It’s been a while since I’ve engaged with my ongoing reflections on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” but I’ve recently been inspired to intertwine that discussion and another personal reflection of sorts. First I’ll give the standard TCEC quote from the late Michael Spencer.
Despite some very successful developments in the last 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can hold the line in the rising tide of secularism. The ingrown, self-evaluated ghetto of evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself. I believe Christian schools always have a mission in our culture, but I am skeptical that they can produce any sort of effect that will make any difference. Millions of Christian school graduates are going to walk away from the faith and the church.
There are many outstanding schools and outstanding graduates, but as I have said before, these are going to be the exceptions that won’t alter the coming reality. Christian schools are going to suffer greatly in this collapse.
I will now follow that with a recent excerpt from Roger Olson’s blog:
My advice to young would-be theologians (in the sense I mean the vocation) is be prepared to be misunderstood and under-valued. Only go into it if you can’t do otherwise. For the most part, with notable and blessed exceptions, American culture and faith communities will not really value what you do. And you will often, even continually, be confronted with two attitudes among people of faith. One will be that you are wasting your time and theirs and unnecessarily complicating the Christian faith. The other will be that others do what you think you do better.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I started studying the Bible and theology in a formal academic setting about ten years ago. Compared to many, I’m a novice, newbie pastoral theologian. That being said, after ten years of experiencing the Christian academy at two different Christian colleges/universities I’ve noticed some ongoing trends. These trends are what tie the two above quotes together, a common thread among Christian communities in the West.
Christian colleges are hard pressed these days to train their students to be real Kingdom people. A sense of mission in the broader sense is often missing, and so students graduate with a degree that secretly says, “I’ve spent the last four years learning how to be among people who agree with me.” Many Christian college campuses joke about their “Christian ghetto” culture. My Alma mater refers to this phenomenon with a strange affection, calling it “The Bubble”. So that’s a reflection on the first trend.
The second reflection I want to offer is rooted in my experience within the local evangelical church. Roger Olson warns young theologians that their efforts will be viewed as similar to those who want to train unicorns…fanciful and practically useless.
In the church it is extremely difficult for someone to openly be a scholar of theology. Even in my own training, I made a very intentional effort during my initial graduate studies to load up on “practical” ministry training. I don’t regret this training, in fact, my pastoral counseling ministry has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life! I simply mention my decision to take such courses because I’m aware that many folks in the church want to know what the “cash value” of your education really is.
TYING THINGS TOGETHER
There’s a vicious circle here. The academy capitulates to a watered-down, in-grown sense of what in means to be a follower of Jesus in the world, and then we have ministers and theologians who have been ill-equipped to engaged an increasingly secularized, anti-intellectualized local-church. The church is then left unchallenged by Christ-centered scholarship because it’s been beaten out of those who might otherwise bring renewed theological reflection to the church. The way forward includes a refreshing approach by local congregations and the academy. More on that later.