Theological education continues to face challenges. Some are tied to finances, but there are other factors as well—demographic, sociological, cultural, and theological. As I work with the faculty and staff at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, I am impressed by their ability to turn challenges into opportunity. They continue to develop creative ways to form students for ministry.
If a graduate theological institution hopes to be viable in the 21st century, its leaders must examine their paradigm, look at the context, and consider the next steps in the formation of ministers. What are some of those steps?
Distance learning is one strategy that many institutions have already embraced. Most seminaries now offer portions of their curriculum online or in satellite centers. There are many ways of doing this, and the Association of Theological Schools (the accrediting agency for graduate theological education) is blessing this new approach.
Certainly, theological education is becoming more contextual. Field education or ministry praxis that joins classroom learning with “hands-on” ministry continues to be an important part of a student’s seminary studies, but contextual education may also mean setting up sites away from the seminary to offer courses or partnering with churches to educate staff and laity within the context of the congregation. This is taking theological education to the students rather than expecting students to come to the seminary.
Students are increasingly involved in cross-cultural experiences on a long-term or short-term basis. Spending time outside their own culture challenges ministry students to reexamine some of their presuppositions and become more open to learning a servanthood approach to mission.
Even in institutions with a strong denominational history, ministry preparation is much more ecumenical than in the past. This helps the school financially but it is also enriches the educational experience of all students. This recognizes the rich tradition of the Christian faith that is available to all believers.
There is also more of an interest in cross-disciplinary studies in theological education. Although this can take place more easily when the theological institution is connected to a university, this cross-pollination can also take place in a free-standing seminary among the theological disciplines or with the involvement of guest lecturers.
Some theological institutions see their future in interfaith education, developing programs that provide ministry formation for students from the major world religions—Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, for example—as well as Christians. Here again, this provides a broader educational experience for all students, but it may well be the most controversial of the steps outlined here.
Whatever happens in coming years, theological education is no longer static. It must evolve to respond to the mission of preparing Christian leaders for a changing context.