Gordon-Conwell into the Future

Richard Lints, Ph.D.

Gordon-Conwell celebrated the 125th anniversary of the “Gordon” side of our tradition this past year in a joint ceremony in October with Gordon College. 

It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the many remarkable events in the history of our seminary and the remarkable people who have been central to that history: A.J. Gordon, Russell Conwell, Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga and J. Howard Pew to name just a few. Professor Scott Gibson offered extended comments on the life and history of A.J. Gordon that reminded us of God’s faithfulness across many generations–and the impact upon the life of the church in North America and around the globe because of the enduring mission of the seminary. From the beginning it was a mission to train men and women for ministry, reflecting a commitment to the Gospel in all of its richness as it is revealed in Scripture. In the context of celebrating the history of Gordon-Conwell, it is appropriate to take a moment to think about what Gordon-Conwell might be like years into the future. 

Several characteristics of the seminary are by now well established and surely will be part of its identity going forward. It is committed to the genuine and functioning authority of Scripture as the touchstone for all of the Christian life and for the flourishing of the Church. God is both the author of Scripture and by the Holy Spirit, uses the Scripture as the means to reconcile people to himself in Christ. The great act of reconciliation
is at the heart of the Gospel, and is central to training men and women for a ministry of faithfulness and integrity.

Since its merger in 1969, Gordon-Conwell has become a seminary with multiple constituencies, preparing men and women for diverse contexts of ministry. It is a seminary with an international reputation and a global student body, as well as a seminary deeply rooted in New England in its diversity of urban, suburban and rural contexts.

It has grown to include four campuses: in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, urban Boston, Charlotte, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida, and has a global Hispanic Ministries Program. It has launched initiatives to reach house church pastors in China, first generation immigrant pastors from Korea, Haiti and Africa. Its acclaimed Center for the Study of Global Christianity researches the richness of the changing faces of the Church around the world, and by it gives the seminary the constant reminder that ministry preparation should increasingly reflect the diversity of faces of the global Church.

The seminary faces many challenges in the days ahead as well. Every serious national study of theological education has warned of the tension between increasing student debt and the rising costs of higher education. Gordon-Conwell has taken this seriously, realizing how urgent is the task to find yet greater scholarship funds for students seeking rigorous theological training, and to be better stewards of the resources God has generously given to us.

This will be of central importance in the years ahead. Journals of philanthropy remind us of the current massive transfer of wealth taking place from the “builder generation” to the “boomer generation.” Our hope as a primary training ground for the next generation of pastors is that passing the torch from one generation to the next would include both the mission to train faithful pastors and the resources to do it well. In the future, the seminary will adapt to the changing shape of pastoral vocations in the seminary curriculum. In the post-war renaissance of the neo-evangelical movement represented by Billy Graham and Harold John Ockenga, evangelical seminaries like Gordon-Conwell had to prove that their own rigor was substantial enough to be considered for accreditation in the world of recognized higher education. As a result, the curriculum leaned quite heavily into the academic ethos of mainstream higher education. By doing this, it quite successfully rebutted the criticism of being fundamentally an anti-intellectual movement.

Times have changed, however. The challenge is not to gain recognition in the world of higher education, but
rather to gain credibility and usefulness in the vital, day-to-day work of churches. Innovative and important new partnerships with churches will emerge in the future for Gordon-Conwell as a reminder that the seminary’s identity is rooted in the life of the Church. 

One consequence of this missional identity, in a world where ministry vocations will continue to expand beyond the traditional pastoral call, is that Gordon-Conwell will expand its place for those seeking a theological vocation not defined by pastoring. Vocations as diverse as ministry in the marketplace, leading an NGO, managing a campus ministry, serving in a non-ordained position in a church and a thousand other ministry-related jobs will reshape the seminary’s curriculum into a more appropriate and relevant seminary degree for ministry in the years ahead. What is needed is not a replica of a thousand different
degrees, but a solid and innovative degree that can serve multiple purposes, while maintaining our solid biblical and theological commitments.

We will continue to work towards streamlining our degree programs to help make them more efficient and cost effective for students, while recognizing the students’ need for a robust and rich theological vision to sustain them for the rigors of ministry in a time like ours. 

Another change well underway is the role of technology in the life of the seminary. The prime example today is the increasing prevalence of online education. Gordon-Conwell has an already well-established, 20-year history with distance education, and this will only continue and deepen in the years ahead. Technology will democratize theological education, making it more accessible to a wider range of students. The great challenge for Gordon-Conwell is the cost of doing online education well, without simply adding to greater student debt in the years ahead. Students must not leave seminary so burdened with debt that their own sense of vocation is compromised as a result.

The classroom experience for many of our students will be “flipped” in the days ahead. They will gather much of their information via technology-aided resources prior to coming to class, with the classroom then serving as the venue for interpreting that material and applying it to real world situations. Many classrooms will be structured on the assumption that students have already encountered the material technologically via pre-recorded advanced online access to lectures, PowerPoint presentations, and other resources, thereby making class time more efficient and effective.

Even as it moves to greater investment in technology and the tools of online education, Gordon-Conwell in the future will continue to privilege certain face-to-face encounters in the mentoring of students by faculty. As the Church exists primarily as a local community who “live life together,” so the training of pastors will continue to take seriously the importance of increased face-to-face mentoring and advising. 

We have seen how significant this relational dimension of ministry preparation is in the way the new Alumni Hall and the Pierce Great Hall now facilitate so many informal and intimate conversations among our students in Hamilton. That has also proven true with our new facility in Jacksonville. And in Charlotte, we are preparing to celebrate the brand new Hall of Mission expansion, which will provide enhanced resources for personal interactions among students, and with our alumni in far off places across the globe. We know our “places” deeply influence how we relate to each other.

The future of Gordon-Conwell is bright, not because we are better or smarter and more creative than others, but because of God’s promises to remain faithful to His people. As we hold fast to that great reality, our mission will always be vital, and our calling will always be secure. We are grateful to all of you who continuously hold us in your prayers. We are ever in need of them.