Blog Archives

Wandering in the Wilderness: The Impossibility of Theological Education

[This is a slightly altered version of a devotional I recently presented at a dean’s conference (yes, there are conferences for deans) on why the task of raising future leaders for the church is impossible.]

Course evaluations can be fun to read. You probably don’t believe me, but it’s true. Every now and then, you run across a student with something particularly insightful to say. For example, I recently saw one that read something like, “This professor is brilliant. I’m just not sure what he’s talking about.”

Oops. Obviously, there’s a disconnect here between the brilliant insights of the professor and the practical issue of making sure people can actually do something with them.

The same thing can happen with our “core values” and “mission statements.” They sound good, but what exactly do they mean? For example, one of the core values of Western Seminary is “truth.” (I’m pretty sure that was put in there to distinguish us from all those other seminaries who are committed to “deceit.”) That’s nice, but what do you do with it? How does that guide the everyday life and behavior of the institution beyond a minimal commitment not to lie to our students—unless we can present it creatively enough to call it “marketing”.

Sometimes we find ourselves flying at 30,000 feet when the people and issues we’re trying to address are down at sea level.

There are times when I feel like Paul could use some help landing the plane too.

2 TIMOTHY 2:2

I have always loved 1 Timothy 2:2. It’s a classic verse for Christian ministry and a great description of what we’re trying to do as theological educators.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

What a fabulous verse with a clear principle for effective leadership development: pass along what you have received to others who will do the same. That’s great. But, how do you do this? How will you actualize this? What are your specific learning outcomes? Where’s your strategic plan?

If we continue for a bit in the passage, we’ll find that Paul really never answers these questions.

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. (vv. 3-6)

These are all terrific images for Christian ministry. I’ve used all of them in my teaching and preaching many times. But, when it comes to specifics, they’re still not very helpful. Doesn’t Paul have anything more to offer?

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (v. 7)

Gee, thanks. So now I’m either stupid because I haven’t bothered to think about what Paul was saying, or Jesus doesn’t like me and hasn’t given me understanding. Neither of these options is terribly encouraging.

Come on Paul. What’s the plan? Where’s the blueprint? How exactly do you do this thing we call “developing leaders”?

Instead of answering the question, we’re left with this grand vision of preparing the next generation for effectively leading God’s people with little in the way of specific guidance.

Thanks Paul.

OUR CHAOTIC CONTEXT

And, that becomes a real problem when you consider the chaotic context in which we find ourselves trying to carry out this tremendous responsibility.

Look at the challenges that seminaries face: limited finances, increased competition, contrary constituencies, nosy accreditation agencies, and governmental regulation, among other things. And, that’s not even counting issues that arise from our broader cultural context: new technologies, changing educational paradigms, increasingly diverse communities, decreasing biblical literacy for incoming students, and more.

It may just be me, but these all seem pretty daunting. Many times I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness of theological education. Paul has shown us the promised land—just entrust this message to godly men and women who will take up the mantle of leadership for the next generation. See, the promised land is right there. But I don’t know how to get there. For all my planning, plotting, striving, and strategizing, I still find myself wandering in the chaos and confusion of the wilderness.

I feel like one of the ten spies who have gone into the land and have come back saying that it can’t be done. The obstacles are too great. Go home.

THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE

And then I pause and consider what it must have been like for those who have gone before.

Consider poor Timothy as he reads these words. He’s in a hostile cultural context with no books, no schools, very little money, few churches, and leaders who are still fairly young spiritually themselves. What is he supposed to do with this?

Consider the early church it expanded into new worlds: Greece, Rome, Africa, Gaul, Asia. Imagine how they must have wrestled with what it takes to raise godly leaders in these new contexts with all of their cultural diversity, religious plurality, and philosophical complexity. How hard must that have been?

Consider the church of the Constantinian era as it struggled with training the next generation from a posture of relative affluence and influence, along with growing nominalism and institutionalism. Now how do you raise godly leaders?

Consider the medieval church as they tried to develop new institutional educational structures called “universities” to accomplish this daunting task of training new leaders. Imagine the uncertainty. Will this work? Or, will it just turn pastors into professors, leaders into lecturers?

