Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the first of a two-part series.
It hasn’t been a secret for nearly a decade that Christian theological education faces some very difficult challenges. Some of these are well documented. Over the last 30 years or so, the number of accredited theological schools has more than doubled. Independent evangelical churches have sought to reassess and, in some cases, expand the educational qualifications of their pastors by creating their own theological schools and remaining independent from established denominational seminaries and older non-denominational schools.
Yet over the last 20 years, there has been both a decline in applications for graduate-level theological education and a shift away from the Master of Divinity to shorter and more focused degree and certificate programs. These changes are driven by shifts in the understanding of Christian vocation, membership declines in mainline denominations, and the leveling of growth among independent evangelical churches.
Beneath these readily observable changes are tectonic changes in the understanding of how Christian communities are formed and live out their ministries and the growing demand for creative and innovative leadership. The artifacts of 20th century Christianity are readily observable in the form of buildings dedicated to the church, both large and small. And they still provide a model of visible Christian presence in a community. However, what these buildings house may not look like the church of their founders and obscures the existence of countless new Christian communities with no ties to either the physical or the political structures of earlier forms of Christianity.
Finally, the social and cultural setting in which churches and their leaders carry out their mission is also rapidly changing. Secularization and the rise of the “nones” are only fragments of these changes. Less noticed is that the cultural complexity of US society is both more visible and growing. The result is that diversity in social settings and organizations has become normal rather than exceptional even as Christian churches obstinately regard multi-cultural ministries as exceptional rather than normal. As importantly the shift into what is being generally called the 2nd Machine Age and the rise of “gig economy” promises to disrupt long-standing economic structures, increase unemployment, decrease wages, and turn on its head the long-standing association of human value with productivity and efficiency in American culture.
COVID 19 is only exacerbating the already developing fault lines in our culture. Humans isolated from work become vastly more dependent on Artificial Intelligences that manage both our online commerce and our communication networks. That same isolation is already accelerating development of AI technologies that replace humans in jobs that would otherwise pose a health risk to worker or customer. Robots are already replacing orderlies and cleaners in hospitals.
Our understanding of what it means to be human is changing. Yet neither theological schools nor churches have given significant attention to these changes and thus neither has an intelligible witness to the gospel in this context.
Yet just when research and reflection are most needed [just], these changes, coupled with declining financial resources and increasing desperation to create growing churches, undermine the traditional role of theological schools as centers of research in theology, Biblical interpretation, church history, and Christian ministry. Even if such research weren’t still focused on Enlightenment-era problems, as it often is, it has come to be seen as a luxury churches cannot afford as they seek pastors trained for immediately effective ministry rather than long term reflection. The concept of the pastor-theologian, which research seminaries were formed to foster, is giving way to the demand for pastor-entrepreneurs and pastor-managers that traditional seminaries are ill-equipped to meet.
And that is just in the US. In the global south where Christianity is growing rapidly, churches barely have the resources to adequately train pastors. At the same time, neither the content nor the pedagogy of Western theological training is particularly relevant or helpful. Merely exporting expertise from over-served to under-served schools is of little value and may, in fact, be toxic. In short, the rise of the global south has revealed how contextual, and limited in relevance, Western theological education really is.
Given these challenges, theological educators will need to reexamine the foundational values and purposes of their work. I would suggest that the critical values for the future will be: accessibility, cultural and situational contextualization, sustainability, and continuous partnership and dialogue.