A guest post from Robert Saler, Executive Director of the Center for Theological Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana


Is theological education for everyone — or only for those with special vocations?

That question is not new. Nor is it new for seminary classes to be held in church basements in order to bring education closer to the people in the pews.

Yet it’s worth repeating that seminaries are continuing to experiment with bringing theological education to untapped audiences. One of these new-yet-old experiments is “taking seminary to church” — holding seminary courses in congregational settings with regular church-goers invited to learn along with officially enrolled seminarians.

Ryan P. Bonfiglio describes his experiences with this strategy in a recent article in the online publication Faith and Leadership. Bonfiglio reminds us that outsourcing theological education to seminaries is a modern innovation. He argues that bringing theological education back into congregational settings is an act of reclamation that provides multiple benefits for the church of today.

Not only does inviting laity into the classroom allow for new enrollment and advancement streams, but it also provides helpful insights for future church leaders when they learn alongside the sort of people that they might one day serve with in their congregations. Moreover, congregations can better serve their mission of producing thoughtful, reflective Christians if they partner with the seminaries to provide serious theological formation that is accessible to all, not just those in degree programs.

Bonfiglio’s picture is a hopeful one. That said, his appeal to TED Talk-style presentations raises some further questions. TED Talks are great for quick bursts of content and for piquing the curiosity of potential learners, but to be formed as a thoughtful, faithful disciple requires more than just content. There is a slow, deliberate, iterative pace to education of which content is a part, but not the whole.

So if seminaries take seriously the task of bringing theological education to congregations, then what are the formats and structures that allow for the long, slow process of theological rumination (as opposed to simply transmission of content)? In the absence of the structure of a degree curriculum, how can congregations offer not just classroom experiences but also the other facets of seminary formation (like mentoring, collegiality, and comprehensive assessment) that characterize formal degree programs?

Read Ryan Bonfiglio's article in Faith and Leadership.

Read my article on "Mixed Constituency Classrooms in Theological Education."