I could go on. God’s people have always struggled with understanding precisely how to raise the next generation of leaders in the midst of many difficult and daunting circumstances.

And, none of them have gotten it “right.” Although every generation approached the task of leadership development differently, each produced more than its share of broken leaders who led broken churches in a broken world.

There’s a vision, but no blueprint. There’s a plan, but there are always problems.

Apparently the wilderness of theological education has been with us for a while now.

OUR IMPOSSIBLE TASK

So, my happy thought for today is:

1. We’ve been given a grand task with almost no instruction for how to carry it out.

2. Every prior generation found this task to be nearly impossible.

Thanks Paul. Don’t you have anything to offer that might be a little more helpful?

To be fair, I probably should have started in verse 1.

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

Ah, there it is. That’s what my reflection has been missing. Grace.

For this to work, we need to realize that this story is not about us. If it was, this story would have ended a long time ago. Every generation of Christian leaders laments the difficulties of raising godly leaders in their context. And every generation is right. We’ve been given a seemingly impossible task with no blueprint for success.

And that’s okay because it’s not about us anyway.

We will never build perfect seminaries that produce perfect leaders to lead perfect churches. If that’s your promised land, I hope you enjoy wilderness.

That’s not what we’ve been called to do. Perfection is not our goal, faithfulness is. We will always build broken schools that produce broken people to lead broken churches. But, we serve a glorious God who will always be gracious to his people and faithful to his plans.

Our task may be impossible, but that’s not a problem for God.

This isn’t a call to quietism. The fact that we can’t be perfect doesn’t mean that we stop striving to be as creatively faithful as possible. Maybe Paul didn’t give us a blueprint because there isn’t one. Maybe each generation has to be willing to put its models of leadership development on the table and ask afresh if this is the best way to be faithful to the task in this time, with this people, facing these challenges.

Will we fail? Yes. At least, we will fail at being flawless. But, we need not fail at being faithful – if we can rest in the grace and goodness of God and remember that this is his church, these are his people, this is his story, and he will ensure that our efforts are not in vain.

In the face of our impossible task, Paul invites us to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

And, to that we can only say a humble “amen.”

Old schools vs. new schools

I love to listen to the rhetoric that older, more established schools and newer, less traditional schools fling back and forth at each other. It’s a fascinating display of semantic nuance. Reading Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals, I came across the following scene in which Lord Vetinari (i.e. The Boss) is describing two such institutions to Archancellor Ridcully, head of the more traditional school.

“What we have here, gentlemen, is but a spat between the heads of a venerable and respected institution and an ambitious, relatively inexperienced, and importunate new school of learning.”

“Yes, that’s what we’ve got all right,” said Ridcully.

Vetinari raised a finger. “I hadn’t finished, Archancellor. Let me see now. I said that what we have here is a spat between an antique and somewhat fossilized, elderly and rather hidebound institution and a college of vibrant newcomers full of fresh and exciting ideas.”

“Here, hand on, you didn’t say that the first time,” said Ridcully.

Veintari leaned back, “Indeed I did.”

Two very different perceptions of the same academic realities. And, as the technology-in-education debate really starts to heat up, it should be interesting to see where the rhetoric goes from here.

On the need for both scientia and sapientia

Augustine distinguished between scientia (knowledge perceived from the external world through the senses) and sapientia (knowledge, or wisdom, concerned with eternal reality). Augustine understood knowledge (scientia) and wisdom (sapientia) as ‘separate instruments for learning God’. Concluding that both scientia and sapientia are necessary for the theological task, Ellen Charry observes, ‘Modern academic theology has largely limited itself to scientia. While it is essential for pointing seekers in the right direction, in Augustine’s view scientia alone is unable to heal us. The goal of scientia is to move the seeker to sapientia, wisdom.’

(Linda Cannell, Theological Education Matters: Leadership Education for the Church (Newburgh, IN: EDCOT Press, 2006))

Flotsam and jetsam (10/19)

Seminarians are getting younger

USA Today reported last week on a growing trend in US seminaries – younger students.

For years, churches across the USA have prayed that more young people would explore careers in ministry as a wave of Baby Boomer pastors prepares to retire. Now it seems their prayers are being answered.

