Following up my post on Life on the Ark, hereâ€™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. Youâ€™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 wonâ€™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.
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 â€œpretended 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.