When touting an educational system that is affordable, accessible, relevant, and faithful there are important questions that must be considered. Questions like “What does it mean to be relevant?” or “Who gets to decide what is relevant?” or “Is relevant just a code word for pragmatic?” or “Why does relevancy matter in theological education?”.
Over the past two weeks, we have looked closely at what we mean by affordable and accessible theological education. For the next two weeks, we will address the topic of relevancy by taking a deeper look at a few concepts: contextual, integrative, and developmental paradigm.
First and foremost, relevant theological education is contextual. And that contextualization creates an educational process that is integrative and operates within a developmental paradigm.
When the first schools that were founded for the purpose of training pastors formed in the United States, the people attending those schools tended to live in close vicinity of the school. Similarly, a student’s educational context and current or future ministry context were also geographically close. Over time, and relatively quickly, that reality changed. As more denominations were formed and people migrated west, seminaries became places that people had to move to in order to access education. In doing so, the connection between education and ministry context disappeared. In the beginning, this didn’t prove to be too much of an issue because it was the heyday of Christendom, which meant the German Baptist Church in New York was probably pretty similar to the German Baptist Church in Philadelphia. And the Lutheran Church in Illinois was probably pretty similar to the Lutheran Church in Iowa. Culture accepted Christianity as a central part of society, and seminary graduates could finish their education with a pretty solid understanding of both the context into which they were to be placed and the type of ministry that would exist there.
Today in North America, that reality has completely changed. No longer is one denominational church exactly the same as another. Culture has placed the Church at the margins of society and ministry is anything but predictable. Today the locus of one’s ministry is an important factor in education as is the theology that undergirds the practice of that ministry. In fact, it could be argued that location impacts both practice of ministry and theology. If you disagree, I encourage you to speak with a Baptist pastor in inner-city LA and a Baptist pastor in suburban Atlanta. I suspect you will find differences in theology and practice even if those pastors are serving in the same denomination.
Because location has such an impact on ministry, theological education is only relevant if it can be done in light of one’s ministry context. Contextual theological education requires students to think critically about what it means to be on mission with God in their particular contexts. Coursework, theological reflection, and classroom settings must take into account what God is calling that person to do and where God has called him or her to do it.
When we say theological education at Sioux Falls Seminary is relevant, the first thing we mean is that it is contextual. Meaning, it takes place within and integrates the realities of each student’s ministry context.