A Reformation Moment
Predictions about upheavals in higher education are now frequently the stuff of headline news. While most focus on threats to campus-based education posed by online degrees, other forecasts warn about the collateral damage from an imminent student-debt-bubble-inspired economic crash. Challenges to the landscape of theological education from these sources loom even larger. How can theological educators shape students for Christian service in the absence of face-to-face contact? What happens to spiritual formation in the Internet age? Even more sobering are the financial considerations: How will students be able to serve freely if they are saddled with crushing student debt?
#printing pressIf one attends only to these challenges, one might think that the future of theological education is dismal indeed. Yet there was another time in the history of the church in which technological disruption drove massive changes to the way that churches organized the education and formation of leaders, laity, and congregational life. The Protestant Reformation was partially powered by the printing press inasmuch as it enabled the widespread distribution of Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular. The technological innovation and the social reconfigurations that emerged in its wake were unutterably painful and disruptive in the life of the church, but it is undeniable that these changes were also ultimately good. These innovations resulted in greater literacy across society and profound advances in the formation of the laity, as ordinary Christians were now able to access the Word of God directly. Just as the church responded to the challenges and opportunities inherent in the printing press, so now must leaders in theological education capitalize on the opportunities being unveiled in this new period of church history. This new moment demands a model for formation that moves away from the credential as the telos of theological education and moves toward education as the theological grounding for missional life in any context.
Revising the Curriculum
In the Fall of 2012, Fuller provost Doug McConnell convened a team of faculty leaders from all three schools to develop a new model for theological education at Fuller. He appointed Mari Clements and Jim Furrow from the School of Psychology; Dean Scott Sunquist and Ryan Bolger from the School of Intercultural Studies; and David Downs, Daniel Kirk, Mark Labberton, and John Thompson from the School of Theology. Joining them were Joel Green from the Center for Advanced Theological Studies (CATS), and Scott Cormode and me from the Faculty Senate. Our mandate included a review of the pedagogies, course delivery methods, and curriculum for all Fuller master’s degrees. Our process included a systematic review of the forces that are driving a reimagination of theological education in this new historical moment, as we considered changes in higher education, changes in culture, and changes in the churches.
In our research phase, we found that Clayton Christensen’s work characterizing the effects of the Internet as a disruptive innovation challenged and inspired us, and helped us understand the implications of this innovative disruption for the world of theological education.1 Christensen’s work helped us to see the disruptive effects of the Internet as well as its latent missional possibilities. As a disruptive innovation, the Internet increases access to education, making it more likely that students can customize their educational experiences so that their education is more directly applicable or usable with reference to achieving their career goals. We resolved that a curriculum for the twenty-first century would need to reflect these three key features.
First, accessibility is disruptive inasmuch as it lowers the institutional barriers to entry in education, as institutions no longer have to make the same kinds of investments in terms of faculty, libraries, and campus resources that Fuller has made historically. On the other hand, accessibility now makes possible a missional reach for an educational institution that has never before been possible. At Fuller, we are beginning to explore models for delivering theological education for all Christians in parts of the globe that have never before been reachable. Second, students in the age of the Internet will be increasingly interested in a modularity that will allow them to customize their education, much the way that they customize applications (apps) on their iPhones and iPads, forsaking a one-size-fits-all schema of traditional approaches. Missionally, we believe that modularity can help us better tailor the seminary experience to student vocation and call. Third, with reference to usability, Christensen advises today’s educators to focus on helping students enhance their preparedness for the vicissitudes of the workplace. As educators at Fuller, we heard this as a reinforcement of our own convictions that a seminary education must always have the church in mind. In light of this, we decided to attend more closely to the growing perception among some of our graduates and friends that theological education has become too insulated from the complex pressures of ministry in the increasingly diverse and globalized societies of the twenty-first century.
#reformationResponding to changes in the culture, we determined that the seminary would have to develop a curriculum sensitive to the rising problem of student debt and the way that debt hinders freedom in ministry. This debt is the only kind of household debt that continued to rise through the Great Recession, and has now become the consumer’s second largest balance after mortgage debt, approaching 1 trillion dollars nationwide in the fourth quarter of 2012.2 The number of student borrowers increased 70 percent between 2004 and 2012, while balances likewise rose 70 percent over that period.3 Here at Fuller, student indebtedness is connected to the high cost of living in Southern California and is thus linked to extended graduation rates. Data shows that only 17 percent of Fuller Master of Divinity (MDiv) students finish their degree in three years and over 60 percent take four to six years to graduate. Perhaps the key problem underlying these statistics is the length of the Fuller MDiv degree. In a list of 28 comparable schools, we are tied for first place among seminaries in terms of number of units required for degrees.
The Updated Curriculum: “Educating the Church for the World”
The updated curriculum transforms theological education in North America for our new day, by reframing seminary education as a preparation for Christians and Christian leaders for lifelong learning. This new situation requires that we move from a model where we are primarily a credentialing institution toward a framework in which we see ourselves as offering theological grounding for living a missional life in a variety of contexts.
