Attentiveness: Seminary 2.0 - Conclusion, Part 6 - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Seminary 2.0 – Conclusion, Part 6

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

President & Professor of Missiology

This is a six-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

There is an old cliché that says doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. It may be overused but it seems appropriate when talking about theological education.

The church in mission has also been guilty of something close to this in giving the same canned western message to Africans, Asians and immigrants and expecting them to respond like westerners to the very western message. It is not insane, but certainly inappropriate.

Seminaries have been guilty of something similar: doing the same sort of teaching—both in content and method—and expecting better results. We have taught our academic disciples in a type of secular academic setting and expected churches to grow and Christians to stay faithful. Neither has happened.

In this sixth and final blog on theological education for the future I want to conclude with six easy to remember theses for the future:

  1. Take contexts seriously: We are in a missionary context in the West. Seminary faculty and administration must make it a priority to require students (not just help them) to study local cultural contexts as well as social and political patterns. Students must understand and confront racism. The entertainment industry is an idol that we are not prepared to engage. Social media is creating self-absorbed narcissists. Immigration continues to add to the diversity of the church and our context. Technology is changing us. We must study and talk about the contexts we are serving in. And (remember my last post?), it is a battle we must fight.[1]
  2. Form disciples (don’t “teach students”). The difference is much greater than we think. We can teach certain content without being aware that we have not guided our students into a deeper life of obedience in Christ. Christian discipleship is relational, scriptural (in practice and content), prayerful, and is based on real human attachments of love.[2] Without love, there is no real discipleship or theological education.
  3. Teach empathy. It is clear that social media and diversions in our modern world are blocking the development of empathy. Empathy is necessary for spiritual maturity, and spiritual maturity can be measured as love for your enemy. Without spiritual maturity we do not develop emotional maturity in our students. Without emotional maturity, we are setting our graduates up for failure. Students who empathize with others can counsel, they can provide pastoral care, they can preach to real people, and they can evangelize. We need graduates who can feel the pain and the joys of others.
  4. Teach humility. Is this possible? Only by example first and then by precept. The early church knew, and Paul made it clear, what kind of mind we should have. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) Graduates should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and quick to serve. They can learn this in every class: theology, ethics, Church history, counseling and in every Bible class. It was one of the most winsome qualities in the early church that drew people to Christ, for it so clearly reflects who Jesus Christ is. First it has to be taught by example, from every faculty member, but also through the lives of our staff and administration.
  5. Make evangelists. I am amazed at how little seminary students talk about evangelism, sharing their faith, or apologetics. No wonder the church is in decline in the West. We have little compassion for the lost, and little interest in speaking to the core problem of humanity; our alienation from our creator due to our fear and insecurity. We want students to grow in their empathy for the lost, lonely, least and unloved. Then we want them to naturally, even instinctively come along side of, reach out to, and speak to these people for whom Christ died.
  6. Keep theological education communal. Jesus called 12 to himself for on-the-job training. Small group interaction in education or discipleship always involves learning together. This must be a priority in our classrooms, in our online experiences, and it should spill out into our lives in our churches. Our students will not be changed (and we do want them changed, not just informed) unless their education is communal. Students need to talk over the personal and social implications of what they learn. Faculty need to guide them in discussing issues and applications. Without communal nurture of materials and ideas, most of what is learned is siloed in the left brain and never has a chance to become instinctive, like Christian reflexes.

This is merely an outline of the changes we need to see in theological education. I think there are important implications that I will only mention for your further reflection:

  • This will require greater study of the early church patristics (including apologetic) literature.
  • It will require more use of the sciences (social as well as hard) since all truth is God’s truth and we have not understood God’s world as we need to.
  • It will mean greater awareness of culture and especially the arts as ways of expressing the manifold glory of God.
  • In theology and Bible courses especially we will need to ask questions of apologetics: how do we communicate this to our neighbors and our enemies?
  • Finally, it will mean humbly learning from the growing church in the majority world.

I think we are ready to make these changes in the coming years. We welcome you to join us on this journey.

[1] This is based on Shoki Coe’s call for a renewal in theological education in 1973. 47 years ago he called for contextualization in theological education.

[2] Based on attachment theory of Allan N. Shore and spiritual maturity as taught by Dallas Willard and Jim Wilder. See Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church that Transforms (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2020).


Scott W. Sunquist, the new President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Monday morning on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.