Monday, May 11, 2009

Responding to claims of seminary's irrelevance

Over at Going to, a guy named Jake Belder has written a post entitled "Is Seminary Relevant? The Contra Argument". He offers 10 reasons why he believes seminaries are (or are becoming) irrelevant. [Update: Jake Belder is actually the editor of Going to; the post was written by Matt Cleaver.]

I call "bull" on all of them. Really-- he has substantial flaws in every argument. Let me address them each:

1. Seminaries remove people from ministry contexts.

What Belder is driving at here is that, for those already engaged in ministry, packing up and moving to seminary will take them out of that ministry. But he pre-supposes that moving to another city is a requisite for seminary training, and/or that it must be done immediately. This simply isn't the case: I know a number of guys who are involved in ministry (several as Interns) while pursuing seminary study at the same time. Distance learning, mentoring models, and well-planned internships can cover a substantial amount of seminary training without requiring a move at all. I've heard or read about at least a dozen different programs for overcoming this problem.

2. The process of seminary is no longer effective in preparing for ministry.

Belder says, "When the dominant church model was oral proclamation, reasoned argument, and apologetics, perhaps sitting in classrooms studying the minutiae of supralapsarianism, practicing speaking skills, and honing rhetoric was helpful. Today, however, we are moving past such a model..."
When was that? I can't remember an era in my church history classes (or in my classes on historic philosophy in undergrad, either) where this description fit the church in the way that Belder paints it.
That said, I will say this: if what Belder is saying is that studying theology, learning how to preach effectively, and dealing with matters of defending the faith is no longer effective, then it sounds to me like he is giving up the ship-- or at least, he is abandoning any biblical notion of what the church is.

3. Denominations are becoming a thing of the past.

This is surprising, because of the rise of denominational (and denomination-like) affiliation that I see today. Some of the biggest things happening in church ministry today are at least quasi-denominational in their organization: the Acts 29 Network, Sovereign Grace Ministries, the Gospel Coalition... all very much like denominations, if not overtly so. The Presbyterian Church in America, the Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and many smaller denominations are all seeing regular and, in some cases, substantial growth.
While the mainline denominations are in decline (even, surprisingly, the Southern Baptist Church), denominations are alive and well. So what is Belder's rationale? "Most of today’s younger generation could care less about denominations." Maybe that's true-- until they actually begin to engage in the life and ministry of the church and, sometime after they are the "younger generation," recognize that the church is something much bigger than themselves.

4. The future of ecclesiology is in the priesthood of all believers.

Newsflash: the past of ecclesiology was in the priesthood of all believers, as well. Oh, wait a minute-- Belder doesn't actually mean that in the way that Luther, Calvin, and others in church history did.
What Belder means is that the PASTORS won't be paid for their ministries anymore. "Many future church leaders will be bi-vocational, making a dedicated graduate degree impossible. Dedicating full-time graduate level study to something that doesn’t pay the bills is not a practical option." Where does he get this? And since when has this been true?
Thousands of pastors are bi-vocational TODAY. Hundreds of thousands have been throughout history. Most of them, by far, received advanced theological training to prepare them for ministry.

5. Seminaries are about credentialing as much as training.

There is absolutely a lot of truth in this. And that actually makes it a reason FOR seminary, not AGAINST it.
There MUST be some standard for training. Many congregations (and not a few denominations) take this far too lightly, and they do so at their own peril. When we (existing pastors, members of the church, etc.) see that a pastoral candidate has a Master of Divinity from a recognized seminary, we've just saved ourselves dozens of hours of examination and questioning, because we can (rightly) make some assumptions about how educated for ministry the guy is. This isn't a problem-- this is actually helpful, and good.
I'll give you a counterexample: I'm meeting with a guy who is NOT seminary-trained, who wants to plant a church (with a denomination that allows this). He's desperate for help getting up to speed on what he missed in seminary, because he KNOWS his credibility will instantly be in question once those who might consider his church learn that he hasn't been to seminary.

6. The cost is too high.

I'll grant that seminary is expensive. So is any other graduate education. But simply counting the cost by putting a dollar figure on it is irresponsible. Let's go the other direction: what happens if we do away with seminary as we know it today, and everyone is basically self-taught. The local church becomes the classroom, and real live saints become the guinea pigs for pastoral learning-- less pastoral care and of lesser quality, coupled with greater division among believers (largely due to poor leadership), fewer conversions because of lower quality teaching and preaching, and a general atrophy of the church. How's that for costly?
On the other hand, how about run in the other direction: let's pour MORE money into seminary, and make them even better. What if the quality of leadership being turned out by seminaries was so high that we actually saw an increase in conversions and an advancement in discipleship-- which resulted in higher giving as a consequence?

