The first problem to address is not the most serious but needs to be faced first.
And it is the need for more academically rigorous theological training. The world is changing and so the method of delivery may well change (e.g. More flexibility – part time, distance learning etc.) but there is a greater need than ever to produce church leaders who have the depth of education necessary to meet the challenges of our day. That will mean that they spend time studying the Bible and meditating on it for themselves, but also that they have the academic skills to think deeply about it too.
Trends within education generally in the UK push the other way. More practical usually means more general. Students don’t see the need for subjects like Greek or Church History (what’s the point?) but prefer more ‘applied’ subjects. People want to be trained to do a job.
This trend will gather momentum in the next few decades. All the books I have read over the summer make the same prediction – the church of the 21st century is going to be increasingly dominated by the global south. For the past 300 years or so western academics and church leaders have set the pace for global church trends. Not anymore. Increasingly the average Christian is not white, but a Brazilian, Nigerian or Philippino. And the church of the global south is generally Pentecostal. Even the Catholic Church in these parts of the world is increasingly Pentecostal. Therefore the church in the UK is going to be heavily influenced by Pentecostalism too.
Now one of the downsides of Pentecostalism is that it often encourages anti-intellectualism. There have been some wonderful exceptions – e.g. Max Turner and Gordon Fee – but as a general trend it does hold water. As we shall see later, I think there are lots of good things we can learn from this trend, but this is one to avoid. Jesus told his followers to love God with all their minds as well as their hearts.
So the trend away from academic theological study is likely to grow. Training for Church leaders will become more practical and less technical and academically stretching. However, I think that trend should be resisted for the following two reasons:
1. Society is changing faster than ever. Any study of history will show that societies often go through periods of great change. The first century AD and the break up of the Roman Empire were also times of great change. I’m not sure if culture has ever changed as quickly as now though. As an example I found preparing for a sermon on ‘Trans Gender’ particularly challenging. Reading around the subject I was bewildered. It really felt as if the world was changing so fast I was finding to hard to keep up, never mind give a lead to my congregation. If this is the case then church leaders need to be educated to a much deeper level. I do not mean that greater sociological study should replace personal study and application of the Scriptures. Rather I am talking about the technical skills required to study the Bible in depth.
2. Society is better informed than ever before. Originally I wrote ‘better educated’ but I have just changed that to ‘informed’. (I’m not sure British education is better but there is certainly more information imparted.) A century ago any Pastor with a theological degree would be far better educated than the vast majority of their congregation. After Tony Blair’s goal for 50% of UK school leavers to go to University that is no longer the case. Any given sermon or church meeting most people sitting in the pews will probably think (to themselves) that they know as much about the topic under consideration than their church leaders. After all they read a Wikipedia article about it. (Again, that does not mean that they really are equally informed, but that the perception remains.) In such a context any Church leader will need to be able to think profoundly in applying the Bible to the modern world in order to speak into people’s lives. Frequently I attend church services or other Christian meetings where I do not get the impression that those at the front have a deeper understanding of the issues than I do – even though they have (supposedly) prepared. Once more, that is not me blowing my own trumpet – it is a reflection on how superficial most theological reflection usually is.
I remember my first day at Bible College, over 20 years ago. I remember because our Principal, Peter Cotterell, gave an address to all new students that has stuck with me. His charge to us was that we had come ‘to understand profoundly in order to explain simply.’ He went on to outline the dangers of understanding profoundly in order to explain profoundly or understanding simply in order to explain simply. The latter is my common experience.
Let me take an example. Technical subjects like Biblical languages or Church History are not in vogue. Yet any discussion of homosexuality over the past 20 years has included looking at the definition of the Greek word ‘arsenokoites’. I freely admit that my three years of Greek in my degree are now very rusty. Nevertheless I still have the tools and understanding to evaluate technical discussions over how to define a word like this. I don’t see how any church leader can evaluate commentary over similar issues without this level of understanding. How can Pastors give a lead on complex ethical issues unless they can confidently handle all the issues? We are so partisan over issues like this because most Christians have to go with ‘well I trust X, so I’ll just follow his/her lead.’ Trusting our leaders is a good thing, but are they worth trusting?
Now, as I said at the start, how this education is provided will need to be flexible. Maybe local churches can play a bigger role? Rather than delegating everything to colleges? But the bottom line is that our church leaders need training that is deeper and more profound. Education that does not just spoon feed them answers but teaches them technical academic tools so that they can think deeply for themselves.
Before anyone thinks that I am advocating a dry, academic approach to the gospel then I remind you that there is another post to come. In fact I have put this issue first because when you read the next one you might be tempted to think the opposite.
PS I have just read this quote from Tim Keller – “Over my forty years of pastoral ministry, I’ve come to the conclusion that ministers need more comprehensive and exacting theological education today than when I came into the work.” It is possible that this is just a coincidence and that we have both come to the same conclusion, but I like to think that Tim stalks me on the Internet and copies all my ideas. You decide 🙂