It was deja-vu all over again...
Earlier this week I taught a class at Laidlaw College for the first time in years. [At reception I was asked to go to Lecture Room 3. "Are you serious? - that is the very spot where I started all those years ago.” I was wearing a baggy sky-blue short-sleeved shirt and at the first break I was so bathed in nervous sweat that I had to go for a walk around the block with uplifted arms (not in praise to God!) just to dry off...]
Later this week I leave to teach a course at SAIACS in Bangalore (India). So, I've been thinking a lot about theological education in the last few days. I find myself wondering whether New Zealanders realise just how much the landscape of theological training has been transformed in recent years. [NB - I am restricting myself to degree-level training, not because certificate/diploma options aren't important (they are!), but because I find it takes degree-level work to shift the worldviews that are inherent to transformation].
In 1979 I was looking for a degree-level option that was clearly and spaciously Stottian-evangelical in ethos and local-church-facing in orientation. My conclusion at the time was that there was nothing available in NZ. None of the denominational college options in NZ have had this heritage. Is there another English-speaking country quite like it? I cannot think of one. In fact, rightly or wrongly, my grandfather actually forbade me from going to our own Baptist Theological College ... So I felt that I needed to look off-shore for training.
In 1989, as my time as a pastor in Invercargill was coming to a close, the scene in theological education had not shifted much at all. The suspicion of theological education was rife. Again and again at the grassroots, those with ears to hear could hear it being perceived to be a time when you lose your passion (at best), or you lose your faith (at worst). “We sent away our best and they came back ruined.” WOW! It was disturbing how many Kiwi theological educators dismissed this grassroots perception. Unwise, very unwise. Also unsettling was the fact that for someone choosing to stay-at-home in a place like Invercargill, there was still no degree-level ‘extension’ option for study and training.
Then the transformations began ...
Different people come to mind. The historic work of John Hitchen and Edward Sands at the Bible College of New Zealand (now Laidlaw College), securing the very first non-university degree in the land (BMin) for theology. What about the vision of Brian Smith, birthed at a similar time at Carey Baptist College, for theological training to be reoriented towards mission outcomes? And I still remember the day when the University of Otago's Gerald Pillay strolled into a BCNZ/Laidlaw staff meeting and charmed us all with ideas that had us buzzing. Sadly, he did not last the distance - but what about the steady development at Otago under Paul Trebilco's leadership in the years since? What about the breadth of scholarship now available through the Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School? More recently, there has been the bold and sweeping and necessary change at Laidlaw College under the leadership of Mark Strom. I’ve mentioned just a handful of names – but peel back their contribution and other names emerge more quietly ... people like Derek Christensen and Martin Sutherland whose vision has also assisted this transformation.
And what about today? In 2010?
How does this ongoing transformation look now?
Here is one hopelessly opinionated, impossibly brief, and inevitably inaccurate perspective on this story – with my eye fixed solely on the uniqueness of the niche which each college provides (please don't forget this!). At their best, what do they do that others do not do as well?
Who thought it could ever be possible? Studying disciplines like Education and Counselling from within a Christian framework – and in the company of a serious engagement with Bible and Theology? Remarkable! Yes, I know that 'christian liberal arts colleges' are a dime-a-dozen in the USA (my wife, Barby, is a graduate of one of the best examples – Wheaton College), but not here in NZ. But this is what Laidlaw has achieved ... The public world, with its philosophies and worldviews, are firmly on the agenda as is shaping a generation of articulate and faith-full believers to live in it. Sure, the change in recent years has been seismic and quick – but a period of consolidation and growth beckons under Rod Thompson’s fresh leadership. Throw in a full complement of distance learning options, a teaching site in Christchurch, and the established Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School and the influence for good and for God from this school is sure to continue.
Check it out here.
Carey Baptist College
Here is a college which has learned to celebrate its denominational identity from within an evangelical ethos. Over a period of time the governance, the staffing, and the curriculum has turned to face the local church - becoming first a servant and then also a prophet in its midst. Carey recognises the church – when accurately defined – to be at the core of God’s mission in the world. Any person being called into a church-based leadership role, from any church group or denomination, should be considering Carey as an option for training. The college is demonstrating just how rigorous theological education can include leadership development and character formation, rather than jettison it. A gifted and increasingly kiwimade teaching team under the creative and relational leadership of Charles Hewlett is a feature – as are the distance education and Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School options. For such a local-church-facing college, the irony is that its research and publication achievements are rated as second-to-none outside the universities.
Check it out here.
University of Otago
The Department of Theology and Religious Studies at this secularised university has numerous people of articulate faith and gospel-commitment in it. Amazing! For a person for whom a University context and degree is important and for someone wanting a more classical curriculum – leaning towards the ‘pure’, more than the ‘applied’ courses – this can be a good option. Being based in Dunedin adds something unique – particularly when they have a well-oiled distance education programme as well. I have close friends who have thrived in this environment. Otago has also been generous in providing PhD scholarships for a trickle of younger evangelical scholars - no small contribution to the transformation.
Check it out here.
East-West College of Intercultural Studies (Waikato)
Here I am jumping out of the ‘degree-level’ option...simply because this is the college to consider for training to prepare as a cross-cultural worker/missionary. This was the exclusive domain of BCNZ/Laidlaw for decades – with Carey also making a contribution more recently. However, as mentioned above, both Laidlaw and Carey have been establishing niches elsewhere and so East-West has been occupying a crucial spot on the landscape.
Check it out here.
There are other recent initiatives worthy of note. (a) The Nelson Diocese has commenced the Bishopdale Theological College (Nelson), primarily to train people for ministry positions in the Anglican Church. (b) Even (!) the University of Victoria has made progress with Chris Marshall on board - a fine scholar teaching to full classrooms. (c) Then there is the plethora of colleges offering certificates and diplomas within their own communities: AlphaCrucis, Pathways Bible and Mission College, The Shepherd’s Bible College, Ministry Training College etc...
My hopelessly opinionated, impossibly brief, and inevitably inaccurate perspective is that the transformation in theological education in New Zealand is remarkable. It has never been in better heart - not even close. Senior church and mission leaders are beginning to wake-up to the fact that things have changed – and that the old stereotypes and perceptions which shaped them just do not fit anymore. Thirty years ago I had to go overseas to get an evangelical theological training. I wouldn't dream of doing so now. Twenty years ago I longed to be able to offer my church family in Invercargill some serious theological study options because every local church should be its own local college. If I was there today I'd have multiple and varied options from which to choose. We'd be having a blast studying together...
I hope and pray that these colleges can fill their niche and hold their nerve over the coming years. I hope and pray that they relate to each other with the right mix of the c-words: complementing, complimenting, cooperating ... and some gentle competing just to keep everyone honest!