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23.02.2021

Whole-life disciples: good news for theological colleges (and the nation)

Q1: ‘What kind of disciples does Jesus want to send out into the world?’

That was the question the pastor asked himself. Then he asked…

Q2: ‘What kind of church do we need to become to make those kind of disciples?’

Well, amen to both those questions. Still, if we’re to see the whole church make those kinds of disciples then we also need to ask…

Q3: ‘What kind of theological training makes church leaders who can create church communities that make those kind of disciples?’

And that’s the question that’s been on our minds for a long time. Indeed, some 25 years ago, one global entrepreneur and Bible teacher said to me, with a titanium look in his eye: ‘You’ve get to get the theological colleges on board.’

Train a Christian and you’ve got one trained Christian.

Train a trainer, and across a lifetime they may train hundreds, even thousands of people.

But train a trainer of trainers? Now we’re talking hundreds of thousands.

That’s the impact the staff of a theological college can have, affecting the lives of millions through what they teach leaders about the scope of the gospel, the role of the ‘laity’, and the nature of the church. And, vitally, what they teach about how to read the Bible and how to live and share the good news in changing cultural circumstances.

Sadly, overall, theological education globally has not, over the last 200 years, been very interested in training future church leaders or church-paid missionaries to be makers of whole-life disciples. But could things change?

Well, thanks to the generosity of people giving to the John Stott Memorial Fund, Antony Billington and I got together with Dr Ian Shaw, our partner from Langham, to work on a practical response to that third question.

 

Whole life, whole college

Our initial research confirmed that globally the majority of theological colleges were deeply affected by the sacred-secular divide. Most were not shaped by a desire to train church-paid leaders to equip all God’s people for their Monday to Sunday ministries in the world.

Still, we didn’t just want to highlight the problem. We wanted to identify the blocks to change and how they might be removed. And we wanted to unearth and share good practice – not only in various disciplines, but in the overall culture of institutions.

With those aims in mind, we ran four-day workshops on four different continents with over thirty theological educators, representing a wide range of disciplines and roles.

Not surprisingly, the overall culture of the institution turned out to be the key. Overcoming the impact of the sacred-secular divide is not an issue for one particular subject area, but for the whole curriculum and the whole staff.

One vice-Principal’s initial response to joining the project was to invite his new PA to read a one-page article on the theology of work and discuss it with him for half an hour. And then to read a one-page article on vocation. And then a one-page article on ‘ministry in the workplace’. It changed the way his new PA ran his office. And it made me wonder how many non-academic staff in our UK colleges go to work with a biblical understanding of the work they do. I suspect the answer is very few, given that, often, a theology of work isn’t even on the student curriculum.

The bigger point, though, was that the Vice Principal’s response to the challenge began in his office, with him and his staff. He recognised that this was something to be lived and integrated into the seminary’s whole life – not just crowbarred into a couple of lectures on an existing module.

 

A vision for all

Of course, as you would expect from a group of scholars, there was robust questioning of this thesis.

Initially, many academics didn’t think equipping all God’s people was an issue for their subject to address – they felt it might be up to the pastoral theologians or the missiologists. But they quickly saw that the problem of the sacred-secular divide goes back to how people are taught to read the Bible and to which doctrines are emphasized in the whole curriculum, and in what way.

Scholars were understandably also wary that a concern for practical application would dumb down the curriculum or compromise how far students could develop the vital skills their discipline teaches. And that’s where the examples of current best practice became so powerful. You really can teach Hebrew with whole-life discipleship in mind, and even do it in a way that develops skills in other disciplines.

We saw it in Colombia in a course on Ruth. Part of the assessment was to identify an issue in the Book of Ruth that was relevant to contemporary Colombian society, to write a short summary of how that issue presented itself based on published research, and then reflect on how Ruth might offer a response to that issue. So, for example, the Book of Ruth deals with the question of how displaced people are treated. Now, there are some 7 million displaced people in Colombia. How might the Book of Ruth inform how society and the church should respond?

Encouragingly, we also found examples of colleges where the whole curriculum was designed around developing people who could live out the gospel in their Monday-to-Saturday lives themselves – and teach others to do it. In two colleges, the whole faculty reviewed each other’s modules to ensure they were integrated around that core goal, as well as to minimise duplication of skill development or areas of application.

Frankly, it was exhilarating to see.

 

A powerful new resource

This week sees the publication of the book that summarises our findings: Whole Life Mission for the Whole Church – Overcoming the Sacred-Secular Divide through Theological Education.  It looks at the challenge of the sacred-secular divide and responses to it from Augustine to Paul Stevens. It then offers a host of practical strategies for the development of curricula, modules, lectures, assessments, and indeed institutions that will form leaders who can equip others for their ministry in God’s world.

No seminary can teach a church leader everything they need for a lifetime of ministry. But no seminary should fail to teach the central importance of equipping all God’s people to live out their faith in their everyday lives – whatever they do, wherever they are.

Our fervent prayer is that this book will contribute to that goal. And so to the liberation of all God’s people into their everyday ministry, the blessing of millions in our nation and beyond, and the salvation of many.

If you know a theological educator, consider sending them a copy as an Easter present. Maybe with some chocolate as well. After all, this isn’t an easy goal to pursue. But it is one that Jesus gave us.

Order your copy of Whole Life Mission for the Whole Church

Get 30% off with code Whole-Life-LICC-30 until 14 of April.

Author

Mark Greene

Comments

  1. Warmest congratulations for this landmark achievement!

    By Riad  -  26 Feb 2021
  2. Amen to everything that is said and written!!! It is vital for the contemporary church!!!

    By Victor Petrenko  -  27 Feb 2021
  3. Amazed there isn’t a link to be able to buy it! Can’t find it in your resources section either! Looking forward to getting my hands on a copy!

    By Nigel Taylor  -  28 Feb 2021
  4. Just to update – since Nigel’s comment above (28th Feb 2021) we have put a link to buy it (Red box above). We’ve even included a discount code!
    As Mark says above, we pray this book will significantly help equip places of theological education to equip all God’s people to live out their faith in their everyday lives – whatever they do, wherever they are.

    By Ken Benjamin (LICC)  -  11 Mar 2021

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