Traditional disciplines such as theology and the study of biblical languages will always be a part of the typical seminary curriculum. But if the goal of preparing future pastoral leaders is to be realized, seminary education must adapt with the times, theological educators say. The role of religion in world conflict and the need to understand and interact with other belief systems are changing the approach many schools take to seminary education.
"Undoubtedly we are living in a changing world, and the seminary should take this fact into consideration," says Southwestern Seminary's Samuel Shahid. "(At Southwestern) we realized, for instance, the impact of Islam and the aggressiveness of Muslims in propagating their faith, which the media do not mention publicly. We have also discovered that evangelical churches are ignorant about Islam. Consequently, we established an MA in Islamic Studies to equip our students, who are the future missionaries, pastors, ministers of education, and ministers of missions, to, in turn, equip their own churches with the right information."
The response by seminaries appears planned and careful. "We have consciously decided not to react too strongly to the changing situation in our culture," says Grand Rapids Seminary's Michael Wittmer. "We believe that our classical education in the languages, biblical, historical, and practical theology is a powerful preparation for ministry in any culture. Seminaries who educate only for the present produce graduates who have a brief shelf life.
"That said, the cultural changes since 9/11 have inevitably influenced every course. Our changing culture influences how we read Scripture in our Bible classes, the kinds of questions we raise in our theology classes, and the specific applications in our ministry classes." One response by the school: its apologetics course now features a major component on Islam, a topic rarely broached prior to 9/11.
Fuller Seminary has added courses on Hinduism and other world religions. It has also added a major government-funded program in conflict transformation that involves regular dialogues with Muslim leaders, research, publications, and training programs, as well as lectures and panels on current issues such as the U.S. excursion into Iraq.
Gordon-Conwell offers more extensive course work on world religions. This includes new courses on Buddhism and Hinduism. The seminary is also addressing issues of inter-religious dialogue and pluralism in some of its theology classes. Gordon-Conwell has held forums on Islam for students and faculty, and is offering seminars for church leaders and congregations to teach about Islam and Muslim people. An entire issue of the alumni magazine recently offered substantive discussion of Islam, according to professor Timothy C. Tennent.
Phoenix Seminary offers electives on world religions, including an elective on Islam. The course is a result of the missionary experience of Intercultural Studies Instructor Malcolm Hartnell, who with his family spent 17 years planting churches among an unreached Muslim people group in Kenya. "These courses are witness-oriented. That is, they are designed not only to teach students about a particular religion, but how best to witness Jesus Christ to adherents of a particular religion."
One required course for Phoenix Seminary students is "evangelism and discipleship," which has been reshaped to make students aware of the growing ethnic diversity in the Phoenix area, which is home to some 30,000 Muslim refugees. One regular speaker in the class is the head of Refugee Ministry Network in Phoenix. Students learn how churches are ministering to these groups.
Likewise, Azusa Pacific University brings the spiritual needs of people around the world before its students, says the school's Kevin Mannoia. "It is our commitment to God, our desire for a warm heart, and passion for the Church that keeps us flexible in adapting to the cultural changes around us.
"The Department of Global Studies and Sociology addresses these issues to the point of engaging students with persons of different religions in order to expose and inform," Mannoia says. "The international commitment is broad and deep. Sending professors to teach in dozens of countries around the world each year, student programs overseas, and exchanges into diverse domestic and international cultures all exist not simply to give students a richer environment, but to enhance the community and shape us into more of what God wants us to be as world influencers—a community of disciples and scholars advancing the work of God in the world."
R.N. Frost, Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Ethics at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, maintains that the new times cry for an emphasis on an old value: love. Frost makes his point by describing the dramatic winds that blow up and down the great Columbia River Gorge: "If a high pressure zone exists in Pendleton, at the far eastern end of the gorge, while at the same time Portland has a lower barometric pressure, the wind roaring down the gorge can threaten trees and rooftops in Portland. But if the pressure zones are reversed, so are the winds."
Frost continues, "When Christianity is defined by a love-of-God-and-neighbor-high-pressure-zone, the life of our faith blows dramatically into our pluralistic culture in the manner Jesus promises in John 3. That kind of affective, 'heartfelt' spirituality carries with it the kind of passion that can trump the passions of current Islamic fundamentalism.
"If, for instance, some suicidal elements of Islam are prepared to give up their lives for jihad, Christians offer a passion of another kind—the willingnesss to lay down their lives for the sake of others. One is destructive, one constructive," Frost says. "Christianity has always prospered more for her life lived out under the shadow of the cross than for her apologetic skills. Both are needed, and Multnomah seeks to cultivate both, but especially a profound theology of the Cross offered through the applied word of God's sacrificial love."
Concludes Frost, "The one who loves most deeply will always overcome."
Randy Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.