Reforming our Theological Training -Who is Responsible?

The latest contribution to the conversation about Theological Training comes from John Benton, editor of Evangelicals Now.

His commentary article is available online at https://www.e-n.org.uk/2018/05/commentary/re-jigging-our-colleges/69b27/?platform=hootsuite as well as in the latest edition (hint – E-N is the best monthly Christian magazine/newspaper out there, so if don’t already subscribe, please do).

John comments that Seminary students devote a lot of time to honing their Bible handling skills and this includes gaining in depth knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. He argues that this is good because preaching is vital but we should also give time to learning to pray and learning to deal with and care for people.

These points are true but I want to make a couple of comments and challenges

  1. In Defence of Theological Colleges

My experience is of studying at one of the major UK colleges (Oak Hill) and working with another (Union) as a Learning Community mentor.  It bears emphasising that whilst yes, a lot of attention is given to Biblical studies and Greek and Hebrew to enable students to be better handlers of the word, (nb don’t forget the contribution of Systematic Theology to this as well), a lot of attention was given to the very things that John mentions.

The Oak Hill curriculum in my day (2006 – 2010) included modules on pastoral care and church leadership. The latter was taught brilliantly by Chris Green and I hope that it has been continued in some format. If not check out his blog where you can still glean lots of his wisdom.

But college life was about much more than the curriculum. We started the day with Chapel, met together as fellowship groups and a number of prayer meetings took place throughout the week including ones for specific mission contexts. Talking about Mike Ovey, as John does, he taught us, along with many of the lecturers that the right response to discovering doctrinal truth wasn’t always to ask lots of question or scurry off and write an essay but rather to stop and pray prayers of praise.

We prayed together when we faced hardships, challenges in college life, pain in family life.  We learnt to rejoice together when engagements were announced, marriages celebrated and babies born. We learnt to grieve together when people struggled with illness and bereavements were faced.

Now I mentor a Union Learning Community. We start each day with devotions (okay strictly speaking we start with coffee, cakes and catch up). We pray for each other. We watch recorded lecturers and discuss them. This year we’ve been doing the Bible Handling stuff with our OT/NT module plus a language but we’ve also been covering things like evangelism, church planting, pastoral care, church leadership, worship etc with through a Church and Mission module. The beauty of the format is that the students have a mentor who is engaged in pastoral ministry meaning that the discussion is constantly rooted in practical application. We talk about how what they are learning applies to church life and how they would approach matters with church members.

I’m a strong critic of our Theological Colleges as readers of this website will know. I don’t think they are perfect, I think there’s a lot of room for improvement and I don’t think they suit everyone’s needs but let’s also talk accurately about what they do.

  1. A challenge to churches

As I read John’s article, I thought “Yes that’s all true but is it really the College’s job?”  Is the seminar there to teach people the basics of preaching, pastoral care and prayer? Or shouldn’t we be sending people to theological college that can preach, have a love for people and ability to relate to them and who are devoted to prayer. We want them to grow in these things through college but they should be qualities already present.

We should be sending people to train because we recognise that they ARE pastors, that they have those gifts, that they have the qualities and qualifications of elders. We shouldn’t send them hoping that Bible College will turn them around. Indeed, if we are sending people who are intellectually sharp and able to speak well in the hope that College will turn them into more rounded people then we are in for a shock. This also means that if you head off to Bible College hoping it will sort out your character defects, overcome your doubts and remove your baggage then you are in for a rude awakening.

So, the church has to take the biggest responsibility. I’m hesitant to speak too soon on this, eight years in means I’m at the crucial point according to the article but if I get through the ten year barrier then I suspect it won’t be just because of Oak Hill as great as it was and if I don’t it wont be Oak Hill’s fault either -as flawed as it was.

What will help me will be the foundations I had as I was taught and discipled in local churches. Those local churches encouraged me to be faithful as a church member. They were churches were pastoral challenges weren’t ducked and churches where members and pastors alike committed for the long-term. I grew up at Sunbridge Road Mission where they have had a succession of pastors who served 20 plus years and then was a member at Rochester Baptist where Wesley Aiken served for 30 plus years.

Conclusion

There are some great things happening at our Theological Colleges but there is always room for improvement. The biggest reform we need in theological training is a recovery of the local church’s responsibility for it.

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