A great many in my tribe are currently preoccupied with speculation about the next four to eight years. That is understandable. Still, we evangelicals do seem particularly susceptible to shortsightedness. We’re often good at sprints, but rather poor when it comes to marathons.
Today, American culture is rife with acrimony and some of the most bitter polemics imaginable. Both the far right and the far left now operate on a vision of political engagement shaped by secularity, by which everything is politicized and all that seems to matter is politics. We have heard the siren song of the culture wars, which tell us that the answer to cultural deterioration is to fight harder against the trends of the day through public policy advocacy, political mobilization, or economic pressure.
To be blunt, we do not need more pastor-politicians. The Church can ill afford to surrender its prophetic witness, nor should it evade declaring the whole counsel of God. Fundamental questions of theological anthropology, human flourishing, and love of neighbor compel Christians in every generation to courageously and winsomely bear witness to the truth. From the eternal realities of sin and judgment and the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death, to the care of the poor, the stewardship of God’s creation, and the rightful ordering of human sexuality—the truths of our faith will necessarily reverberate in the political realm. Still, we must remember that the Church’s role is different from the state’s. Pastors should be more concerned with forming consciences than with passing legislation.
Christian nationalism—whether from the right or the left—represents a Faustian bargain. It may offer a quick fix of power, reassurance, or apparent victory, but the devil always comes to collect. In the end, what is surrendered is infinitely more costly. We must not turn our churches into social clubs that simply echo secular culture, to be sure, but neither should we ever allow access to political power or some short-lived sense of electoral victory to cloud our ethical and moral witness.
Seminaries can and must help the Church resist both of these temptations. If seminaries equip their students with the resources necessary to interpret the times—and help them learn to identify the underlying theological dynamics at play in these cultural skirmishes—when they are pastors, those graduates will be able to teach their congregants to do the same.
More Theology, Not Less
As Glenn Miller recounts in his history of American theological education—Piety and Profession: American Protestant Theological Education, 1870-1970—thanks to professionalization of American clergy in the twentieth century, clergy are now expected to demonstrate appropriate credentials to legitimize their qualifications. It is no coincidence that the Master of Divinity was fashioned in the context of post–World War II America. This degree provided institutions and students with a rather defined course of study that would be commensurate with other professional degree programs in higher education (whether in business or law) complete with the accreditation of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), which was founded in 1918. This curriculum brought with it, in turn, the need for faculty in the necessary fields, along with their own advanced credentials, earned through some form of specialized doctoral program.
All of this worked rather well throughout much of the twentieth century. Seminary students could expect to graduate with some basic proficiency in the biblical languages, Christian theology, Church history, pastoral care, and homiletics. While the categories have evolved, the M.Div. has remained relatively unchanged. Some institutions have shortened the overall length of the program or rearranged some of the curricular elements. But the M.Div. is still the M.Div.
We have no way of knowing where the cultural tides are pulling us, but it does seem clear that we are inhabiting a vastly different cultural context from the one in which the M.Div. was forged. For one thing, the social capital attached to ministerial vocations has greatly diminished. The assumption that institutions can count on enrollment because there is a broad consensus about what is required for “admission to the guild,” is long gone. Furthermore, the acids of modernity (to borrow from Walter Lippmann) have corroded the cultural and religious consensus that the M.Div. presupposed. In particular, the M.Div. degree was constructed on the assumption that entering students would already have some basic biblical literacy, and that their undergraduate programs would have provided them with some introduction to studies in the humanities that would inform their theological education.
To say that we live in different times seems to be an understatement of epic proportions. Seminarians now arrive with very little prior theological knowledge and very poor biblical literacy. Their undergraduate programs reflect the seismic shifts in American higher education and the hollowing out of the liberal arts from our colleges and universities. Thus, seminary faculty are faced with a rather daunting task.
I recount all of this to suggest that the next generation will need a curriculum that gives them deeper theological literacy. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that the Master of Divinity degree should be lengthened (to the relief of my own students, I am sure). But if institutions intend to prove resilient in the years ahead, they would do well to evaluate whether their degree programs are providing students with the curriculum that is required: one that forms the intellectual, ethical, and theological infrastructure necessary for a lifetime of effective ministry. There is far more to faithful Christian ministry than theology and doctrine, but there is not less.
