aligned again I believe we will never get the balance that we need. The future is challenging and I fear most institutions are not ready for it. If we keep doing the same thing, believing that it will produce different results, then the whole process gets very close to the definition of insanity.
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Having spent most of my career in theological education and having written three books on its history (a fourth is being prepared), I can say that most of your critique has been said before. Each new generation of reformers repeats similar criticisms, establishes new schools, and then those, in turn, inspire the next generation of critics. It is an endless circle based on a false assumption: that seminaries prepare and shape the ministry of the church. Ministers are shaped, not by their studies, but by their experience in the church before and after their study. Those with a vibriant experience of the power of God present the Gospel with power; those without that experience do not.
We have lived through fifty years in which the dominant cry of the “reformers” has been to create a more missional church. You can go back to the early 1960s statements of the WCC and trace the discussion of the missio dei to the present. These have also been some of the worst years in the history of the American churches. While I know that this is not your intention, the missional approach often becomes a way of slipping politics under the table. In the case of liberal churches, the mission is almost identical with that of the Democratic party; for the conservatives, it is the program of the Republican base.
Seminaries do somethings well. They can teach a mature and helpful knowledge of the scripture, they can introduce students to the tradition of the faith, and they can help students (not teach them) to think refectively and critically. They cannot supply vision or the Holy Spirit. If you doubt me on this, ask yourself honestly how many students were transformed by their experience at Wheaton. Wheaton does many things well, but it is not the church. Likewise, seminaries make fine schools, but they have rarely been centers of renewal or revival.
I agree with last statement. Doing the same thing and expecting different results is insanity.
Waldo Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Emeritus, Former Dean, Bangor Theological Seminary
I have also taught at Union (NY), St Mary’s (Baltimore), Hamilton College, and Southeastern Baptist Seminary. My ordination is recognized by the ABC and SBC.
Thank you for an insightful critique of my post. I agree with almost everything you write, especially your main point about the church. However, I think we would both agree that the kingdom of God is the wider and deeper reality here than the congregation/church..
The missional church emphasis, for me and most younger leaders, is not about political ideology at all. If anything it is partially a reaction against it, at least in the American context. It is really about mission as a reflection of God’s Trinitarian purpose for his people. This was Barth’s keen insight and one I profoundly share.
Please note my specific criticism transcends conservative and liberal categories. I am unhappy with the model of seminary itself. Our first seminaries, such as Princeton, did not follow this model until around 1800 and after. The four core divisions in curriculum dd not arise from theology but from outside. I still believe we need higher education, as noted, but we must substitute what is clearly missing to recover the message of the kingdom in our practice.
And our teachers need to better relate to the church itself as my reference to Catholic education suggests.
Again, thanks for an insightful critique.
Until there are some radical changes in the way Bible colleges and seminaries do “Christian education” and preparation for ministry, they will continue to produce not ministers and practicioners of the faith but junior professors.
A few years ago I probably would have missed your point here entirely. Having come from a part of the Body where practice is everything and theology is (almost) nothing, I would have used some of your comments to justify my severe disgust with seminary and theology-based institutions (which, by the way, is completely unfounded in my case because I hardly know anything about them!)
However, I can now see your real point is about balance. This quote rings true both for those who uphold theology primarily and those who uphold practice primarily. I think you have struck the same balance of the two that Scripture so clearly presents, as well as hitting on a key element of unity in the Lord:
“Until theoria (theory) and praxis (practice) are closely aligned again I believe we will never get the balance that we need. The future is challenging and I fear most institutions are not ready for it. If we keep doing the same thing, believing that it will produce different results, then the whole process gets very close to the definition of insanity.”
I can say that most of your critique has been said before. Each new generation of reformers repeats similar criticisms, establishes new schools, and then those, in turn, inspire the next generation of critics…I agree with last statement..thanks for the good information.