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Prepare to Lead: The Changing Seminary Experience

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Christian higher education is placing a greater emphasis on outreach, spiritual formation and leadership development. And it's getting more flexible and affordable too.

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A Greater Emphasis on Evangelism and Outreach

At Northern Seminary, while McKnight is teaching his students how to approach evangelism differently, his colleagues are taking equally novel approaches to their own work. Northern professors Robert Price and David Fitch are taking their students outside of the classroom in a study of ethnography and the missional movement, respectively. Price, who teaches evangelism and urban ministry, is asking his students to consider the context of the culture and community they are entering so they can explain the gospel in ways that resonate with that culture.

“Many pastors are not going to be pastoring in posh, suburban megachurches with lots of money,” McKnight says. “Many are going to be plopped down in small communities and small churches with established cultures, and they need to understand that culture in order to minister to it well. Many of them are being sent into inner cities, and our seminary is really good at helping students learn to minister in the city of Chicago.”

Meanwhile, Fitch, a leading theologian in the missional movement, is working with his students on the related topic of missional theology, and learning to see the local church as a body being a witness to the gospel.

“[Fitch] emphasizes that pastors get to know neighbors, that they become a fixed part of the public realm in the local community, so that they can minister in that context, in a way that people recognize who they are, as a loving presence. The local church becomes the missional presence in the neighborhood.”

“Many pastors are going to be plopped down in small communities and churches with established cultures, and they need to understand that culture in order to minister well.” —Scot McKnight, Northern Seminary

The two aspects of evangelism are intimately linked.

“All these things tie together so that Northern Seminary is becoming 100 percent focused on outreach [in addition to] simply building the inner fellowship of the church,” McKnight says. “We want to do that as well, but there’s a new missional focus in our seminary that’s exciting.”

Phil Jackson, one of McKnight’s students, applied these ideas to Chicago’s Lawndale Community Church, where he is associate pastor. He is in the process of opening the Firehouse Community Arts Center in a decommissioned firehouse, out of which he will operate his youth hip hop ministry and help Chicago’s west side youth change their lives through the arts.

“Our students have to do practical ministries,” McKnight says. “When things come up in class, they begin to speak from their ministry experience. The coursework also requires the student to begin to plumb things like ethnography and missional theology and the gospel, and how that is being manifested in their local church.”

About 25 miles west of Chicago is Wheaton College, where similar developments in evangelism and outreach are taking place. Says Lon Allison, associate professor at Wheaton and executive director of the Billy Graham Center, located on campus, about nine years ago the school began offering master’s degrees in evangelism and leadership or in missional evangelism. The older model at some seminaries, Allison says, requires that students working toward a master’s take just one or two courses in evangelism and outreach.

“We recognized that as a huge miss,” Allison says. “Most seminaries were still working with the concept of the American church being a Christendom church, therefore it not being necessary to focus on evangelism. In my opinion, the church never drifts toward evangelism, it always drifts away. And that’s even truer in our academic institutions.”

When Wheaton began offering its evangelism-related master’s degrees, only a few other schools offered anything similar. Now, though, that’s beginning to change.

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