God has greatly used seminaries and Christian training institutions. We are appreciative of them. I personally am very grateful for my own training. While God has and is using them, this doesn't mean they are not facing some big hurdles. They have a set of problems which are quickly making them look like the ineffective and antiquated steel mills of the past. They are fine as long as they are not compared to the new ones that can make steel much cheaper.
Let's first take a brief look at some of the problems seminaries face and then make some positive suggestions of steps they need to take.
Organizational costs are tremendous.
Those going into ministry are saddled with heavy financial burdens. Those going into ministry are shaped by these burdens. For example, graduates will tend to look at service in larger ministries or higher paying Christian professions that pay more so they can pay off their loans. Smaller churches are neglected.
Many others sensing a call into ministry are not willing to acquire these debts. They decide not to go into the ministry because of these costs. They and the church are confused over why a call into ministry has to do with ones willingness to go into debt.
Poor models of training.
Seminaries and Bible training institutes serve as poor models for the rest of the world. It is true that these training institutes are not obligated to care for those overseas and yet the Christians of developing nations look to how the western world has resolved their problems of training for ministry. Christians in other countries will find much frustration to replicate these models. Any similar institutions will depend much on foreign aid which limits and perverts their own growth.
Unhealthy academic focus.
Seminaries are primarily academic institutions. Because of their pride in analysis, theological thought and research, they cannot properly train men for the ministries most commonly sought out: pastors and missionaries. We value the tiny proportion of the research that finally drips down to the general Christian people, but this is far too little and often presented in such complicated language that the untrained cannot profit from it.
Because of the institution's commitment to academic training, they simply cannot cross the bridge to invest in programs that cannot be evaluated by tests and lengthy research papers. For example, they cannot train Christian character into their students. But doesn't a Masters of Divinity imply a godly life?
Bound by the world.
These academic institutions are caught in the web of educational and governmental rules and obligations. Because of the size of their operations and tie into loan programs, they are strongly influenced by these outside pressures.
Far too few students.
The number of students going through these school halls and finally into the ministry are far too few. The high costs, preliminary studies combined with the demanding changes required by moving and leaving their familiar environments and ministries are beyond the ability of many people God is calling into ministry.
Uncontrolled by the local church.
Although many seminaries are tied to a denomination, many of these seminaries are an entity to themselves. Their governing board makes the important decisions. Their values are not often shared with the local church who might receive one of their graduates. One problem issuing from this is the willingness to tolerate or even disseminate wrong doctrine.
Why can't the seminaries produce pastors that the churches are looking for?
The simple answer is that this is not the true purpose of these seminaries. Part of this problem stems from a difference in what 'trained for ministry' means. The academic institution focuses on knowledge while the local church begs for experience and ability to communicate to the people.
But the end fact is that those coming out are more fit for teaching college students than ministering to the people in their future congregations. If the church was in control of the training, they would shift the focus around. They would train these candidates to meet the needs they see. This is almost impossible for the seminary to do when trying to keep up a high academic reputation. Another problem that is exacerbating the problem is the lack of moral training of those applying to seminary. Many students are no longer coming from godly families but broken and troubled ones.
We would like to leave this subject by making some positive suggestions that would help these seminaries and other higher training church institutions step in the right direction. Institutional changes are not easy, but the Great Commission is demanding a change.
We would like to see these institutions to scale down and focus on (1) training researchers and (2) supplying practical training from their specialized studies.
- (1) The Christian church needs experts in biblical languages, archaeology, etc. There needs to be specialized places for this training. This will require special funding. They would not need to have the same study time cycles or programs as their present programs require. If they could start anew and devise a whole new curriculum for those studying in various areas, they could make great advances due to their focus. The general format of courses shaped from the past is a luxury.
- (2) We would also like the seminaries to produce practical and quality training material for the Christian church. Some seminaries are beginning to do this through their extension courses. They could spend more money and effort and produce even better materials at reasonable costs. We hope that the big foundations begin to shift their support toward these programs. Brief and intensive classes with long term overseeing of the students application of this instruction could be held in various places at different times. Again, we see this happening, but it is less purposeful. Big organizations have a great difficulty in turning its head in the direction of the future.
Seminaries are specialized training institutes. One day is soon coming in which the church will not readily accept their graduates.
There are three things propelling these changes.
- Firstly, God's people are looking to finish the Great Commission now. They need a model that works and is able to be transported to different cultures. Seminaries have slowed down this process.
- Secondly, the churches want better trained ministers. They want students who know and love the Word of God. They want ministers who with God's heart know how to understand God's people and minister to them. They want humble men who know how to properly relate to others and solve personal difficulties.
- Thirdly, the computer age is revolutionizing the means and costs by which information (think truth) can be produced and transported. This is producing a set of expectations for their ministers (and congregations) that rises high above what it has been.
Growing churches will increasingly want to train their own leaders. Churches are getting leery of hiring strangers. The churches will be willing to work with the seminaries in 'shared' training programs but not totally subject the training of their men to these institutions.
The local churches will more actively take a role in evaluating what kind of ministers they need and guide these upcoming ministers through their own programs. As long as seminaries produce quality materials and 'loan' their specialized trainers for special equipping events, they will be welcomed. If they do not, they will die a long slow death.
We appreciate the work of these training institutions, but a greater mission is at stake. We need to earnest in training more of God's people at a lesser cost producing men trained in heart, skill and knowledge of God through meeting God in His Holy Word.