Leslie Newbigin’s Radical Insight Into Seminary Curricula

Monday Discussion

Leslie Newbigin 2Thesis: Seminaries are not Structured to Deliver the Right Kind of Graduate for the Mission of the Church.

Over the last almost 30 years, I have had the unspeakable privilege of lecturing, and teaching at three different seminaries. I am eternally grateful to God and to these institutions for the honor of having given me the time and opportunity to invest in the lives of men and women who in most instances are going to outlive me and take the gospel to generations that I will never see.

It is a thrill to know that students that I have taught, mentored, coached, inspired, frustrated, befuddled and befriended are now serving Christ on five different continents. I have remained in contact with many of them and in a very personal way, I consider all of them “my students” though, the reality is that I played a rather small part in their ministry development and passion for Christ.

Nevertheless, when I read the following quote from Leslie Newbigin in Donald McGavran’s essay “Making Doctrines Missionarily Effective and Biblically Correct” it struck me as a “bulls eye” moment of clarity. Here’s the quote:

“For a thousand years [ 1000 years = 7th to 16th centuries ]  when Christendom was sealed off by Islam from effective contact with the rest of of the world, and was contracting, not expanding, it lived in almost total isolation from non-Christian cultures.

In this situation the illusion that the age of missions was over became almost an integral part of Christianity. The perpetuation of that illusion is revealed in our normal church life, in the forms of congregations and parishes, in our conception of the ministry and in the ordinary consciousness of churchmen.

Our theological curricula bear eloquent testimony to this illusion. Our church history is normally taught not as the story of the triumphs of the Gospel, but as the story of the internal quarrels of the church; our systems of dogmatics are not directed toward the non-Christian faith. The training of ministry is not for a mission to the world but almost exclusively for the pastoral care of established Christian congregations.” (Contemporary Theologies of Mission, McGavran and Glasser, 126-127, [ ] comment and underline emphasis added.)

All you need to do to confirm this observation is to think of the book of Acts. In Acts, Luke writes the first church history and it is the unbroken record of the triumphs of the Gospel. It is also a far cry from how we generally go about teaching church history, missions, doctrine, and training men and women for ministry in the 21st century.

Question: What can we do to change the way we train people for ministry so that the triumphs of the Gospel (past) and the glories of the Gospel (present and future) become the “ordinary consciousness” of all who call themselves Christians?

7 thoughts on “Leslie Newbigin’s Radical Insight Into Seminary Curricula

  1. Marty,

    WONDERFUL THREAD! Here’s my list for things we should to better train folks on the seminary level for kingdom advancement through the Church:

    1. Integrate mandatory, communal missional ministry into the seminary curricula. Create reasonable, achievable, and measurable goals connected with said ministry (especially for evangelism).

    2. Have seminary profs participate in aforementioned missional ministry with students.

    3. Read more biographies/histories of great evangelistic and mission-minded saints and movements from Church history. Make sure that at least half of this reading is preoccupied with NON-WESTERN saints and movements.

    4. Teach theology through the lens of missiology rather than teaching missiology as the red-headed step-child of theology.

    5. Stop making Sunday morning preaching the crown jewel of the pastorate. Without question, excellence in preaching/teaching of the Word among the saints at the local level is essential. However, we teach this to the exclusion of the broader panorama of what the Lord wants His leaders to do and be for the sake of His Church and His Kingdom (see Eph. 4:7-16).

    6. Have multiple evangelism courses that require seminarians to learn about and practice various modes of evangelism (contact evangelism, relational/conversational evangelism, small group evangelism, etc.). Students would get some field education/internship credit for these. Evangelism on the local/neighborhood should figure into this.

    7. Have classes in which seminarians would do nothing but pray. These would be pass/fail, and your grade would depend on whether or not you physically showed up. Different modes of prayer would be explored and practiced (meditation, intercession, solitude, etc.). Space would be alloted for reports on the way in which the Lord is meeting everyone in and through prayer.

    8. A certain number of class days out of an academic year should be set aside for just hearing stories from proven pastors, missionaries, and evangelists . These kinds of stories help to fan into flame believers’ passion for ministry. Furthermore, such stories give saints the permission to dream big concerning the power of the Lord through His people.

    9. Provide more teaching on the equipment of the saints for vibrant ministry.

    10. Mentor seminarians on the merits of neighborhood and local investment. Inculcating long-term rootedness in a rootless, wandering culture can ensure more effective ministry and stewardship of God’s resources for the future.


    1. Myron,

      Great, truly great ideas. Some of these could be combined and of course, all of them could be tweeked, but such a pattern would radically change the environment and effectiveness of our seminaries especially 1-4, 6 and 7.

      Number 10 is how I want to spend the remainder of my life. Always good to hear from you.


  2. Love Myron’s list (especially intrigued by #7). I will have to implement some of those ideas in our training programs.

    One idea might also be to have the training take place at the local church level with the students remaining engaged in their ministry/mission. classes would be modular, giving ample time for them to implement the ideas they are learning in real time.


  3. This comment came in through email and I thought I would move it here.

    “With a ThM from DTS, I greatly valued my seminary time. Loved the focus on doctrine, the languages, and the passion for correctly preaching the word.

    In my role as generosity coach for churches across the country, I find more Missional churches, growing churches, externally-focused churches and risk-taking churches to have non-seminary trained pastors at the leadership helm. Notice the operative word is more rather than most and certainly not all.

    Note that more churches that are growing and want to create a fiercely committed generosity culture would be inclined to speak to me and work with me.

    Younger leaders, as is often the case, want to throw off the older models and do church in a new and different (often referred to as more New Testament) manner to reach more people.

    Simply an observation in a more limited context.”

    Brad Leeper
    Vice President
    Twitter @BradLeeper


  4. I think the whole concept of seminary needs to be rethought. TEDS is great if you want to produce professors, but not so great if you want to produce Missional Leaders.

    I love TEDS for what it is, but I think that it will become increasingly less relevant and important for effective ministry in the future. I believe that training for ministry needs to be much more local church based and less institutional.

    The field education component was a joke! I don’t mean to insult anyone because I know how much the staff and faculty of TEDS cared about the students they served. Every church surrounding TEDS is filled with students jockeying for position so that they may get their FE requirement completed. It was very difficult to find meaningful ministry opportunities while at TEDS.

    The cost is something that must be dealt with as well. We are doing the students a disservice by loading them with debt and then sending them out to plant churches.

    The Newbigin quote is spot on in my opinion. It is rare to find churches out there that have Acts type impact on the world. Until we begin to think of the US as a mission field we will continue to be ineffective.


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