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Why Seminaries Must Do More Than Teach Preaching

How can the effectiveness of a theological seminary be assessed?
Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) recently hosted a conference organized by Overseas Council, where this question was asked.

It has often been assumed that seminaries train pastors to preach, teach and counsel church members and manage church affairs.

Their curriculum reflects this and the “success” of the seminary is measured by whether the students were trained to be pastors with these skills and had the required doctrinal and theological knowledge.

Unfortunately, what is often not assessed is whether the graduates are effective in the churches where they serve and whether what they had learned in seminary was relevant to the contexts where these churches are located.

Events over the last few years in Egypt and Lebanon, and the last few weeks in Ukraine, have provided new images of where the church ministers and what is involved in providing pastoral leadership in those locations.

â—     In Egypt, Christians and their leaders, standing together with Muslims, prayed in Tahrir Square as the revolution unfolded.

â—     In Lebanon, local churches that had never addressed social issues opened their doors to Syrian refugees and demonstrated what forgiveness and love look like.

â—     In Ukraine, not only were Orthodox priests dressed in robes and carrying crucifixes seen praying in Maidan Square, but numerous churches united together in a whole night of fasting and prayer to thwart foreign aggression.

Do seminaries prepare their graduates to be effective and relevant in a world where the reality of the Kingdom of God needs to be demonstrated and not just preached, and to walk alongside those who are fearful of what daily events mean to their safety and future?

For a long time, theological education has focused on training students on the essence of the Christian faith by focusing on biblical studies and systematic theology.

It was believed that this, along with the skills of preaching, teaching and counseling, is all that a pastor needed to know to be effective.

However, Christians are struggling to understand the relevance of their faith and spirituality in an increasingly complex and pluralistic world where moral dilemmas are pushing against boundaries that had not previously existed.

Context does not determine what theology and truth is. However, God is perceived and understood through the lenses of one’s own culture, gender, social and economic status, life experiences, season of life, political ideology and value system.

Therefore, theology has to translate the truth about God into specific cultural, social and political contexts.

Mennonite and Anabaptist theologian Thomas Finger explained this well: “Theology is always in dialogue with its cultural contexts … including the academic sphere. Theology tests the church’s current beliefs and often revises them through conversations with its culture.”

If theology needs to be constantly in dialogue with cultural, social and political contexts to make relevant the truths about God and the world he created, then theological seminaries need to train their students to lead the churches they will serve to repeatedly ask: What does it mean and imply to be a church among a people and in society?

It is this kind of leader that the Institute of Middle East Studies’ (IMES) master of religion in Middle Eastern and North African studies program seeks to develop.

IMES seeks to be in dialogue with the Arab and Islamic contexts to understand what would the gospel mean to people who have a very different worldview.

This kind of theological education will not only proclaim Christ in ways that he will be understood, but also will have a profound impact on society.

Rupen Das is director of the master of religion in Middle Eastern and North African studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission. You can follow IMES on Twitter @IMESLebanon.

Editor’s note: Robert Parham’s editorial on his conversation with ABTS president Elie Haddad regarding how Lebanese Christians are addressing the Syrian refugee crisis is available here.