Theological Education in the Context of World Christianity

Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, delivers the keynote address at the 2012 Lausanne Consultation on Global Theological Education, held at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Introduction by Mark Chan, with Dr. Tennent’s address beginning at 2:40.

A transcript of Dr. Tennent’s address is available here or via PDF download using the link below.


We are gathered together this week because of two remarkable developments in world Christianity.  First, the rise of global Christianity and the re-discovery of Christianity as a post-Western faith.  This theme has been well rehearsed and documented in the writings of Andrew Walls, Lamin Sanneh and Todd Johnson.  I am referring, in particular, to Andrew Walls’ collection of essays in his books, The Missionary Movement in Christian History and his The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History.[1]  I am referring to Sanneh’s Whose Religion is Christianity?  The Gospel Beyond the West and the excellent demographic work in Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross’ Atlas of Global Christianity.[2]  It has also come into the broader consciousness of Christians around the world by the more popular writings of Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity and by Samuel Escobar in his book, The New Global Mission:  The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone, among others.[3] 

The second remarkable development is the emergence of the West as the fastest growing mission field in the world and the collapse of Christendom.  No one has documented this more carefully than Elijah Kim in his 2012 book The Rise of the Global South:  The Decline of Western Christendom and the Rise of Majority World Christianity.[4]  We must, of course, appreciate the real differences between the European story of Christianity and the American story as evidenced in Peter Berger’s Religious America, Secular Europe? and Philip Jenkins’ popular work, God’s Continent.[5]  Nevertheless, these two developments are the more important twin shifts of the twentieth century which continues to have profound implications for theological education throughout the world.  Never before in history have the richest theological resources (books, libraries, endowments, developed theological faculties) found themselves situated squarely inside an emerging mission field.  Furthermore, we have to go back to the work of sixteenth century Reformers in Europe and the remarkable expansion of the church through the work of Jesuits in Latin America to find a time when the church was growing so rapidly in a context where access to theological training was under such strain.  Martin Luther, for example, once lamented that even many of his pastors did not know the Ten Commandments.[6]  Many church planting movements in the world today could echo those sentiments.  

This gathering in these days represents a unique opportunity to reflect on these two challenges (emergence of global Christianity and the collapse of Christendom) and to think together how we re-position ourselves, our institutions, our faculties and our curriculum in light of them. 

It would, of course, be a gross overstatement to presume that all of the institutions gathered here this week (both in the Majority World and in the West) have been unreflective or unresponsive to these powerful forces.  On the contrary, most of us have thought about these realities quite a bit.  Each of us, in varying ways, have been implementing, even if haltingly, various strategic responses.  However, we have not had sufficient opportunity to talk about them together in a public forum like this.  Nor have we as leaders reached anything close to a consensus as to what “best practices” even looks like.  Curriculum change, faculty hires, global partnerships, changing pedagogy and learning styles,  budgetary realities, accreditation challenges, and new degree goals are inevitably fraught with institutional inertia, resistance and innumerable theological issues which make this transition exceedingly difficult.  The purpose of this address tonight is to frame this issue in historical context, set forth at least some of the key issues before us as leaders and to provide a context for the listening and learning that we hope will take place in the days ahead.

Historical Context

Although this is a Lausanne event, we would be remiss if we did not begin by noting that this conversation has quite a fascinating history in the Association of Theological Schools which should not be underestimated within the Lausanne movement.  I could point out quite a few gatherings and initiatives, but I would like to go back to 1986 and the thirty-fifth biennial meeting of the ATS which declared the 1990’s to be the decade of globalization.  The 1986 meeting was held under the theme “Global Challenges and Perspectives in Theological Education.”  The keynote address was given by the Kenyan Cardinal Arinze, followed by a number of distinguished leaders in theological education.  These addresses were published in the Autumn and Spring issues of Theological Education in 1986.[7]  Cardinal Arinze’s keynote address focused on how the forces of globalization demand that we remember anew the universality of the Christian faith.  It was a call, in some respects, to de-westernize our understanding of Christianity.  The address began with a theological clarion call to take notice of what was unfolding on the global scene.   He then went on to point out six specific challenges we face in the globalization of our seminaries.  I will just list them without a lot of comment:  First, the lack of information.  Second, he noted the poor communication among various religious bodies around the world.  Third, he acknowledged the stiff resistance to change in institutional structures of academia.  Fourth, he pointed out the demands of time and finance on institutional life.  Fifth, he reminded us of the priority of seminaries to prepare pastors for specific confessional bodies.  Finally, he noted with alarm the growing disconnect between seminaries and divinity schools and historic Christian faith which has produced what he called “religious indifferentism” and “theological eclecticism.”  In response to these problems Cardinal Arinze called for greater exchange of international students, a closer relationship between seminaries/divinity schools and the church, a deeper appreciation for the cultural contexts out of which theological reflection arises and a more intentional capacity to dialogue as Christians with those from other religious affiliations. 

