Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Time for Fresh Ideas

In a recent blog entitled “Low Wages, Student Debt, and 'The Call:' Financing Seminary Education,” LeAnn Snow Flesher put this entire ongoing discussion in context.  Flesher is not an outsider to theological education but serves as Academic Dean/CAO and Professor of Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West at The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

I agree with Flesher that at the core of the issue is the changing concept of “church” and what people expect from a faith community.  From my perspective, this has not happened overnight and is the result of several factors.

First, since the 1960s traditional forms of authority have been questioned.  Initially, politicians came under fire (often for good cause—think Richard Nixon), then it was corporations, and then religious leaders (plenty of scandals to go around here). 

Second, the church growth emphasis helped to build a consumer mentality so that people became more concerned about “religious goods and services” than spiritual devotion and formation.  Consumers go where their needs of met, and they decide what their needs are.  Today, it is not unusual for a person to state that he or she is a member of a particular denominational church but attends another faith community on a regular basis—a megachurch, a house church, or a community Bible study group.

Third, the idea of what a church is began to change.  Megachurches provided well-executed and planned worship experiences, preaching focused on personal growth, and dynamic leadership.  People began to discover “the church in the home” and similar organic structures.  Young adults found that spiritual truth cut across denominational lines as well and time and space, so they created the “emerging church” movement.  During this time of revolution, most denominations tried to do the same old thing but put more energy into it with declining results.

Fourth, the leaders of these new forms of church were often self-taught or mentored by other leaders with little or not formal theological education.  They favored “just in time” learning and studied under business and communication leaders as well as experienced ministers.  Results were the primary concern and theological depth was sometimes sacrificed for enthusiasm.

Fifth, social service agencies and social entrepreneurs began tackling problems that the churches once addressed and often did this work in a more effective way.  These creative persons combined business expertise and compassion in order to meet human need.  And they did it outside denominational and congregational structures.

Flesher says, “[T]he church is in trouble; theological education is in trouble.”  She readily admits that this can also be said about U.S. education in general but this is outside the scope of her blog.  She suggests, “It’s time for some entrepreneurial ministerial work! This work cannot be done by one group, but must come from the collect. It must flow out of the grassroots movements if it is going to speak to and meet the needs of the population.”

The conversation is underway and it is one that must include not only academics and denominational leaders but laity, local clergy leaders, and potential students as well.  Welcome to the conversation!

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