The Ministry of Soft Things and the Need for Rigorous Seminaries

MBTSI read with interest Mark Oppenheimer’s latest New York Times piece on American seminary education. Oppenheimer just profiled Claremont Lincoln University, an institution that offers a basically religion-free curriculum:

Most of its 70 students do not plan to be members of the clergy, and while the university offers classes called “Mindfulness,” “Collaboration” and “Dialogue,” it has none on, say, the Old Testament, the Gospels or the Quran. Instead, the classes are intended to “develop capacities for compassionate leadership,” according to its mission statement.

…When we met around a conference table, the college’s president, Eileen Aranda, explained the lack of explicitly religious coursework. “We have moved past the knowledge piece,” said Dr. Aranda, a former management consultant with an M.B.A. but no training in religion. Claremont Lincoln is more interested in teaching dialogue skills, she said, than literacy in Judaism, Christianity or any particular tradition. “It’s not enough to know the religions.”

Read the whole piece.

Here are four takeaways I had from this article.

1. This is no easy time to be in theological education. Claremont Lincoln is no outlier in its movement away from religious curriculum or in its struggles with enrollment. According to Oppenheimer, the Association of Theological Schools just released data showing 55% of member schools are declining in enrollment. This trend is by no means impacting only institutions that no longer offer rigorous ministerial training. There are all sorts of solid evangelical schools that are facing real enrollment challenges, and this trend may only pick up steam in days ahead.

We should avoid schaudenfreude here. The era of booming on-campus matriculation may be largely over, with some exceptions. Many schools are finding online markets, and in the frankest of terms, discovering that online growth is going to essentially keep the school afloat. The point is this: we should celebrate the good that God is doing at gospel-loving institutions, but should also recognize that current health is no guarantor of future size and stability.

Takeaway: pray for your local seminary president!

2. This means that evangelicals will be tempted to emphasize “The Ministry of Soft Things.” You see evidence of such an approach in the quotations provided in the article. Instead of teaching doctrine, schools are teaching “mindfulness” and “dialogue.” It should be noted that all curricula goes through some kind of updating, but this is notable. Ostensibly religious seminaries and divinity schools seem to have become essentially religion-free zones.

 The evangelical version of this will not involve divestment from all biblical language, of course. But such institutions will be sorely tempted today to avoid teaching hard truths and robust systems. Instead, they will feel great pressure to soften their commitments, psychologize their theology, downplay their distinctives, and secularize their curriculum.

At seminaries and divinity schools, the temptation will be to train students in popular-sounding platitudes. The need to meet “felt needs” will ramp up. Confidence in God’s authoritative Word will trend down. Graduates will go into pulpits with an unspoken understanding that their duty is to keep the ship on the rails and not rile the passengers through preaching that upsets innate sensibilities. The church will implicitly ground itself not in the whole counsel of God, but the soft autocracy of the sovereign self.

This means that the tough parts of God’s Word will go unexplored. The unpopular doctrines will be glanced over. The truths that most challenge human pride and cultural indoctrination will be softened. The precious but difficult areas of the Bible that we most need–the points where the Bible offers clarity that the natural man does not want–will lie silent.

Perhaps most significantly, the God who roars over creation, who rules it as a majestic sovereign, who claims it by the mere delivery of his Word, will seem small (contra Isaiah 45). The Christ who came to earth on a mission to destroy the kingdom of darkness will become instead a dream-granter, a wish-fulfiller, a life-improver, a makeover-artist, an inspiring teacher. The people, consequently, will look to Jesus not for lordship but for lessons. They will be largely untaught, unchallenged, and unprepared for a world led by a vicious anti-lord who seeks their destruction and looks to take their lunch money (1 Pet. 5:8).

The Ministry of Soft Things will create a man-centered, psychologized spirituality: Christianity-lite. It gives no offense, makes no demands, and barely even lets you know it’s there. Before long, in fact, it won’t be.

3. The great need of the hour is rigorous seminaries. This points us to churches: churches need to require their seminaries to give students a love for sound doctrine. The seminaries chartered by gospel-loving local churches, cooperating together to produce faithful ministry workers, need to teach hard truths. They need to work through tough passages and confront exegetical quandaries. They need to imbue students with a full-throated love for the whole counsel of God, not merely the parts that everyone wants to preach, and the texts that everyone wants to be assigned.

Seminaries need to have a laser-focus on training men to lead in ministry, for men must be pastors, and pastors must preach the gospel both domestically and internationally. There are all kinds of ways for women to plug into ministry; one thinks of heroic laborers like Lottie Moon, Amy Carmichael, and Elisabeth Elliot. We want godly young women called to ministry to get rigorous training in seminaries. But make no mistake: if men are not called out as leaders, those invested with sole authority to teach the gathered church of God (1 Tim. 2), the church will suffer, and the mission will suffer with it.

Nothing about the seminary should be geared around being popular and culturally accepted. The Ministry of Christ’s Gospel, contra The Ministry of Soft Things, requires discernment, vigilance, holiness, discipline, godly confrontation, rebuke, gracious and firm counsel grounded in core truths, spiritual ambition, utter fearlessness, commitment to self-denying living, a vibrant prayer and devotional life, and much more. This is not an enterprise for the halfhearted; it is an enterprise for officers in the army of Christ. We do not seek to train those who will minister in a church or unreached people group in order to keep the spiritual temperature stable. We seek to train those who will not only defend the flock, but take territory from Satan.

4. Move somewhere great and get excellent in-person training if you can. I love being at a school with just this kind of vision. Midwestern Seminary has no trace of The Ministry of Soft Things about it. Being here, coming to this campus, involves much commitment on the part of the student. Not every student can come, of course. But for all who do, the practice of uprooting, leaving comfort, grounding yourself and your family in a new place, serving a new church, and generally taking on a major challenge is fantastic preparation for The Ministry of Christ’s Gospel. This is just what I did in going to seminary; this is just what many more would-be workers in God’s vineyard need to do.

Such training is profoundly destabilizing. It is very hard. It challenges your love of comfort, ease, and routine. But you know what? It’s great medicine for those who are readying themselves to go out, to challenge Satan on his claimed turf, and then fight him by the overcoming power of the Spirit for every square inch. If you do hard things, you will want to do more hard things. If you do hard things, you will be prepared to do more hard things. If you learn challenging truths, you will want to preach hard truths. All this is catalyzed by the hard but glorious decision to go to a seminary and squeeze every drop you can out of your ministry training. It’s just like readying yourself to be a doctor or a soldier or an executive, only you’re entering the world’s only profession that shepherds souls to eternity with Christ. Amazing work, this.

In sum, forget the latest data. Ignore the stats. Shake off the desire for The Ministry of Soft Things. Do something better. Do something glorious. Do something preposterous. Do something altogether ordinary but inherently otherworldly. Train for the ministry of the gospel at a place that leaves you hungry to do damage to the kingdom of darkness.

You don’t need a religion-free degree. You need theology, Bible, as much as your head and heart can take, and you need a call to go and gladly die in service to a Savior who was killed for this very reason: his ministry was not palatable, it was not popular, and it cut sinners to their very core, saving them for eternity.

Nothing soft about it.

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