Seminaries are God-given and important tools, but how can these “tools” be best used to advance the mission of the God as expressed through the church?
Obviously there are more than this, but there are four ways seminaries can serve (and in many ways, already are serving) the mission of the church.
Providing guidance for the mission
It is important to understand that theological education is genuinely essential—not as the engine of the church, but in some ways as the steering wheel of the church. The engine of the church has to be the mission, the passion of God’s people who are engaging faithfully and fruitfully in Gospel work, that advances the work of the Kingdom.
The engine provides the power; the steering wheel helps guide the forward motion.
We have seen this from the beginning of the Church and everywhere she has gone. When a movement is started, but no theological training is established, it may drive off in the wrong direction. In some cases, missionaries may have started churches, but because theological education was not put in place soon enough, such movements became syncretistic and some even left the faith.
You can have the most powerful engine imaginable, but a lack of steering wheel results in uncontrolled movement. When theological problems become deeper and more profound we look back and say, “Well, that started as a good idea. Too bad it didn’t stay on track.” It is little different than Paul’s assessment of Israel:
“I can testify about them that they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” (Romans 10:2, HCSB)
(A different problem arises when theological education becomes the engine of the church. Some denominations are driven by their theological education systems. “Driven” may be overstatement as such denominations tend to move very slowly!)
We want the engine to be God’s people saying yes to the Lord and engaging in mission. The steering wheel of theological education, when done right, can help guide in the right way.
Establish partnerships for sustainability
Theological education is done best when it is done with others. One thing to remember is that theological education is not the goal. It is a tool. The goal is the advance of the gospel. The goal is the Church. In fact, seminaries are to be servants to the churches, not leaders of the churches.
Sharing resources should be a natural thing in the kingdom of God. We aren’t best when we are competing. We are best when we are collaborating. When Christian institutions of higher learning work together, everyone wins. Students win. Schools win. Churches win. People are reached.
When you have partnered institutions, the Kingdom is advanced and the seminary continues to build its base for a long-term ability to have impact in ministry.
No one institution has it all. God has blessed various parts of the Church with unique gifts. I think this can be seen in the educational community as well.
There is no reason to reinvent the wheel just so we can stamp our own name on it. Work with other denominations in Scriptural unity and show that God is active in your theological training.
Focus on mission for success
Theological education—when done well—is built around the mission of God.
A seminary should ask the right questions, such as, “How do we function in a way so that the mission is our driving force?” When every part of the educational institution is oriented to help people prepare to fulfill God’s calling on their life it can only be a benefit to the larger body.
This includes looking at education from a contextual perspective. Not just, “What are the theological facts?” But also, “How have they been effectively communicated in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and uttermost parts of the earth?”
When you purposely prepare students for their mission, they have a much better chance of completing it.
Build community for strength
Christians, particularly those who are from a theologically rich tradition, have an opportunity. The world is not often attracted to theologically richness. What should we do in such a world?
I think we can and should show a better way. Show the biblical alternative.
A theological institution can easily have significant conversations that make their way out into the various communities. When a seminary has produced people who are theologically sound, doing effective ministry, and living on mission, it creates a community of theological depth where they can actually resist the pull of some of the theological aberrations. They know their brothers and sisters have gone through this process together.
Even today I think of my fellow students who went through the learning process with me. When I have theological questions, I can call them up and say, “What do you think about this?” Why? Together, we’ve built a theological community that lasts.
It is a great responsibility
Seminaries have an enormous—perhaps even disproportionate—influence over movements. This may be a great blessing when it involves a good seminary, driven by the mission.
When seminaries lose their theological moorings they are little help to the churches and movements that depend on them for guidance. But good seminaries (and there are a lot of them) are training and leading many people into theological soundness.
The successful theological educational institutions are the ones that realize their importance is not as the engine, but as the steering wheel giving guidance to the movement.
They are partnered with people and other institutions to advance the Kingdom and to create a good, strong, stable, long-term, viable place of equipping.
They are seeking to be on mission in what they seek to do, preparing ministers to reach people in their own context.
And finally, they are creating a community of common theological depth and strength that will have long-term impact. These factors, among others, make seminaries an invaluable tool in the mission of God.