Re-Envisioning Theological Education

Academic Paper / Produced by partner of TOW
Reenvisioning theological education

In order to meet the challenge of ‘the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world’, it is necessary to re-envision current forms of theological education. Existing models of theological education are mostly contemplative models that emphasize ‘withdrawal from the world’ in contrast with an experiential mode of learning. Others engage with issues of the world at the social, political and economic levels. Very few engage with the world of work. This has compromised the effectiveness of the church’s witness in the world as well as obscured the nature and role of theology. Theology needs to be practical and of service to society.

(a) Context

The contextual nature of the world in which formal theological education takes place has changed profoundly over the last century. During the 20th century, economics took the high ground and affected life to an extent that learners often felt that they were being prepared for a world that did not exist. The ‘real’ world, they discover, is filled with stress, unpredictability, complexity, ambiguity and increasing technology. We need to take the contextual realities in which ministry takes place seriously, and shape our educational pursuits accordingly.

The three contexts of theological education are academy, church and society.

(b) Methodology

After finishing their studies, learners are expected to support other Christians in their world of work environments. However, oftentimes, they are given little training on how to do that in the course of their learning. Our training methods often fail to equip learners adequately for the very role we are asking them to undertake.

We have become too blinkered in our approach to theological education. We take comfort in the familiar and adopt a narrow focus on what is ‘churchy’. We emphasize learning for the local church context and concentrate on traditional theological subjects. We teach people about ministry in the local church without consideration for service outside of the church walls. We approach traditional theological subjects from a historical perspective rather than teach their application for today’s world.

There is also an overemphasis on the ‘academy’ style of learning. This brings with it its own particular perils including the necessity of meeting accreditation requirements set by external bodies and the practicalities of course lengths. Furthermore, it would be unrealistic to incorporate every possible stream of learning into one academic program.

Funding of formal training is also a critical issue. It can determine the direction of a program and the extent to which new programs are incorporated. In many academies, world of work programs are regarded as new programs.

The scope of theological education is broader than accreditation based learning. Amongst other things, it should encompass lived and church experience. We should never treat people as if they have no history or background, like whiteboards from which we have wiped off all previous learning. Jesus always asked questions before answering them, teaching us that listening is the starting point of theological education.

(c) Content

70% of people’s waking hours are spent on activities defined by their world of work. It is therefore imperative to include world of work realities in theological training. The tendency is to attribute ‘practical’ offerings in the curricular with marginal status.

In the light of the complex nature of the world of work in which Christian witness and ministry are carried out, it is important to give it adequate rather than simplistic attention. To do this, we need to be cognizant of the 3 dimensions within the world of work: the meso-, macro-, and micro-levels.

Meso Theological education must assist learners in the meta-narrative (big story) or world view realm which represents the distinctively biblical-theological frameworks for interpreting the world of work, such as developing a theological understanding of work as vocation, mission, liturgy, etc.

Macro Theological education must assist learners in the structural realm, which represents the broader and more complex global realities that impact the world of work such as globalisation, poverty, job insecurity, etc.

Micro Theological education must assist learners in the personal-relational realm, which represents the more specific and personal dynamics at play between workers and their work and workplace environments, such as ethical dilemmas, conflict situations, motivational problems and discrimination.

Existing theological training marginalizes these dimensions. At the extremes, they may be trivialized as being completely unimportant or else, one realm may be given overwhelming attention at the expense of the other two. A re-envisioned theological education model necessitates a balanced inclusion of each dimension.

(d) Application

Faith and work formation develops in a variety of ways: from informal ‘lighter’ learning to formal ‘heavier’ learning (see Appendix 1). This presents its own particular challenges as it introduces a need to assess appropriate delivery channels and communication styles depending on the audience for the learning stream.

We acknowledge that steps have been taken to address the challenges in the world of work in a range of theological education programs in different places. Some models of promising practice (institutional support for world of work ministry) include:

  • Singapore/Hawaii: Haggai Institute leadership courses
  • Singapore: Biblical Graduate School of Theology; Discipleship Training Centre
  • Canada: Regent College
  • Australia: Macquarie Christian Studies Institute; Cornerstone; Zadok Institute for Christianity and Society
  • USA: Fuller Theological Seminary; Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
  • Philippines: Asian Theological Seminary; Asian Centre for Christian Studies
  • South Africa: Pat Kelly Bible College; Industrial Ministry of South Africa; Beyers Naude Centre for Public Theology at the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa)
  • Indonesia: SAPPI Indonesian Bible and Agricultural College
  • Argentina: Kairos Research Centre
  • United Kingdom: Ridley Hall Foundation; London Institute for Contemporary Christianity
  • New Zealand: Bible College of New Zealand; Carey Baptist College
  • Multi-nationals
    • Evangelical Teachers Fellowship
    • Evangelical Medical Fellowship
    • Evangelical Professionals Fellowship
    • International Coalition of Workplace Ministries
    • Business Networks
  • Other (research)
    • Australia: (Monash University, Nov 2004, Barry Rogers) Survey of psychological impacts of ordination and early post-ordination training in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne; (Anglican Diocese of Melbourne) Developing lifelong ministries - Task Group Report Council of the Diocese.

In re-envisioning theological education, the above models are resourceful for the following reasons:

  1. World of work orientation is institutionalized into the core platform.
  2. Continuing education is affirmed and practiced.
  3. Attention is being paid to the dimensions of world of work.
  4. Funding has been invested specifically for world of work issues. Some proposals for overcoming challenges:
  1. Incorporate and publish culturally adaptable examples and case studies that can be used to relate world of work issues to the curriculum, whatever module is being covered.
  2. Introduce a ‘specialist’ module that focuses on world of work issues – theology and practice.
  3. Develop a learning stream that prepares leaders for training marketplace Christians for world of work ministry.
  4. Develop a presentation/forum for directors of theological colleges, accreditation boards and denominational leaders to introduce the ‘specialist’ module (a short course that encourages ownership).
  5. Develop a strategy and robust business plan for approaching and encouraging accreditation bodies to actively consider ‘world of work’ as a subject, then a diploma, then degree, then masters etc.
  6. Design a learning stream appropriate to people at work considering their time and other commitments e.g. a modular approach that allows intensive courses, short courses; evening studies, correspondence and online learning.
  7. Develop non-accredited short courses that help workplace Christians relate to situations that arise in the world of work.
  8. Provide institutional support to the world of work through sharing of skills as mentors, ethicists and facilitators.
  9. Adopt a marketing approach to ask strategic questions and establish a business and delivery plan that answers the following questions: Who is our target audience? Where are they? How do they think? What are the most feasible delivery channels to them?
  10. Employ media and technological resources more effectively in the promotion and delivery of world of work solutions.

(e) Questions requiring further exploration

  • Should clergy be authorized to take sabbaticals to spend time in non-church workplaces?
  • How do we liberate and affirm the clergy to be open and transparent about world of work issues, including opening up teaching opportunities for members of their congregations who are world of work ministers?
  • Should a requirement be made for clergy to have some secular work experience, not just church work experience?
  • Do we need to re-envision roles, of clergy and laity?