Recently, I was asked to look over the mission courses of a seminary in Africa. Here is some of the feedback I sent (removing the parts specific to the school and expanded a bit for this article). Though I don't claim to be an expert on theological education, I think it is applicable to any school asking similar questions.
I've also shared some ideas like this at the annual faculty workshop at Biblical Seminary (which has focused on "missional education" as part of their emphasis). However, instead of a two day faculty workshop, this is just a brief primer rather than an exhausive treatment.
Here is some of the advice that I gave to a seminary in Africa on how to effectively be a missional institution:
Building a More Missional Seminary
When thinking about mission in a seminary context, there are two primary areas to consider: the mission and the mission field. When we take both mission and the mission field in mind, and a seminary is healthy and scripturally robust, the opportunity for impact is multiplied by an outward focus.
First, work toward a missional grid that undergirds all of the educational experience.
Missional theological education arises from the recognition that mission reflects God's nature and God's story for the world. This is summed up with the term missio Dei. The eternal love of God in the triune life leads to God's expression of love to his creation.
This mission is initiated by God, revealed in the story of Scripture, is fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and continues today through the global and local ministry of the church.
In the context of God's mission, the church is envisioned as an instrument of God's mission in the places it has been sent throughout history and across the globe. Many missiologists have reflected on the missionary expansion of the church over the past 200 years, and they have concluded that much of what passed for missions was the passing on of the culture and practice of Western Christianity. The study of missions that followed this practice revolved around efforts to find efficient and practical ways to communicate a Western-shaped message to other cultures.
In response to this, efforts are being made now to recover the missional message of Scripture, establish the universal nature of the gospel message, and develop indigenous gospel growth. These aspects seem to be key to any missional approach of mission training.
Missional theological training should begin with the church's identity, mission, and reality in the context of the missio Dei. The following suggestions orient theological education in light of the church's mission within God's reign and mission in the world:
1. The goal should be to establish the church as central to God's mission and renew the church's theological and missional identity within God's mission.
2. The theology and practice of mission should be rooted in God's mission and the church's missional identity.
3. The mission training serves the church's mission and the church should be a part of the training.
4. Missional leadership is key to developing missional churches and movements, so attention to spiritual, personal, and pastoral development in missional training is acutely needed.
5. Missional training must increase theological depth and discernment for the church leaders, so that those who lead can help the church contextualize the gospel in new cultures and discern the church's faithfulness and need for renewal.
6. Scripture is the primary source for understanding the church's mission and missional identity.
Second, allow the mission field to impact theological education.
When addressing seminary education, the where of the seminary should impact the how of the education.
Seminaries can address that by asking regional missiological questions including:
1. Are students in this program preparing for similar contexts or diverse ones? If similar, how have we designed the curriculum to engage the prevailing culture? If more diverse, how are we balancing broad principles with specific cultural contexts?
2. Are the courses designed with the concerns of regional or national churches and context in mind? If the seminary is simply teaching what an accrediting agency, denomination, or some tradition warrants, without addressing local concerns, it may be driven by external agendas more than scripture and mission.
3. How do other aspects of the curriculum support the instruction on mission in these courses? Is every course taught with mission and mission field in mind? Is mission and mission field a defining narrative at the seminary and is that reflected in the curriculum.
4. Are there strategies that are effective among the context or people groups that most of the students work with or are going to work with? If so, how might these approaches and leaders be engaged? Are best-practice leaders engaging with professors to consider and evalatue such approaches? Or, is the seminary rooting it's best practices in methodologies born in another era (perhaps when the professors were pastors)?
5. What major challenges have graduates faced in the mission the field that can be addressed in the curriculum? Seminaries engaged in mission and mission field are listening to the field and responding accordingly. Seminaries can easily get disconnected from the context without an intentional process of listening to the mission field and those engaging it.
These questions are not exhausive, but they are often unasked. Because of the nature of the academy, seminaries can become disconnected from church life and ongoing mission. The right questions helps seminaries focus on the right issues.
When considering how to elevate mission in a seminary curriculum, you need to ask how the mission shapes education and how the context shapes the mission. When doing both, along with solid biblical teaching and practice, we can more accurately speak of being a missional seminary.
The seminaries that train our pastors, church leaders, and missionaries must be missional, but it is important that they are effectively missional in their specific contexts.
To you, my readers, I wonder what additional advice you might give to seminaries wanting to focus more on mission.