On Theological Ends and, therefore Means
All of these changes, then, raise a key question: what is the goal of theological education? If we think that the means should fit the end, that the end of the birthing of new vibrant communities of faith and the renewal of old ones, and that we sometimes lose track of the goal and therefore the means, how do we find the right path? How does theological education serve the church as it serves the Triune God? In what ways can our teaching of Scripture, church history, systematic theology, the history of doctrine, ecumenics, liturgics, homiletics, pastoral care, congregational leadership, and other subjects vital to a theological school form persons who can equip leaders to equip all the saints for ministries of faith, hope, and love? (And it is important to distinguish these means from the ends of our work.)
There are perhaps three ways to describe the goals of theological education. The first is doxology: our work should bring glory to God the Father who redeems the world through Jesus Christ and dwells in the church through the Holy Spirit in bringing that redemption to completion. Considered from this point of view, ministry and the formation of ministers are thus a form of worship, a move of the human soul to the contemplation of God.
The second word is mission: the church has a goal beyond its own self-preservation or even growth. The practices of theological education serve to form leaders who will help the church engage in its mission. Thus our old distinctions between missions and ministry or missionaries and ministers prove to be empty or even destructive.
The third word, or rather phrase, is traditioned imagination: I mean by this that we who teach in schools of theology should induct leaders into a tradition that is not fixed but that requires by its very nature and history that its leaders find ways to help it develop faithfully as the work of God continues in our world. Thus church structures and the ways in which we create and disseminate theological knowledge (in the congregation and outside it) give shape, albeit temporarily and provisionally, to a corporate reality formed in communion with God.
The point is that, however we articulate the ends of theological education, we should acknowledge that there are ends, that we should distinguish them carefully from means and measure the latter in terms of the former. The ends ought not revolve around the maintenance of the status quo, and this fact means that there will inevitably be tensions between our schools of theology and the rest of the church. Whether this tension is creative or merely tense will depend on our ability to foster the kinds of broad and deep conversations that have hitherto been very difficult in our movement.
Where Does the Church Go, and How Do we Prepare for the Trip?
The previous sections of this discussion emerged from my reflections on the future of theological education in Churches of Christ, which is deeply bound up with what we imagine the future of this part of Christianity to be. So now we should consider, however briefly, some aspects of that future, all of which turn out to look like the best ideals that have always inspired Christians.
Educating young men and women – the Millennials along with Gen Xers and Baby Boomers entering second and third careers – will look different in the future because the church’s needs will look different. But different in what ways? What do we need to innovate, and what to conserve? How do we help men and women cultivate the imagination necessary for bearers of God’s good tidings in our time?
Let me suggest a few things for discussion.
Rule # 1: Self-awareness is good.
Over the past half-century, Churches of Christ have gone through a number of phases, not everywhere and not all at once, but still in fairly recognizable ways. We shifted from a confessional group that defined itself by a fairly small set of doctrinal distinctives (some biblically rich and some not) to a group more focused on self-help and consumerist approaches. Sermons changed from “God’s views of appropriate music in worship” to “10 steps to a better family life.” And since the shift was largely driven by Baby Boomers, the emphasis on programming, media, popular music, and other practices that made us less different from the dominant culture were all the rage. Some of that change was helpful, some was inevitable, and some worth keeping. Much of it, however, was pretty lightweight stuff, and the processes of change sometimes expended a huge amount of energy that left congregations incapacitated for further spiritual growth and addicted to finding the next cool gimmick, when they weren’t blown apart completely. Surely it is time that those of us in so-called progressive churches acknowledge at least some of these problems. Sectarian legalism sometimes – too often – has given way to a cheap grace that glibly demands that God forgive us no matter how uncommitted we are.
Of course, it is easy to overstate the problems, and no one could reasonably want to return to the sectarian past. Or, to put things much more carefully, the truth is that the Holy Spirit worked to enable men and women to live Christian lives both during the times we want to forget and the times we spent forgetting them. Christian men and women in our churches have habitually done extraordinarily good and gracious things regardless of the dominant ambience of our congregational lives. So maybe the first thing we should say about our identity – the first step in self-awareness – is that we have been and are a blessed people through whom God has helped many others. We can celebrate that, in spite of our very real flaws.
Rule # 2: It’s not about programs.
It is tempting in our environment of change to fall back on learned behavior, and for churches that means seeking the next dramatic program. Millennials not part of your church? No problem! We’ll create a program that will bring them in.
The problem with such an approach, however, is that it assumes that human beings are just out there waiting for us to market to them, if only we can do it correctly, but that once the marketing has taken effect, we can just turn it off and convert folks to a lifestyle of commitment impervious to other marketing messages. As many Baby Boomer churches have learned, however, the outreach program that soft-pedals commitment does not naturally lead to a Christian lifestyle unless significant re-messaging happens. But in that process, the risk of the bait and switch approach is high. In other words, our methods do not honor people as God’s creation sufficiently well.
For Millennials, in particular, such an approach is highly unlikely to work because this is a generation that is (1) highly sophisticated in its consumption of media messages, (2) fairly cynical about the motives of powerful people trying to sell them something, (3) interested, however, in genuine community and long-term service, and (4) significantly less familiar with Christianity than the Boomers were. That is, we can no longer operate parasitically on prior generations of Christian experiences in the way that churches did twenty-five years ago. In some ways, we have to start over. And just launching programs without trying to launch community will not work. In truth, it ought not to work because it demeans people and separates them from God, who calls us all into full humanness in imitation of the gracious autonomy of Jesus Christ. These claims, if they are even close to being right, lead us to Rule 3.
