Connecting theological college to ordinary people: a response to Dan Strange

The latest issue of Themelios is out. You can read the whole thing here. But I wanted to offer some comments on Dan Strange’s article: ‘The things we think and do not say: the future of our business‘.

I think two things are worth saying before I make my comments. First, I think Dan is, essentially, asking the right question here. The basic issue, as he articulates it, is this:

If I, if we, have no way of articulating my part in the chain that connects our often rarefied business of evangelical erudition to the ordinary business of discipling and evangelising within the visible church, then we’re in trouble. The theologising of disciples and the disciplining of theologians surely belong together. How do we create or re-create structures and institutions that allow this mutual flourishing to occur?

I think this question, and some other key ones that flow from it, cut to the heart of what theological education and institutions exist to do and how they, as they often claim they want to do, serve the church in reality. Everything I write below is in answer (from our context) to this question.

Second, I don’t have any skin in the game. I am not a career academic and I have no ongoing involvement in any theological colleges. The place where I picked up my theological qualification is not a preferred college of most people going into ministry from my particular tribe. So, I have no special attachment to any given college.

Nor do I know Dan personally (I assume the best of him and none of this is a personal attack on him). We have met and spoken about what I am going to write about once. That was a short, snatched lunch at a conference I happened to be at where he was the main speaker. Having read some of my previous comments on this issue, he wanted to hear some further thoughts from me. For what it’s worth, I really liked Dan and I think his desire to address the issue of accessibility and connecting theology to ordinary people is real and honest.

So, where to start? I know this may sound nitpicky, especially given that Dan was writing his comments in an academic journal, but if our concern is to connect what goes on in theological colleges with ordinary people, the very language the article was written in presents its own barrier. If we are trying to connect theologically deep ideas with the average person in the church, I can’t help but think banging on about pedagogy (a term I have never used except when doing the academic classroom element of my PGCE and nobody outside of academia ever uses) and referencing Plutarch seem a bit tone deaf.

Again, I appreciate the audience of the particular article were academics. So, the issue is not so pronounced in the specific article. But interestingly, the conference at which Dan and I spoke was not an academic one. It was supposed to be for average members of similarly average churches like ours. But it was pitched at such a level, in its language, concepts, approach to teaching and application that I could not bring most of my church. The only people who could meaningfully engage (and the only two who I brought) were both in, or formerly in, some form of theological training. The talks contained large quotes from Bavinck and the ‘tools’ we were being given were so theoretical, with minimal real-world application being spelt out, that what value you they might offer our people (and I’m sure there is value in them) was placed outside the grasp of most of our guys. Even in our discussion, pedagogy made an unwelcome appearance as if it were a perfectly ordinary term to throw about.

Now, I’m not picking this up to have a go or to belittle. I say it because there are a few important points that it raises in respect to the question at hand.

First, the language we use creates particular cultures. If we speak in hifalutin terms – whether inside or outside the academy – we create a particular culture which conveys that unless you already know what these words and phrases mean, and unless you become comfortable with throwing them around willy-nilly as everybody else is being taught to do, theological education, and the academy, are not really for you. As Ian Williamson (rightly) pointed out in relation to a world mission venture in which Dan is involved, which suffers from this same problem:

In other words, the language we use creates a particular culture and implies things that mean many will simply view theology as not for them.

Second, flowing from that, these things will never change if we don’t make theology accessible to those who do not feel comfortable using these terms. If the academy appears closed to ordinary people, who use ordinary phrases – like ‘how you teach stuff’ rather than ‘pedagogy’ and ‘sucking up’ rather than ‘obsequiousness and sycophancy’ – and we only ever teach using these words rather than more ordinary, simple terms, we will never see any need to change because we will only ever take in a self-selecting group who are already comfortable with these things (or, are at least entirely willing to assimilate).

The big problem is that, for many of us working in deprived communities, sending our people to Bible college – rather than being the help to us that they claim to want to be – often feels more like sending them to Babylon. They leave us engaging with the local community, speaking their language, looking and acting like them, and come back looking like they’ve engaged in Nebuchadnezzar’s extensive assimilation programme. They suddenly don’t talk, look or behave like the people in our communities because they’ve spent 3-years fitting in with a new tribe who are nothing like the one to which they are coming back. They’ve also been taught to treasure academic (and I mean, academic, in every sense of that word) theological discussions that bear little to no relevance to the lives of those they were once so good at reaching we thought it would be wise to send them to a college so they could do it all the more and better!

If we want to connect the academy to the ordinary lives of people, we need to make the academy accessible to them. To be clear, that does not mean dumbing down. If you think using straightforward terms, as opposed to unnecessarily arcane ones, is dumbing down then I’m not convinced we’ve understood the nature of intelligence. We are about the business of forming good, gospel-hearted theologians who can apply and contextualise Bible teaching to their communities. We are not about teaching people fancy words that are not understood by most the people they are reaching so they can feel intellectually superior. As CS Lewis put it, ‘Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one.’ That is good advice, not just for writing in general, but for our teaching and speaking as well.

What is more, we need routes into Bible college, church leadership and the academy for people from working class backgrounds. If, no sooner than they come to college, any hint of working class culture is pushed out of people, we are sending the implicit message that you cannot be working class and come to Bible college. We are saying that church leadership may well not be for you. If, when in college, nobody teaching looks anything like any of the working class people coming, that sends another message too. If no working class people ever make it onto your faculty, or even as an adjunct lecturer, it’s worth asking the question why not? Is it because we’ve provided no routes in for them? Is it that those who do come are forced to assimilate so that they not longer appear working class any more? Is it that we do have a technical bar on anybody who is not from “our background”?

These questions are important because, as I noted here and here, we will end up replicating what we already have. Like has a tendency to beget like. If no working class people come through our colleges, and certainly none ever come through without having to assimilate to the dominant culture, then everybody who comes through the college will end up looking pretty much the same. As everyone we train looks the same, those we promote will end up looking identical too. For those who do not look the part, we are simply amplifying the message that this is not a place for them and, even if they do manage to get in, they certainly won’t be able to stay who they are.

A related question boils down to exactly what we are trying to train. If we are training academics for the academy, then it makes perfect sense to offer academic training. If we are seeking to train pastors and church leaders for vocational office, that model seems faulty. People laugh when you point out that Jesus and his Apostles would not be qualified to make it onto the average academic course offered by most Bible colleges and seminaries. It is equally sad that many churches have bought into the view that unless you hold an academic qualification from one such college, you are not fit to lead their church (which really would put paid to Jesus or his Apostles ever leading in your church!) The problem is, because we have wedded ourselves to this academic model, we can’t see beyond it. We happily lock out Jesus and the Apostles on the grounds that we want well-trained theologians and cannot see any means to achieve that other than arts-based academic approach that we have effectively inherited from secular universities. If I, with my History & Politics degree, can waltz onto a theology master’s degree (which I did) and simply change over the books whilst carrying on exactly as before with zero change in approach, it seems we have muddled up exactly whom we are training for what.

There is much more to be said on this. But there are some things that we might want to think about changing so that we do, in reality, connect theological education to the average person. Let’s speak in terms they understand, create cultures in which they can exist without feeling unwelcome, train them in ways that are relevant for their communities and show – rather than just say – that theology does impact their lives in meaningful ways. That isn’t the whole answer, of course, but it is something of a start. Otherwise, theological colleges will continue to appear like a bunch of oddballs in ivory towers waffling on in unintelligible language about concepts that seem to bear no real relevance to the lives of ordinary people. In other words, they will remain archetypal academics that mirror, almost exactly, their secular university counterparts.