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The end of theological education?

Candler’s Ted A. Smith delivers Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Sprunt Lecture series to more than 400 registered viewers

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Ted A. Smith

LOUISVILLE — To Presbyterians and others concerned about the future of theological education, the Rev. Dr. Ted A. Smith had these words of comfort: We’ve been here before.

Smith, Professor of Preaching and Ethics at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, delivered the first two of four Sprunt Lectures for Union Presbyterian Seminary Monday evening and Tuesday morning. He’s calling his series, “No Longer Shall They Teach One Another: The End of Theological Education.” Watch Smith’s opening lecture here and his second lecture here.

Seminaries continue “in vibrant mission,” Smith said, but “it’s fair to say something is ending.” Some have cut faculty or sold a chunk of their campus as part of their strategic plan to continue training the next pastors.

But “theological education is not coming to an end. It will continue,” Smith said, “not because we get it right, but because God longs to be known.”

During his first lecture, Smith traced theological education back from European settlement in the early 17th century over the next 200 years or so.

In those early days of theological education, churches were established by law and supported by taxes. Laws enshrined church values, like keeping the Sabbath. Ministry was seen as an office, like a squire or even a governor, Smith said.

That all began to unravel as people took to the frontier, which was too large to supervise. A new social order emerged in the early 19th century, “with many of the same injustices,” Smith noted. “We are in an analogous time now, and we’ve been here before.”

Alexis de Tocqueville labeled the new social order he observed beginning in 1831 the “Age of Association.” de Tocqueville, a visiting French aristocrat, was “blown away by the associations he found in North America,” Smith said, including seminaries and the organization it took to deploy missionaries all over the world.

For those convinced that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, Smith presented figures that indicate otherwise: in 1776, about 17% of non-enslaved people were affiliated with a church. “This is a shockingly low number,” he said, a number that would double by 1850, fall off during the Civil War, and then continue to build throughout the next century before declining.

Among the key institutional shifts during this time:

  • Churches moved from dreams of establishment to denominations that understood themselves as one religion among a number of legitimate religions.
  • Congregations evolved from village churches to voluntary societies, supported by voluntary contributions instead of, for example, pew taxes.
  • Ministry changed from an office to “something like a profession,” Smith said, akin to doctors and lawyers. Pastors organized into guilds like presbyteries, along the lines of the American Medical Association. Included was “a strong moral component which required trust,” placing the client’s interest ahead of the professional’s.
  • Theological education changed from reading the classics to professional education.

UPS President the Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, who called himself the seminary’s “chief anxiety officer,” thanked Smith following the first lecture. “I go around preaching and recognizing we are getting older,” Blount said. “As we get older, we become more unsettled about what the future holds. This is a wonderful message for our churches to see in the broader theological context.”

Smith labeled his Tuesday morning lecture “Dispossession.”

While the March Gallup Poll indicating that fewer than 50% of U.S. residents now belong to a church, synagogue or mosque raised eyebrows among many people of faith, Smith pointed out that many organizations — Scouts, Masons, Rotary, Elks, Shriners and the Junior League among them — are also seeing precipitous membership declines. There’s no one good explanation, but there are several factors, Smith noted, including:

  • One can be seen as a “good, respectable” person without membership in a faith community.
  • People are both turned off by too much politics in church and turned on by “real politics.” As Smith put it, why not join Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action or The Moral Majority “and do real politics.”
  • Church teachings have become so watered down that there’s no reason to stick around.
  • What Smith called the “Youth Sports Industrial Complex.”

The Pew Research Center dug a little deeper, Smith said, finding that 61% of “Nones” said they believe in God and nearly 1 in 3 say they pray at least weekly.

“It’s less a decline in religious belief and practice and more a change in the relationship of individuals to institutions,” Smith said. “We are at a time between the times.”

According to German sociologist Ulrich Beck and others, the identity ascribed to us is waning, and our achieved identity is becoming more and more important. According to this line of thinking, gender, identity, religion, marriage, social ties — all are becoming decidable, according to Smith, who displayed this quote from journalist and author George Packer, who wrote “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America”:

“The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before — freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again.”

“I bet you’ve seen this, maybe in a town with institutions you care about,” Smith said. “It’s one of the dominant dynamics of our time.”

The greatest decline in church affiliation, Smith observed, is among the poorest people. “As a Christian this is deeply disturbing to me,” Smith said. “What does it mean to have ceased to be a church that fails to connect with poor people?”

At the same time, for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), almost 1/3 of members belong to the largest 4% of congregations. That trend, he said, could mean there will be fewer and fewer clergy positions.

“You get a winner-take-all system with massive inequalities,” Smith said, acknowledging the privilege of his own position as a seminary professor who’s not an adjunct instructor.

Viewers should not despair too much as Smith prepares to deliver his third lecture, “Renunciations,” on Tuesday evening and his final one, “Affordances,” on Wednesday morning.

“Instead of a narrative of decline, it’s a recognition that we are between the times,” Smith said, adding we are also “between the Resurrection and the Feast of the Lamb. Therein is our hope. Thanks be to God!”

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