Seminaries are changing in our time. Some have called theological education a “troubled industry,” and many trends support this analysis. As ecclesial patterns shift, seminaries are becoming more nimble in addressing the cultural marginalization of congregations. More important than ever, seminaries provide contexts to explore the deepest human questions and equip faithful shepherds to guide scattering flocks. We are becoming more global, more personal, and more horizonal.
I believe that theological education is nothing less than a response to the Great Commission:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations.
Baptize them in the name of the Triune God:
the Only Begotten,
the Holy Spirit.
Teach them to carry out
everything I have commanded you.
And know that I am with you always,
even until the end of the world.
Our navigating forebears feared that they might sail off the edge of the world; now we view the beautiful round earthly home from space — or at least 35,000 feet up as we find shortcuts over the North Pole to get to Southeast Asia. Yet global means far more than the shape of our planet. It is the recognition that our time is the most technologically connected, economically interdependent, and anthropologically contested.
When a seminary describes itself as global, it is a clear recognition that God is at work throughout the world and that we benefit from participating in the larger reality of global Christianity. There was a time in the colonial period when mission meant Europe and North Americans exported culture along with faith, often with little respect for the dignity and mores of those being evangelized. Missionaries traveled on the same ships as traders of the East India Company. Still today, indigenous leaders hold the missionary legacy in high regard even as they long for a more contextual expression of their faith.
The scholarly and ministry trade routes now move in both directions, and the gospel takes root in the unique soil of other cultures and is thereby contextually appropriate. The gospel cannot remain a “potted plant” from the West, as some view it. It must engage the animism and Buddhism it encounters in Myanmar, for example, or respect the Confucianism that underlies the continuous pursuit of learning for Korean students.
Theological schools are learning that people are on the move throughout the world; we are learning of the challenge to religious liberty in many contexts; we are learning how cultural concerns shape ecclesiology. We are learning what it means to be global in the Body of Christ as we try respond to the Risen Christ’s commission.
Theological education is personal. Every learner has value; every one bears the image of God and is suffused with the Holy Breath of God. We all desire to be known and encouraged in our unique embodiment of humanity.
Faculty members excel in knowing students and forming them as good ministers of Christ Jesus, attempting to teach everything we have learned from Jesus. The character they bear shapes learners, and their graceful imprint endures.
As technologically enhanced theological education grows, some fear this would make it impossible to form true community and that the personal touch would be lost. Good pedagogy transcends distance and deep connections ensue. They can “call them by name.”
Most of us live on our screens, and if it cannot be accessed here, it is not relevant. We are learning how to make theological education accessible and personal at the same time. It does make possible “going into all the world.”
Further, personal means guided discernment. Seminaries are discovering the significance of coaching and mentoring. Students learn of their gifts as others receive them; they explore their vocational direction with reliable guides.
Horizonal may not be a word you use regularly. It often gets changed to “horizontal” with that affliction we call “autocorrect.” (It once changed Buddhist to Nudist in a blog I wanted to post — thankfully it was caught!) Horizonal means to see beyond the present, to look beyond the present horizon for what comes next. Leadership is about seeing what it coming before it is here, anticipating how we will need to change ahead of time.
Horizonal also bears a theological meaning. It trusts that our times are in God’s hands, even as we believe God assists us in securing the future. We have a clue to all that will be because Christ has risen. Resurrection is the impulse of the gospel, and God is making all things new.
A theological school must live by the faith it confesses. Schools cannot flourish without trusting God to empower us to be faithful to our mission and to provide the resources needed to sustain our vocation. The promise of the Great Commission, “Lo, I am with you always,” encourages those leading frail institutions.
Our opportunity, indeed our calling, is to live into the best days, the present and future days of the church and theological education, moving forward faithfully with global perspectives, personal attentiveness, and horizonal preparation — grateful for every blessing.