Today we stand 26 years later looking back and see that some of these concerns have been met or re-framed due to the research and writing noted earlier, major advances in global communication and the emergence of what we would call the “stand alone” evangelical seminaries or informal church based training programs which produce most of our pastors today.  Yet, several of his concerns would be as relevant today as they were 26 years ago.  Resistance to change and limitation of time and finances, for example, are just as relevant today as they were in 1986.  Arinze’s address was followed by three responses from across the theological spectrum.  Other papers were later published and in the Spring edition of the journal thirteen case studies were published which highlighted examples of how various seminaries/divinity schools were responding to globalization.  These came from Atlanta Theological Association, Claremont, Denver, Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, Harvard Divinity School, Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Princeton Theological Seminary, St. Vincent de Paul, Seventh-Day Adventist, Southwestern Baptist, Toronto School of Theology and Union in New York.   If you re-read those case studies today, as I have done, you really get the sense that in 1986 the ATS was in the first inning of a baseball game or, to be more global, the first over of a cricket match, or the opening minutes of a soccer match.  Seminaries were just beginning to warm up to the real challenges which we now face in full force tonight.  Much of it was symbolic, window-dressing type change.  Most schools were involved in technical changes, not adaptive transformation. We now stand at half time or the seventh inning stretch and we recognize that more adaptive changes are necessary if we are to really engage the global church.  There are new players on the field, new global dynamics, new voices being heard in a way which was unimaginable in 1986.

I will not highlight all of the thirty seven editions of Theological Education which were published in the ensuing years which highlighted various aspects of this conversation.  However, if we move thirteen years later to the 1999, the Spring issue of Theological Education we find an excellent summary of where most schools are and a discussion which had become far more nuanced and engaged.  After the 1986 meeting a Task Force on Globalization was set up to think more deeply about the issue.  The resulted in a twelve year initiative funded by the Pew Charitable Trust to develop better literature and “best practices” regarding globalization, even though the particular term “globalization” became eclipsed by better language.  It nevertheless gave space for better dialogue and reflection.  The conversation expanded beyond discussion of economic and social forces to also include more sustained theological reflection about the presence of a global church which was not dominated by Western theological institutions and traditions.  The findings of the task force was published in the Spring 1999 issue of Theological Education.  That issue, entitled Incarnating Globalization in ATS Schools:  Issues, Experiences, Understandings and Challenges was far more nuanced and demonstrated that most ATS schools recognized that we were in a new day and we were more prepared for adaptive change, not just technical change in the new emerging global context.  William Lesher and Donald Shriver Jr.’s article entitled “Stumbling in the Right Direction” rightly pointed out that what in 1986 was regarded with some suspicion was now a “commanding fact of life” in the ATS.  Nevertheless the decade long conversation demonstrated how difficult it was to negotiate the rise of globalization.  A few examples will suffice.  First, the discussions seemed to bring in so many more voices and yet, at the same time, vacate so much of the discussions on internationalism and ecumenism which preceded it.  Second, it became clear that the global church is far more connected to historic Christianity than many schools in the ATS which had long abandoned a clear commitment to proclamation, evangelism and church planting, all of which seemed to be natural expressions of the church with huge implications for training and ministerial preparation.  It revealed a divide in what a seminary was tasked to do which cut much deeper than the standard debate between classical, critical training and practical ministry preparation.  Third, in the ensuing years it also became clear that the age-old dichotomy of  “local” and “global” no longer made sense, even for evangelicals who had long accepted the notion of a so-called Christian West and the “mission field” which was located outside the West.  It became clear that the growing respect for other cultures and the quest for humanization seemed to be in conflict with the evangelistic goals of the church which, for many in the West, seemed out of synch with the evangelistic mission of the church.  This theme, it became clear, also went much deeper than the classical conversation between the so-called “social” gospel and the “evangelistic mandate.”  Scholarly emphathetic research about world religions, for example, seemed to be on a collision course with the vibrant , gospel proclaiming, church planting initiatives which were bubbling up all over the world.  As Peter Berger, the eminent sociologist noted, the “secularization theory is essentially mistaken” because “the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false.”  Berger goes on to say that the key assumption of the secularization theory, which insisted that “modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals… turned out to be wrong.”[8]  The West meanwhile was emerging as a mission field as evidenced by a new, virulent stream of atheism, popularized by such books as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion or Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and his Letter to a Christian Nation. [9]  However, the larger trend has been a movement towards a dizzying array of new and old spiritualities.   All of this is happening under the shadow of the emergence of a vibrant, Majority World Christianity.  This is, as noted earlier, the great new fact of our time.