True Spiritual Formation, Even Under Pressure
Seminary educators would do well to consider the context into which our graduates will enter as they begin their ministries. If the social pressures against historic Christianity do increase—as I expect they will—pastors and ministers will need a deeper doctrinal foundation, one that enables them to effectively catechize and instruct congregations embedded in a neo-pagan West.
Pressure has a revelatory power. This is true in all facets of life, but perhaps we are especially aware right now of the ways in which social and cultural pressure brings to the fore our own institutional and personal deficiencies. The strains of the past year, and the years leading up to it, have made me aware of a growing number of pastors who are burning out, dropping out, or even failing out due to moral failure. The reasons for this are many, I am sure. But there does seem to be a thread connecting many of these cases.
What if, in our efforts to ensure transmission of historic orthodoxy—the “faith once for all delivered to the saints”—we have neglected the ways in which the human soul is shaped and reshaped by the rhythms of divine grace? What if we have lost sight of what older generations referred to as “experiential religion,” that recognition that doctrine is meant to lead to warm devotion? What if concern for “piety” is now a relic of the past? What if thoughtful spiritual formation and honest reckoning with the complexities of our own emotional health have been neglected in our seminaries?
You don’t have to speculate too much. Our generation is plagued by a valorization of narcissism that has bled into our churches. The sexual revolution has left in its wake countless men and women as its carnage, including many in vocational ministry. And that’s to say nothing of the cult of celebrity that has infected so much of contemporary evangelicalism.
But the way of the cross is one that runs contrary to the way of the world. It’s the one that still calls to those who would follow the risen Christ, demanding that we would pick up our own cross and follow him. It is the path of suffering more often than not. It is a call to journey as strangers and sojourners in between the times. It is, in ways both glorious and terrifying, a path that calls us to be ruthlessly honest about our own weakness, failing, and sin because repentance is the way toward redemption.
We simply cannot afford to graduate a generation of seminarians who love theology more than they love God himself. We do not serve our churches if our graduates love to “engage the culture” but are indifferent to the suffering around them. We perpetuate a scandalous chasm between creed and deed if we send out a generation of pastors and leaders who will simply use the Christian ministry as a vehicle for their own agendas and worldly ambitions.
Seminaries are not alone in this task. Local churches are the most essential community in shaping the character and soul dynamics of future leaders. But theological seminaries are an especially powerful institution, with a unique capacity to give future ministers the ability to run the long course of Christian ministry in an age that will surely exert tremendous pressures upon them in ways we can barely imagine.
A Global Perspective for the Future
Christians declare that we do indeed believe in “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” While different Christian traditions may parse that portion of the Apostles’ Creed differently, we all agree on the reality of Christ’s universal Church.
Christians have long understood that this shared identity does not negate our temporal identities, nor erase the significance of nationality and earthly citizenship. We are physical creatures who dwell in space and time. Christian ministry occurs within particular local communities, each with its own challenges and pressures. Any faithful minister will be attuned to those and seek to labor faithfully within the little corner of the world into which the Lord has placed them.
Yet our vision of the Kingdom of Christ transcends our local communities. Those who are called to Christian ministry are called to care for real people, each one of them preparing to die. Each one of them waiting in faith for a heavenly city. Each one of them seeking to journey faithfully with the risen Christ even now in this world. Our calling as ministers is to lift their eyes and shape their conscience according to what God’s Word says to be eternal and enduring. By virtue of union with Christ, the people of God are not defined by space and time. The Church universal is a global people, a new tribe.
This reality presents contemporary theological education with both great challenges and great opportunities. Whether through expanded online education or the complex dynamics of globalization, seminaries now have an unprecedented ability to engage with the global Church. We may discover opportunities for partnership with networks of Christians who share a concern for faithful theological education. We can also encounter Christians who are faithful even under suffering and persecution, putting into perspective our own experience in this new decade of American life.
In North America, historic Christianity will increasingly find itself pushed to the margins in the years to come. We dare not be naïve about the cost involved or the accompanying challenges. There is no inherent virtue in the romanticization of being a pariah. Yet Christian people and institutions are marked by hope. We have every confidence that the risen Christ is ruling over the cosmos now, even as we await the consummation of all things in Him.