Seminaries Reluctantly Selling Their Souls

When I was sixteen, I inexplicably got a job as a mechanic.  I was assigned to tires and batteries—the kindergarten of the automotive world.  Even in the department in which I could do the least damage, I was a problem.  Flat tires I repaired came back flat.  New batteries I put in acted like old batteries.  (Diehards died easily in my hands.)  I installed one muffler that did not muffle.  I was not trusted around brakes.  I pray that I did not hurt anyone.

After a week of other mechanics repairing my repairs, the manager took me aside: “Brett, we don’t want bad things to happen, so you’re now a student in our automotive repair correspondence program.  You get a ten cent an hour raise for each test you pass.  You make more money and the customers stay alive.  Everybody wins.”

A week later I was making sixty cents more an hour, but I still could not work a pair of pliers.  I learned to fix cars when the manager ordered real mechanics to work with me.  They stuck their head under the same hood, showed me how to do it, and answered my questions.  We do not want mechanics, doctors, firefighters, police officers, or ministers who do all of their preparation with a workbook.

Seminaries are dealing with difficult questions about how to prepare ministers.  The number of Master of Divinity students in the United States decreased 6% last year.  When seminaries struggle financially they are tempted to offer online versions of correspondence courses.  The majority of the small number of seminaries that are growing are doing so by offering online degrees.  New degree programs and new delivery systems are attempts to meet the demand for cheaper diplomas, fewer classes, and less sacrifice.  Many students who study online are juggling work and family responsibilities, but for others it is about expediency.

We need to recognize what we give up when we whittle down requirements.  Degrees that cost less to obtain may cost more in the long run.

Financial challenges make it difficult for seminaries to keep asking important questions:  What kind of teaching will best serve Christ’s church?  How can we give students the kind of learning experience they can share in their ministries?  Where is the Spirit leading?  What would God have us do?

Reading books and taking quizzes is a fine way to learn facts, but we need relationships to learn to live as the church.  Even when the technology is amazing, the teachers are not sticking their heads under the same hood.  Students sit at their computers watching lectures that the professors delivered to previous students.  The professors miss the confused look on the student’s face as well as the “aha” moment of shared discovery.

Many students complain about online classes.  They recognize that this is not the best preparation to serve.  Students who attend classes in person find it hard not to resent those who receive the same degree without paying the same price.  Students who wish they could meet with their professor and other students are denied the opportunity when the class they need is only offered online.  The trend in theological education to require less of students will, in time, hurt the church.  Is it really a seminary education if we are not worshipping together, praying with one another, or talking about Jesus between classes?

My experience as a seminary student was less about memorizing content than about being transformed by teachers who shared themselves.  I do not remember many dates from church history, but I remember Bill Leonard working hard to convince us that the history of the church could lead us to love the church.  I am fuzzy about whether Karl Barth was from Switzerland or Germany, but I remember when Frank Tupper talked about the problem of evil with a heart so broken that our hearts broke, too.  I cannot tell you the name of every textbook Raymond Bailey assigned, but when my wife Carol suffered a miscarriage, Raymond and his wife Pat drove an hour to pray with us.

When people argue for online education they often say, “It’s almost like being in the same room,” but almost is not as good.  Some students and young professors will never know how good a seminary education can be.

Students can learn online.  Friendships can form on line.  God can be heard through computer speakers, but it is hard to imagine the Lord’s Supper as a Skype meeting.


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How can we keep from singing?

The persistent demand throughout the Bible that people of faith sing loud may seem cruel to those whose musical gifts do not fill the buckets in which we cannot carry a tune. Come Christians, Join to Sing would be less threatening if it was Come Christians, Join to Talk. Come Christians, Join to Eat would be nice.

When we sing When in Our Music God is Glorified some of us assume God is more glorified by the people singing around us. The cacophonous among us have learned to sing off-key at a volume that does not draw attention, with a rhythm that only we recognize.

Fortunately for the disharmonious, singing, at least the kind of singing described in scripture, has little to do with quality of voice and everything to do with openness of spirit. The tone deaf in Colossae were glad to hear Paul say that their singing of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” was to take place “in your hearts.” Some of us find it comforting that singing is not about what gets to the ear, so much as it is about what penetrates our souls. Maybe every now and then pastors should sing solos just to make that clear.

We become too sensible to sing. We admire efficiency over spirit. We are preoccupied with what seems useful. Without a song in our hearts we become dull people. We baptize our grouchiness and call it maturity. The opposite of singing is not silence, but critical restraint.

God, deliver us from being rigid, clenched-teeth people who try to be more earnest than God. Faith gives us a lightness of spirit. Have you heard how it is that angels fly? G.K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.” Conversely, someone suggested that Satan fell to hell by the sheer weight of gravity. He took himself so seriously.

If there is no music bursting within us, then we need to open ourselves to the joy God has offered. When you open the Bible you hear music: the prophet Miriam, tambourine in hand, singing at the Exodus; King David auditioning musicians to lead in worship; Psalmists writing symphonies for harps, lyres, trumpets, timbrels, strings, pipes, and loud clashing cymbals (never a mention of guiet, soothing cellos). The hymns of the early church are sprinkled through the New Testament. At the annunciation Mary bursts into the Magnificat. At Jesus’ birth a choir of angels break into song. Paul and Silas have favorite hymn night in prison. In Revelation, The Hallelujah Chorus ushers in the kingdom of God. On virtually every page, we hear the music of the holy that transcends what is expected.

A theology student went to the philosopher Paul Tillich with nagging questions about faith. Tillich responded to this young person by playing a recording of Credo (I Believe) from Bach’s B Minor Mass. Credo does not explain the Nicene Creed, but surrounds it with violins, trumpets, flutes, oboes, and voices. Tillich realized that the most satisfactory answers to that student’s questions were more likely to be found in music than in sharper reasoning.

Some people sing life—four-year-olds on their good days, poor people who do not consider themselves poor, truly funny comedians, the best writers, genuine Christians, the ones who sing alleluia for the good they have been given. We have a song that we need to sing.

In the early 1960’s, when racial conflict was first erupting in the Deep South, a Southern white person went to where the trouble was hottest to see for himself what was going on. He watched African-Americans asking for their rights and watched them being beaten back. He returned home and a friend asked about what he had seen.

He said, “It looks bad. The culture’s against them. The laws are against them. The FBI is against them.”

His friend asked, “Do you think they’re going to lose?”

“No, I think they’re going to win.”

“You just said the laws are against them, the FBI is against them, and the whole culture is against them. Why do you think they’ll win?”

“They have this song.”

We have a song born within us each time we open our hearts to God’s presence. We have the song of God’s goodness, the hymn of the Almighty’s grace, the melody of the Creator’s mercy, the psalm of the Spirit’s love. How can we keep from singing?

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