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On Seminary Getting a Bad Rap

The majority opinion among those under the age of 50 is that traditional seminary education is broke (monetarily and otherwise). It is part of an earlier time. Its structures best meet the needs of a Christendom church, a church that is slowly dying.

I’d be a fool to disagree. Yet I think the case is often overstated. Smaller seminaries are often among the most innovative and experimental educational institutions. They are trying all kinds of things. It is true that bigger schools tied to traditional paradyms and older faculty can be rigid. But for many facing the budget crisies of the past five years, who are facing declining enrollment, who are facing the changing nature of the ministry student – what we need is not more inventiveness, we need to think more carefully what we’re doing and why.

This Thursday at Northern we have an evening set aside to discuss these issues. JR Rozko has spent time in this area and he has written some observations on his blog. He’s presenting a paper on the subject at Northern Seminary Thursday nite along with responses by Mike Breen and other people who have a stake in the subject. Since I won’t be able to get there until late, I thought I’d put a few thoughts out there. Maybe progress will be made on these issues just to name a few.

Seminary Education rightly gets a Bad Rap. Traditional seminary education is out of step. It teaches one person to do everything in the church as a professionalized clergy person. It is heavily cognitive.  It trains people to be experts.  It takes leaders out of their contexts to learn information. None of this works when the church finds itself largely dis-established, i.e. when the church is in a missionary situation. Here ministry must be organic and contextualized. Here ministry must be sustainable  through being entrepreneurial in order to survive. As a result of all this, it is best done as shared ministry within multiple teams. It must be nurtured out or everyday life. Spiritual formation is therefore important. Seminary cannot be built of the model of a graduate school training for well paying jobs. (The thing that most irritates me is that seminarians often come out of seminary unable to think of life as anything but inside the four walls of a church building studying all day.) It must become more like a part time adult learning center training hundreds for the ministry one night a week/ plus a weekend a month (to name one option).

We Should However Not Throw Out The Baby With The Bathwater!

With all these problems, we must be careful to nuance Christendom and the various cultural conditions that have played into “professional” school type training. We must be careful not to throw everything out. I am positive leaders need to be grounded in the historical study of Scripture, history and doctrine. I’m telling you, I HAVE SEEN THE DIFFERENCE! To not be, eventuates in a pragmatized pastorate who has no sense of the depths of God’s movement in the world and in history. He or she will end up reducing the gospel to whatever cultural expediency presents itself. Lack of theology, history, context, and Scriptural integrity is one of the primary reasons the church has died in the past thirty years. It is also one of the main reasons any missional pastor survives. He or she is grounded in deep and gets what is at stake and how to navigate culture via the Scriptures within history.


We Need To (Can) Find a Way

We need then to find a way to morph seminary education into another form beyond the residence seminary 3 year M Div. It must be portable or at least doable without leaving your context. It must fit as a sustainable life rhythm within one’s already established work/ministry in context. It must be affordable. It must provide an education that shall ground someone in the very center of God’s mission  so as to engage culture with gospel in integrity and social presence. It must teach the how’s and why’s of contextualization without itself becoming subverted by contextualization (i.e. overly pragmatised, diluted via the internet, etc). It must create places of conversation. It must be communal. It must be monastic without cloistering students away from his or her context (I know this sounds oxymoronish).

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.