By Robert Hull
Professor of New Testament, Emeritus,
Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee
I have had the rare privilege of spending my entire teaching career (33 years) at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. With all the caveats about the risks of generalizing, here are my reflections on some changes during the last couple of decades.
Educationally, about half our students come from Christian colleges or universities (20 years ago we would have said “Bible colleges”) and the other half from secular colleges or universities. Some of them are ready to hit the ground running, but most of them are not as well prepared as they would have been 20 years ago. They come with a poor working knowledge of the Bible, world history, science, philosophy, and the arts—in short, the very disciplines our catalog used to treat as prerequisites for seminary education.
Probably more than half have only a sketchy acquaintance with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, even if they are from one of “our” churches. Many of them have no long-term history with a single denomination or movement; our chaplain describes them as “polychurched.” A fair number are somewhat recent converts, having been won to Christ through a campus ministry outreach, rather than through contact with a traditional congregation.
While the majority of students come from relatively stable families, more of them come from “troubled” homes (divorced and/or single parents, families with emotional trauma and/or addictions) than was the case 20 years ago.
Demographically, our students today are slightly younger than before; we have few “second-career” students. We have proportionately more international students, especially from countries in Africa.
Nationwide, seminary enrollments peaked in 2006, and today are at roughly 1998 levels. Our numbers have followed this trend. As one of our faculty members said, we are losing our “farm teams,” due to the increasing number of undergraduate majors being offered by our typical “feeder schools” and a perceptible marginalization of vocational church ministry in some of them. Also, many of our former “farm teams” now offer one or more specialized graduate degrees in ministry, such that there are simply more options. Many large, multistaff churches recruit from within and do their own training.
Our students bring a hunger for God, purpose, and direction—all positive attributes—but they lack the clear sense of vocation that we saw in earlier times. By and large, they “do not want to preach” (with the notable exception of international students). Many of them are dissatisfied with the church as they have experienced it. They know the church has lost standing within Western culture.
Few of them have had a relationship with a preaching minister. If they have been mentored toward identifying a call to service, most likely this has come by means of a youth minister or worship leader. They come as explorers, looking for discernment.
They come with a sense of entitlement, having always had an endless array of choices—in diet, entertainment, worship places and styles, sports, and clothing. Consequently, they are less likely to participate in chapel and other voluntary gatherings from a sense of communal obligation, but rather on the basis of value received for time invested. The international students are an exception: they understand the importance of community and tradition.
They bring electronic devices and the expectations that go with these: instant access to information, entertainment, opinion, and social connections. They expect course materials to be delivered to them electronically, rather than searched out in the library stacks. They are used to learning by means of disconnected electronic bytes, so most do not have the critical skills to do careful analytical work, organize information, and sustain an argument—in short, to research and write. Their exposure to social media has done a great deal to undercut their ability to distinguish between argument and opinion.
These observations should not be understood as criticisms: every generation is marked by its own culture. The challenge for the seminary is to meet these students where they are and equip them for service. We will teach them critical reading, research, and writing skills, as well as how to preach. For some of them, a sense of a specific church vocation will emerge. Others will be less certain, but will be prepared for a range of options.
A word about the women students: Many of them come passionately hoping to serve in mainstream ministry (i.e., something besides “women’s ministries”). They seek and value community and willingly exchange time for it. They are eager to learn exegesis, theology, and preaching. Unfortunately, most of those seeking ordination will have to “jump ship” to churches outside of the Christian churches and churches of Christ.
Historically, only a minority of churches within our stream of the tradition have placed a priority on seminary education. I have not sensed any movement in this regard. Most churches are more interested in the “skill set” ministry candidates have acquired than in their educational pedigrees.
When I was a seminary student, the ideal of the minister was humble service. Today, the operative term for what the churches want is “leaders.” In 2008 the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools said that although seminaries still need the churches, churches no longer need seminaries. He was alluding to the variety of educational and training programs available through colleges, paraprofessional coaches, conferences, seminars, and the like. Many churches are convinced that seminary education is still important, but the seminaries have to become more adaptable to the wants and needs of the churches.
Robert Hull taught New Testament courses at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee, for 32 years. He currently serves as professor of New Testament, emeritus.