Informing Communities

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : September 28, 2005

Traditionally, this is one way in which "spiritual" knowledge is brokered in the Church:

Knowledge_1The academy trains seminary professors who train pastors, who pass on special information once a week through the delivery of a sermon.  Along every step of the way, the receivers of spiritual knowledge are encouraged to consult, at the very least, with Scripture.  The lay person who doesn’t learn from the pastor is seen as inadequate.  The pastor without seminary training is seen as inadequate.  The seminary professor who didn’t study from "top" scholars is seen as less than the one who did. This is usually how it goes.  We can hate the system, but it works.  And if, in our zeal to destroy the system, we remove someone from the equation without finding an alternative system, then it is usually the laity that suffers.  They are left in a worse situation.  Everyone along the chain of information has contributed to the system.  And the only way that those "further down" the system can be liberated is to study up the chain…lay people go to seminary to become pastors. Seminarians or pastors go to the academy to become seminary profs. 

How do we reform the system?  How can we move from an educational hierarchy to a more organic, missional approach?  I’ve suggested a retrieval of the mentor/apprentice role within churches…but this doesn’t help us address the system as a whole.  Is the system as a whole even worth changing?

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11 Responses to “Informing Communities”

  1. Nicole on September 28th, 2005 9:14 pm

    With a system like this, it’s no wonder that the laity forgets (or is not often reminded by the pastors or the academy) that we are all royal priests in the nation of God!

    And let’s add to the equation the members of the laity who consult academia without going to seminary so that they can challenge the pastor. And the pomo laity who question the value (necessity) of the pastor, the seminary, and the academy altogether.

    I think we can change the system, but from the inside out. Academian-seminarian-pastors must be the ones to implement the new mindset, discipling & encouraging their laity to learn from new models rather than imitate the old.

  2. Surly Dave on September 28th, 2005 10:30 pm

    I’m trying to think of any reforms that happened from with in the church system…hmm..Nope. Can’t think of any. Seems to me that reforms generally happen when people decide to follow God with all their heart, and the ‘back lash’ causes change in the church. Or a new denomination. Or a cult.

  3. Van S on September 28th, 2005 11:15 pm

    Hmmm….a cult…I like the sound of that!

    Nicole…I think the clergy need to find a way to share all of their goodies with the laity so that a church can move to a place where there isn’t clergy and laity, but disciplers and disciples…or mentors and apprentices…or whatever other language you want to use. I don’t think there is any Scriptural basis whatsoever for a distinction between clergy and lay people.

  4. Chris on September 28th, 2005 11:26 pm

    Wow, Dave, you really are surly if you can’t think of any reforms that happened from within the church system. I’m thinking of one right now…some people even refer to it as the Reformation. Anyway, if a scholar were supported by a community and recognized as having valuable knowledge, then he wouldn’t have to find a job as at a seminary or university and perpetuate the system. As someone who plans to be at the top of the pecking order in your diagram, I have to say that after spending the amount of money I will spend (and time) gaining knowledge, it’s pretty impossible for me NOT to get a job teaching and perpetuate the separation of the church.

  5. Van S on September 28th, 2005 11:33 pm

    True dat, Chris. I think folks like you should find ways of sharing your wisdom and knowledge within the church directly. That is the ideal. But you are right…how can you do that when the only folks that will pay you to share the fruits of your studies are the academic institutions. I suppose that is why you and I both feel the struggle of trying to be active within both educational institutions and the local church, so that we can get a paycheck from the former yet invest our lives in the latter. I think that the balance is a very very difficult one, however. In the end, I hope it is your spiritual progeny–those who are able to, over years, get a good “education” from within the church for free–that are able to help bring greater depth of study into the life of the church.

  6. Surly Dave on September 29th, 2005 8:29 am

    When you say ‘reformation’, I assume that you are talking about Luther, for starters any way. Luther was in the church system to begin with, but he had to step out of the normal ‘this is how we do it’ in order to instigate change. Even changes like what happened in England, some for political reasons, some for spiritual reasons, happeend when people bucked the system. By the way, I’m not opposed to colleges and seminary and all that stuff, as I used to be. And I think that in todays religious climate, a lot of people know that something has to change. Granted, those people might not be part of the governing system at seminary, and they might not be board members of churches.

