Maintaining Relevance

Seminary leaders discuss what their schools are doing to keep their schools pertinent to today’s church and a changing world.

Much has changed in the arena of seminary education over the past several years. Yes, most seminaries still teach Greek and Hebrew along with the staples of traditional seminary curriculum such as theology, Bible, and church history. But this should not mask the fact that theological seminaries have done some serious thinking about their fundamental purposes and goals.

No longer does the typical theological seminary take its existence for granted. Many have come to understand that their capacity to thrive—or in some cases just to survive—is based on perceptions of their relevance to the church and, in turn, to the world. The result of such thinking has been change, including new degree programs, adjustments to the curriculum, and alternative delivery systems built upon the technological revolution of the last decade or so.

For this article, separate interviews were conducted with representatives from four respected theological seminaries around the country: Haddon W. Robinson, Acting President, and Harold John Ockenga, Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA); Donald Brake, Dean of Multnomah Biblical Seminary (Portland, OR); Michael Palmer, Academic Dean at Regent University School of Divinity (Virginia Beach, VA); and Fred Messick, Associate Vice President for Public Affairs at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA). Interviews were conducted by Randall Frame, executive director of marketing and communication at Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, who is also a freelance writer living in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.


What are some of the major challenges currently facing the church and the world?

Michael Palmer: First, I want to affirm that the quest to remain relevant is itself a fundamental challenge facing both the church and theological seminaries.

Donald Brake: One challenge is the need to realize that we are in a different era. In a postmodern world, there’s a difference in how students perceive things and learn.

Michael Palmer: It’s certainly a challenge to know how to prepare and develop strong leaders who can minister within a complex, pluralistic, quasi-religious, and multi-focused world. We struggle with tensions between the scientific and nonscientific, between logical reasoning and intuition, between modernity and postmodernity, and between faith and non-faith. We wrestle with how to embrace a diversity of perspectives while remaining true to the intention of the Scriptures and the dynamic and ongoing work of the Spirit.

Donald Brake: In this era, it’s too simple to say that the goal of seminaries is to prepare leaders for the church. You have to ask, “Which church?” At least as far as the Western church is concerned, the church exists in three main forms. There is the “megachurch,” the “metaphorical church” (sometimes also labeled as the “emergent church”), and the “traditional church.” All three are important to the body of Christ. It’s a challenge to offer programs to prepare people for all three, but at Multnomah that’s what we are trying to do.

Haddon Robinson: Seminaries and churches alike are challenged by the realities of a pluralistic society that does not respect Christian faith. The evangelical church was once respected for taking the high road even by people who were not themselves religious. But now when we hold to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, we are demonized as bigots. When we raise legitimate questions about sexual orientation, we are regarded as unloving and prejudiced. So students have to learn how to speak the truth in love to a society that may be hostile to our basic values. To communicate effectively, they have to understand the culture, not merely the pop culture, but the deeper cultural trends of which pop culture is an expression.

Fred Messick: Both the church and seminaries must also address the challenges presented by globalization. In many parts of the world, the church is growing at an explosive rate, while other parts of the world seem increasingly disconnected from the church. Many more leaders are needed to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in a multitude of contexts, cultures, and languages.

How are your schools attempting to address these and other challenges

Fred Messick: One of the ways Fuller has responded to the need for leaders is by offering a Master of Arts in Global Leadership. This program allows existing leaders in ministry, mission, and parachurch organizations to earn an online degree, combined with two on-campus seminars.

Haddon Robinson: We address cultural and societal trends in our classes and also through numerous special lectures such as the Colson Lectures, named for one of our trustees, Chuck Colson. We bring people to our campuses to speak to a current issue and supply our entering students with books written by the lecturers. Throughout the year, our faculty members continue the discussion, leading follow-up dialogues on the issues raised.

Fred Messick: We have identified a need for new styles of worship, which led to the recent development of Fuller’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. It focuses on revitalizing Christian worship through studies of theology and film, music, dramatic arts, art and architecture, writing, preaching arts, and the study of the emerging church. Fuller also offers a Master of Arts in Worship, Theology, and the Arts, as well as other degree programs to help equip a new generation of Christian artists and church leaders to effectively integrate worship, theology, and the arts.

Michael Palmer: For Regent, the striving for relevance has meant in part making important connections with the emerging renewal movement, not only with classical Pentecostal groups, but with the charismatic community and with emerging models and with representatives of multiple perspectives on spiritual empowerment. Specifically, we have held colloquia on campus that contribute to important dialogues regarding women in church leadership, the unique perspectives of African American Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity, and the intersection of science and the Spirit (through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation). These emphases on women in leadership, African-American perspectives, and the place of science and Spirit are ongoing challenges within the global Christian community and in the current public marketplace.

Fred Messick: In response to growing numbers of youth and families in crisis, Fuller has established a Center for Youth and Family Ministry. It works in partnership with organizations such as World Vision, Young Life, Youth for Christ, Urban Youth Worker Institute, Youth Specialties, and the Christian Community Development Association to provide resources to address the needs of youth workers in local churches and parachurch  ministries.

Does the perception that seminaries no longer have relevance have any validity? Whether yes or no, what are your schools doing to combat this perception?

Donald Brake: I think the perception that seminaries are “missing the boat” may apply in some cases where institutions get so focused on the things we have learned and done in the past that we don’t stay up with society. Listening and responding to society is something we need to constantly be doing.

Haddon Robinson: Relevance is a tricky term. We do believe it is essential that people in the pulpit preach the content of the Bible. A sermon is not relevant merely because it speaks to some current issue or shows a film clip. It is relevant in the same way that bread is relevant to hunger and water is relevant to thirst. Cotton candy looks attractive but it is irrelevant to the deep nutritional needs of people. In our preaching courses, we insist that preachers have to speak from the Bible to the people caught on the barbed wire of life. The ultimate purpose of preaching is not merely to give out information. It is to change lives.

