The Changing Role Of North American Seminaries In Global Theological Education

My Plenary Address at the Lausanne Consultation on Global Theological Education in the Twenty First Century, May 29-June 1, 2012 in Boston

It’s been a great joy to reconnect with old friends and meet so many new friends at this gathering. I am deeply grateful to the Lausanne movement for bringing us together.

Recently my 11 year old daughter was in a school play—The Wizard of Oz. In that play there is this memorable scene where young Dorothy and her dog Toto run into the house for cover as a tornado approaches. Unfortunately the house gets picked up by the tornado and is hurled into…. another time and place—the Land of Oz. When Dorothy finally walks out of the displaced house and looks around at the strange new landscape, she says to her little dog—“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

That’s the feeling many of us have who are presidents of American seminaries. Our institutions were born in one land, but now we live in another.

Imagine an American seminary president who fell asleep in 1976 and suddenly woke up in 2012. Many of our evangelical seminaries were formed after World War II. 1976 in the United States was called by NEWSWEEK magazine “The Year of the Evangelical.” When this seminary president laid his head down on a pillow in 1976, the Lausanne Congress had only recently taken place. John Stott had only recently founded the Langham Trust to fund scholarships for young evangelical leaders from the majority world. The first globally focused Operation World had just recently been published. Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (Now Africa International University–AIU) had not yet been formed. SAIACS–South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (early 1980s) had not started. Nor had ICETE (Iset)—the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (1980). There were few evangelical theological graduate schools in the majority world. Our knowledge of world Christianity was minimal. He took it for granted that North America was clearly the missionary sending hub. There was no World Christian Encyclopedia (1982). Philip Jenkins had not written The Next Christendom. For that matter, hardly anyone used the internet or a cell phone.

But waking up in 2012, this seminary president discovers that the map of Christianity has been dramatically altered. The demographic center of gravity has shifted to Asia, Africa and Latin America. The spread of Christianity has led to a hunger for more education. Consequently, there has been an explosion of Christian higher education outside the west. Not just Bible colleges and schools of preaching, but the emergence of doctoral programs at leading evangelical theological institutions in the majority world.

This awakened sleeper might mutter something like—“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” But perhaps he is more spiritual than that—for the appropriate response would be to praise God that—the earth is full of the knowledge of the LORD (Isaiah 11.9).

Unchanging Realities
Before describing this changed landscape and our changing roles, let me first quickly recall some unchanging realities that unite us together.

The Lord is the everlasting God (Isaiah 40.28). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13.8). The Word of the Lord abides forever (1 Peter 1.25). The gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”(Romans 1.16). It is the eternal gospel (Revelation 14.6). God’s mission has not changed. Jesus is still building his church and the gates of hell will not prevail. His kingdom is an eternal kingdom. Meanwhile, we are still called to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that he has commanded” (Matthew 28. 19,20).

It is good to remind ourselves of these unchanging realities, lest we become too enamored with the changing models and methods.

But there is no doubt that the North American landscape is changing. We are no longer living in Kansas. Let me briefly highlight five changes—and some of the attendant opportunities and challenges with each. Perhaps my description will help you better understand some of the things we are dealing with.

1 New economic realities.
Since September 11th 2001, the US economy has been hit with a volatility unlike anything we’ve known in the last 60 years. Some have called it “The Great Recession.” There is a huge economic restructuring going on in the West. I’ll admit that looking at it from the global south, it may not seem all that harsh. But these economic realities have greatly affected Christian seminaries and colleges in North America. Governments are cutting back making fewer funds available for education. Foundations, school endowments, and individual donors have all been hit by significant market losses. Many are cutting back in their giving. Meanwhile, education costs keep going up, with students wanting more scholarships. And the donor base is both aging and shrinking.

Along with recessionary challenges, both globalization and the digital revolution are radically restructuring the American economy. The nano-ization of the digital revolution is causing a structural compression and a flattening of the work place. This combination of recession plus restructuring means everyone is supposed to do more with less. Granted, there are amazing opportunities with these changes. You can also put an entire set of seminary lectures and library on a tiny USB drive or send these across the world through a cell phone. All these changes are challenging the traditional economic models of seminary education.

