June 13, 2016
Sometimes, when I talk with people about how Sioux Falls Seminary is making theological education affordable, accessible, and relevant, people get a little concerned. They wonder with new models, innovative educational systems, and an emphasis on a student’s ministry context if we are throwing away the things that make theological education valuable.
I understand those reactions. Our focus on partnerships, the ongoing development of the Kairos Project, and our creative financial models are very different. They are not common in theological education either. Form and function, however, are not the important aspects of theological education. Rather, the essence of theological education and biblical foundation are, and must be, key aspects of everything that Sioux Falls Seminary does. It is for this reason that we talk about theological education that is affordable, accessible, relevant, and, most importantly, faithful.
Over the past three weeks, we have looked closely at what affordable, accessible, and relevant mean. Today we finish the sequence by addressing the word faithful. Faithful theological education is transformational, communal, academically appropriate, oriented toward the mission of God, and rooted in the unshakeable truth of God’s word. It is at the heart of equipping God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12).
First, all models of theological education must enable students to engage in an ongoing process of spiritual transformation. As Ruth Haley Barton says, the most important thing a person brings to leadership is a transforming self. Theological education must be a journey of discipleship during which students are invited to engage in something spiritually formative, which helps them find their identities in the Triune God.
True spiritual formation and identity development cannot be done in isolation. While it is important for individuals to spend time with the Triune God, it is equally important for them to be part of a community. Theological education has always taken seriously the formation that happens within a community. It is important that new models of theological education remain faithful to finding ways for community to exist among students. While the expression of community or the methods that are used to create it will change, the essence of it will not. Community is vital.
The appropriate level of academic rigor is necessary if theological education is to help students achieve the outcomes that comprise a given program. As our dean, Larry Caldwell says, when it comes to academic rigor we must always be asking, “How much?” and “For whom?” Questions like these have been valid throughout the history of theological education. All followers of Christ were expected to engage in theological education and the rigor or depth varied based on the calling of the student. Sioux Falls Seminary brings these two questions into each educational program we offer and each model we use. In doing so, we are remaining faithful to the academic heritage of theological education while being flexible enough to serve students in the way that best serves their ministry contexts.
Oriented Toward the Mission of God
And now we move into what I believe to be the first of the two most important aspects of theological education. At Sioux Falls Seminary, faithful theological education means that everything we do is oriented toward the mission of God. Students are not engaging in theological education simply for the purpose of personal development. At the end of the day, theological education must help students understand how their unique gifts, talents, passions, and callings enable them to participate in what God is doing. We must always come back to the Great Commission. As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we are called to operate within a different economy, or what Paul refers to as the “economy of God.” Faithful theological education must help students see this economy and their role in that mission.
Rooted in Scripture
Finally, faithful theological education must be rooted in Scripture. The Gospel is the unchanging and unshakable truth of God’s word and must always be the foundation of theological education. While this is the most important aspect of faithful theological education, I believe it also requires the least explanation. If we are not opening the Bible on a regular basis as part of the journey of theological education then we are missing the most important aspect of the journey.
Thank you for walking with us over the past five weeks as we shared our thoughts on affordable, accessible, relevant, and faithful theological education. Our prayer is that each of these descriptions resonates with you. They seem to resonate with the broader ecosystem of theological schools. As a result of our pioneering efforts and desire to see students flourish in new models of theological education, Sioux Falls Seminary has been asked to share with other schools the great work that God is doing in and through our seminary.
Next week, we will highlight a few ways in which we are helping to spread these models throughout North America and around the world.