Donald Brake: At Multnomah, one of the keys to remaining relevant is a strong emphasis on internships. Our students are out in the church every semester. They see the problems that are in the church and then they bring them back to the classrooms where they can deal with them in an environment that helps them understand those problems. It’s important to note that students take internships at the same time they are taking theology and all their other classes, so that they can bounce any problems they see in the church off their professors.

Haddon Robinson: We have a counseling department that centers on the Bible, but endeavors to bring the Bible to bear on the specific hurts of Christians and non-Christians. This means that those in our counseling department really have to be citizens of two worlds. They need to know the Scriptures—the world of the Bible. But they also need to know the depth of what sin does in people’s lives. Sin hinders them from coping well with the voices in their society that would call them away from God. We believe that holiness is wholeness and God’s truth is health.

Fred Messick: Fuller offers extensive multicultural studies and degree pro-grams, and provides classes not only in English, but also in Korean and Spanish. We offer extensive research and programs focusing on Islam and other religions to help students prepare for ministries among people of different faiths—internationally and in the U.S. We also offer a new Master of Arts in Recovery Ministry to help churches address the growing need for ministries to persons with addictions. For students preparing to work with youth, Fuller offers an interdisciplinary Master of Arts in Youth, Family, and Culture. And for students focusing on ministering to families, Fuller offers a Master of Science in Marital and Family Therapy.

Michael Palmer: Relevance also has to do with being more accessible to those who want to learn. One term we use frequently at Regent is the word “contextual.” By this we mean that it is no longer practical to think that someone can uproot their family and move to a particular seminary campus. Specifically, we have considerably increased our focus and resources toward online distance education. More than fifty percent of our current students are classified as distance students. The seminary cannot disassociate itself from the digital age. Whether we like this idea or not, it is a reality and our challenge is how to be actively involved in cutting edge and non-traditional means of disseminating knowledge and skill for the multiple avenues of ministry that exist. We have done extensive research on how to do online spiritual formation and how to build online learning communities. The seminary cannot be cloistered and removed from active involvement in local communities, the international community, and the urban environment. Our constituents increasingly plead for more flexibility and options that allow them to remain within their current context while still developing ministry skills and theological understanding. We have increased both the quality and quantity of our distance education emphasis. For example, our contextual PhD program allows students to remain in their current vocation and geographic location but still attend intensive residency periods interspersed with enhanced digital course delivery and independent study options. We have tried to make intentional connections with church and denominational networks and provide avenues for ongoing discussions on various issues that affect the church and the world.

At your respective institutions, what kinds of programs, practices, or policies are in place to make sure you remain relevant?

Haddon Robinson: For one thing, our trustees are committed to monitoring the ever-changing needs of men and women who are heeding the call of God to ministry. Our South Hamilton campus is designed for residential students who are able to immerse themselves full-time in theological study and complete their degrees in two or three years. Our campus in Boston’s inner city is designed for students who minister in complex urban centers. The Charlotte campus and Jacksonville extension site offer similar adult education models, with courses offered on weekends and as week-long intensives.

Fred Messick: The strategic planning process at Fuller is continual. It’s led by our President, Richard Mouw, and it welcomes and includes representatives from the entire Fuller community—students, faculty, staff, and trustees. This strategic planning process is an important way for Fuller to listen, learn, understand, and respond to the changing environment.

Michael Palmer: At Regent, we have a curriculum committee made up of faculty, the academic dean, and student and staff representatives. It meets monthly to review issues and trends related to curriculum. Also, most of our faculty are involved in various networks and other endeavors within their disciplinary fields and within the church. An ad hoc task force comprised of faculty and alumni is spending the next year reviewing needs and the profile for the “21st Century Minister” with the intent of making recommendations for curricular and extra-curricular revisions toward the goal of remaining pertinent and addressing the needs of the next generation of churches. We also host and sponsor networking events with local churches and other ministries. These events provide opportunities for dialogue, networking, training, and disseminating information. This year we will be undergoing a comprehensive strategic planning process (supervised by the dean’s advisory council) during which we will analyze trends and issues within the church and seminary. We will be  developing strategic initiatives to respond to the identified challenges and concerns.

Donald Brake: At Multnomah, we consider ourselves to be “shared governors.” That is, we believe that the faculty ought to play a big part in the governing of the school. It’s the faculty and the committees of which faculty are a part that are in touch with new ideas. These committees meet and discuss new programs. This enables people to get together to discuss new ideas, and then bring them to the president and others in authority so they can make swift, informed decisions. As a counter balance, we do go through the board of trustees and make sure that decisions are in line with our mission, values, and our strategic plan.

Haddon Robinson: During the past few years, our Doctor of Ministry program has grown exponentially—in direct response to needs articulated by pastors in the field. We now offer more than 20 tracks on topics such as Pastoral Skills in the 21st Century, Workplace Leadership and Business Ethics, Ministering to Postmodern Generations, and Redemptive Leadership. Participants in the D. Min. track provide the seminary with valuable insights on the status and needs of the church that help us prepare students for future ministry. We gain similar helpful information through a wide variety of pastors’ forums, seminars, sabbaticals, and other continuing education opportunities for pastors and lay leaders offered annually by the Ockenga Institute, our continuing education division.

Donald Brake: Most importantly, nothing of any significance is embarked upon at Multnomah without first praying as a community. Seeking the Lord’s will is the only way that we will be effective. Nothing else truly matters if we aren’t serving at the feet of Jesus.  

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