2 New models of theological education are emerging
New models of theological education are emerging and delivery modes are changing. There is the university based seminary model and there is the stand-alone classic residential model. But now there is also the multiple campus/satellite model, I suppose someone will invent the Starbucks or franchise model, there is the church-based model, the virtual on-line model, as well as hybrid models. The bottom line is that when you put all of these together, you have more seminaries. (For example, when RTS Orlando was started in 1989, it was the only Protestant seminary in Florida; whereas today there are about 14 schools doing graduate theological study in Florida alone). Some are accredited, some are not. But students have more options than ever. Not only are there multiplying locations and formats, there is a multiplying variety of degrees. The M.Div. remains the most popular choice, but MAs with all kinds of concentrations are growing.

The variety of models comes with challenges and opportunities. The opportunities are obvious—for example, everywhere RTS has “planted a seminary” it has resulted in a church planting, church revitalization movement springing up in that location. Accessibility has its advantages. But it also challenges the vitality of the mother campus and “one location model” seminaries.

3 New demographic trends
In the US, ATS seminary enrollment figures show decline over the last six years. Declines are steeper for the older “mainline” seminaries. Enrollment at evangelical schools has been flat or slightly declining. (Of course, there are some exceptions to these trends). M.Div. numbers are down. Enrollment on mother campuses is down. Add to this a coming age wave in the North America, which will soon be challenging colleges and graduate schools. The net effect is that the pool of students is getting smaller.

So here is the strange situation we find ourselves in–we have more seminaries and fewer students. All the while, in many parts of the world, there are more students who want theological training, but there are fewer seminaries. This is the elephant in the room that no one likes talking about. As we’ve heard this week, there are many nations where the vast majority of its pastors have no formal Biblical and theological training. This is an urgent matter.

4 There’s a new cultural situation
Another change in the North American landscape is that we are becoming increasingly more pluralistic and post Christian as a society.

The new pluralism
America has always been a melting pot of sorts, but there was still a basic Protestant, or at least Judeo-Christian orientation. This is changing.

It can be said that the US is now the most religiously diverse nation on earth. Nowhere is the sheer range of religious faith as wide as in North America. The Immigration Act of 1965 eliminated quotas linking immigration to national origins. This has brought a new religious diversity to “main street” where you now may see Islamic centers as well as Hindu and Buddhist temples. Nationally, Muslims and Mormons were the fastest growing religious groups in the USA. There are now more Muslims in America than Episcopalians and Presbyterians combined.

We are also finding large diaspora people groups in our major cities. So a real issue for us is not just training our traditional constituencies, or reaching across the globe to create far away partnerships, but we have the world showing up in our cities. You find diaspora Brazil in Miami, diaspora Iraq in Michigan, diaspora China in LA. etc..

The new post Christian climate
While numerically the US is still at least nominally Christian, structurally we are post Christian. The dominant culture is shedding most of its ties to its Christian past. This is what’s prompting us to think mssionally about our own culture.

Intrusions on religious liberty are rapidly increasing. A new emerging, post modern secular culture has little room for traditional morality. It prizes and absolutizes freedom and is intent on redrawing moral boundaries. This is most evident in the debates about homosexuality and marriage.

Churches are affected by this emerging culture as seen in the recent divisions in mainline denominations. This also plays a part in the broadening of evangelicalism. It’s my opinion that a generic evangelicalism untethered from confessional roots or something like the Cape Town Commitment, may not be able to withstand its influence, and we may see a new wave of liberal evangelicalism emerge. Meanwhile our majority world brethren look on and wonder what is happening to some American seminaries.

Our situation is further complicated by the fact that this new emerging culture is transmitted everywhere (way beyond urban areas and all over the world) by the new digital technology. Which means this world view is reaching this wired younger generation all over the world quickly. Seminaries around the world will have to deal with it!

The challenge of ministry in North America is even further complicated when you put all these things together. We have growth among tradition based cultures and religions (Muslims, Mormons, Catholics, Evangelicals), while at the same time we have growth of this emerging post modern culture which has no place for tradition. This means a new generation of pastors must be trained who can effectively preach and minister to both cultures in a very polarized environment.

