Part 10: Theological Education as Missional Equipping

[To access all of the posts in this series, visit the "Church in Arequipa" tag.]

No one is really in a position to say what missional means—it’s still under negotiation among those who care about the precision with which we use words connected to important ideas.  The ideas to which missional is connected are very important, in my opinion, but the discussion of the word for the last decade or so has been especially fraught because it is also about a movement.  Local expressions of Christianity are changing, and some (hopefully much) of what is emerging is about a realignment with God’s mission.  In part, this means recontextualizing the gospel, and therefore the church, in Western postmodern subcultures.  And in part it means correcting some of the assumptions and structures that have long prevented congregations everywhere from participating in God’s mission to the extent they might have.

One of the most important shifts concerns the way we do theological education.  Granted, many in the church would not admit to any concern about theological education, or would not call it theological education if they did.  But speaking as one of those people who cares about the precision with which we use words, I’m perfectly happy with the terminology.  At issue is the manner in which we teach one another to think and speak about God.  Yet, at least in Western churches there is a tradition of educating “ministers” theologically but then expecting their own teaching task to be different altogether.  They are trained to do ministry, but if their training is theological education, then they do not theologically educate the church.  In short, ministers do not educate as they were educated, the assumption being that the rest of the church are not ministers in training. 

I’m not as worried about the fact that there are differences in gifts and interests, not to mention learning styles, as I am about the assumption that professional or full-time ministers learn something qualitatively different than the church because their task is essentially different.  Ephesians 4:11–13 defies such a notion:

It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.
— Paul, Ephesians 4:11-13 (NET Bible)

These leadership roles, which are all related in that they are “service of the word” (cf. Acts 6:4), exist not to perform a different, special, or exclusive ministry but rather to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  The ministry is the whole church’s, and it has to do with the imitation of Christ.  We look to his word-and-deed ministry in order to understand what service in the kingdom of God is about.  That is the measure of Christ’s full stature.  The ministry is not a set of clerical tasks (sacraments, ceremonies, and sermons).  That paradigm is rooted in a church model that we call Christendom, which is the way of being that missional churches seem to be leaving behind.  Even very iconoclastic, “low church” groups such as the Churches of Christ have been in an inherited a mode of operation that made no room for the implications Eph 4:11–13.  Preachers and ministers do the ministry stuff; they go to school for it (whether a Bible school or a university), and it’s their job to do those particular tasks.  In the end, theological education is what they get in order to do ministry, and although ministry involves teaching, they will not teach as they were taught.  Theological education has not been a model for equipping the saints but for equipping a minister class for the work that was supposedly not the saints’ responsibility.  

This, then, is one of the assumptions that has long prevented congregations from participating in God’s mission as they might have.  The basic shift from a missional viewpoint is to see every Christian as a minister (literally in the Greek, a servant) and to see the task before the church not as ministry according to its previous clerical definition but as service in Jesus’ kingdom mission.  Thus, theological education, which I take to be the kind of equipping that the servants of the word in Eph 4:11 would facilitate, should be the process of preparing the whole church for the task of ministry.  I do not mean by this that we should lower the bar for preparing those servants of the word.  Rather, I think we should raise the expectation for the whole church’s engagement in ministry and therefore raise the expectation for the whole church’s theological education.  Theological education should become a model of (or many models of) missional equipping.
The great difficulty with this transition is amplified in a Majority World mission field.  Theological education is currently ensconced in academia.  The degree of specialization it requires is a powerful contributor to the distinction between the tasks of “ministers” and that of the church.  The  academic nature of theological education is problematic enough in churches with a higher average education level.  But even reducing theological education to its essential elements, it centers on an ancient written text, which requires functional literacy, historical understanding, and critical thinking.  For largely uneducated congregations, the task is tremendously challenging.  Add to this the culturally diverse modes of teaching and learning throughout the world, and it is perhaps predictable that missionaries in all corners are exploring new paradigms for theological education.  The corrective is not optional if all the saints are to be equipped for the work of ministry when millions of them are uneducated and culturally isolated from Western seminary models.

This is the question I’ve been wrestling with in Arequipa: what does missional equipping look like here?  We are committed to establishing a church that, as a community, turns reflexively to Scripture, but what kind of theological education will achieve that end in our context?  For many churches here, the answer is to accept the divide, relegating the reading, wrestling, and interpreting to an educated few who deliver conclusions to the rest.  And maybe delivering conclusions—well-packaged, inspiring conclusions—is a kind of equipping.  I suspect that its result is too low a standard alongside the measure of Christ’s full stature, though.  I suspect that it doesn’t really prepare the receivers to engage in mission with Scripture in hand.  So how do we engage every disciple in intentional equipping for mission?  I’m still not sure, but here’s the prayer: May we find a way, if only for this time and this place, to equip the whole church for God’s mission, without resorting to contextually inappropriate models and without diminishing the role of Scripture.