To gain a current assessment of how and why nondenominational evangelical seminaries are attracting students from the major denominations, CHRISTIANITY TODAY invited presidents of such seminaries to respond to this question: “Why are young people coming to you instead of to their own denominational seminaries?” Following are their replies.
The steady stream of men and women from larger denominations coming to Fuller and other evangelical seminaries says something about them and us. What this trend says about the students is that their choice is deliberate. They make their decisions on academic, theological, and spiritual grounds, as well as ecclesiastical. They do not drift; they march to seminary.
Odds are high that they have been influenced by alumni or friends of these seminaries. Whatever shaped their call was part of a pattern of conversion or renewal influenced by people who believe in our evangelical schools. The arena for this is often an exciting congregation where the authority of the Scripture, the power of the Spirit, the joy of the gospel, and the lordship of Christ are celebrated. More often than not their pastors nudge young people toward seminaries that foster such celebration.
Parachurch structures deserve mention along with congregations. Young Life, Youth for Christ, Inter-Varsity, and Campus Crusade have had life-changing impact on thousands of students. Their staff members have recognized that most evangelical seminaries are more open to and supportive of their ministries than are denominational institutions, which tend to focus on denominationally based expressions of Christian service.
Today’s students may bring to seminary bits of antiestablishment suspicion, akin to, though not as strong as, what their older brothers and sisters brought in the sixties. At the same time, many want to serve the denominations that nurtured them. They seem to be looking for a way to combine training in evangelical theology and spiritual formation with denominational acceptance.
What there is about us as seminaries that encourages the trends in attendance is harder to state without sounding insufferably arrogant or engaging in odious comparisons. Among the factors listed by people who come to Fuller are the faculty’s reputation, a conservative yet open theological stance, a truly ecumenical approach (70 denominations represented), careful church manship that includes specific preparation for service in most denominations, an appreciation of students and faculty with charismatic experience, a readiness to include women in any of our programs, a curricular diversity and flexibility made possible both by our size and by the presence of Schools of Psychology and World Mission, and an opportunity to test theological education before making a final decision by enrolling in extension classes in several western states.
One response to all that has happened in the enlarged influence of our seminaries is overwhelming gratitude to the Lord. But alongside that, I, at least, feel some sense of anxiety—anxiety for denominations that are chary of students studying in places not under their jurisdiction. For the sake of those denominations as well as for our sake, I hope that chariness does not result in embargoes against evangelical schools. Their churches, in my judgment, will be better served if candidates for ministry are evaluated on their personal qualifications rather than by the seal on their diplomas.
Finally, I am anxious lest success make us complacent. At this juncture in history, God seems to be using these seminaries as agents of renewal in his church. This can continue only if we ourselves are eager for renewal—and on God’s terms.
DAVID ALLEN HUBBARD
Fuller Theological Seminary
Richard hutcheson has touched a raw nerve of evangelicalism—students from the historic denominations and their growing enrollment in evangelical seminaries. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has nearly 50 denominations represented in its student body.
But why should a student choose an independent evangelical seminary, with its generally higher tuition and significantly less scholarship aid, than his own denominational seminary? A number of reasons might be cited.
First, the student’s college years may have produced a cleavage between him (or her) and his church. Maybe he was influenced spiritually or brought to renewed commitment through a parachurch campus ministry or an evangelical church other than one belonging to his own denomination. This produces less loyalty to his “birth church” and makes it easier for him to think of other seminaries as options.
Second, seminary enrollment often comes as a result of personal recommendations. The modeling of influential persons extends to the choice of seminary. This reason is often given for seminary choice. The parachurch ministries, in turn, are fed by the same independent evangelical schools and the cycle continues.
A third reason is the growing desire by college and university students for a conservative theological education. Contributing to this is the plethora of books written by conservative seminary faculty on the popular level. Students tend to be attracted through this writing.
A fourth but less calculated reason is seminary size. Few of the traditional denominational seminaries can offer the large faculty and selection of courses that are available at places like Fuller, Gordon, and Trinity.
The problem does not end with seminary enrollment. Placement may be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, unless students spend a year in the denominational seminary. While this seems reasonable, a growing number of students are opting out of their “birth” denominations. In so doing they are calculating the risks. This trend has two effects: (1) it widens the gulf between the historic denominational system and the evangelical seminaries, and (2) it provides an increased flow of dedicated, committed seminarians into the evangelical churches outside those denominations.
