To start this post, let me begin with several qualifications: First, I think that theological education has some serious meditation to do concerning its task. Second, I think the overall model / approach upon which we’ve built is flawed. Third, I am excited about virtually anything that seeks to think creatively about this. In comes Mike Breen. Mike Breen, who I know little about but have heard good things, posted this back in November. It is a wholesale engagement with the kinds of worries I have. In light of that, let me again state some qualifications: First, I know nothing about this other than this post. Second, if I saw this right when I graduated seminary I probably would have called him up and said, “Sign me up and tell me what to do.” Third, I have some doubts about some of the statistics in the video, but for the purpose of this discussion lets assume they are true.
Now, qualifications aside, I was left frustrated by this post. But why? Why would I be frustrated by someone who is, for all practical purposes, hitting all of my sweet-spots? I actually found myself asking this exact question at times. Let me try and point to some issues I think are inherent to this project (keeping in mind how limited my knowledge of it is).
First, it is built on over-simplification. The “Christendom” versus “post-Christendom” divide is helpful for sermons but not for academic discourse. Things are just not so simple. Furthermore, keeping in mind my ignorance of their overall plan, this seems steeped in the present evangelical culture. In other words, based on how evangelicals are intuitively thinking about things, their overall approach makes perfect sense. That worries me. This feels no different than the megachurch mentality they oppose. In light of that claim, note the inherent pragmatism to the message. We have statistics, we have an action plan, and we can use Jesus as the model. But is this right? It strikes me that it is not. Again, over-simplification seems to govern the day (maybe this was just for the sake of the video?) Also, in light of their allergy to the megachurches and the “business” model (again, no complaints here), it seems to me that they have not dug deep enough to the pragmatist idolatry that fueled the errors they worry about. In other words, they could be trying to build on the same broken foundation (even as they claim they are doing the opposite in their video).
Following the present culture, it strikes me that we have another case of Jesus vs. Paul (and by Paul I mean the rest of the NT). As a side note, if you haven’t noticed this phenomena, watch for it. It is pervasive. I think it gained popularity through the emergent church conversation, particularly the more radical ends, but it is a view that is becoming “normal.” Notice how quickly we can just say: “Well Jesus did it this way, therefore this must be a model.” There is a pragmatism and a lack of a robust biblical vision (or so it strikes me).
Second, I was struck by the odd feeling that I would have loved this earlier in my life, but now I am left with much hesitancy. Why? First, I think that my earlier point about pragmatism is again wielding its head. The seminary grads I talk to almost all want pragmatic ways to fix things. I tend to hand them Eugene Peterson. In other words, starting from what seminary grads want doesn’t necessarily lead us anywhere. I am again struck by how similar this seems to be to the megachurch movement these guys reject. I grew up at Willow Creek, and it feels the same to me. We start with statistics, move to what makes intuive sense, and then build a common-sensical model based on New Testament narratives. Is this just the same old evangelical game? The fact that high-up on the list of “to-dos” to get this thing going was developing a savvy video strikes me that the answer would be: “Yes.”
Third, I was struck by how much I disliked the terms “character” and “compentence.” Both strike me as inherently secular. As an advocate of the spiritual formation conversation, I quiver when I see terms like this. Maybe there is much more depth to them than strike me at first glance? I don’t know. To me, this again feels American (or Western would probably be more adequate). It thinks of education in terms of trade schools. Furthermore, there was a tinge of that classic evangelical inclination that there was the Acts 2 church that lasted for a generation and then everything has gone 100% wrong ever since. Therefore, what we need to do is to just recover that church. I don’t know if that is there (it is certainly ubiquitous in the evangelicalism I grew up in), but if nothing else, some form of that inclination is still floating around. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of theological depth in a discussion of theological education.
Fourth, other than reference to the importance of the missio Dei (whose importance is not questioned here), there really isn’t any focus on how thinking Christianly is at the heart of our participation in the mission of God. 1 Corinthians would be helpful here. Again, with the last point, it seems like the mission Dei was picked up at random with no other theological structures in place. And maybe it is here that my real frustration lies. Rather than theology I find common-sensicalism.
Fifth, is the problem the model of education, or is the problem our ideal of education? Both, no doubt, have their problems, but which is more central? I would point to the total lack of theological education over the last generation, where theology itself was seen as an end rather than an aid to meeting Christ in the scriptures (see Stephen Holmes’ post for some excellent thoughts on this). Rather than a wholesale rejection of the model, why don’t we start asking new questions about how that model can be more faithful to the call of the church? While I used to be on their side of things, wanting to rethink everything from the ground up, it is my new inclination that a more fruitful endeavor would be to rework the model from within it. This is not just a pragmatic claim, but I have a lot in mind when I suggest this. Maybe we can discuss this. I should say that I was in an innovative seminary program designed with many of the same worries as Breen’s, and it did deal with (in my mind) many of their worries (not to diminish other major issues such as the financial, etc.).
Last, the post and video point to two distinct issues that they believe are interrelated: the church and the seminary. I wonder if we would explore the relationship between these in more detail if that would help. For instance, I know few churches who really take a role in future pastor’s and missionary’s development (spiritual, financial, etc.). I wonder if the seminary is often required to hold a load a bit too large? Anyone who has taught an introductory class at a seminary can recognize how low biblical and theological knowledge truly is, as well as an understanding of the Christian life. It is no surprise that three years later they don’t feel equipped for ministry.
In the end, I like the questions, I like the desire, but I am left with much more hesitancy than excitement. It has too much of the feel of the evangelicalism that continues to say: “I know, we should just start from scratch;” and “Finally, I have come around to fix everything.” What are your thoughts? Am I being too harsh? Am I totally off about what they are doing? What do you think?