I spent all day on Friday in a board meeting for Biblical Theological Seminary (BTS) in Pennsylvania. Biblical provides a unique story that is not nearly as well-known as it should be. Begun thirty-five years ago as a conservative, independent Reformed seminary, in suburban Philadelphia, BTS began a new journey several years ago. The purpose statement now says the school exists: “To prepare missional leaders who incarnate the story of Jesus with humility and authenticity and who communicate the story with fidelity to Scripture, appreciation of the Christian tradition, and sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of postmodern culture.”
Our degree programs include the traditional M. Div., as well as a specially designed LEAD M. Div. designed for men and women already in ministry, or those in different careers who want to pursue the ministry as a career change. This program is built around cohort groups and includes a number of special features that are not common to typical seminary education. We also offer an M. A. in biblical studies, in ministry and in counseling, as well as a missional D. Min. All of the degrees are rooted in a curriculum that is committed “to living grace-based mission lives increasingly characterized by the fruit of the Spirit and love for God and others.” We further aim to teach students how to “grow in wisdom and skill in interpersonal relationships, conflict management, and living in community.” Our goal in biblical studies is to help students grow “in their knowledge of the Bible and its missional perspective and their ability to humbly interpret and apply it in light of history, culture and genre.” Behind all of this is the desire to help graduates “critically, constructively, and creatively engage our postmodern culture with the hope of the Gospel.” You can check it all out at www.biblical.edu.
We spent the afternoon interacting with David Tiede, former president for eighteen years, of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. David, a first-rate New Testament scholar, led Luther Seminary to understand the new world context that we face in the West and sought to develop a missional philosophy for an old mainline seminary (ELCA). I found David’s humble, engaging and clear presentation deeply impacting. He told us that his new journey toward the missional perspective began when he received a letter telling him that the seminary should “quit training pastors for a church that no longer exists.”
That sentence jumped out at me powserfully. “Quit training pastors for a church that no longer exists.” In other words, stop training chaplains for Christendom and start training missional pastors who know how to lead people to embrace the mission of Christ in a world that sees the church as completely foreign to its everyday life. Honestly, every seminary in America could stand to catch this same vision but few have at this point. Why? Institutions change only when forced to change. As David Tiede said, “Nobody changes until they are forced to change.”
Biblical Seminary changed because it had a great opportunity, a clear vision in its president David Dunbar, and nothing much to defend since it was not a hugely endowed and well-heeled place. And the faculty and staff, on the whole, caught the vision and showed amazing willingness to lean into the future by faith. As schools decline in enrollment and money, and many will, and as the church undergoes massive changes and shifts in coming years, which I believe it will, pray that other schools will catch this vision of becoming missional seminaries. We need scores of them all over the nation. I pray that Biblical will become a humble and effective leader among seminaries as it becomes the new kind of seminary that the church really needs.