7. Resources are becoming available for little to no cost.

I can't believe he put this one back to back with #6. Who are those resources being made available by? SEMINARIES!
There are a few other groups doing some modest work here, but by far the vast preponderance of free and low-cost theological materials being made available are offered by seminaries, which alone proves their relevance and their ability to keep up with technological trends, while at the same time making their very relevant training available more locally and organically.

8. Technology has made brick-and-mortar institutions less important.

I think this one betrays an equivocation of seminary training with plain "book learnin'."
The very reason it is called "seminary" (instead of simply graduate school or, in some cases, "divinity" school) is because of the seminar aspect, i.e., the face-to-face interaction with others. You cannot replicate that via technology-- not now, at least. Consider this a serious threat to the seminary as we now know it when Facebook, chat rooms, and conference calls are replaced with holographic conferencing that allows dozens of people to interact in the same "space" while physically remaining remote from one another. Until then, the face-to-face and in-person quality of seminary is too valuable to write off as irrelevant simply because I can listen to a professor's lecture via podcast.

9. You learn too much too quickly.

Belder's alternative: "A more sustainable model would be to take one or two classes at a time, take steps to implement those classes, and then move to the next topic." Talk about costly! For the 104 credit hours that I completed for my seminary degree, this approach would take about eleven and a half years of year-round study, assuming I took no breaks and was able to get three classes learned and "implemented" during that time.
But again, Belder is missing the point of seminary. NO ONE looks back on seminary and believes that they learned everything they needed to know; frankly, only the most naïve students enter seminary thinking that they will learn even most of what they will need to know for ministry. Neither, by the way, did the doctor that you go to for medical care learn everything he needed to know while in Med school; yet, surprisingly, most of us still see the relevance of Medical school training!
I've said before, maybe 50% of seminary is bibliographic: you're not learning all of the data you'll need, you're gathering the resources you'll need so that you know where to go for information when you need it. Add that to the widespread presence of field education requirements, internships, and other ways to integrate learning while in seminary, and #9 is a non-factor.

10. Seminaries usurp the role of the church.

Belder goes even further: "The fact that training has been outsourced to the seminaries is a sign of a failure of the church." Wait a minute, though-- did he just say (in #3) that, "many seminaries are bastions of denominational conformity and preservation"?
The seminary I attended was the seminary of my denomination-- as such, we view it as an extension of the local church, and consider its leaders as a part of our church. Even when a seminary is not denominationally-affiliated (which many aren't), it is incredibly short-sighted to state outright that the seminary is at odds with the church in this way. I think that Belder does not display a view of "church" that goes much beyond the local congregational level.
Nevertheless, he complains that seminary-level training ought to be the role of the local church, not an outsourced institution. Fair enough; how will the leaders of that church be trained? Probably by other leaders, right? And what happens when those who are newly-trained for ministry are released, and they themselves begin to train others-- will they be equipped to do so? Probably not, at least not at that level, and not immediately. It may be, therefore, that they look to the "mother church" that sent them to help with training. In fact, it may be the case that one larger, established and more central church equips several church planters, who then send leaders back up to the mother church for training initially, and so on. Is this not effectively a denominational seminary, writ smaller?

All in all, what bothers me the most about Belder's claims is that he is still in seminary while writing them-- thus, lacking the benefit of actually being a pastor to evaluate whether the training he is now receiving will be relevant for him or not. Ironically, he admits that he is in a program at Luther (shhh-- it's a seminary!) that has demonstrated to him how seminaries can adapt to cultural changes and remain irrelevant. Which is it?


Dan said...

I agree with pretty much everything you write -- except that while Jake Beldar posted that article, it was written by Matt Cleaver.

Ryan Burns said...

Ed, thanks for the insight. As Dan pointed out, Jake didn't write the post, rather posted it for Matt. If you could edit your post to reflect that, I (and I'm sure Jake) would appreciate it. Also, this post was actually the second post arranged by Jake, the first being the Pro argument for seminary training.

Jake Belder said...

Thanks guys. Yes, Ed, I did not write the article myself, I only posted it. If, as Ryan requested, you could change that in your post I would greatly appreciate it.

Matt Cleaver said...

As stated above, I am the author of the post on the site, and might post a rejoinder to your response (how's that for seminary language, eh?), but I would ask that you pay more attention to the parts before and after the 10-point list. I think you missed a bit of the context of the post.

Secondly, this was originally a three-part blog post that is actually 13 (not 10) reasons why seminaries are becoming irrelevant. I condensed it down a bit at the request of Jake from

You might find it helpful to read the original series in its entirety, including my postscript to the list. You can read it by clicking here.