Monday, November 15, 2010

Do we still need seminaries?

This might seem like an odd question to some, but it is finding voice more and more. I am told that there is a growing number of churches that are eschewing seminary training and opting instead to do it in-house. Rather than send people off to study with someone, well, like myself, some church leaders prefer to keep their people and their money at home.

This seems to be a particularly popular idea in the so-called mega-churches. These are congregations with the numbers and means to plant and grow their own churches without the assistance of a formal denominational affiliation or an accredited seminary. Sometimes they consider the outcome of seminary to be less than helpful. Other times they just prefer to keep their members close to home.

I wonder, though, what the long term effects of such a practice will be? Within a very short period of time it seems that if all education is accomplished within the confines of one church, or church movement, the danger of theological inter-breeding quickly surfaces. To what degree are these "students" being exposed to the wide variety of the0logical thought that exists? Are they learning about the various movements in church history or only their own particular and probably short lived history? Are they learning why it is important not to harmonize the Gospels and do they know about the important advancements in Pauline studies that have resulted from the New Perspective? Can they use Greek and Hebrew and can they articulate some of the more important theological doctrines?

I could go on. The fact is, however, I don't know the answer to any of these questions. I only know that I keep hearing about this trend, but I have yet to actually meet someone from one of these churches.

I would certainly agree that all theological educators need to think harder about what and how we teach our students. The old residential model of theological education is quickly dying. But I am not convinced that what we have to offer is no longer relevant.

I am curious.
  1. If you are someone that has opted not to go to seminary then tell me why.
  2. If you did choose to go to seminary tell me why.
  3. What are we doing right and what can we do better?
  4. What are we not giving you that you need?
  5. I would be keen to hear from people outside the USA as well.


  1. John,

    An excellent post. I too think seminary is still quite relevant, but from where I stand involved in a declining mainline denomination, more and more of our churches are declining and moving from full-time pastors to part-time or from ordained clergy to licensed local pastors whose salaries are less and who are not required to go to seminary, but get some basic theological anbd biblical education "in-house" in what is called "The Course of Study."

    So, the question of seminary is more and more becoming just as much a pragmatic concern in a season of decline as a theological problem as well.

  2. I absolutely believe seminary is still needed; students need to interact with those of different Christian traditions, different political views, different geographical locations, etc. As one who has lived in several states, and another country, stepping out of one's immediate context for a while is an invaluable experience. And there is absolutely nothing that can substitute for time spent under the tutelage of those who are passionate about their field of study and have spent several years honing their skills and gifts to the glory of God.

    I also think the way seminary is done needs to change pretty drastically; predominantly residential, white European male colonialist curriculum is far too narrow to meet the needs of a growing Church (which is growing in non-European nations more than anywhere else). This will require a great deal of growth on the part of those currently involved in providing seminary education--growth beyond assumptions, comfort-levels and current expertise.

    From where I sit, seminaries are well aware of this and are looking for new ideas and methods to meet the needs of the Church now, not thirty years ago. But it is a daunting challenge.

    I recently came across a quote from an avant garde 20th century philosopher named Eric Hoffer: "In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

    That has caused me to think a little...I am by no means an expert; these are just my thoughts and observations, having spent a few years in the seminary world...

  3. I think it is very relevant to have a seminary education. Primarily to have our embedded theology challenged and to find the truth.

    I attend a mega church that has it's own training. Even though I agree with what they are teaching, it is still like job training and teaching students THEIR form of theology and beliefs as opposed to a student exploring their own theology in a challenging environment. To challenge their program maybe interpreted as challenging the church.

    A seminary education, in my opinion, teaches the student how to think theology. It offers students a space to study and challenge theologies from many different people.

    In-house programs that I was considering was just going to teach me how to apply THEIR theology in the community and in their congregation.

    Not every seminary program is perfect. I attend Ashland Theological Seminary, and I wish they they had courses or programs in social justice and liberation. However, I plan to study those myself on my own time. I say that to say an in-house education program won't give me the skills I need to research, analyze and study on my own.

    I'm not a big fan of in-house, but, churches seem to want to push out pastors in their own image which I feel will reduce diversity of thought in the church.

    Jamaal Bell

    Twitter @jamaalbell

  4. It's interesting because as I applied for jobs as worship leader/Director of Worship I ran into a fact that I knew would be the case... I am far more educated than most were simply looking for (probably why I did get hired at a mainline church). The reality is, even with my current position, I probably could have done it without the education I received at seminary already having a degree in music as well as having grown up in the church (and in a pastor's family nonetheless).

    But the truth that I communicate to people when they ask why I went to seminary (because it seems most people also are aware of this fact that I did not HAVE to go to seminary) is that I would not be doing respect to God's calling on my life to serve in vocational ministry if I did not get the training and knowledge I acquired through seminary.

    True I may not be preaching every week, or finding much "need" to translate passages from their original language... but I find my worship leading is stronger and enriched due to what I have learned. I think about what I say in front of the congregation... I read these contemporary songs with a more critical eye (and even some hymns) making sure we are singing what we believe not only as a congregation, but as orthodox Christians in general.

    Andrew Gifford

  5. Hi Prof Byron,
    I am lecturing in Malaysia Theological Seminary, in Old Testament Studies. Wondering what prompt you to comment Theological Education is dying. For us in Asia (of course inc Malaysia), seminary is the place to train pastors, full time church workers, and future faculty members. Some potentials are sent overseas to have post-grad exposure in order to bring back more scholarly approach to our subjects.
    Some churches here in Malaysia prefer not to send people to seminary because they think they can do better back in church (assuming what is taught in seminary is mere theoretical). Some ecclesiastical differences (e.g. acc. to denominations)and theological assumptions (spirit-filled vs dead doctrines) are embedded. But, as you have mentioned above, they have missed out quite substantially the real exposure to wholistic theological training.
    Elaine Goh (pen-name Sharon)

  6. Sharon,

    I should note that I think the dying is taking place in Western nations. My colleagues here and elsewhere recognize and celebrate the growth of theological education outside of the west. We are excited about the contributions being made and look forward to seeing how Asia and other parts of the world will impact us in the future. Keep up the good work!