Monday, April 29, 2013

Unique Opportunities for Teacher Training

Within the past month, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has released a triple-whammy of historic changes that, I believe, add up to an incredible opportunity for churches. Let me spell it out for you.

First, Southwestern announced the debut of a new degree plan: The Master of Theological Studies (MTS).

The standard degree for the training of pastors is the Master of Divinity (MDiv). The MDiv is a 91-hour degree. I spent four years obtaining mine. It is one of the lengthiest Masters degrees around, and with good reason. The MDiv is actually something like a stretch limousine—take the material that you might expect to be in a Master of Arts (History, Languages, Philosophy) and then weld in the components of a vocational degree (practical training in Pastoral Ministry, Preaching, Educational Administration, Missiology, Evangelism, etc.) to lengthen the frame.

If the MDiv is a stretch limo, the MTS is a Smart Car. Only 36 hours of study will get you one. What's in it? You can look for yourself, but basically it contains a lot of the MDiv material sans the practical pastoral training and the languages. You will spend 18 hours becoming more adept at reading and interpreting the English Bible (B. H. Carroll would approve!), with classes in Old Testament, New Testament, and Biblical Hermeneutics. You will spend 9 hours in the study of Church History (I feel good about that), including a single three-hour course studying Baptist History. Twin Systematic Theology courses occupy 6 hours, followed by three-hour courses in Apologetics and in Ethics that round out the degree.

Second, Southwestern announced that this entire degree would be available online.

And so, access to Southwestern's world-class faculty and to the very same classes that have been training pastors, missionaries, professors, and denominational statesmen for decades are now available apart from the formerly attendant pilgrimage to Fort Worth. No matter where you live, you can obtain this degree so long as you have reliable Internet access.

Third, Southwestern has announced a new 30% discount for people who enroll in the MTS who are serving on a local church staff.

You can find out more of the details about this discount by looking here, on Dr. Thomas White's blog. Basically, this entire MTS degree is available to church staff members for a mere $7,200. That's a great deal in a market (higher education) that is remarkably devoid of great deals.

And so, here's the opportunity part for local churches.

Most churches have one or even several pastors who have completed the longer residential degrees at SWBTS (MDiv, MACE, etc.). Many churches, however, also have staff members who have arisen entirely out of the membership of their church (or even from another church) who serve without the benefit of any formal theological education. Sometimes these are part-time roles or lesser-paying roles in the church staff. These employees may not be at the stage of life or may not have the financial wherewithal to pull up roots and go to SWBTS for theological study. With the new MTS an opportunity exists for these staff members to take a significant step forward in their personal theological development, and to do so for amazingly little expense. Many churches will just want to underwrite the cost of the degree in light of the benefits to the church in having a better equipped staff member.

Also, although the cost would be higher (a little more than $10,000), an opportunity also exists here for churches to encourage non-staff teachers (Sunday School teachers, etc.) to obtain the MTS. Not every Sunday School teacher will want to do this, and indeed, it will be beyond the reach of some Sunday School teachers (an accredited Bachelor degree is prerequisite). Nevertheless, some of your master teachers would truly enjoy obtaining a degree such as this one and would benefit greatly from it. I can envision this even being a distinctive emphasis for some churches—professionally trained Sunday School teachers.

Some of your teachers might even find a benefit at their places of employment for having obtained an accredited Masters.

I'm interested to see what becomes of these developments. There is no doubt that the explosion of online educational options is changing the landscape of higher education. Also, it is indisputable that we are riding this roller coaster while they are building the track in front of us—no one knows what lies around the next curve. But the opportunities to open our seminaries to more people, to bring theological education closer to the local church, and to lower individual costs in theological education are major, unprecedented developments. The teaching ministry of our churches could be changed forever by such things.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Theological Triage and Statements of Faith

The following post refers extensively to the framework that Dr. Al Mohler articulated in his own blog post of 12 July 2005 entitled "A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity." You can find that article here.

The official statement of faith for the Southern Baptist Convention is the Baptist Faith & Message. I have signed this document several times. And, in point of fact, not only have I signed it, but I also have read it and I agree with it. My signing of this document has been a matter of informed consent.

And yet, agreeing entirely as I do with the content of our statement of faith, I'd still like to toss out something to consider about the document's format. Although it would make these documents slightly more complex, would it be a good thing to organize statements of faith according to the varying priorities of the doctrines listed therein?

At the very least, one might create a statement of faith that acknowledged Dr. Mohler's three-tiered system of theological triage by organizing the doctrines into three tiers. The document could begin by stating: "These are the essential doctrines of the faith. Whoever does not affirm these truths, let him be anathema. Any so-called 'church' not embracing these truths in teaching and practice is a cult." And afterwards, the statement could give a list of cardinal, tier-one doctrines.

In the next section, the preamble could go along these lines: "Following are the distinctive beliefs that identify a Southern Baptist. Any church not embracing these truths in teaching and practice, although it may genuinely be a Christian church, is not qualified to cooperate within the Southern Baptist Convention." The statement could then go on to list which are these tier-two doctrines.

In the final section, the document could stipulate: "The following can be identified as important Southern Baptist beliefs both in our history and in our current practice, and yet we acknowledge that diversity of opinion has and does exist within our convention on these matters, and that some level of cooperation is possible even among those who disagree. Therefore, although we require that the ministries of this convention be conducted in accordance with and not contrary to these beliefs, we do not believe that they rise to the level of importance that would warrant the breaking of fellowship among sister churches due to differences over these matters." And then the doctrinal statement could enumerate those matters that belong in this category.

Of course, I acknowledge that it would be an absolute political bloodletting in the Southern Baptist Convention actually to work through this process. Nevertheless, I want to make something absolutely clear: I believe that we ALREADY have and are using something like this. It's just that most Southern Baptists didn't get a say in how the tiers were created and applied, and the scheme (or schemes), however they exist in the minds of Southern Baptist leaders, aren't published for anyone's review or correction.

I know that significant discussion and disagreement might ensue in the comment section over which particular items belong where, and that's fine, but I hope that you'll also all make some statement about the overarching concept—whether a tiered statement of faith would be a good idea in general, presuming that doctrines were placed correctly. I think the idea would provide greater clarity than we now enjoy.

As a final note, I should acknowledge my own friendly interaction with Mohler's Triage (which I published here) in which I suggested that triage is a bit more complicated than a rigid three-tier system could accommodate. This being the case, I believe that a local church's statement of faith might include even more levels than these three.