Skip to site content

When Seminary Students Don’t Have a Faith Tradition

As I read through a list of seminary students involved in a preaching event, I noted that where their faith traditions were listed that a number indicated that they were “non-denominational” or “interdenominational.” 
I don’t remember anyone putting “none.”

I would love to hear their definitions of these terms, but let’s just assume for a minute that by using either of these terms, the student is saying one of two things: “I belong to a church that is not related to a particular denomination” or “I am not committed to a particular faith tradition.”

This seems to be a growing trend for some students in theological institutions. 

Many schools have diverse student bodies and enroll students from a number of denominational backgrounds, but some students indicate that they are not part of any particular denomination. 

My friend, Dick Olsen, at Central Seminary comments that he often asks students in a particular course to read 50 pages about their denomination or faith tradition. 

Some either don’t have one to read about or can’t find that many pages about their denominations!

Perhaps this is an analogy to the “I’m spiritual but not religious” mantra. In both instances, the people involved are not hostile to the spiritual life and may even want to serve a congregation, but they are concerned about being specific in their commitment. How does this happen?

Could it be because the student has had a bad experience in a particular denomination or church and no longer wishes to be identified with it?

Certainly that is possible, and there are enough problems in churches that many of us can understand that decision.

Maybe the individual became a person of faith through contact with a parachurch group or a non-denominational church. 

There have been campus groups (such as Campus Crusade – now “Cru,” Navigators and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship) for years that are not connected to any particular church.

Many of those who came to Christ through the witness of those groups have started churches that are not related to a particular denomination.

Of course, it is possible that the student is just waiting for the right church or denomination to come along. They have not made a choice yet but they “will know it when they see it.”

This raises questions for theological educators, questions such as: “What is our role in helping a student to find a church home or affiliation?” and “If we are helping to equip this person for ministry, shouldn’t we have some understanding of the church or people that the student will serve?”

Failure to answer these questions properly can lead to frustration for both the faculty and the student.

A new era brings new challenges, doesn’t it? 

Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He blogs at BarnabasFile.blogspot.com. His Twitter feed is @ircel.