The State of Theological Education

theological education

A majority of evangelical schools have been forced to make dramatic changes.

Excerpted From

The Hope of the Gospel

By Mark Young

The State of Theological Education

Change is not new in theological education. Institutional forms and educational practice have been adapted to new contextual realities throughout the years, sometimes with a modicum of pace but more frequently at glacial speed. Glacial speed won’t work anymore. A sense of urgency drives most of the change in theological schools today. It comes from the sincere concern that many schools simply will not survive, much less fulfill their historical mission, unless they change in ways that increase enrollment. Evangelical theological schools are especially vulnerable to this threat. Although in the fall of 2020 around 70 percent of students enrolled in ATS-accredited institutions attended an evangelical seminary, many evangelical schools have experienced declining enrollment and tuition revenue over the previous decade. Since the majority of evangelical schools lack sufficient long-term investments to fund operations without increasing tuition revenue, they have been forced to make dramatic changes to program content and delivery, marketing and recruitment strategies, and faculty roles and responsibilities. A fellow evangelical seminary president described the last five years as a period of “frenzied change.”

I sometimes fear that change has become an idol for theological educators, a twenty-first-century Molech (Jer. 32:35) that promises more than it delivers and demands more than it gives in return. Instead of being linear, organized, and progressive, change is often serpentine, frequently messy, and sometimes regressive. Change is not theological education’s deliverer, but it must be an educator’s constant companion and conversation partner. It is not worthy of our adoration, but it does demand our attention. Though institutional change will not meet all the challenges we face, it may assuage our fears for a while (and keep the doors open and the lights on). Evangelical theological education needs more than change: it needs a refocused raison d’être, a calling, a mission.

Theological education is first and foremost a theological enterprise. Whether explicitly or tacitly, a community’s shared theological convictions shape the vision, strategies, structures, and practices of theological education. We evangelicals might be tempted to think that while educational models and modes must change, our theological convictions must remain unchanged. However, as a human enterprise, nothing about theological education is immune to the need for change, including the ways we formulate and express our theology. It would be naïve to assert otherwise.

The shared theological convictions that imbue our educational practice and forms are not necessarily found in the formal creeds, confessions, and doctrinal statements that undergird our form of identity politics. Theological grounding for educational practice is seldom accomplished through communal reaffirmations of a confessional statement, no matter how tightly formulated and policed such doctrinal compliance may be by institutional governance, denominational authorities, and constituent dollars. That’s not to say that such formal statements are irrelevant. Indeed, they are an evangelical school’s bona fides. Moreover, they often shape the school’s curricular content, program structures, and educational resourcing, particularly faculty deployment.

The shared theological convictions that are most formative in shaping educational practice, however, are much more visceral, more instinctual, and more deeply valued than many of the affirmations that make up the theological distinctions and identities of various schools. These convictions are immanent: they bring the eternal into the present. They are incarnate: they usher the transcendent into the gritty realities of human experience. And they must not be undervalued, lest our work become vacant and vapid.

The theological convictions that shape educational practice lie in a community’s sense of God’s engagement in the world and their participation as God’s people in that engagement. The first question theological educators need to ask themselves is, “What theological language connects my understanding of God’s purpose and engagement in the world with the present gritty realities of human experience?” And the second, although much less noble-sounding question, is just as important, “When the life-draining financial reports, soul-numbing committee meetings, mind-boggling academic trivialities, and head-shaking institutional pettinesses are momentarily silenced in my heart, what matters most to me as a theological educator?” These questions can help us find the “You Are Here” dot on the map of our cluttered minds and souls.

For me, three words always come to mind when I think about those two questions: “gospel,” “redemption,” and “hope.” The gospel is “good news” that God has intervened in human history in the person of his Son to address the three enemies that have plagued all of humanity since our unfortunate encounter with the serpent in the garden—sin, death, and evil. That’s good news, really good news. Redemption describes how God is resolving those three problems. The present brokenness of this world does not remain unchallenged; it will not last forever. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God intervenes on humanity’s behalf, rescues us from that which holds us in bondage, and restores us to relationship with himself. The good news of redemption brings hope to humanity. Hope is the gospel made immanent, incarnate, and certain. It is the experience of God’s redemptive engagement in human history in a most intimate, vulnerable, and meaningful way.

