Attentiveness: Seminary 2.0–What We Forgot, Part 2 - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Seminary 2.0–What We Forgot, Part 2

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

President & Professor of Missiology

This is a six-part series. Read Part I.

Please don’t listen to the futurists who proclaim: “Everything is disrupted, and seminaries must be completely changed!” Yes, theological education must be transformed, but it will not be replaced by something totally different.

We know technology and economics drive much of this transformation; however, there are deeper currents moving below the surface. On May 4th I wrote that seminaries in North America have failed. Here is the evidence: the past 75 years have seen a resurgence of Evangelical movements and institutions, and still Christianity rapidly declined.[1] This should move us to reflection, repentance and reevaluation of what we are doing, both in our churches and in theological education.

Seminaries must ask, “How and why have we failed?” Why is it our leaders, with the best of modern theological education, have not been able to guide churches to resist cultural trends that erode Christian faith? Why is it Christianity continues to decline in North America?

Before we are tempted to scrap the whole seminary concept, we must remember that a special place for training Christian leaders has always been essential to the Christian faith. Christianity has provided special training for its leaders—since the time of Jesus and the twelve, and the early schools in Antioch, Alexandria, and Edessa. Later priests and bishops were trained at monasteries, and cathedral schools. The modern seminary is in this tradition, but it must be transformed; and this is an urgent call.

Theological education, as I have said in the past, must respond to changing cultural trends, economics, and technologies. But, theological education must not be defined by culture, technology or even a pandemic.

Adapting is contextualization, not capitulation.

It will take some courage for us to hold on to what is essential in what we do and what we have always been called to do. The broader culture often abhors what is essential to the Gospel: humility, self-sacrificial love and holiness.

For the next few weeks, while we are doing seminary in an extraordinary fashion, I would like us to reflect on what the new ordinary must be. I ended the previous blog with these words: “Next week I will suggest what we forgot and what needs to be done. I think it will change the way we ‘do seminary’ in the future. We have no choice.”

So today is the first of two posts on what we forgot about theological education even as we seemed to be so “healthy?”

First, we forgot that preparing Christian leaders must be more like Jesus and the disciples than Wilhelm von Humbolt and the University of Berlin. Enamored by the modern research university model, seminaries in North America in the 20th century (even up to the present) are modeled on the research university where there is dispassionate research in the pattern of the Enlightenment. In our efforts to be culturally appropriate and relevant, we allowed ourselves to act like universities more than like the church.

Much of seminary education is still in the pattern of dispassionate, “factual,” research and writing that is in great contrast to the Sacred Scriptures we hold as so dear. In contrast Jesus’ disciples witnessed their professor crying over a city and over the loss of a good man. Their educational experience was communal, passionate, embedded in local communities, and, above all they were mentored by the example of their teacher. The classroom was life in all its fullness.

In summary, we forgot that preparing Christian leaders is more about sanctification and formation than about objectivity and information.

We forgot that our work is that of discipleship, not just “education.”

We forgot that loving God with our minds is only part of the great matrix of divine love. Love is total, not segmented or divided. Studying the love of God should bring us to tears at times, and at other times bring us to moments of ecstasy.

We need to remember that we are not an Enlightenment research institution, but a “thoughtful, loving, Christ-centered community of global discipleship.”

Look next week for our discussion of cultural imperialism: we forget the contextual nature of Christianity

[1] The following Evangelical institutions were founded during this period: Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Christianity Today, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Billy Graham Association, in addition to numerous foreign mission agencies.


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.