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Why We Must Rethink Theological Education in Time of Flux

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If I had to give only one word to summarize the state of theological education in Europe today, it would have to be “flux.”

While some schools may be doing well and even thriving, the majority are experiencing significant challenges in staying afloat and attracting a sufficient number of students.

Some institutions have had to downsize or move; a few others had to close altogether.

The reasons for the downturn are multiple.

The reality of diminished financial resources has been a recurrent theme. Yet, perhaps a much greater factor is the decline in the number of practicing Christians in Europe.

Departments of theology or religious studies in universities struggle with a significant drop in the number of applicants while other departments have been integrated into larger faculties or closed.

There is indeed much academic skepticism in the air when it comes to studying matters of faith.

Baptist seminaries and colleges, as denominationally affiliated institutions, also have to contend with the shrinking “market” and, in some countries, a substantial waning of denominational loyalty among potential students and their supporters.

Some also have to compete with the “in-house” courses or schools run by large, dynamic churches, which are primarily focused on the immediate training needs of their ministry teams and interns.

A suspicion of formal theological education as either ineffective or downright harmful – a characteristic of a number of Baptist communities of the past – is still present.

Positively, however, there has been an interest in nonformal and informal learning opportunities – a reminder that, from a Baptist perspective at least, theology belongs to the whole community of God, and theological institutions are tasked to make theological resources available on different levels and in different modes.

As European Baptist educators seek to make sense of the changing face of ministry and theological study, many of them see themselves as providers of resources of local, contextual Baptist ways of doing theology while also engaging with other cultures, contexts and Christian traditions.

In this regard, the International Baptist Theological Study Center in Amsterdam continues to function as an important resource for European Baptists, seeking to equip Baptist unions and schools in the region but also drawing in researchers and partners from other parts of the world and other church communions.

In many schools, the student body has become much more diverse, which, to me at least, is an exciting sign for the future of the church and theological education.

My own institution, the Scottish Baptist College, provides a good illustration. Founded in 1894, until recently it was training candidates for ministry in Scottish Baptist churches.

Now, however, it serves the educational needs of a much wider Christian public – not only Baptist ministerial candidates, but also students from other denominations as well as those from a Baptist background seeking a whole range of vocational outcomes (teaching, chaplaincy, parachurch organizations, caring professions, bivocational ministry and further study).

The same inklings about the future shape of ministry and mission are observable elsewhere, especially among younger students.

The changes taking place may be unnerving, but they have encouraged a number of schools to rethink their educational mission.

An understanding is emerging that, more than anything, the theological students of today need help in developing such skills as theological imagination and reflection, which will aid them in navigating the shifting sands of church life, ministry and mission over the coming years and decades.

Developing habits of a resilient, wholesome spiritual life will also be of critical importance. A real spiritual hunger seems to exist in many who come to study theology today.

Not infrequently, theological students confess their frustration with the church in its present form and their own struggle with faith questions, and yet also express a deep sense of conviction that there must be a way to live a deeper, more genuine and more fruitful life of faith and ministry.

For a number of them, such yearnings and frustrations are a key reason for embarking on theological studies.

The fact that these students often place so much hope in their theological education can be terrifying, but also critically important for theological educators as they continue to reflect on their own theology of learning.

While “what” is being taught is important, an even more important “how” question remains: What kind of Christian character is being shaped throughout the process of learning, not only through the teaching material, but through the ethos of the place as well as the behavior and attitudes modeled by the teachers?

The “hidden curriculum,” as ever, will teach more than all the lectures or seminars.

During their theological studies, students may not find the certainty and clarity they may have hoped for, but hopefully they can learn something much more vital: to live with the questions and bring them, honestly as well as prayerfully, into their academic work as well as ministry undertakings.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week focused on trends and issues in theological education. Previous articles in the series are:

Churches, Pastors Can Access Tailored Theological Education | David Bronkema

6 Ways Seminaries Train Church Leaders on Their Home Turfs | William D. Shiell

Lina Toth

Lina Toth is Assistant Principal and Lecturer at the Scottish Baptist College. She is also on adjunct faculty at the International Baptist Theological Study Centre, Amsterdam. In her role as an assessor for European Council for Theological Education, she visits various theological schools in Europe and the Middle East.