The bad news about theological education

Following up my post on Life on the Ark, here’s the bad news about theological education from a movements perspective.

1. You can’t learn to swim by reading a book
My grandfather taught my father to swim by rowing out to the middle of a river and tossing him overboard. He was smart enough to know that you learn to swim by swimming. Movements understand the same principle. You learn to minister by ministering. You learn to teach by teaching. You learn to lead by leading. A bit of theory is ok to get you oriented. But pretty soon you had better start doing something. You’ll never know enough to bypass the classroom of real life.

Knowledge without action widens the knowing-doing gap.

That’s why Jesus taught and trained his disciples on the run. Some of the most effective church leaders I know are former bank managers, fire fighters, carpet layers and salesmen. They learnt by doing.

You don’t graduate from the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Indonesia unless you have started a new church in an unreached village with twenty-five baptised converts. There are no exceptions. The seminary assesses ministry effectiveness and theological understanding with equal seriousness.

Traditional theological education is one-dimensional. It focuses on the head and not the heart and hands.

2. Colleges and institutionalism
As a dynamic movement passes through its rapid growth phase it is tempted to protect its achievements and begin to settle down. Secularization is the move from otherworldliness, to present a more distant and indistinct conception of the supernatural, to relax the moral restrictions on members and to surrender claims to an exclusive and superior truth. Academic institutions play a key role in this secularization process.

Once the Methodists on the US frontier built their seminaries and encouraged their circuit riders to dismount and become settled clergy, a once powerful church planting movement was stopped in its tracks.

This is not just an intellectual process. What we believe is shaped by our social context. What we believe is shaped by our significant relationships. Seminaries in which a paradigm of rationalism and cynicism is dominant will enculturate students into that world-view leaving them spiritually impotent in a needy world.

Jesus trained his disciples theologically, but not in an institutional way. Despite his training they were still regarded by the clergy as ordinary, unschooled men whose only distinguishing feature was they had been with Jesus (Ac. 4:13).

3. Deselecting the candidates
A friend of mine is the CEO of a successful software company. Craig obtained his MBA only after the company was well on the road to success. Previously he had no academic training in business. Today his is one of Australia’s most effective business leaders under 40.

His story is repeated in all forms of human endeavour. It’s often the naIve outsider who has greatest impact on a system. Yet the system continually tries to screen them out.

Most denominations that require an academic degree for ordination have chosen to deselect all kinds of suitable candidates. Dynamic leaders like Craig and many of the church planters I work with are action-oriented people. They just won’t sit still for 3-4 years while you pump information into their heads.

Those denominations that speak most about justice for the poor need to be aware that they have chosen a model of ministry training that deselects the poor and the uneducated. It’s a Western model that is tipped in favour of those who have access to Western education and wealth.

Even if they successfully complete their training Roland Allen and George Patterson have shown how as a result they are no longer able to minister in their own culture.

John Wesley expected his preachers on horseback to spend the rest of their lives reading and learning. But he had only three criteria for their initial selection:

1. Do they know in whom they have believed?
2. Have they gifts as well as grace for the work?
3. Have they success?

Contemporaries of Wesley condemned this “prostituting of the ministerial function” and mocked the poor and illiterate Methodists who “pretended to be pregnant with a message from the Lord.” They advised Wesley to, “Let his cobblers keep to their stalls. Let his tinkers mend their vessels. Let his bakers confine themselves to their kneeding-troughs. Let his blacksmiths blow more suitable coals than those of controversy.” Wesley’s response was to turn such people into ministers of the gospel.


  1. Posted 8 September, 2005 at 6:01 AM | Permalink

    Most refreshing Steve. I agree particularly with the exclusion of the poor and uneducated. There does have to be training – not only from a theological point of view but in relation to practical matters i.e. matters of power and abuse among church leaders. It should be noted that theological/ministry training has improved and it has become more accessible to those previously excluded. Note the number of women flocking to theological studies even in Roman Catholicism which excludes women from professional ministry. There are now theological centres focussing on Aboriginal students. In addition, models of ministry have changed and continue to change. This opens us new avenues of ministry and new training opportunities. One thing needs to remember is that our God calls who he will – academically inclined or not.

  2. Posted 8 September, 2005 at 1:36 PM | Permalink

    These are encouraging words Steve. I find myself constantly frustrated by a system that seems to want to put me off rather than turn me on to ministry. I long to see the gospel effectively shared and take root in this world around me, but it feels like many of the systems supposedly set up for that cause are working against it. I’m not sure I’d be bold enough to put myself in the same category as Craig yet, but I certainly suffer from the same response to people trying to make me sit, learn and not do anything for 4 years.

