This is the 9th in a series of posts taken from a paper I offered at this year’s American Society of Missiology gathering. It was offered as part of the ongoing project, “The Future of the Discipline of Missiology,” led by Dr. Craig Van Gelder.
Toward A Mission-Shaped Vision Of Theological Formation: Implications Of The Missio Dei For Theological Education
Previous posts in this series:
The Missionary Practice of Theological Education: Training Disciples in Mission for the Church
It should be abundantly clear by this point that a reframing of the nature and purpose of theological education that is commensurate with the missionary nature of theology and the church in relation to the missio Dei has radical implications for the actual practice of theological education. No attempt can be made here at a comprehensive survey of all the various aspects of systems of theological education that would be affected by a re-orientation of theological education to the missio Dei. Instead, I wish to tease out practical implications of this perspective in a few key areas that can serve as a representative sample of a fuller project. 1 Specifically, I will address the role of faculty (training disciples), program design (in mission), and assessment (for the church). A way to summarize my suggestions across these areas is by stating that a mission-shaped vision of theological formation understands the missionary practice of theological education to equate to “training disciples in mission for the church.”
Rethinking Faculty (training disciples…)
One conclusion of the above arguments is that theological education is not a thing besides discipleship, but an aspect of it. This is in no way to suggest that those who can’t or don’t enter into formal programs of theological education are inferior disciples, but, on one hand, to recall that in line with the missio Dei, the purpose of formal theological education is to contribute to the discipleship of leaders, and on the other hand, that Christian discipleship always entails aspects of theological education. Consequently, the role of faculty who are employed to guide the process of theological education as a means of discipleship cannot merely be as content experts. As imperative as intellectual rigor remains, from a missiological perspective, this must be situated within a larger framework of its correspondence to the holistic formation of missionary disciples – those who are equipped not merely to pass on information or serve as religious professionals, but formed in such a way that they gain the capacity, in terms of Christian scholarship, to expand frontiers of knowledge in ways that deepen or extend “ministry in the church and world,” 2 and in terms of ecclesial service, to humbly and sacrificially co-lead communities of people into a participation in the missio Dei.
At minimum, this will require faculty who can be accurately described as reflective practitioners; those who draw from and model an ongoing critical interaction between missional engagement with the world and theological reflection. The missionary practice of theological education for faculty means that “we do not just present truth, we must represent it to others. We do not just relate truth in the hope that others might comprehend it, we relate to them in a way that helps them begin to be apprehended by it. 3”
Beyond taking a more missiological approach such as this toward courses in general, the missionary practice of theological education will also lead to a need for faculty investment that creates space for students to be mentored and apprenticed and not merely instructed. 4 A question worth considering at this point, though beyond the scope of this particular paper, is whether or not our current PhD programs, the de facto requirement for those who aspire to teach in Christian institutions, are, in point of fact, capable of producing this kind of faculty person. 5
Rethinking Program Design (in mission…)
The role of faculty is one of the most important pieces to the puzzle in terms of rethinking the missionary practice of theological formation, but it is a piece all the same. For as soon as we begin re-conceiving of the role of faculty, we must likewise reconsider the design of our programs. The forgone conclusion of what I have argued above is that what is incumbent upon truly missional models of theological formation is that we seek to train student-disciples in and not just about or even for mission.
This shouldn’t be understood as an argument against residential training programs per se, but against residential training programs that fail to see a student’s engagement in mission throughout the duration of their program as a prerequisite for their involvement in it in the first place. Practically, I suggest that new, mission-shaped models of residential theological education should be predicated on substantive relationships between centers of theological education and local churches or other ministry contexts in which students can invest themselves in the realities of ministry and mission as they simultaneously engage in a theological training program. Such a model begins to give schools the opportunity to see students formed in terms of their demonstrated capacity to apply their education to some aspect of equipping the Church for mission. 6
New approaches to residential models are important, but are only part of the equation. To the extent that we can affirm that the missionary practice of theological education requires student-disciples to be engaged in mission, it becomes clear that we must give just as much, if not more, attention to developing models of distributed theological education where student-disciples are afforded the ability to remain in their current mission context. Doing so is not only pragmatically advantageous as it reduces institutional, and more importantly, student costs, but missiologically advantageous as it makes it increasingly possible for students-disciples not only to root their theological reflection in a context that they are most familiar with, but through the use of online environments, cohorts, and intensives, to engage in critical dialogue with a more globally representative community of fellow student-disciples who are similarly engaged in an ongoing process of reflecting and applying their learning to their ministry context and vice versa. 7
Rethinking Assessment (for the Church…)
It may nearly go with out saying, based on these reflections about the rethinking of faculty and program designs, that a mission-shaped vision of theological formation will necessarily alter the scorecard we use for assessing the outcomes of our labors. Embracing the mobilizational and formational purposes of theological education means, quite straightforwardly, that what we have to assess is just how effectively our centers of theological education and their programs are mobilizing and forming students and communities for faithful participation in the missio Dei.
The good news is that in reconfiguring the role of faculty and program designs along the lines offered here, we will have simultaneously created a system by which this kind of assessment can actually take place. For in this model, we have faculty whose relationship with student-disciples provides them with the proximity and experience necessary for evaluating the development of their spiritual maturity. Likewise, in designing programs that see participation in a mission context as a prerequisite for theological education, rather than hoping that students have been prepared to apply their learning after graduation, we will gain the ability to assess their development in this area over the duration of their program. These shifts in assessment correlate to the way in which the missionary practice of theological education is firmly and finally tied to its relationship to and significance for the life, ministry, and witness of the Church.
- In addition to the few areas addressed here, a more comprehensive study would need to address basic institutional structures, denominational relationships, sources of funding, relationships to accrediting bodies, course content, curriculum revision, and still other areas. ↩
- Reenvisioning Theological Education, 238. ↩
- Ibid., 174. ↩
- Under this paradigm, we may do well to consider a multi-layered approach of faculty and faculty-in-training. This would help us move beyond the use of TA’s as those who mainly grade assignment and perform other administrative tasks, to a system in which part of the responsibility of faculty members is apprenticing others into a pedagogy of student-oriented formation. ↩
- Thus we begin to see the need for approaches to theological education/formation that begin from altogether different starting points! ↩
- This will almost certainly call for a movement away from abbreviated periods of full-time study in favor of elongated programs. However, in beginning to develop an appreciation for the missiological purpose of theological education, where the point becomes less about professional credentialing and more about holistic formation in mission, this should be seen as a welcome shift. ↩
- This is one of the most integral and acclaimed features of the MA in Global Leadership program at Fuller Theological Seminary. See the case study reflections offered by Dr. Robert Freeman in, Kinsler, F. Ross. 2008. Diversified Theological Education: Equipping All God’s people. 1st ed. ed. Pasadena, CA: William Carey International University Press, Ch. 13. ↩