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An Overlooked Reason for Decline in Seminary Enrollment

seminary enrollment

Many seminaries and divinity schools are concerned about the present and future of theological education. In layperson’s terms, this means a concern for more students enrolled as numbers have been on the decline. Last year, the Association of Theological Schools reported 57% of their member schools noted a declining enrollment. While there are the changing U. S. demographics and X-factor of two years of Covid, a more fundamental issue is present and often overlooked. For a couple of related articles on seminary enrollment published last year, see HERE and HERE.

My concern, one I have been voicing for almost twenty years, is part of this decline may be traced to poor disciple making efforts of local churches. All seminary students were once unbelievers in the fields of lostness. If the fields are not sown this morning, harvested this afternoon, then schools will begin to see a decline in students by this evening.

Do not misunderstand. I am a strong advocate for theological education at the graduate level. For a decade, I served as an associate professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Though presently engaged full-time in theological education at the undergraduate level, each year I give lectures to various seminary classes and continue to teach at the seminary-level in an adjunctive capacity. My life has been submerged in the classroom for twenty-five years. I believe in, recommend, and participate in seminary education.

But my endorsement does not change the problem at hand. And it is a real problem. Of course, the largest schools (often connected to denominations) do not experience the effects as their counterparts. A massive battleship responds differently to a storm at sea than a row boat. There are very few battleships, but many row boats, in the water.

An Overlooked Reason for Decline in Seminary Enrollment

Declining seminary enrollment and shifts in theological education are complex issues. I do not wish to make light of such or state the problem may be solved with one quick-fix. We did not get here overnight and no solution will arrive overnight.

However, we must be honest and understand that sometimes complex problems are not always solved by complex solutions. Sometimes the way of the simple is extremely difficult when we operate from very complicated models.

Call me simple-minded, but theological education is predicated upon evangelistic labors. Such is biblical missiology. Apostolic work never begins with self-theologizing but evangelizing. After churches are birthed from the harvest, formal theological education develops. Cut off the evangelistic pipeline and theological education will suffer. My hypothesis regarding seminary enrollment follows:

Declining evangelism among a people -> Declining number of people coming to faith -> Declining number of people baptized and becoming members of local churches -> Declining number of church members -> Declining number of people called into vocational ministry -> Declining number of people enrolling in seminaries and divinity schools.

Tomorrow’s students are today’s church members. If churches diminish efforts in reaching others with the gospel, they will have fewer people to send to seminaries.