Hope is the personal and communal experience of the gospel of redemption that lies at the center of our theology. For theological education to remain evangelical in this time of intense pressure for change in institutional forms and educational practice, the enduring ground and frame of the enterprise must remain the hope of redemption. That’s why I believe the identity and mission of evangelical theological education spring from the lived reality and promise of redemption, what the apostle Paul calls “the hope held out in the gospel” (Col. 1:23).

Theological education “between the times” creates space for the unsettling reminder that institutional forms and instructional delivery aren’t the only aspects of the enterprise that must change. Even our most important centering theological convictions like the hope of the gospel must be reconceptualized, reformulated, and rearticulated in theological language and religious experience that will speak compellingly to successive generations in the changing cultural and religious landscape of North America.

As parts of a religious movement that seeks both to transform the world and to hold on to what matters most, evangelical schools face a constant tension around questions of change. Whereas adoption of new practices to meet contemporary needs satisfies evangelical sensibilities and helps fulfill the movement’s intrinsic impulse to expand, the adoption of new or revised theological language and understanding goes against the grain of a movement that values conformity and continuity with its confessed identity and beliefs. Although an unwelcome companion in many schools, this tension is a necessary and abiding reality for the future of evangelical theological education.

The breadth and complexity of evangelical theological education boggle the mind. That breadth has developed because most evangelicals have consistently valued theological training in some form or fashion throughout our history. In addition, deep in the heart of evangelicalism is an entrepreneurial spirit that is animated by a commitment to expansion. “More” is one of our favorite words. Our common yearning is, “More, always more.”

These two factors—a value on theological education and an entrepreneurial impulse to expand—have contributed to the creation of a stunning array of educational efforts that operate on every inhabited continent with instruction in hundreds of languages delivered at educational levels that range from preliteracy classes to doctoral seminars. Evangelical theological education operates in formal, informal, and nonformal modes, on campuses, in church buildings, online, and in thousands of living rooms, conference centers, and rented office spaces. Some of these endeavors offer accredited degrees, but the vast majority do not. Multiply the above variables by dozens of denominations, parachurch organizations, accrediting associations, and mission agencies, each with its own ordination, professional development, and curricular requirements. Evangelical theological education, when taken as a whole, is as polymorphous, disjointed, and seemingly chaotic as the movement itself.

No single volume could adequately explore the identity and mission of such a multifaceted enterprise. This work focuses on only a small slice of it, namely, graduate-level, ATS-accredited evangelical institutions of theological education in the United States. Although accounting for a relatively small percentage of the theological education programs operated by evangelicals worldwide, accredited North American seminaries and divinity schools wield disproportionate influence globally on the development and growth of programs and initiatives in theological education. Many of the scholars, leaders, and practitioners in theological education outside the United States have been influenced by accredited evangelical schools in North America.

I write as an insider, someone whose religious identity has been nurtured and shaped by organizations and educational institutions deeply entrenched in the socioreligious movement in the United States known as evangelicalism. I write with gratitude for that personal history and with great affection for the many people within the movement who have cared for and shaped me. In the pages that follow, you will not hear the voice of a disaffected son who has rejected his upbringing and heritage in order to find something better. It’s the voice of a concerned son—one who is grateful, sympathetic, critical, and hopeful in equal measure.

Evangelicalism is its “best self” when we remember that we are first and foremost “gospel people”—hope-mongers, not fear-mongers—in the marketplace of competing narratives about what it means to know God as fully and spectacularly flawed human beings. The convictions we hold are far more beautiful and life-giving than the fears we share. The former lead to remarkable virtues that create a compelling vision of the resurrected Christ; the latter lead only to debilitating vices that disgust, repel, and harm those who suffer their consequences. Our shared history is replete with both.

Evangelicalism matters. As the drumbeat for change in our society increases, so does the need for God’s people to respond with theologically informed practice and convictions that create a credible and compelling gospel presence. The question before us as theological educators is whether evangelical theological education can be a driving force in helping spawn the next evangelicalism. It can do so only if theological education and the movement are grounded and framed by what really matters: the hope of the gospel.

Excerpted from The Hope of the Gospel: Theological Education and the Next Evangelicalism by Mark Young ©2021 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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