The Seminary Bubble

Via Twitter, I saw a fascinating article on Forbes’ blog about the “Seminary Bubble.” Excerpt:

After all, what matters more to the customer, the member: the ability to discuss the relationship between Paul Tillich’s theory of ultimate concern and Karl Barth’s version of neo-orthodoxy in light of the demythologizing textual hermeneutic of Bultman, or the ability to keep the congregation/audience’s attention for twenty minutes with a relevant sermon about family life? Seminary tends to give you loads of the former and little of the latter.

I might quibble with the word “customer” there, but then, I’m seminary-trained and quibbling is my stock-in-trade. Other than that, there’s a lot of truth to it. The theological gibberish in that quote is spot-on. God forbid I ever say anything that stupid from the pulpit.

I’m not sure 20 minutes is the target any more, either. It’s still the norm in the mainline, but the point of the article is that the mainline is hardly a standard any more. My guess is that a lot of “customers” want more than 20 minutes worth of sermon. Anything worth doing is worth doing. Also, as people become less and less familiar with Christianity, liturgical rites and ceremonies are increasingly arcane. You can’t devote most of an hour to incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo and assume it’s relevant to people just because you’ve eliminated references to Barth and Tillich.

(As an aside, the writer says the disconnect also has to do with politics. This is a stock complaint. “The mainline denominations are populated, barely, with Prius-driving Democrats, while evangelical churches are packed with Nascar fans who vote Republican.” That may be true, but 1800 years ago, the Temples were filled with rock-ribbed devotees of Juno and Apollo, and Christians were in the arena. So what?)

That’s not to say there aren’t some real insights in the article. Read the whole thing. The gist is that seminary is expensive but doesn’t necessarily produce people who “succeed” in ministry. (That’s another word I can’t help but quibble with: success in ministry isn’t necessarily measured in a church’s budget or seating capacity.)

When I speak with less-well trained ministers, the less tactful of them tell me something that boils down to: “we equip the called, and [your denomination] calls the equipped.”

Maybe. But my guess is it has at least as much to do with assuming pastoral ministry is something you can learn in school. It’s not a question of who’s called, or not always. It’s a question of how you equip them.

Paul didn’t send Timothy off to seminary. A lot of people at “successful” churches — especially church planters — have spent a fair bit of time either in what amounts to an apprenticeship, or belong to networks that provide more support than a denominational superstructure provides. (For a hilarious-but-tragic example of denominational indifference, see Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant.)

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