    As a result of these systems I sometimes find myself doubting the passion God has placed within me so thanks for your insight and encouragement.

  3. Posted 8 September, 2005 at 3:44 PM | Permalink

    Great piece Steve. The only caveat that I’d want to attach is the ongoing need for theological reflection. Especially in an individualistic consumer driven church scene which I don’t see from a lot of church pastors and leaders who would be the same people to take your arguement and miss the qualitative aspect that I know you’d argue for. David Bosch followed the lead of Carl Barth in reversing the notion of mission following theology. It doesn’t and it can’t. Mission must come first and theology helps us reflect on what was God doing in that? Praxis. To use your analogy, you’ve got to be in the water to know what swimming is like. How many colleges really take that seriously?

  4. Posted 8 September, 2005 at 9:24 PM | Permalink

    Brigid, interesting to note that at the ETS of Indonesia both women and men are accepted as church planters. Their effectiveness on the field is what validates their call to minister.

  5. Posted 8 September, 2005 at 9:27 PM | Permalink

    Tim, hope I don’t unsettle you too much. The worst time to question the system is when you are in the middle of a degree!

  6. Posted 8 September, 2005 at 9:30 PM | Permalink

    Andrew, I agree. We need to create a environments in which we spend the rest of our lives in reflecting Biblically and theologically on our life and ministry experience.

  7. Craig
    Posted 8 September, 2005 at 9:40 PM | Permalink

    Tim, you seem to be doing just fine :-) Seriously, though, I am embarassed to be held up by Steve as a great example; for a start I’m over 40 (don’t believe everything you read!) and I only qualify for his praise if you write a very loooong list of business leaders. For the most part I’ve had a fantastic time working with a great team to build a business, but it is not in the same category as being used by God to see one extra person join His Kingdom. Regardless of the environment you are in, He will delight to use the passion you have for Him. Enjoy!

  8. Posted 8 September, 2005 at 10:48 PM | Permalink

    This is my first time on your blog, but I will certainly be back. My family and I are completing our first year on the field as missionaries in Buenos Aires, Argentina after spending many years working as a manager for a vending company. We heard the call of God to come here, raised the funds, and began learning the language and culture. Although I have a 4-year degree from Calvin College (Michigan USA) in English and Philosophy, and the strong recommendation of my senior pastor to be in ministry, most of the churches here have tried to keep us at a distance. “You really need to go to seminary because you are called to be in ministry” seems to be repeated often. I have been allowed to act as an “intern” at a local church but nothing more. However, my senior pastor from the States is planting Mars Hill Church in Sacramento CA that is focused on healing wounds left by racism and prejudice. His vision is to plant 100 blended churches in the States and 100 globally. I have just accepted the role of Exec. Dir. of the global side of this and are now beginning to plant a church here in BA. Learning by doing. Thanks for your encouraging words. Brian.

  9. Posted 8 September, 2005 at 11:09 PM | Permalink

    Brian, great to hear from you and of your ministry in BA. Well done for pursuing your call to ministry. Visited the website at and signed up for the newsletter. Exciting to hear of the vision for “blended churches”. My mind goes to a number of trouble spots around the world where there would be a need for them.

  10. Posted 9 September, 2005 at 2:21 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments and your excitement about “blended churches”. In addition to planting our church in BA, I am tasked with researching trouble spots globally so we can begin to pray and educate church pastors and leaders about this. I would like to get your insights as to the trouble spots that come to mind. In Australia, obviously there is work among the aborigines and whites. I also read about a situation in Toowoomba where Sudanese refugees are struggling with certain skinhead, pro-white associations. Your thoughts?

  11. Posted 9 September, 2005 at 2:35 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for your encouragement guys. And don’t worry Steve, I’ve been unsettled since the start of this degree, I’m working out ways to adapt it to best develop me as I go. I’m currently part time in a context that in many ways sees full time study as the only serious approach to ‘preparation for ministry’. But I’m pretty sure going full time would be suicide for me given my missional focus, I’d die stuck in a classroom never getting anything done! So I’ll keep adapting and see where God takes me. Thanks again. T.

  12. Posted 9 September, 2005 at 3:26 AM | Permalink

    Brian, yes the toughest challenge in Australia would be blended church of indigenous and white Australians. Redfern in Sydney is a flashpoint in an urban setting. There are also plenty of outback towns and Darwin in the north or Alice Springs in the centre. Re Toowoomba, my guess is that it’s a pretty localized problem. The other need is in areas like Springvale in Melbourne where there is a “United Nations” of refugees from all over over the world. Hope this helps.

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