5 There is a new missions situation before us
American missiologists sometimes refer to the 19th century as the “great sending century.” It was the 100 year period when the West sent many missionary pioneers all over the world. (People like Carey, Taylor, Judson, Livingstone among many others went to the ends of the earth to fulfill the Great Commission). Whereas they refer to the 20th century as “the great sharing century.” During the 20th century, churches from the “sending world” helped establish churches, schools and health clinics to build up indigenous churches and leaders. Most Americans thought of this sharing as a one directional activity.

Well, the seeds of the 19th century missionary sending, and 20th century sharing germinated. A groundswell of “seedlings” took root and grew in strength. This is what our forbearers worked and prayed for!

But now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are at another unique moment in the history of world missions. We now have partners in mission! Reinforcements for the Great Commission have arrived! We are not alone! In terms of missions history, I call our age “the partnership century.” Partnership is the term Paul used long ago when he thanked God for the Philippians because of their “partnership in the gospel” (Phil. 1.5).

Add all these changes up, and things look amazingly different in 2012 from how they looked in 1976. Clearly, this is not Kansas. And the truth is, North American seminaries (especially seminaries in the US) are still trying to understand and respond to all these changes. But we have a long way to go.

Given this new landscape with all of the changes, opportunities and challenges, what is our role now? I contend that our new role is best summed up by the one word “partner.” More and more we must think of ourselves not primarily as senders, or enablers, or even leaders, but as partners with Christians from around the world in God’s global mission.

And the question we must ask ourselves is—what will it take to be good partners as we work together to obey our Lord’s commission?

Let me suggest five broad answers to this question. Here’s what it will take:
1 It will take a new humility
We can talk about all kinds of new projects to do together, but to be good partners we must first humble ourselves. Let’s face it, we are not known for listening well and being willing to learn from others. We don’t think of ourselves as arrogant, but we are often perceived that way.

If we really want to be used by God in new ways we will have to become broken again before the Lord. But this is never easy.

Because despite all the changes I have described, we still live in a nation with outwardly strong seminaries. Students from around the world still desire to get into American graduate schools. Not only that, but the United States still exerts immense influence on the world through its economic and political power and cultural reach. So for American Christians, it is easy to extrapolate from all this that we are in the drivers seat, and we should do church and seminary the way our nation does everything else.

But to position ourselves as learners, as partners, will require a huge attitude adjustment. I was talking to one educator recently who said, “but we really are still the gold standard of theological education.” I know what he was trying to say, but that kind of thinking does not lead to partner mindedness!

The truth is, we do not see how needy we really are. The spiritual collapse in the West ought to suggest how desperate we are. Our churches are still in the habit of thinking in terms of how much Christians in the Majority World need us. But the truth is we desperately need them. We need them perhaps more than they need us. We need them to help us spiritually. We need them to help us escape the down-drag of our materialism. We need them to teach us how to pray, and evangelize, and serve people wholisticlly. We need them to show us how to suffer and still have joy. We need them to help fulfill the great commission of Jesus. And thankfully God has raised them up for this great task. But the role of partner calls for an attitude of humility.

2 It will take a new (relational) intentionality
To be a good partner, one has to be intentional about interacting and building relationships. Good partnerships are built upon strong relationships.

Seminary leaders must be open to build the roads that connect our institutions together. Relationships don’t just happen. They require time and exposure. They are built upon trust. As trust grows, it is easier to work together, which propels the work forward.

In this sense, leadership is prophetic. Leaders must be what is needed. We must lead the way and make time for this.

Of course, the relational process can be sped up—in seminary. One of the many advantages of having a seminary with international students, is that it becomes a place for students to build relationships. As a pastor, some of our best church missions partnerships were born this way. They had a strong relational base developed over time spent together with international students at seminary.

Friendships can be formed in other ways. They can come about through consultations like this one. They can come about through establishing faculty exchanges. They can come about by starting with your own affinity networks (such as WRF). They can come about by simply pursuing your institution’s international graduates as they go back to their home countries. One thinks of all the potential say of schools like Gordon Conwell having 50 nations represented in their student body. I suspect some of these students will start seminaries and colleges.