Theological Education in the New Global Context

In light of all of this, where do we go from here?  I would like to suggest four areas, all of which will be discussed in various workshops and presentations which will come before this body in the days ahead.

First, we must have a serious re-tooling of our faculties so that they become acquainted with scholarship emerging from the Majority World.  It is not enough to simply sprinkle onto our faculties scholars which we recruit from around the world.  All of our faculties must become global conversant scholars.  In my own research on global theology which I published in my  Theology in the Context of World Christianity, I discovered rich theological themes being written about  by Majority World Scholars which moves global Christianity from being a hyphenated theology (such as Dalit-theology or Ming-Jung theology or some other specialized version of indigenous reflection) to a rich, textured contribution to theology in its own right.  We are clearly beyond the day when Western scholarship is viewed as the only non hyphenated theology, i.e. theology without the adjective which assumes the priority of Western scholarship.  I discovered remarkable insights into the atonement from Korean scholars and Christological insights from African scholars which promises to shape the very fabric of how theology is taught all over the world.  John Mbiti, considered one of the pioneers of African Christian theology, once lamented how Africans had dutifully traveled to the eminent Europe and North America theological institutions for higher studies without finding any corresponding interest in their own theological reflections.  Mbiti said, “We have eaten theology with you; we have drunk theology with you; we have dreamed theology with you. But it has all been one-sided; it has all been, in a sense, your theology. … We know you theologically.  The question is, ‘Do you know us theologically?  Would you like to know us theologically?’”[10] The answer up to now is that we really haven’t wanted to know much about the theological reflections of Majority World Christians.  Mbiti went on to point out that “it is utterly scandalous” for students of Western theology to know more about the theology of heretics long dead than they do about the living theology of hundreds of millions of living Africans today.[11]  Clearly, the borders of theological discourse can no longer afford to stay within the familiar perimeter of Western discourse.            

Second, we must engage in a new level of partnership which is fully bi-directional. In the past partnerships meant we provide the funding and you do what we direct you to do.  Today, we must have greater bi-lateral exchanges based on relationships and shared vision.  The notion that all “real” education takes place in the West must be replaced by a new era of mutuality and shared vision with seminaries and training institutes around the world.  Asbury has entered into a wide range of partnerships which are truly bi-directional involving faculty exchanges, student classroom exchanges and even a commitment to strengthen the library holdings of our partner institutions.  It is one way of moving to a new platform of engagement with global theological education which moves us beyond the kind of competitive posture we have inhabited in recent decades.

Third, our own seminaries and divinity schools must regain our missional footing.  In the past seminaries in the West have focused on two primary outcomes; namely, training pastors and teachers.  That is a Christendom paradigm which no longer makes sense and is why the missional churches are opting to not send their young leaders to seminary.  We must train culturally savvy, theologically nuanced evangelists and church planters.  We must release new kinds of Apostolic leadership which oversees a massive new lay empowered Christian movement in N. America and in the West. 

