25 Mar 2021: Daniel Aleshire on What Should Theological Education Become?
In the era of colonies and early nationhood, the education of ministers was not distinct from the education of civic leaders, and educated clergy sometimes served in both roles. In the modern age of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, with the growth of urban industrial centers and many congregations, theological education upped its educational standards. By the mid- twentieth century, theological education took the form of professional education with its focus on skills as well as specialized biblical and theological knowledge. Throughout this long period, religion enjoyed a privileged place in the culture and religious participation was generally high.
For the past several decades, however, the social location of religion has been changing, and the data in the Gallup charts above reflect that change. Many reasons undergird this decline in the social influence and cultural esteem of religion, in addition to the moral and legal failures of religious leaders that have grabbed headlines.
While a certain kind of religion has been publicly present, evident in recent elections, researcher Robert Jones has shown that it is beginning to abate and will likely continue to shrink in the coming decades because of demographic changes. According to reliable data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the percentage of Americans attending services of worship has been declining. The fastest-growing religious identification in the United States has been “no religious affiliation” (more than 20 percent of the US population), and for several generations the religious participation of generational cohorts has declined. While religious participation in the United States remains higher than that in any other liberal democracy, the changes afoot are neither transitory nor ephemeral. These shifts constitute the cultural context in which to discern the future of theological education.
Daniel O. Aleshire retired in 2017 as the executive director of The Association of Theological Schools after serving that organization since 1990. Aleshire holds a B.S. from Belmont College, an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in psychology from George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee. This article is reprinted by permission from Chapter 3, “Formational Theological Education and Its Goals” of Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education by Daniel O. Aleshire (Eerdmans, 2021).
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