Among the innovations in Fuller’s newly revised degree programs in both the School of Theology and the School of Intercultural Studies is the development of what we have called “the Practice Courses.” Three courses—provisionally titled “Practices of Worship and Prayer,” “Practices of Christian Community,” and “Practices of Mission”— will be required in the MAT, MATM, MAICS, and MDiv degrees. They will be also open to students in other degree programs and to those pursuing certificates. The introduction of these Practice Courses represents an important and exciting new aspect of the curriculum.
The idea for these courses emerged from reflection on two data points. First, graduates of Fuller Seminary have consistently reported that, while they value the knowledge that they acquired in seminary, they sometimes find it difficult to translate that knowledge into the practice of Christian faith or the work of ministry. Second, our graduates have regularly described their seminary experience in terms of disciplinary fragmentation. That is, classes in various academic disciplines often appear disconnected from one another, and the difficult burden for putting together the seemingly disparate pieces of seminary education falls squarely on the shoulders of our students.
In light of these two data points, we identified two questions that the Practice Courses are intended to answer. First, how can we reenvision our curriculum so that it is more useful for the practice of Christian faith and ministry? Second, how can we encourage students to integrate biblical, historical, theological, ethical, cross-cultural, missional, and psychological perspectives on Christian practice?
In considering the question of usefulness, we were challenged and encouraged by theological literature in the past twenty years that has pressed the relationship between Christian practices and pedagogical formation.1 We are enthusiastic that the updated curriculum will continue in the tradition of providing excellent theological education by intentionally addressing matters of practice and formation. We hope that the Practice Courses will provide students resources for and models of embodied theological practice that will sustain them well beyond their coursework at Fuller. All of these courses will be organized according to a “praxis-theory-praxis” model of learning. That is, students and instructors will enter the course having already engaged in the practices around which the course is oriented, and some level of engagement will continue throughout the quarter. Students will then have opportunities to analyze and reflect upon their own practices and those of other traditions and cultures, critical theoretical reflection that engenders reshaped praxis and promotes habits of learning rooted in theology and action. As a sign of our commitment to a curriculum that is useful for the practice of Christian faith and ministry, we have approved a new Program Learning Outcome: “SOT/SIS graduates will have demonstrated capacities to cultivate a theologically reflective practice of Christian discipleship.”
In considering the question of integration, we quickly realized that the struggle our students often face in putting the pieces together stems in part from the fact that we, as a faculty, do not generally model in our own teaching, research, and lives the kind of integration we expect our curriculum to produce. The Practice Courses attempt to address this problem in at least two ways. First, the Practice Courses will be interdisciplinary. They will be designed, resourced, taught, and overseen by faculty members from SOT, SIS, and SOP. Faculty members who teach these courses will, of necessity, regularly teach outside their own areas of academic specialization, thus modeling for students the kind of interdisciplinarity that we believe will reduce curricular fragmentation. Second, with at least one of these courses taken early in a student’s curriculum, with one preferably taken in the middle, and with one taken near the end of a student’s program, these Practice Courses will introduce students to ways of thinking about the various subfields in an interdisciplinary way at the beginning of their educational experience at Fuller. This integration will filter throughout the curriculum not merely in the other Practice Courses but, importantly, in the questions and learning expectations that students bring to other courses in other fields.
When it came time to identify the specific content of these Practice Courses, a basic structure readily presented itself: they would be orientated around practices of attending to God (“Practices of Worship and Prayer”), practices of attending to the community of God’s people (“Practices of Christian Community”), and practices of attending to the world (“Practices of Mission”). It would be wrong, however, to think of these orientations as simply “upward, inward, and outward,” since they are deeply interrelated to one another. Authentic Christian community, for example, is never merely “inward,” since it is sustained by prayer and worship and empowered for missional engagement with God’s world. The trick in designing these courses, in fact, will be to make sure that they are similar enough to one another to be marked as courses on Christian practices but not so similar that they overlap to an unhelpful degree.
Much work remains to be done in order to begin offering these Practice Courses by the Fall Quarter of 2014. Interdisciplinary teams of faculty members from SOT, SIS, and SOP collaborated together this past May and June in order to craft draft course outlines for all three courses. The work of course design will continue well into the next academic year. But the Fuller Seminary faculty is excited about the work ahead because these Practice Courses are a bold and compelling feature of an updated curriculum that will position Fuller Theological Seminary to continue as a global leader in theological education in the twenty-first century.
David J. Downs is associate professor of New Testament studies. His research has focused on Pauline theology and on economic issues in the New Testament and early Christian literature.