Of course, social media provides another avenue of interaction. It provides a cheap way to visit when separated by great distances. It provides a vehicle for discussing projects, holding round tables, and even praying together. A seminary could easily put together an international advisory council to meet by Skype and consult for a school. Opportunities for intentional interaction are immense.

3 it will take a new dependence on God in prayer
What else will it take to be a good partner? It will take a new dependence on God in prayer. What if all of us were to ask God for help on how to be a good partner? What if we were to simply go back home and start intently praying—“Lord, show us how to be a blessing to the global church?” Do you think God would answer that one? And once we know how we can bless our partners, we can actually ask God to lead us to the right partners. And once he leads to the right partners, what if we were to actually spend some time praying together (not just reading papers to each other)? I’m talking about serious prayer. As a new seminary president, I am shocked by how little prayer there is in the seminary. We hope to move heaven and earth through our teaching. But we don’t pray much. We don’t teach prayer. We forget that we are involved in serious spiritual battles. We forget that this new changed landscape ought to drive us to our knees. It’s a radical idea for some of us, but praying for partners, with our partners and about our partnership may in fact be the single most important thing we can do to strengthen our global partnerships. God delights when his people pray.

What will it take to be good partners?
4 It will take new “next level” approach to these partnerships
Some of our schools are doing better in the area of partnerships than others. We are all at different levels of involvement. The look of a partnership will vary from school to school. The point for each school is to serve the global church better by taking whatever partnerships we have to the next level. What might this look like?

It might involve:
A basic visiting scholar programs or hosting a Majority world scholar for a study leave or sabbatical
B appointing more International adjuncts to our seminaries. Adjuncts are not as expensive, they avoid long term displacements of families, they can be bi-directional, and might be a simple way to build relationships.
C strengthening library holdings and building faculty (such as Asbury Seminary is doing)
D capacity building like the Langham Partnership International in its resource sharing to help build excellent majority world research programs
E collaborative research projects (such as Fuller’s Center for Missiological Research)
F collaborative missions projects (such as the World Reformed Fellowship and Reformed Theological Seminary working together in the area of preparation for ministry in Islamic contexts)
G evangelism or prayer projects
H sharing content for free, providing courses at no cost to earn certificates in different languages through on-line distance education platforms (Third Millennium)
I doing joint degree programs (such as the partnerships the one Denver Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary has with Central American Theological Seminary in Guatemala)

It might involve a combination of these things. But as we take a “next level” approach to these partnerships, perhaps we will move from short term commitments to long term commitments. Our relationships will deepen.

Of course, as we do these things, there will be potential for conflict and misunderstanding all along the way. Which is why being good partners will require one thing more.

5 It will take a new resolve to live out the gospel as we work together
Let’s be honest, good partnerships take work. These will not come easily. We’ve seen this with mutli-national missions projects. The evangelical world is highly entrepreneurial and competitive as it is. Throw into this mix now the challenge of cross cultural understanding and cooperation, and you get a sense of how difficult this will be. Many things can easily divide us. It will take an awful lot of Christ-like love and Holy Spirit power to make these partnerships work. It will involve a deeper repentance, a willingness to work through misunderstanding and conflict, a willingness to let go of the caricatures we have of each other, and to show grace to each other when we fail.

But do we have any other alternative than to give ourselves to this kind of work? Thankfully, behind any partnership we may forge, we have a place to go to for strength. Because we are not in this alone. We may gratefully look to the partnership that Christ has with his church. We may gaze at the glorious partnership of the holy Trinity to get a vision of what can be. With this kind of strength behind us, who knows what “the partnership century” will bring about in the area of global theological education.

Did anybody else notice that while we were in Cape Town for the Lausanne Congress some European leaders announced that multi-culturalism no longer works. They spoke of how millions of immigrants in Europe are not being assimilated into European society. Instead there are glowing enclaves and fears that Europe may be slipping into a new tribalism. While that story came out, there we were, with representatives from 197 nations, in the most diverse gathering of Christians in 2000 years, joining together in worship. It was preview of Revelation 7.9ff when people from every tribe and tongue worship the lamb. But it showed so clearly how the gospel changes everything, and how Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection, is a sure foundation for whatever we try to do together.

And for American seminaries, that makes leaving Kansas a whole lot easier.