By: Stephen Ray
June 07, 2016
At a recent FTE Community Forum in Chicago, I was struck with the observation made by a presenter that our next generation of pastors are now in prison. I was reminded of a related thought expressed last year at a gathering in Ferguson, MO, on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death—that the leaders of church, whatever it will become in the future, are in the streets today fighting for justice.
Taken together, these insights conjure a whole new way of thinking about the future of theological education and the partnerships needed to restore vitality to our project.
What if contrary to the reigning understanding of theological education—that of intellectual stabilizer for religious institutions of the bourgeois and middle classes, it was instead understood to be a religious provocateur in our rapidly changing world and society? What might that look like for us ensconced in the project and what might it look like for our greater society and the church embedded in it?
Generally, a provocateur is understood to be some person or group who stirs things up disturbing the tranquility of any given social arrangement. To use the language prevalent during the Civil Rights movement, provocateurs might be thought of as outside agitators. If we step back for a moment and take seriously what has happened in theological education, particularly of a liberal stripe, over the last few decades it is inescapably clear that our current and emerging audiences are folks coming to us from the margins. The racial, ethnic, economic, and sexual identities of our students are far from the center as they once were. Whether it is racial ethnic minorities, broke millennial, or LGBTQ persons, our students less and less exemplify the mythical norm around which we have built our curriculums, our development departments, our placement practices, and our very self-understandings. The mythical norm of the classical liberal arts major who comes from and will head to a white middle-class suburban or thriving rural congregation ensconced in the existential normatively of American society and culture has been fiction for quite some time now. This is not to say the referents of this myth do not exist, it is simply to say that they do not exist in any way that could be considered is the norm. The way we know this is that is observing how many schools currently shuttering predicated their whole existence on this fiction.
If instead of fiction we allow the identities of the students sitting before us to call us into the real world as it is becoming, we might yet discover new meanings for our project. Meanings which include finally seeing as normal the racial and ethnic communities who send us their dollars and aspirations in the form of our students; meanings which include new ways of engaging the sacred scrit that are life-giving because they answer the questions of our time and not Bultmann’s; meanings which recall that God has always changed societies from the margins, particularly when the center ignores and oppresses the least of these. With these new meanings and ways of understanding the world we might renew our curriculums, our programs, our development offices, and our vocations. Claiming then the vibrant future which is available to us.
One thing I have learned of late and that was confirmed at the gathering in Chicago is that the church is not dying.
Rather, the church is bursting at the seams to become what God is calling us to be in this day and time. Theological education will thrive in this new time if we have competent guides leading the way. I am convinced they will not likely be found in liberal arts programs at selective schools but rather in home release programs and on the streets. The question for us is do we care enough about being a part of God’s future to trust that guy who has been on the run from the law hiding as a shepherd among his father-in-laws sheep on the back of the mountain or those women bringing tales about the dead up walking around? If we can, God has work for us and will make provision for us each step of the way.
Caption: Dr. Stephen Ray of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary reflects on his experience during the Community Forum in Chicago.