Yes, But How? Letting Go: Following the Spirit in Theological Education

March 20, 2023

by Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University; President, Sioux Falls Seminary and Anthony Blair, President of Evangelical Seminary and Professor of Leadership and Historical Studies


When we become aware of our identity in Christ, we simultaneously become far more conscious of the activity of the Spirit within and around us, often wildly fluttering around our heads and hearts like a bird, hoping to gain our sustained attention. There’s a good reason the early Celtic traditions depicted the Spirit as a wild goose!

The untamed, unfettered life of the Spirit animates us with the transformative, authoritative love of Christ, and invites us to walk with him in an ongoing posture of humble discernment. We do not lead the Spirit; the Spirit leads us. Christ himself was led by the Spirit—into the wilderness for testing, onto the footpaths of Judea for service, and then along the way of the cross for surrender. The Spirit is likewise calling us, leading us, sometimes through untrammeled passageways, into the fullness of God’s good kingdom.

This is true, not just of our individual spiritual lives, but also of our collective work in theological education. However much we may believe otherwise, we are not in charge. We are not leading the way. We do not even know our destination. At best, we can discern which direction the Spirit is taking us and gladly recognize some of the landmarks along the way.

Recognizing this is not easy, but it is necessary and it is good. From the sad story of Genesis 3 onward, humans have wanted to control our world, including how we learn. Thus, the history of higher education reveals a multitude of theories and practices that have, sadly, enabled a few to exert control over the learning of others. This has been true of the Church as well. The Spirit-led adventure of discipleship began to look more and more like a mere curriculum, or even a manufacturing process.[1] We ignored the Spirit and copied the world. In this process, we have developed robust systems of planning and control that give us the impression that we are in charge.

To recover from this tragic error, we must now be willing to let go of control, particularly in two areas. One concerns our understanding of quality. Please hear us clearly on this: Quality is important. This is not a call for mediocrity. But we must question afresh what we mean by “quality” and how it is to be achieved. Ironically, in theological education, the most common definitions of quality today are not actually qualitative. They are quantitative—content covered, credit hours earned, time spent, pages read, sessions taught, etc.

We feel more comfortable, of course, when we rely on those kinds of technical, measurable definitions, but they push us toward bounded, centered, or fuzzy set approaches to “quality control” within the discipleship journey, which are not helpful for a Spirit-led process. Each of us knows how quickly we can fall victim to the gravitational pull in that direction. We need to resist this temptation because it undermines our collective engagement in the ongoing mission of God. It actually impedes transformative learning.

It is time to let go of and, instead, embrace a qualitative, kingdom-based description of faithful learning. Spirit-led theological education must employ practices that help participants discern, develop, and demonstrate the truest markers of faithful discipleship, and to do so in the context of their own communities. Now, of course, this does not mean any particular community should dismiss what others have to offer; Scripture and history give us many admonitions to avoid that temptation. It simply means that neither we who learn nor we who lead have unilateral control of the process for everyone, everywhere. This, then, is the second critical area in which we must let go of control. Let’s trust the Body of Christ.

What will result from this? People will enter into the journey with a posture of mutual submission. They will enjoy the adventure—and learn to trust the wild goose Spirit for the outcomes! And then they will joyfully invite others to join them. This sounds good, doesn’t it?

To let go of control in the ways we’ve described here, we will want to understand more clearly the characteristics of 1) an organization engaged in this Spirit-led work of theological education, 2) a journey of discipleship in a higher education setting, and 3) a community gathered by the Spirit. Next week we will look at the first of these, and the other two in subsequent posts.

Hopefully, these discussions will encourage us to shout a joyful “Yes!” in response, even as we begin to wonder together “but how” this can continue to play out in our own Kairos community. In the meantime, let us hearken to the Spirit, who is always present. In fact, there may be a goose honking somewhere nearby.

[1] In his book, The History of Theological Education, Justo Gonzalez provides a great overview of this process.

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