For the past 10 years, the estimated median age of candidates for master of divinity degrees has fallen steadily, from 34.14 in 1999 to 32.19 in 2009, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Theological Education (CSTE) at Auburn Seminary. That marks a reversal: From 1989 to 1999, the estimated median age had climbed steadily from 31.4 to 34.14.

The article offers three possible explanations: (1) there are more twentysomethings in America today, (2) younger people are more inclined to pursue “altruistic” jobs than before, and (3) more financial resources are being targeted at younger students. Regardless, it seems that after several decades of rising ages at US seminaries, seminarians are now getting younger again.

Blogging as theological discourse

Ben Myers’ recently published article “Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse,” Cultural Encounters 6.1 (2010) is a fascinating discussion of how different forms of communication shape us, and the formative nature of blogging in particular.

He begins by noting the growing importance of blogging in theological education and asks an important question:

What does it mean for theology when blogs go mainstream – when blogging is no longer just a fringe activity, but a practice woven into the fabric of students’ theological formation? (48)

He goes on to use Foucault’s “technologies of the self” to address the formative nature of communicative media. With respect to writing in general, he says, “You write in order to mold and transform yourself. With such writing, it is not the content that matters so much as the mere act, the askesis of writing. You record yourself, write yourself, publish yourself” (53). Thus, blogging in particular “is not merely a medium, a channel through which information is communicated. It is fundamentally a practice, a work that cultivates particular ways of being and particular forms of human sociality” (53).

The latter half of the essay focuses on five specific ways in which blogging is shaping theological discourse:

  1. Speed and Flexibility: I appreciate his comments here on the fact that theological blogging is more tentative than traditional theology. I still struggle with this. Academic writing is so focused on producing polished and final-form writing, that it’s difficult to appreciate the strengths of a more free-form and tentative mode of discourse. But, it is a tremendous strength when ideas can be articulated and explored in community, rather than trying to work everything out on your own before making them known. In this way, blogging takes the best that academic conferences have to offer, but makes it available year round.
  2. Scope and Participation: Everyone recognizes the increased participation that comes with Web 2.0, but I especially liked his argument that blogging increases the range of topics a person is willing/able to address (scope). I know I’ve written on this blog about things that I never would have felt qualified to write about in another forum.
  3. Reading Together: Here, Ben connects blogging to the ancient practice of reading in community. I like it.
  4. Individualization and Coolness: In this section, Ben offers his strongest warnings about the possible drawbacks of theological blogging. He’s particularly concerned about the danger of developing theological niche communities isolated from other perspectives and seeking to “fit in” with the normative perspective of the community.
  5. Play and Irony: The playfulness of theological blogging has certainly been one of my personal favorites. I’m sure it gets us all into trouble at times, but that’s part of the fun too.

The article concludes with the hopeful note that theological blogging might lead to theology becoming “a somewhat friendlier discipline” (60). I would have liked to see Ben engage more the possible drawbacks and potentially negative effects of Web 2.0 on theological discourse, and I think we can all point to examples where theological blogging was anything but friendly. But, at its best, theological blogging does lead to the “community, inquisitiveness, and open conversation” vital to good theology.

This is an excellent article for understanding the formative nature of writing and the impact that blogging is having on theological discourse and education.

Viral Churches – multiplying church growth through church planting networks

Many thanks to Wiley for providing me with a review copy of Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers by Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird.

The central argument of Viral Churches is that church planting alone is not enough to accomplish the mission of growing the church so that it reaches every people group and every slice of society in every country. We need “church multiplication movements,” movements capable of sweeping across entire countries.

Stetzer and Bird begin by explaining what they mean by “multiplication” and how it relates to church planting (chapters 1-3). According to them:

“A church multiplication movement is a rapid reproduction of churches planting churches, measured by a reproduction rate of 50 percent through the third generation of churches, with new churches having 50 percent new converts.” (5)

So, church multiplication is more than just church planting. It is church planting that is also intentional about building multiplication into the DNA of the new churches so that they go on to plant churches of their own. And, they argue that only this kind of aggressive multiplication will provide the growth that the church needs to be faithful to its mission.

