This year, the Oikonomia Network’s annual faculty retreat featured Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, on the present and future of evangelical theological education.
You can listen to his full talk here:
Additionally, you can view the handout he provided to attendees.
Aleshire began by providing an introductory set of contextual comments – defining how ATS defines “evangelical” schools, in order to appropriately identify the educational institutions that he was referring to and engaging in a brief historical overview of the innovative actions of evangelical seminaries over the past fifty years.
He said that evangelicals have been by far the most innovative and adaptive in theological education:
Evangelicals have adopted multiple new forms of Protestant expression that have never existed before the last fifty years, and so with seminaries. They were the first to have distance education…They were the first in the ATS to really begin expanding beyond the core church professions to deal with counseling, to deal with leadership, to deal with a whole lot of other areas in which they now offer professional masters programs. The evangelical schools have been more entrepreneurial; they have been more inventive.
Questions We Need to Ask
Next, Aleshire provided a candid and data-driven diagnosis of the current state of evangelical theological education, and the questions facing theological schools:
- Overall enrolment is declining. What will be the extent and duration of this decline?
- A majority of the U.S. population will be persons of color by the 2040s. How will evangelical schools prepare for this demographic shift?
- Most ATS member schools are undergoing a period of financial stress. While evangelical schools are undergoing less stress than mainline Protestant schools, the sustainability of theological education depends on asking: what are the viable financial models?
- The Majority World will be the primary space where Christianity will grow. How will North American evangelical schools cultivate and strengthen relationships with educational institutions in the Majority World?
Based on this diagnosis of theological education, Aleshire ended with a set of comments on the possible directions for the future of evangelical theological institutions. Aleshire discussed some dramatic shifts he thinks may emerge:
Twenty years from now, we will have some schools saying, “Is that theological education?” The normative center of educational practice is going to become much more diverse and schools will not be able to afford to do everything so schools will have to bet on certain educational practices. It’s a bet, and you don’t know until it’s over, whether you won or lost.
He proposed three hypotheses for consideration. The first was that the future of evangelical theological education will be more diverse in its educational practices.
Second, in light of the gradual decline of denominations, he suggested that the schools that survive and succeed will be those that cultivate a “faithful constituency of individuals and congregations” that provide students, funding and service:
The pattern of the relationship for theological schools will have to be more congregational, rather than thinking [that] it can relate to the denomination and then the denomination will relate to the congregations on their behalf.
Third, Aleshire suggested that “we are on the verge of a fundamental shift in theological education.” The “professional” model of education is in serious decline, and it will be largely replaced with a “more formational” model. Instead of simply providing professionalization, as the larger culture continues to secularize the role of theological schools will center more on “cultivating authentic moral, religious and spiritual maturity.” This is a deep and difficult shift, and as he said, it involves more than simply revising the M.Div. curriculum because, “how people learn to be faithful is different than how they learn the Greek alphabet.”
Drawing upon 35 years of experience in theological education, Aleshire’s speech provided a sober hope and concrete recommendations for the future of theological schools.
.Photo Credit: (Photo/Bob Allen/BNG)