There are more opportunities than ever before for theological training, but how much is it keeping up with the mission field we face once school’s out?

The first word of Greek that Bristol Baptist College students learned in 1984 was ‘zoe’, which means ‘life’. This was before classes even started; Zoe was the college cat, an aged tortoiseshell of uncertain sanitary habits, and so decrepit that the name was scarcely appropriate any longer. In some ways Zoe fitted in very well. Bristol is the oldest Free Church college in the world. Outside, the building in Woodland Road – dating from 1924 – was all mellow brick and gothic stonework; inside it was stone flags, wooden panelling, gracious sweeps of stairway and paintings of long-dead Baptist worthies, one of which had a dent from an ill-aimed orange.


There were 30 study-bedrooms along the top corridor, which had the original linoleum and was lined with sepia portraits of former students, all much sterner and more spiritual than we. The washrooms were the originals too, with great claw-footed baths for which long copper tubes served as plug and overflow. If you telephoned, the Principal would probably answer the phone himself.


It was delightful, but no longer fit for purpose, and a few years after I left the building was sold. But the College was there to educate the next generation of ministers. Fit for purpose? On the whole, yes.


I’d done a degree in theology at Bristol, and felt called to ministry part-way through it. I knew I wasn’t ready to go straight on to theological college, so I started a part-time MLitt and worked part time to pay the rent. I entered college at 24, young but not the youngest of the dozen in my year.


Truthfully, I had a blast. There was more theology, more Greek, the practicalities of ministry (baptising someone without drowning them is not as easy as you’d think) reflections on pastoral practice, and above all the informal learning from other students. Iron sharpens iron, and we sharpened each other.


When I was inducted to my first church three years later, I had a grasp of the basics of ministry. I knew its shape. I could be a pastor. I could do quite a bit, and bluff the rest. My first church – around 120 members then, with a solid core of experienced deacons, traditional, supportive – was fairly safe in my hands. I preached, baptised, became part of my congregation’s lives and they of mine.


 Times Change


Twenty-five years later, that model of theological education looks as decrepit as the building where we learned how to be ministers.


Of course, our tutors realised it would be; they gave us the tools to keep learning, educating us rather than training us. But the changes since then have been immense.


In 1987, when I was ordained, around 10% of people went to church; now it’s around 6%, and in some areas it’s far less. In the Rhondda, where in the later 19th century 80% were in church or chapel, it’s under 1%. In 1982 I sang in the choir at Ashton Gate Stadium when Billy Graham filled it during Mission England; there were thousands of responses, and my own Baptist denomination showed a marked increase in membership and baptisms over the next couple of years. That couldn’t happen today. Sunday schools are shadows of what they were; the last generation to have a collective, inheritedknowledge of the gospel story is already middle-aged.


So how are today’s theological colleges preparing their students for ministry in a changed and changing world? I spoke to Sian Murray-Williams, a tutor at today’s Bristol Baptist College – now relocated to a far more appropriate building, catless and in a teaching partnership with the Anglican Trinity College.


‘We’re aiming to produce missionary ministers,’ she says. ‘We’re very conscious of the changing context in which people are Christians today. We can’t assume that people under 35 have any exposure to the Christian story, so we’re in a hugely privileged position.


‘I want to affirm the role of the pastoral minister, but the horizon of the minister has to embrace the wider community – and that horizon is huge. So we need people who are confident in their faith, and able to explain it.’


There’s an element of cross-cultural mission in ministry today, she continues, complicated by the fact that ministers are themselves products of their own culture.


‘I hope people will come out of College with a stronger understanding of the Bible, how to read it and how to love it,’ she says. ‘But we aren’t a sausage-machine: we’re concerned that each individual will have an awareness of what God is calling them uniquely to be and to do.’


She’s deeply aware that she’s helping to educate ministers for a context whose shape isn’t anything like clear. Most students today are church-based, so they’re able to reflect on real-life situations – but whether in 20 or 30 years time they’ll be full-time pastors is anyone’s guess. How many churches will still be able to afford ministers as costs rise, and – on present experience – congregations fall?


Bristol has three students at present who are deliberately bi-vocational, committed to secular employment and pastoral charge at the same time – and, Murray-Williams says, their training is reflecting that. So ministry in future, she says, ‘might not look anything like the way it does now’.


‘But we are of the conviction that this is God at work, equipping people to be the people he intends them to be. And it’s wonderful to be part of a generation that can ask questions other generations couldn’t.’


 Keeping Up


Bristol is one small-ish denominational college (typically the student body is 30-40 strong). But the principle of preparing missionary ministers who need to be willing to grow, learn and change is mirrored in others too.


