The unique contribution of theological education?

This post is prompted by a day of oral presentations recently given by final year students at the Irish Bible Institute reflecting critically on their own learning journey during their studies.

It was a fascinating day. There were no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers for which students would get better grades (including being complimentary or not about the staff and teaching at IBI). The focus was on the process of critical reflection itself.

Obviously I can’t name names or get into detailed specifics , but the presentations highlighted for me the distinctive and powerful contribution of formal theological education in preparing and better equipping men and women for the demands of Christian ministry.

Bible studyI’m aware that some may disagree, but I think that the focused scope and content of many things the students talked about just would not happen in any structured way in the messiness of daily life and/or in church ministry.

Nor will it happen in the same way within an ‘in-house’ church discipleship programme.

And this is why I’m convinced that giving dedicated time to theological education is a powerful and transformative process that remains virtually indispensable for those that would lead and minister.

Please note that I’m not saying that such things can only occur at a Bible Institute / College / or Seminary. In each point listed below, I have used words like ‘greater’ or ‘increased’. Theological education builds on what is already there in the life of a Christian.

But I am suggesting, from experience, that time at such a place is powerfully transformative in a way that almost impossible to replicate elsewhere. Student after student said it was a life-changing experience.

These are the sort of things (in no particular order) that students identified as happening within their own experience of theological education and training:

  • The value of formal constructive criticism – in academic work, in personal accountability and so on. The value of having a mentor.
  • Greater clarity of the need to train and disciple others and the skills to do so
  • Deeper awareness of one’s own learning style and taking appropriate steps in response
  • How to handle the Bible better: skills in biblical exegesis and appropriate application
  • Training in pastoral care: practical skills, theological framework and the importance of knowing your limits
  • Deeper self-awareness of one’s own theological assumptions, biases and prejudices;- this particularly highlights the value of diversity within theological training. Such diversity will tend to be flattened out where all teachers and students are from one tradition.
  • A stronger foundation for Christian faith: one that has been explored, questioned and examined critically in dialogue with various alternative voices
  • The importance of dependence on God and on others rather than independence: the power of a diverse community of learners.
  • Improved self-esteem coming out of a stronger theological understanding of being made in the image of God
  • A holistic (rather than a previously dualistic) understanding of life and ministry. All of life and work is ‘holy’ and Jesus is Lord of all.
  • Improved skills of communication; oral and written. Like any skill, practice leads to improvement.
  • A deeper ability to integrate theology with everyday life: not easy or automatic, but a call to faith and trust in the goodness and providence of God in the face of suffering and fear
  • A clearer sense of the primacy and importance of love within all Christian ministry
  • An enhanced understanding of the context and challenge of Christian mission within a post-Christendom culture: earthed and worked out in discussions with interviewees.
  • A clearer understanding of self-identity within the greater mission of God. Salvation is not just ‘all about me’ but how I can love God, serve others and shape my life around the mission of God.
  • Increased humility (I know how little I know) and less dogmatic: and therefore more compassion for others
  • More able to teach; less focused on narrow ‘what does this mean to me?’ interpretation but on wider context and theology of the text.
  • A greater understanding of the place and importance of the church within the redemptive plan of God
  • An increased appreciation of the whole Bible and the importance of the OT for contemporary life and ethics.
  • More awareness of the importance of listening: to other points of view; to non-believers; to the wider culture – and a sharper sense of the alternative story of the Christian faith.
  • A deeper faith that is concerned about much more than personal happiness, but can face suffering, persecution and rejection.
  • A sharper awareness of personal and corporate (church) failure and sin – and the need for grace, compassion and good news in everyday Christian life and ministry
  • A clearer sense of personal gifting and calling to specific areas of ministry emerging out of critical reflection, mentoring and constructive criticism
  • A more positive and holistic view of life in general and an ability to enjoy the good things of God’s creation with gratitude and thanks
  • A greater sense of urgency in mission
  • A committment to every member ministry in light of the gifting of the Spirit to all believers
  • A sharper awareness that Christianity, and the Bible, is centered on Jesus with all sorts of implications for discipleship, teaching, evangelism, preaching and so on.

Hearing these sorts of things was very encouraging.

I’d be interested in your opinions on this list – anything strike you in particular?

Do you think that formal theological education does have a unique contribution to make to the church? If so, what is it? If not, why not?

 

 

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