    I also understand that college and seminary are expensive. But when you are dealing with a call that God has on your life, do you look at in the sense of what the payback is? As I ‘ve looked at going to bible college and possibly Seminary, one of the things that I feel God has challenged me with is that I may never see a dime of that money back. Opps, I’m writing a book.

  7. Michael Rew on September 29th, 2005 1:04 pm

    The seminary and the Bible college today are, in logistical terms, what the early Church was: believers who met together daily for teaching, worship, prayer, fellowship, and eating together. Almost every residential seminary or Bible college campus has all of these incorporated. One “reform” for the system might be for a growing number of “laity” to attend seminary or Bible college with no intention of going into ordained, full-time, paid ministry. But there is or can be, like Surly Dave said, a backlash even to this. One Bible college near where I used to live forbade anyone to attend who had no intention of going into full-time ministry. Large numbers of “laity” filling the student body could be viewed as edging out the “serious” student with a call on his or her life to preach professionally. But I tell you! I find the hierarchial system offensive, that information should be withheld from me unless I am willing to attend years of seminary at great expense because no one would deign tell me about this information otherwise.

  8. Chris on September 29th, 2005 3:31 pm

    Michael, nobody is withholding the knowledge people gain at seminary from you. The reason that knowledge is expensive is because it took a lot of hours on the part of scholars and teachers to produce it. It’s not a hierarchy, in my opinion, it’s more like a chain. To produce the quality of thought that people are given at seminaries takes a scholar who devotes his/her entire life to a particular subject. Getting more people to attend seminary who don’t intend to get paid at a job based on their education is one solution, but that means those people have to get other jobs, spend less time at study and research than someone who does get paid to do it, and probably churn out lesser quality research. So I think the solution isn’t simple, it’s going to take something really drastic to change how the system works.

  9. Van S on September 29th, 2005 3:40 pm

    Chris, in some traditions it is a hierarchy rather than a chain…but for most of us, you’re right. I don’t think that having more people shelling out tens of thousands of dollars is the best approach. Finding ways for those with training to share it within the church is a good approach. If churches thought of themselves more as learning communities and sought ways to promote missional education, I think we’d begin to see a slow shift. The problem is that most churches set the bar for discipleship pretty low. For example, the idea that a Christian should even have a deep familiarity with Scripture isn’t nearly as much a priority as it used to be. Part of the problem is that churches hover in basic information and never go deeper…because they don’t want to alienate new people. But if we move from an event-centered Christianity to a relationship centered one, and the “learned” folks have relationships for prolonged periods of time with people they are mentoring, then you have a lot of deep education happening within the Church.

  10. Aaron on October 1st, 2005 4:26 pm

    as one who finds himself thoroughly entrenched in your hierarchical model (bible college student making the transition to seminary and current “lay person”) i think much of the problem could be resolved by reforming the idea of how and why spiritual knowledge is conveyed.

    i would base the argument thorougly on the belief that in today’s “secular” society as well as in things spiritual, knowledge is power. and rightly so.

    your hierarchy relies heavily on the amount of information each level posesses. the bulk of which in the academy, funnelled through the sem. profs, by which pastors funnel to their flocks.

    now, the idea of academy and university are heavily entrenched in modernity, but need not be discreditted completely. perhaps if we viewed spiritual education as teaching methods, or the means by which we access truth, we could flip the scales of power so to speak.

    if this makes any sense, the academy / seminary profs contain highly-specialized chunks of spiritual information. these people train pastors not by merely funneling information down the path, but rather training pastors how to search the breadth and width of the views in a certain area and by the holy spirit discerning what is truth.

    pastors now, while very likely holding certain convictions, are less the fountainhead of knowledge for the laity, but rather enablers (shepherds if you will) to that lead their flock to discovering truth as a community.

    this would result in a highly thoughtful, more well-informed and powerful “laity” that would revolutionize the hierarchy in terms of power.

  11. len on October 3rd, 2005 10:13 pm

    But was Luther in the system.. or did he step outside? Both perhaps, since the real change started after he was excommunicated.

    But even then change was very limited.. the hierarchy was perpetuated. O, here is a link to a recent article on reforming the academy…

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