The Future of Theological Education

The Future of Theological Education

Jay Smith, YTI President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

June 2017 Inscribed

For my generation, born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, theological education for future ministers was always found in traditional seminaries and divinity schools. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Andover-Newton, and Chicago have anchored the American tradition of institutional theological education since the 18th century.

In the evangelical revivals of the 19th century, seminaries were born, most notably, the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In the 20th century, Fuller Seminary, Asbury Seminary, and Truett Seminary were born as a reaction to controversy.

Each of these divinity schools and seminaries adopted a very ‘modernist’ approach to education over time, and were very influenced by the educational theories of John Dewey. In Dewey’s theory, students are not merely passive receptacles, but rather must learn by doing. Theological education adapted Dewey’s methodologies resulting in the advent of mentoring programs to complement the lecture-seminar format.

Vertigo-inducing cultural shift

The only problem with this scenario is that culture has changed; indeed, it has changed at a vertigo-inducing rate. Due to the explosion of technological advances over the last 120 years, with the last 40 years overseeing a paradigm shift in communication technologies, cultural change is outpacing the ability of traditional institutional organizations to adapt or adjust. The moment you get used to one technology, it becomes dated and replaced.

The pragmatism of Dewey was helpful in shaping this technological advance, but has now become anachronistic and the problem cannot be resolved simply by a renewed appropriation of Dewey. Rather, it demands an evolution of Dewey’s theory in our context.

Theology abstracted from the church

Further complicating this issue is that theological education has been plagued by the “ivory tower” syndrome. In the last 100 years, there has been a trend towards the purely “academic” theologian—the theologian that has little, or no, practical ecclesial experience. Modeling after their ‘research’ colleagues in the university, these theologians have focused on producing monographs relating to the philosophical, linguistic, and sociological issues in textual studies, as well as focusing on pure theological construction.

This is a type of theologian that would have bewildered Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and even Karl Barth—all with pastoral experience. A theologian abstracted from the church proper, with its piety and praxis, is a problem for the church.

Flexibility for the future

Which leads us to today.

Yellowstone Theological Institute was founded in Bozeman, Montana in order to provide quality theological education for a changing world. It has cast itself as the place where “faith meets adventure and the arts.” Why? Because adventure and the arts represent aspects of life in our postmodern world that are highly valued by a younger generation.

Additionally, our faculty are appointed not only based upon their scholarship, doctoral emphases, or spiritual lives, but also based upon their passions, hobbies, and goals. Their engagements with students are mentored relationships where the classroom is not limited to a room in the building, but extends to the community at large. Our students’ achievements are not measured with ‘grades’ but by attaining competencies, allowing them to learn at an entirely different level.

Our Master of Divinity program is flexible enough to allow for very individualized concentrations, such as Marching Arts Ministry, Adventure Ministry, or Café Ministry, while also enabling students to concentrate in the traditional areas of preaching, education, pastoral ministry, and missions. YTI’s students not only prepare to serve where God calls them; they are given the opportunity to achieve as scholars and prepare for postgraduate studies.

In a nutshell, the future of theological education is bright, but it will require institutions and churches to embrace a more flexible and imaginative model.

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