Is this the future? We think so
Traditional seminary has a place, but increasingly it’s too expensive, too inflexible, too prone to questionable doctrine, too focused on maintaining the machine, and too divorced from the local church. We offer the following propositions about the future of theological training in North America:
- The best preparation for pastoral ministry is to actually be invested in the life and ministry of a church and its pastor.
- While there might be a place for training in traditional seminary molds, it makes little sense to take young men with initiative and Gospel zeal and commit them to a 3-year academic incubator with only cursory attachment to local churches, pastors, and lost people.
- The cost of traditional seminary education is prohibitive and potentially catastrophic for young men who might graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of debt because of their education loans. Consider, for example, that the average price per credit hour for tuition among 31 major US seminaries is $452.50, which at 84 total hours for an M.Div program
is $38,010 (source: seminarycomparison.com)!
- Rigorous academic theological study can take place to great effect if a student is driven, has a mentor, and is surrounded by a cadre of thoughtful pastors and other students willing to invest in him with the fruits of their own study.
…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.
-Dr. Al Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
I cannot help but mention my conviction that this problem is partly the result of our present system for training theologians. To qualify for college or seminary positions, a theologian must earn a PhD, ideally from a prestigious liberal university. But at such schools, there is no training in the kind of systematic theology I describe here. Liberal university theologians do not view Scripture as God’s Word, and so they cannot encourage theology as I have defined it, as the application of God’s infallible word. Students are welcome to study historical and contemporary theology, and to relate these to auxiliary disciplines such as philosophy and literary criticism. But they are not taught to seek ways of applying Scripture for the edification of God’s people. Rather, professors encourage the student to be “up-to-date” with current academic discussion and to make “original contributions” to the discussion, out of his autonomous reasoning. So when the theologian finishes his graduate work and moves to a teaching position, even if he is personally evangelical in his convictions, he often writes and teaches as he was encouraged to do in graduate school: academic comparisons and contrasts, minimal interaction with Scripture.
In my judgment, this is entirely inadequate for the needs of the church. It is one source of the doctrinal declension of evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries in our day. Evangelical denominations and schools need to seek new methods of training people to teach theology, educational models that will force theologian candidates to mine Scripture for edifying content. To do this, they may need to cut themselves off, in some degree, from the present-day academic establishment. And to do that, they may have to cut themselves off from the present-day accreditation system.
-Dr. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God p.278 n.6 (emphasis ours)
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.
-Dr. Richard Pratt, Third Millennium Ministries and former chair of Old Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary