The summer heat continues to swelter, but schools will soon begin their fall semesters with excitement over renewing acquaintances and learning new subjects. Seminaries will brim with students called to serve God with energy and passion according to the unique gifts he has entrusted to them.
But for many new students, seminary won't be exactly what they expected. Some want more practical guidance, others struggle to grasp new theological terms. Some struggle in the confines of a classroom, others never plan to leave. Meanwhile, sending churches and supportive spouses wonder what to make of the exotic new concepts their beloved student spends so much time researching. In time, everyone develops an opinion about what our seminaries could do differently to train ministers of the gospel. So with a new school year upon us, TGC turned to veteran professors and a president to ask: What one thing you would change about seminary education?
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky:
The privilege of teaching and training ministers for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is priceless. As we welcome new and returning students to our campuses, we should feel the glory, the weight, and the joy of this stewardship. There is just nothing like the beginning of a new academic year—everything seems infused with great promise.
But what one thing would I change? I would want to banish forever the idea that the mission of the theological seminary is to turn out newly minted professional ministers. Far too many Christians—and this includes many who should know better—think of the Christian ministry as a profession. Thus, they assume that a theological seminary is directly analogous to a medical school training physicians or a law school teaching those who will be attorneys. The idea that ministry is a profession is disastrous. The very idea of a profession is alien to the minister's calling. Central to the concept of a profession is the idea that there is an identifiable body of knowledge and a profile of expertise that, once mastered, renders the candidate a professional. But, as the New Testament makes clear, there are persons who can master such knowledge and acquire the skill set and yet never be called nor qualified for the Christian ministry.
There is a body of knowledge to be mastered and a set of ministerial skills and practices to be developed, of course, but these do not a minister make. The ministry is a calling, and the most important qualifications for the Christian ministry are spiritual. We must aim for something far higher than the preparation of professionals, and our real challenge goes far beyond knowledge and skills.
In a similar and equally important vein, I would remind us all that seminaries, even at their very best and most faithful, can only do so much. The local church is the most important school for ministry and the faithful pastor is the crucial professor. The seminaries that serve best will be those who understand this.
I'd make it more integrated.
We do some integration already (e.g., Greek exegesis on book X while taking a homiletics course and preaching from book X; some emphases in the better spiritual formation groups). But I am thinking of other things, some of which are unrealistic, even utopian. To mention three in particular:
(1) an integrated curriculum. We control a bit of that with prerequisites, but if it were not for part-time students—students taking isolated courses here and there to fit into who knows what program—it would be able to develop a highly integrated M.Div. curriculum;
(2) develop faculty who are passionate about an integrated curriculum, where Bible and theology are genuinely at the center. Far too many specialisms are taught by teachers with a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible and theology, so much so they do not even recognize the shortfall. So it could only be addressed by required (and school-sponsored) remedial theology / biblical theology courses.
(3) close integration with an expanding apprenticeship program in our best churches, led by pastors who believe in theological education but who will also train our M.Div. graduates in relationships, spirituality, consistency, hands-on ministry, street smarts.
As I say, utopian.
We should teach a course on the understanding and centrality of the gospel to every entering seminarian, then build upon that understanding in the theological, canonical, historical, and practical ministry courses. Too often there is no course on the gospel given in seminary, or it is an elective, or it is a subject relegated to a class on evangelism. This subject should be front and center, and everything else we study should be tied to it and flow from it.
If I were king and could wave my magical scepter, I would radically change the basic agenda of seminary.
After 22 years of teaching in a seminary, I slowly began to realize something. We were not preparing the kinds of leaders that evangelical churches in North America need. Let's face it; evangelicalism has seen better days. God is at work in many places and in many ways, but on the whole, the news is not good. Our numbers are dwindling; our theology is unraveling; our zeal for Christ is dissipating. Now more than ever, we need seminaries to give the church leaders who are empowered by the Spirit for radical, sacrificial devotion to Christ and his kingdom. And they'd better do it quickly.
I was recently in China, talking with the president of a house church network of more than 1 million people. He asked me for advice on preparing the next generation of pastors. I looked at him and said, "The only thing I know is what you should not do." He smiled and asked, "What's that?" My reply surprised him. "You should not do what we have done in the West. The results of that approach have become clear."
The agenda of evangelical seminaries is set primarily by scholars. Professors decide how students will spend their time; they determine students' priorities; they set the pace. And guess what. Scholars' agenda seldom match the needs of the church.
Can you imagine what kind of soldiers our nation would have if basic training amounted to reading books, listening to lectures, writing papers, and taking exams? We'd have dead soldiers. The first time a bullet wizzed past their heads on the battlefield, they'd panic. The first explosion they saw would send them running. So, what is basic training for the military? Recruits learn the information they need to know, but this is a relatively small part of their preparation. Most of basic training is devoted to supervised battle simulation. Recruits are put through harrowing emotional and physical stress. They crawl under live bullet fire. They practice hand to hand combat.
If I could wave a magic scepter and change seminary today, I'd turn it into a grueling physical and spiritual experience. I'd find ways to reach academic goals more quickly and effectively and then devote most of the curriculum to supervised battle simulation. I'd put students through endless hours of hands-on service to the sick and dying, physically dangerous evangelism, frequent preaching and teaching the Scriptures, and days on end of fasting and prayer. Seminary would either make them or break them.
Do you know what would happen? Very few young men would want to attend. Only those who had been called by God would subject themselves to this kind of seminary. Yet they would be recruits for kingdom service, not mere students. They would be ready for the battle of gospel ministry.