“To achieve such momentum, churches would need to plant, on average, a new church every two years with each church reaching at least half of its attendees from the unchurched community.” (116)

And they point to examples demonstrating that such growth is possible. Church multiplication, then, is “the much-needed alternative to inward-focused or addition-based church planting”(6).

From here, Stetzer and Bird discuss successful church planting and building church-planting DNA into new churches (chapters 4-7). They argue that the best predictors of success in church planting lie in recruitment (attracting the best people), assessment (making sure they’re a good fit for church planting), and deployment (getting them to the right places). They also discuss the importance of quality training and effective networks/mentoring for church planters.

Chapters 8-10 focus on assessing several other strategies for building the church: house churches, multi-site churches, and big, rapidly-growing churches. They do a nice job identifying the strengths of each approach along with some significant weaknesses.

The last few chapters are a bit of a hodgepodge. Chapter 11 discusses the role of funding in church planting. According to them, the research suggests that networks and denominations should fund qualified church planters, but that too much funding creates dependency and undermines creativity. Chapter 12 argues that we need new “scorecards” for assessing church health, ones that emphasize spiritual vitality and church multiplication. And chapter 13 offers a nice assessment of obstacles to developing these kinds of church multiplication movements, along with proposed solutions.

Overall, the book is worth reading at least for its statistical information and for Stetzer and Bird’s familiarity with what significant churches and church planting networks are doing today. I also appreciated the emphasis on building missional DNA into churches from the very beginning. We tend to forget that what we teach first tends to stick best. When we focus on developing stability and maturity at the beginning of a church plan, we often communicate inadvertently that these are our highest values. And, they offer a number of good suggestions for what contributes to successful church planting.

I do have a few criticisms. First, I always find it annoying when someone claims that their approach to ministry is “just the way they did it in the Bible.” Stop it. We all say that. And we’re all wrong (to an extent). The first century church operated in an entirely different context. We cannot and should not try to do ministry exactly the way they did. We should learn from them, of course. But simple emulation is not going to cut it. And, Stetzer and Bird also miss the fact that church planting had to be the approach of the early church. There weren’t any churches. So, of course they went around planting them. We can’t simplistically move from they did X to we should do X. It’s going to take a bit more nuance than that.

I was also troubled by a subtle pragmatism throughout the book. They repeatedly referred to things we should do because they work, with little reflection on whether we should do them. For example, they emphasized the importance of planting churches in micro-groups (niche groups, slices of society, etc.) because socially focused church plants grow faster. But this, of course, bypasses a whole raft of concerns about whether this is the best way to be the church in the world. Pragmatism cannot be the driving force of ecclesiology, though it often is.

Third, they expressed an oddly ambivalent attitude toward educating church planters. They repeatedly emphasized the importance of training church planters and even stated at one point that “We need more seminary-trained church planters” (116). Yet, they routinely highlighted the accomplishments of “unpaid local amateurs” (53), who did not have “university degrees” (55), and they associated seminary training with the rise of stagnant institutionalization in the church (171). This ambiguity may stem from their argument that we need “two tracks” in church planting: the more established, well-funded, trained, and professional church planter and the amateur. They seem to think that the first is important, but they really went out of their way to highlight the success and importance of the latter.

Finally, I wasn’t excited about their approach to discipleship. They clearly believe that discipleship – or, more appropriately, leadership development – is a vital aspect of the church’s mission. But, they say very little about how we make sure that this happens in the context of a rapidly growing and highly decentralized movement. They seem to think that quality formation will simply happen if we’re preparing people to multiply new churches. But, that just isn’t the case. There’s far more to spiritual formation than just the leadership skills necessary to grow a movement. Evangelicalism will remain “a mile wide and an inch deep” as long as this is our exclusive focus for growing churches.

To conclude, then, Viral Churches is very helpful for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary church planting movement, offering some good thoughts for how and why we need to continue moving forward in accomplishing the church’s mission. Despite some significant drawbacks, it would definitely serve as a useful starting-point for a discussion on the nature and mission of the church in the world today.

(Wiley books are available at your local bookstore or by calling 1-800-225-5945. In Canada call 1-800-567-4797.) (They told me I had to say that.)