Rule # 3: It’s about community.
I have been fascinated, like many others, with the Occupy Movement and its attempts at democratic, participatory decision-making. My fascination comes in part because I am sympathetic with many of the movement’s desires and demands and because I think that, with all its problems, it has put its finger on something many Americans feel today. Many modern western people, especially those just entering adulthood, feel radically disenchanted with the dominant culture’s construal of power, status, and wealth. Interestingly, the mostly secular people involved in Occupy share some deep instincts that are pervasive in Scripture and front and center in the gospel message. They believe that the economy exists for people, not people for the economy. And they want to do something, somehow to bring about that healthier reality. Shouldn’t churches be on board with that sentiment? Surely the Jesus we preach and worship was, at least if you believe the Four Gospels.
So what to do? How do we give our young people a stake in the church’s work as it lives into the mission of bearing good news? Can we make sure that our news really is good, that is live-outable day to day, that it includes a lifestyle of truth-speaking in love, and that it is open to everyone, including the most vulnerable among us? It would be hard to argue that most congregations look fully like Christian communities, but in even the most frozen, formalized, fractious churches there are tokens of God’s community because the Holy Spirit continues to act among us. Can we not, then, build from what we have to something richer and more robust? Has not God given us all we need to be what we need to be? Yes, if we allow this to happen.
Unlike the artificial communities sometimes created by church programming, authentic Christian community cannot simply include people whose values, experiences, and expectations are just like mine. Somewhere I read, “What thank have you, if you love those who love you?” Christian community must include the vulnerable, the outcasts, the dysfunctional, the unsuccessful. Otherwise, it is not Christian enough. Of course, such community demands harder work than the homogeneous units we often seek to create, but out of the struggle and joy of life together, we come closer to the God who created and loved us all. Hence the next point.
Rule # 4: It’s about God, who is for us.
Like many other American Christians, I have heard all my life the extraordinary text of the Apostle Paul, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Not an offer of cheap grace, the rhetorical question functions as a sort of invitation. Do we not wish to be in the presence of the Almighty Creator who ordered the world in such a way that we could flourish within it, gave a history and a set of norms to a people so they could live freely, and triumphed over death itself by raising Jesus as the “firstfruits of those who sleep”? Would it not be the case that, if such core Christian ideas are true, they would compel a radical alteration in our way of being with others? And would not a community that resulted from such an idea, or rather, such an experience, spend its time seeking to be in God’s presence by pursuing the means of grace such as prayer, forgiveness, and mutual service? Christian answers to these questions would surely lead us to rethink our ways of worshiping, serving, and sharing the gospel with others.
Yet the truth is that many of our congregations do anything but this. When we speak of God at all we take refuge in easy clichés and, frankly, thinly disguised narcissism. So, for example, Jeremiah’s great promise that God has not forgotten Israel (plural “you”) and will work to redeem a whole people devastated by foreign invasion, enslavement, and death so that it can find its place anew (Jeremiah 29:11) has become a pretty little plaque on a wall about God’s alleged provision of whatever we want whenever we want it (singular “you”). Far from being merely an innocent little bit of bad interpretation of Scripture, is not this domestication of Scripture really just a travesty? Do we really imagine that God has nothing better to do than provide us with the things we can easily provide for ourselves while we neglect to care for those among us who are vulnerable? What Bible do we read?
And yet, as I write this, I see my own attempts to control God and feel keenly the “we” in the paragraph above. There is no “I” vs. “you” here. For all of us, can we let God be God, and ourselves be God’s servants, and thus the servants of each other? Can the church be humble enough to speak on behalf of God rather than using God language as a warrant for doing what we wanted to do all along? I hope so. And I believe so. Because God is for us, and even when we are against ourselves, as we often are, nothing can separate us from this God.
Conclusions: Theological Education Forming Leaders for a Renewing Church
If God is for us in the deepest ways imaginable, and if church life should reflect that fact, and if theological education should prepare men and women to help lead us toward the God who is for us, then what are we to do now? This series began with a parable of a house needing repair and continued it by thinking about what repairs the house might need, who might do them, and how we could prepare the carpenters for their job. Yet there is an even more fundamental question: why? Why do the repairs at all? Why go to such trouble when there are other houses on the market? Why not let the decay continue until all that’s left is a ruin, something for later church historians to excavate?
The answer comes from a basic conception of the church as something to which Christ adds us. There must be some sense in which God places us where we are, calls us to be part of something. Our task is less to figure out where to be than to discover what being there means. What does it mean to inhabit the old house and learn how to use it in the best way it can be used? That is our challenge, and our opportunity in days ahead. Let us embrace it, repairs and all, with courage and with joy.
After ministering in churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Mark Hamilton completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University and moved to ACU in 2000. There he teaches courses in Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament. He has been a visiting professor at universities in the United States, South Korea, New Zealand, Croatia, Russia, and Ghana, and during 2014 was the Seymour Gitin Visiting Professor at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem. He preaches regularly in churches and writes curricula for adult Christian education programs. He also serves as an elder of the University Church of Christ in Abilene. Mark is author of more than 150 articles, chapters in books, and reviews. He is also the author or editor of five books, with two more in progress.