Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Following the Needs of the Churches

In a recent address in Minnesota, Bradley Longfield, dean of the University of Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary, said the church needs “to find new and creative ways to train leadership.”  Of course, the church expects seminaries to provide this leadership, Longfield observed, and the seminaries have often been slow to respond.

Longfield pointed out, “The future seems to be breaking in much more quickly than most of us would like.”  Just as the church was slow to embrace the use of radio and television to further its mission, so the church and its institutions have been slow to embrace the Internet and digital technology for ministry.  They have been committed to an older way to delivering ministry and ambivalent about trying new approaches.
The reluctance to change on the part of seminaries should not be a surprise to anyone.  Churches have long looked to theological institutions to teach not only the faith but to be gatekeepers for those qualified for ministry.  They have been considered the keepers of the heritage.  Although this feeling may not have been as strong for those with a congregational polity such as Baptists, in most circles education was respected and scholars were honored.  This is attested to by the number of schools, colleges, and seminaries founded by Baptists in the 18 and 19th centuries.  Just as the monasteries of old, the colleges and seminaries of the church were seen as solid, trustworthy institutions with a commitment to biblical and theological foundations as well as the traditions of the church.  They were the “keepers of the faith.”
This is no longer true.  As churches struggle to prove themselves credible in contemporary culture, they have often looked beyond the theological institutions that they spawned for new insight and leadership.  In so doing, some have made good choices and others have failed miserably.
This provides new opportunities for theological institutions.  They have the resources that are needed by the churches and must find new ways to share them.  As Longfield said, “Seminaries are going to follow the needs of the church.”  The contemporary climate calls for innovation and creativity.  Without sacrificing academic integrity and competent scholarship, many institutions such as Longfield’s and Central Baptist Theological Seminary welcome the challenge and are seeking ways to prepare leaders for the churches, denominations, and other faith communities.

This is a time of great opportunity--not a time of fear but of hope.

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