Why Theological Education Fails the Need of Our Times

John ArmstrongEducation, Pastoral Renewal, The Christian Minister/Ministry

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.