In the first part of this article I argued that our seminaries have not caught up with the rapid and radical changes that have taken place in Christianity, Western society, and therefore in our seminary students. In this concluding section, I suggest some ways to construct, if we are not too late already, theological education that would be appropriate for our Western context.
The Christian’s Holy Book. Seminaries should put away their preoccupation with higher critical questions about the text and focus more on the internal logic and message of the Christian’s Holy Book. We spend far too much time on questions that, for the most part cannot be answered.
What we have of the historical Jesus is found in the Bible and our students do not know it. We need to teach and learn the Bible, recognizing how we will be presenting it to our western audience: as a foreign book that needs to be understood by outsiders. Our students come with less and less knowledge of Scripture and we still assume they are biblically aware. They are not, so we need to change our primary focus from critical analysis to integration and synthetic understanding. In most places in the world where Christianity is vital and growing, where it is challenging social and economic structures as well, the Christians are people of one book. As Ken Bailey has said repeatedly, Muslims have more respect for our Bible and our Jesus than many professors in the United States. We can learn from Muslims as well as Buddhists who revere their sacred texts. We need students who can preach with some knowledge and with some confidence in the text.
Social analysis and engagement. It is not enough for the pastor today to learn only “congregational analysis,” she or he needs to know how to read the neighborhoods, school systems, and economics. Seminary students need to get out of the classroom. Thinking as a missionary, we need to help the students ask newer questions that speak to the community and to the society, not just “how can we get more people in church.” The pastor of the 21st century needs to be prophetic in speaking about sinful structures and dehumanizing realities2, but at the same time she will need to be an evangelist with “local knowledge.” At present we do not teach our future pastors to be comfortable out in the world, on the streets, in the coffee shops, at sporting events, meeting people in the park and in the shopping malls. Pastors need to be engaging people in the world every week.
Evangelism. For too long mainline churches have left evangelism, for a host of reasons, to the Baptists and the Pentecostals. The size of churches in America shows that this kind permissiveness (“We permit the Baptists to do evangelism for us.”) has produced good fruit for the non-mainline churches. We have passively accepted Enlightenment and denominational dichotomies that we should have resisted. There is no dichotomy in Jesus’ life and mission, and we must stand against such today. Let’s face the obvious, a young pastor leaving seminary to pastor a church of 80 (attendance 22; average age, 60) had better be an evangelist or a thief (sheep-stealer, that is). We suggest that seminaries send out students who have a great passion and a natural joy to tell people about Jesus (not about their church), and to bring the presence of Jesus into public places. Every student graduating from seminary should have led people to Christ each year of their seminary training. You learn preaching by doing it. You learn exegesis by doing it. And so we will learn evangelism. Let justice roll down, and let the word of God flow out.
Early church and missional engagement. Church history is valuable and necessary, but not all Church history is equally valuable or equally necessary. Today we need much less on internal Christendom disputes and much more on the life of Christians in situations of persecution and conflict. Who today is teaching about early Arabic and Persian Christianity? Much time needs to be spent on the first four centuries and much time needs to be spent on the encounter with religions in India in the past three centuries.
Our churches are placed among seas of unchurched people, many of whom are antagonistic to Jesus and his message. Polite, respectable Christianity that blends into the world is a dying breed. It is of no value. It is not worth its salt. Church leaders need to study how Christians were faithful, and faithfully serving the poor, when it was unpopular and even illegal to do so. Christianity that is so clear and confident brought the Roman Empire to its knees, wore down the Japanese occupiers in Korea, and outlived the Maoists in China. By contrast our Christianity often looks pretty anemic. It can barely keep the church alive, forget bring life to others.
Education as discipleship. At present our seminaries assume that church leaders are developed “environmentally.” I have often wondered how someone becomes an elder or deacon. It is generally, from what I can tell, that the nicest people who stay around the longest and complain the least eventually end up as elders. With more and more people coming to church without the long term “environmental Christianity,” more needs to be done to intentionally disciple leaders. Faculty and pastors need to view their jobs not as teachers or “leaders,” but as disciple makers.
Disciple is a good biblical word. To this end, we need to teach our future pastors one simple ministry skill: how to lead a small group Bible study Most seminaries don’t teach such a skill, even though this is one of the most basic ministry skills in a post-Christendom world. Raising up Christians, as much as anything else, is a matter of helping people pray, study the Bible, and step out in obedience. Our Bible departments need to seize this responsibility and send out students who can lead young people in joyous inductive discovery of our Sacred Book.
Spirituality for the road. Finally, we need to teach spirituality not as a religious habit (only), but as a rhythm of life, as the rhythm of our life, for the sake of others. Christian growth and development is a matter of obedience as we take the life and message of Jesus into the world, and then as we withdraw to be with Jesus (only). Christian spirituality is seldom taught as equally a matter of missional obedience and Christian worship. The engagement of the world often wounds us and challenges us. Worship and devotion brings both healing and empowerment for mission. Mission and worship, are the two strands of ecclesiology that make for a healthy church, and that will make for strong leaders for the church. Can we teach missional spirituality? We’d better.
Here is a challenge for the mainline seminary: Can we take on a revolutionary change for the Kingdom’s sake?
If not we will become more and more of a sideshow. This revolutionary change will involve scraping off the barnacles that have attached themselves to the western church. We must no longer hold anything in our seminaries as sacred, because our human sacredness (idols) will drag us down. It will also mean letting go, or as a ship in the doldrums, throwing unnecessary goods overboard. We are not alone. Humility may guide us to listen to Christian leaders from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. At present, their preparation for ministry enhances mission in some very difficult places. Maybe learning from Chinese or Kenyan or Brazilian pastors is an appropriate type of decolonization that could bring new life to our old seminaries and then to our churches.
It will seem costly at first, but very quickly the results will prove the wisdom of the radical response. The first step is to simply recognize that we are training pastors for a bygone era (wrong time), we are doing it too much in the academic setting (wrong place), and we are teaching a curriculum that is obsolete (wrong courses). It may seem dangerous to take such drastic steps, but the far greater danger is to keep doing the same thing over and over even though it is bringing fewer and fewer results.
Scott W. Sunquist is the W. Don McClure Associate Professor of World Mission and Evangelism at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, Pa.
1With apologies to Gilbert Tennent, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry,” 1740 sermon.
2Why, for example, are there six times as many blacks as whites (per 100,000) in U.S. prisons?