Richard Tiplady is principal of the International Christian College (ICC) in Glasgow. Recently appointed, he’s deeply aware of the changing context of ministry today. ‘What is undoubtedly changing is that the type of local church pastoral ministry that many might previously have trained for is less available and probably less helpful today,’ he says.


‘We are looking at how we might train people to be more entrepreneurial, more missional and more prepared for the rapidly-secularising Scottish, UK and Western context. ‘This is more likely to involve church planting and new forms of Christian community, rather than more traditional and static forms of congregation.’


And ICC, he says, is also looking to provide more in-service training for ministers already in pastorate, who ‘trained 20 years ago for ministry in a world that no longer exists’.


Steve Brady is principal of Moorlands College near Christchurch. There are some aspects of today’s culture, he says, which students have to be prepared to engage with immediately – for instance, ‘In the UK scene our students need to be aware of the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism on the one side and neo-Darwinian atheism on the other.’ But, ‘We do not assume that anyone leaving any theological college is prepared for a 40- year ministry.


‘When the iMac initially launched, the idea was that you could take it out of the box, plug it in and get some sense out of it immediately. We aim for that with all our graduates. But no-one in their right mind assumes that once you have bought a computer there is nothing you will ever need to add to it.’ As Steve Finamore, Bristol’s principal, puts it: ‘Our goal is that students should be “future-proof”, not because college has given them everything they need to know, but because it has helped them to understand how gospel and culture can be related to one another and because they have been carefully trained in theological reflection so that they are able to think through new issues they face on the basis of biblical and theological principles.’


New issues? Yes, indeed. I remain a Baptist minister, but it’s eight years since I was a pastor, and frankly I feel deskilled. Pastors have to face issues like the sexual revolution. Never mind the whole gay thing; if ministers imagine that unmarried Christian adults are not sexually active just because they’re in their congregation, they’re naïve. So what can pastors say to theyounger generation, in church or out, that moves beyond ‘Thou shalt not’?


Both of my pastorates were ‘come’ churches, which grew because people came by invitation or out of curiosity, and stayed. But would that be good enough when people assume that Richard Dawkins has killed God off for good, lots of people think churches are nests of paedophiles, and if they’re looking for spiritual truth the Church is the last place they’ll turn? Most people were there every Sunday. But I recently heard an eminent church leader speak of how important it was to put on really good Easter services. ‘That’s all very well, but all our people go on holiday over the Easter weekend,’ he was told. How do you run a church where you can’t be sure people are actually going to turn up?


When you tell someone, ‘Jesus died for you’, how do you explain what that actually means when your answer is dependent on your hearer understanding the precise meaning of sacrifice in 1st-century Judaism?


And, most importantly: what about the people who never darken the doors of your church at all, and whom you’ll never even meet? In one of my churches we calculated that if every seat in every church in the ward were filled (revival, surely?) nine-tenths of the locals still wouldn’t be in church.


 Increasing Urgency


None of these issues are new, but they are increasingly urgent. And increasingly, voices are being raised in support of more radical approaches to theological education. Mark Greene is the director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. ‘At heart, the church is meant to make disciples, not just converts,’ he says.


Colleges, he believes, need to focus on ‘making disciples who know how to make disciples’ – who will have ‘the all-oflife gospel perspective, the cross-centred biblical lenses and the discipling skills to release the whole people of God into God’s mission wherever he calls them in daily life’. The best evangelists, on this argument, aren’t ministers, but Christians out in the world and mixing with unchurched people every day. ‘People with no connection to church are yearning for a life that works – and whole-life discipleship and disciple-making in the context of a local body of fellow disciple-makers is the only one we have a mandate to offer.’


Malcolm Duncan is the former director of Faithworks, and now minister of Gold Hill Baptist Church. For him, a fresh approach to mission is needed – ‘much more holistic, invasive and permeating of life and community’.


Indeed, he says, ‘We must work out a way of re-thinking ordination entirely. If we truly believe in the calling and priesthood of all believers in the Nonconformist traditions, then why do we use the title “Reverend” at all? Why are we not “ordaining” teachers, laywers, community development workers, and of course more pastors, evangelists, prophets and apostles?’


Furthermore, he says, it’s vital to educate the whole church, not just the minister.


‘I genuinely worry about where we will be in 25 years if we do not address the need for solid biblical teaching and equipping for leadership for local leaders, who are actually the spine of the local church.’


And the church itself will change, as will leadership. ‘The ways in which Christian leaders engage with recreation, workplace “chapels”, office small groups, focus groups of interest, all needs to change and we need leaders who are taught how to be adaptive, creative and lithe as their default, not taught one model that must be forced to fit all.’