This means we must adopt new degree goals and delivery systems which can carry this new mandate.  We must move beyond a vision limited to credentialing for ordination to equipping for ministry.  We must embrace a new humility which allows our institutions to be tutored afresh by the wisdom and history of the larger Christian community.

Fourth, we must move to a new economic viability model.  Most of us do not currently serve institutions with a sustainable economic model.  We are driven by the market and by tuition revenue.   We have engaged in “red ocean” strategy which implies increasing competition for an ever diminishing pool of students, rather than a “blue ocean” strategy which identifies vast groups of people who are not seeking ordination or traditional ministerial roles, but who are hungry for theological training and how it applies to the marketplace.   I have taught in a theological institution in India for twenty-five years.  It would be unthinkable in that context to think that equipping the next generation of leadership for such a growing church could be sustained by limiting pastoral leadership to those with the equivalent of an MDiv degree.  The MDiv degree, let me make clear, is still vitally important and will be for the foreseeable future.  But, it must be supplemented with new levels of training for a broader base of Christians who no longer have the benefit of church and family based catechesis.   Furthermore, the notion that a student can come to Seminary and pack his or her bags in two or three years for a lifelong journey is no longer viable.  We need new life-long learning models which equip people in discreet degree and certificate programs as well as ongoing training and re-tooling in the midst of ministry.  This is why we at Asbury have launched and what we are calling the Seedbed academy.  It is a whole new approach to theological education designed to reach thousands of people who otherwise would never walk down the hallowed hallways of our institutions.


In conclusion, this is a kairos moment in the history of Western theological education.  It involves moving beyond the kind of chronos orientation towards time which is framed by semesters and academic calendars.  Instead, we must re-capture a whole new vision of our time in the history of the church.  This involves new kinds of leadership which leads us to new models of education and faculty deployment.  There are many new faces in the Christian church which demand nothing less.  If we listen to these voices and take seriously the kairos of our own generation, then we can move joyfully from the Ichabod of despair to the Emmanel of hope and promise.  The impossibilities which cross our desks every day must be re-framed by the new possibilities which Christ gives to his Church.  Indeed, the whole incarnation is framed by two impossibilities made possible, a virgin womb and an empty tomb.   As Peter Larson has noted, Jesus entered the world through a door marked “no entrance” (a virgin womb) and he left the world through a door marked “no exit” a tomb of death.  As we grapple with the painful realities of this broken creation, we cannot forget the deeper reality of the inbreaking of the New Creation whose signs and pointers can be found at every turn.  As theological educators we stand at the vanguard of a whole new day in helping to form, shape and direct the future of theological education in the church.  To do so, we must become more globally astute, more culturally savvy, and more missionally driven.  I can think of no better network of Christians to help facilitate this new day than Lausanne.


[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History:  Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 1996); The Cross Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 2002).

[2] Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity?  The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2003); Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, eds., Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

[3] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom:  The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002); The New Faces of Christianity:  Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford University Press, 2006); Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission:  The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[4] Elijah Kim, The Rise of the Global South:  The Decline of Western Christendom and the Rise of Majority World Christianity (Eugene, Oregon:  Wipf and Stock, 2012).

[5] Peter Berger, Grace Davie and Effie Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe? (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008); Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent:  Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2007).

[6] Martin Luther, in his introduction to his Small Catechism, says, “The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw; the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.

[7] Theological Education, vol. 22, no. 2 (Spring 1986) and Theological Education, vol. 23, no. 1 (Autumn 1986).

[8] Peter L. Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in Peter L. Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1999 and Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999), 2, 3.

[9] These new atheists are not, for the most part, atheist in the classical sense of the word, but it is more etsi Deus non daretu (living as if God does not exist) baptized in anti-Christian rhetoric which mostly caricatures actual Christian positions.

[10] John Mbiti, “Theological Impotence and the Universality of the Church,” as found in Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky, eds., Mission Trends No. 3:  Third World Theologies (New York:  Paulist Press and Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1976), 16, 17.

[11] Ibid., 17.