Attentiveness: New England - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: New England

Billy Graham speaking at the Boston Commons. Image Source: CBS News


As Billy Graham told the story at Gordon-Conwell’s 25th anniversary commencement, Harold Ockenga asked him in the late 60s where they would locate the united seminary: Philadelphia or Boston?

A few years earlier Graham was asked by Dan Poling, editor of the Christian Herald and board member of Temple University, to “take over the Conwell School of Theology.” Billy asked his friend Howard Pew to support the school. It would seem obvious that Graham would want the combined seminary in Philadelphia where his seminary was and where the major funder, Pew, was located.

However, Graham responded: “I told [Ockenga] it should be located in Boston, for Boston is the center of colleges and universities in North America.”  Billy Graham, the farmer’s son from North Carolina, probably spoke at more colleges and universities than any person in the 20th century. I say this because he was constantly talking about, and traveling to speak at, universities. Graham, who spoke in 105 countries of the world, knew the importance of reaching cities and universities. One of his last talks was a TED talk in Silicon Valley. It made perfect sense that he would be the final speaker at a conference talking to academics about the frontiers of technology and the future.

Today we affirm Billy Graham’s instinct and thoughtfulness about location. In discussing the new location of Gordon-Conwell’s main campus, we were thrown back on Ockenga’s question to Graham: “Where should we locate?” Only in 2022, we began by asking, “Charlotte? Western Massachusetts?” This time we were even more open about location because of the influence of technology.

However, our answer is the same as it was fifty-three years ago: Boston.

Now the answer is not “Boston” simply because of universities and colleges. The answer is also Boston because of our mission to New England. Graham’s answer had to do with academics and the thought world. Our answer has to do with those concerns plus Christian mission and evangelism.

The least Christian area of the United States, the place where the fewest number of people identify as religious or very religious[1] and the place with the fewest number of Evangelicals is now New England.[2] Our relocation to Boston is a commitment to New England from its urban, commercial, transportation, and academic heart of the region. It reflects our strong missional commitment.

However, it is not enough to just be in Boston; we must intentionally be equipping evangelists, church planters, and leaders who are prepared for the hard work of reviving dying churches. There are many empty, or nearly empty, church buildings in New England. As we increase our ability to teach and train students across the US and the globe, we remain committed to continuing to prepare people to bring renewal and revival to the cities, towns, and villages of New England.

The pivot to a new location will also be a renewed commitment to church planting and revitalization starting in our New England “neighborhood.” Thinking missionally about theological education is natural for Gordon-Conwell. It is in our DNA, from Adoniram Judson Gordon’s missionary training institute and Russell Conwell’s special concern for freeing enslaved people and providing education for those on the margins, to Professor Christy Wilson’s infectious zeal for those who have not heard the Good News, to our present faculty and Board members.

So, if you hear about Gordon-Conwell’s “Pivot” to Boston, think of mission and renewal in New England, not just relocation.

[1] See data from Gallup.
[2] Five of the nine least evangelical states are in New England.

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.


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