KENNETH M. MEYER
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Students have chosen to come to Westminster rather than to major denominational seminaries because they want to study biblical Christianity with scholars who are committed to the authority of Scripture. They want to study with teachers who put themselves under the Word of God and do not set themselves as critics above it.
One gifted young man who came to Westminster after a year at a liberal denominational seminary told me that he had once carried a pile of textbooks by evangelical scholars into the office of his former school’s dean and asked why these books were never referred to in class. The answer was that they did not represent the theological position of the seminary.
That student found a different situation at Westminster. Conservative texts were assigned. The lectures presented evangelical scholarship with conviction. But the tradition of liberal scholarship was examined and readings in liberal theology were assigned, with the result that he felt he was getting a broader understanding of the history of theology at a conservative seminary than at the liberal school. The brilliance and earnestness of contemporary theological scholarship in liberal seminaries cannot compensate for the eroding effects of unbelief in rejecting biblical teaching where it cannot be squared with humanistic assumptions.
Westminster has also gained students because of a resurgence of appreciation and understanding for classical Reformed theology. Many of our students come because they already rejoice in the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace and appreciate Westminster’s creedal commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith.
EDWARD P. CLOWNEY
Westminster Theological Seminary
Dallas Theological Seminary was founded in 1924 to offer a new type of theological curriculum designed to prepare its students to be expository preachers and teachers. Enrollment reached 400 in 1970. It has grown rapidly since then to a current enrollment of 1,500. Two-thirds of the students come from denominational churches. Their express reason for enrolling at Dallas Seminary is threefold: (1) the quality of faculty (currently numbering 64); (2) their desire for training in expository preaching and teaching; and (3) their desire for a biblical curriculum based on conservative theology.
Most students enroll not because they are prejudiced against denominational seminaries but because they desire a superior program of study based on biblical revelation. More than 50 denominations are represented in the student body.
JOHN F. WALVOORD
Dallas Theological Seminary
Robert dvorak, director of student recruitment, indicates that much of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s success in attracting mainline students stems from the rather explicit way in which the seminary has embraced the plethora of evangelical movements and organizations beyond mainline Protestantism. At the same time, it has repeatedly asserted support for the authentic and essential mission of the denominations. Gordon-Conwell has nurtured both expressions of Christian commitment. The seminary staff has cultivated leadership directed both ways and provided a linkage between them. This comes, on the one hand, through institutional interactions with each, and on the other hand, through the natural processes of collegiality at the student level as individuals train, study, and live together in a common setting.
Students coming from the various youth movements find many others who have traveled similar routes. Also, they discover faculty and administrators who have keen appreciation for the organizations and movements that have been their recent spiritual environments. However, very soon those same students learn of the deep commitments that school personnel have for ministry in the denominations. The Gordon-Conwell faculty has stressed in a number of ways a strong orientation to ecclesiastical bodies and by no means with diminished enthusiasm for the mainline churches. Hence, there is on the campus a true integration of interests in what the evangelical youth movements have so spectacularly achieved in livening the faith of the student generation and, simultaneously, in an enduring concern to seize opportunities for ministry in the larger body of Christ represented in traditional settings.
David Wells, professor of historical and systematic theology, provides another perspective that helps to answer the question. Schools like Gordon-Conwell are attractive because students perceive that denominations appear to be irrelevant. American religion can be equated less with denominational life now than at any time for at least two centuries. The reason for this has less to do with changes in Christian faith than with changes in our society. It is not possible any more to line up denominations with distinctions of language, ethnicity, social class, and economic status. Knowing how to conjugate your denominational differences is an art that requires considerable skill if it is to be learned. Young people see no compelling reason why it should be learned, and therefore, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary—which by its very nature downplays denominational differences—looks very appealing.
Gordon-Conwell offers a “Basis of Faith” that is soundly classical—an authoritative content and message of the faith. Students are attracted to Gordon-Conwell because they see that inside the seminary we are really working theologically. Gordon-Conwell and its curriculum have everything to do with “the faith of the apostles and martyrs.”
ROBERT E. COOLEY
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
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