Here, then, is the nub of what’s changed in 25 years, from the minister’s point of view. To the routine of pastoral work which is so unglamorous but so important (‘Your people will forgive any number of bad sermons, but they’ll never forgive you if you don’t visit them when they’re ill’ said our principal) is added a far more urgent awareness of the need to equip Christians in the congregation for their life and mission in the world.


Of course we always knew this, in theory, but it didn’t seem to matter so much. Now it matters a great deal. Students at my old college, and many others, are being trained in the art of translation: translating ancient texts into living words, old traditions into spiritual paths for today, dry doctrine into lifechanging truth. And the language into which they’re making this translation changes all the time, so they need to be learners, flexible and perceptive, at the same time as holding fast to the truths they were taught. And their fundamental task is disciple-making, so that their congregations also learn to speak of the grace of God in words their friends and neighbours can understand.


Malcolm Duncan says, ‘We stand on the brink of the most exciting age of the church in the Northern hemisphere for 1700 years. We can re-discover what training and releasing and enabling means and emerge as a vibrant, effective and transforming community.’


I think he’s right. We shouldn’t minimise the challenges ahead, or the losses we’ve suffered. Decline expressed in percentage points is one thing. But since leaving the pastorate I’ve been part of a congregation that’s withered and died, and it was very painful. Replicate that in the dozens or hundreds of churches which have closed in the last quarter-century, and that represents a huge amount of pain. But since then I’ve spent the last few months visiting different churches most weeks, large and small, of all denominations. I’ve been deeply impressed by the commitment, the sense of purpose and the confidence that I’ve seen even in the smallest. I didn’t get the sense of an ending; rather, as Duncan says, I had the sense of being on the brink of a new beginning.


As part of this feature I interviewed Chris Powell, (see p37) a current Bristol student who, when she leaves next year, will be the same age as I am now. She has confidence, clarity of purpose and a full toolbox of skills, a tribute not just to her but to her training. We’ve learned a lot about how to do the whole ministry thing. I don’t regret going to Bristol 25 years ago for a moment. But I rather wish I were graduating next year too. Chris, you’ll be fine.


 College listing 2011


 All Nations Christian College Hertfordshire Full-time courses, short courses and online learning Bible College GB Staffordshire, Conwy or Lancashire Full-time courses and Annex short course Belfast Bible College Belfast Full-time, part-time and short-courses Birmingham Christian College Birmingham Full-time, part-time and short courses Bristol Baptist College BristolFull-time, part-time, distance learning and Saturday Bible School Lancashire Full-time, half year or full year courses for the NationsBognor Regis, West SussexDay courses and conferenceswww.christforthenationsuk.orgCliff College Derbyshire Full-time, part-time, short courses and evening Bristol,Cambridge, Belfast, Nottingham, OxfordFull-time and Mission Bible CollegeEdinburgh Full-time, part-time, online learning and night school Theological CollegeDingwall, ScotlandFull-time, part-time / distance learning International Bible Training InstituteBurgess Hill, West SussexFull-time course Christian College Glasgow Full-time, part-time, distance learning, short Bible Institute DublinFull-time, part-time and evening Irish Baptist College Moira, Armagh Full-time, Faith Training CollegeHorsham Full time courses Bible College and Training CentreOxfordFull-time course www.kbctc.orgKing’s Evangelical Divinity SchoolKent Distance learning courses www.kingsdivinity.orgLogos European College FifeFull-time, part-time or distance College of TheologyLondon Full-time and some part-time courses www.londoncollegeoftheology.orgLondon School of TheologyLondonFull-time, part-time and distance learning Theological SeminaryLondon Full-time and part time course www.ltslondon.orgManchester Christian CollegeManchester Full-time, short courses and evening Hall Doncaster Full-time and distance learning Moorlands College DorsetFull-time courses Nazarene College Manchester Full-time and part-time courses New Tribes MissionLincolnshire Full-time course NETS Bible College Surrey Full-time Northern Baptist Learning Community Manchester Full-time or part-time courses www.northernbc.wordpress.comOak Hill Theological College London Full-time courses Redcliffe College GloucesterFull-time, part-time and short Regents Park College OxfordFull-time and part-time Regents Theological College Worcestershire Full-time, part-time and distance learning Ridley Hall Cambridge Cambridge Full-time and part-time courses Seekers International Wirral Distance learning courses South London Christian College LondonFull-time, part-time and distance learning Spurgeon’s College LondonFull-time, part-time and e-learning St John’s College NottinghamNottingham Full-time, part-time, distance learning, short courses and summer St Johns Durham Durham Trinity College Bristol Bristol Full-time, part-time and distance learning Trinity School of Theology Warwickshire Full-time, part-time and evening classes World Harvest Bible Training Centre Salford Part-time course (evening or weekends) Wycliffe Hall Oxford Oxford Full-time, part-time, specialist and short courses