We seek to equip students for ministry without saddling them with crippling student debt. The new master’s degrees are about 17 percent shorter than the existing programs. We plan to reduce the MDiv from 144 units over three years to 120 units over three years, moving from being among schools with the longest degree to being among those schools like Princeton that offer shorter three-year degrees. Likewise, the MA in Theology (MAT), MA in Theology and Ministry (MATM), and the MA in Intercultural Studies (MAICS) will be reduced from 96 units over two years to 80 units over two years. New, more efficient “stackable” curriculum uses core courses in the MDiv curriculum as the basic courses for other Fuller master’s degrees and facilitates transfers from a certificate to an MA, and from an MA to the MDiv or vice versa, as a student learns more about his or her gifts and calling.
The updated curriculum emphasizes Christian formation of our students for the life and mission of the church. All Fuller master’s degrees and certificates will cultivate a theologically reflective practice of Christian discipleship, innovatively making explicit the connections between theological education and Christian life. The curriculum begins by helping students understand themselves in a new touchstone course that focuses on formation. Students will develop an understanding of spiritual formation in terms of their biography, their spiritual heritage, and the spiritual disciplines. The course also facilitates vocational discernment, psychological assessment of personal strengths and development needs, and cultivation of a theology of work and money. Students will leave that course with a customized educational plan that will align their Fuller education with their emerging sense of identity and calling. Next, helping students understand their places as followers of Christ, all Fuller students will take three multidisciplinary courses focused on the discipleship practices of worship, community, and mission. In these courses, modules from faculty across all three Fuller schools will help students connect cutting-edge scholarship in Christian doctrine and biblical interpretation with insights from psychology and the Christian ministry and missional disciplines using the latest pedagogies for adult learners.
The updated curriculum emphasizes usefulness by framing theological formation in terms of the basic disciplines of Christian life and ministry. Fuller’s four leadership practices of interpreting, theologizing, leading, and contextualizing house the traditional disciplines of theological education (i.e., Bible, theology, ministry, and mission) and remain the mainstays of a Fuller education. Together with the three discipleship practices of worship, community, and mission, these seven Christian activities define Fuller’s unique approach to theological education. The habits of integrated theological reflection cultivated in the worship, community, and mission courses will have a formative effect on students. After taking those courses, they will be constantly engaging the material in the traditional leadership courses that make up of the bulk of the curriculum in light of the methods they learned in the new discipleship courses.
The updated curriculum emphasizes flexibility and customization around student call and vocation. The new MDiv combines academic rigor with personal flexibility so that student choice influences about 50 percent of the degree. For example, the MDiv will include two options for the study of biblical languages. Students may choose a three-course option that introduces a new ministry-focused, Bible software-based approach to interpretation, or they may choose the five-course traditional approach to the study of biblical languages. In addition to four degree electives, MDiv students also have ten limited electives: three in Bible, two in Theology, and five in Contextualizing. The MA in Theology (MAT) offers students maximum flexibility in designing an academically rigorous program of study through eight unlimited degree electives that will allow them to develop depth in a particular area of study. The updated curriculum also makes it possible for students to take courses in any of Fuller’s three schools: Theology (SOT), Intercultural Studies (SIS), or Psychology (SOP).4
The updated curriculum forms students to participate in God’s mission in the world as central to the church’s life, through a twin emphasis on both theology and mission. Unlike many programs that prioritize one over the other, the new collaboration between SIS and SOT offers students access to expertise from scholars in both theology and missiology to prepare them for missional ministry in the globalized world of the twenty-first century. Fuller students will study rapidly changing global issues and cutting-edge approaches to mission and evangelism, world religions, philosophy, culture, aesthetics, ethics, and human diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. In other words, Fuller students will have an education that encourages them both to understand God and to participate in God’s mission.
In short, Fuller’s response to technological disruption and changes in the landscape of theological education attempts to blend the old with the new. We are steadfast in our resolve to deliver theological education in the Fuller tradition—education that is committed to the gospel, the worldwide evangelical movement, and in the best intellectual tradition of the church. Yet we need to apply this heritage to a new reformation moment that requires us to be accessible and affordable to any Christian. We need to be modular and flexible so that we are forming students in ways that comport with their gifts and callings. We need to provide an education that is usable and connected to the life of discipleship so that it empowers every student to participate in the global mission of God. In this curriculum, we are seeking to educate the church for the world.
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“There was another time in the history of the church in which technological disruption drove massive changes to the way that churches organized the education and formation of leaders, laity, and congregational life.
The Protestant Reformation was partially powered by the printing press inasmuch as it enabled the widespread distribution of Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular. The technological innovation and the social reconfigurations that emerged in its wake were unutterably painful and disruptive in the life of the church, but it is undeniable that these changes were also ultimately good.”
Love L. Sechrest, associate professor of New Testament, joined Fuller’s School of Theology faculty in 2006. Beginning in 2012/13, she has chaired the Educational Models Task Force at Fuller.