The Decline and Fall of Seminaries

Perspectives, Podcast

Listen to iTunes  Listen to Stitcher


I am not a teacher, but an awakener.
Robert Frost

In the medieval world, thinking about God was done in a monastery where it was bathed in a liturgical setting amid devotional practices. In the modern world, thinking about God is done in a university where liturgical formation is replaced by academic formation marked by a disputational spirit and critical practices. Whether seminaries are under the university umbrella or free standing, the university model of disputation and deconstruction reigns.

The issue is not that seminaries are “too academic.” The issue is that seminaries need a new academics, a new model of academe that will make sense of what is going on around us based on what went on in the past, explore what the impact of change has been before and will be now, and suggest preparations that will enable the church to adapt. Just as the culture needs public intellectuals, the church needs public theologians who will write in the vernacular and not cast out the colloquial. Theologians often wear it as a badge of honor not to “suffer fools gladly,” but Jesus suffered fools daily and embraced lepers warmly.

The seminaries are at a critical crossroads. Their lecture-drill-test semester-based model of learning, whether in classrooms or online, is a holdover from Germany’s sixteenth-century innovations of gymnasium learning and Gutenberg technology. Seminaries are no longer the portal for ministry, nor its graduates the candidates of choice for much of the dynamic portion of US Protestantism. The Internet has become the global platform for the exchange of knowledge among people, and seminary faculty have been some of the staunchest defenders of Gutenberg culture and the holiest holdouts from TGIF (Twitter-Google-Instagram-Facebook) culture. Maybe it is time for local churches to resume their traditional role of being a major educational force in both the church and the world.

A church of the clergy, by the clergy, and for the clergy is not where our future lies.
Father Peter Day

The best church has something of the seminary in it, and the best seminary has something of the church in it. Seminaries used to be the places where the church did its best thinking. Faculty were encouraged and rewarded to cross the barbed-wire barriers that separated academic disciplines. Some seminaries even functioned as R&D centers for the church.

In the quest for academic prestige and scholarly glory, seminaries are now more accountable to the academy and its guilds than to the church and its ministries, to religious studies methodology than to theological studies and ecclesiology. Instead of seeing orthodoxy as an inspired consensus arrived at over centuries of arguments and debates over how to describe best the mysteries of revelation, the very concept of orthodoxy is suspect because orthodoxies are “imperially imposed.” When a faculty member’s personal subscription to the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds becomes academically radioactive in seminaries being given millions of dollars a year by denominations to prepare pastors for its churches, it is time to issue a yellow alert.

To some degree, of course, all faculty bear the triple burden of vocations to the life of the church, the academy, and the wider culture. But increasingly seminary faculty have thrown off the burdens of the church for those of the university and the politics component of secular society and are as committed to scientific and nonreligious versions of providence as our predecessors were to theological ones. Having failed to find substantial readers in the church, theologians withdrew into the echo chamber of the academy and there found a secure home writing for each other.

With that shifting of focus away from the church and toward the academy, seminaries have become virtually indistinguishable from colleges and universities (without the obligatory obsequious rites of church bashing and Christ smearing). If you arrive in seminary with a faith in Jesus, the religious studies fixation gradually breaks it down until it decomposes into theories and critiques and problematics, leaving a body full of intellectual energy but drained of blood and bare of beauty. William Muehl, in his 1984–5 Beecher Lectures at Yale, quoted a colleague, “Taken together the faculty of this seminary has destroyed more churches than the Luftwaffe.” The problem is that we tell the joke with pride, not embarrassment.

Declining denominations have been faithful to seminaries, requiring future ministers to have seminary degrees and investing millions of dollars a year in each seminary. But the seminaries themselves have often turned their backs on the church and romanced the university. Once the seminary curriculum preserved the veneer of church vernacular, even if its heart lay in the arms of the academy. But many now don’t even bother with the lambskin covering. A graduate school of religion and a school of theology have become virtually indistinguishable, and the academy’s crackdown on raising up leaders for the church is gathering steam.

The training of clergy in the future will be a reconceptualization of the apprentice model, based in the local church.

The word seminary literally means “seedbed”—seedbed for learning and faith formation. For a century now, seminary learning has been based on the accreditation of an institution. The ultimate accreditation, however, is “Can you do it and how well?” In the future, seminary learning will be based on credentialing of a person, not the accrediting of an institution. And the primary locus for “seminary” learning will be the local church, who will partner more with credentialing bodies than with accrediting institutions. Every church must become a school for discipleship, educating ministers and missionaries and prophets.

A seminary is by definition a community of inquiry and formation that learns how to teach others to lose yourself in Christ. In Russia there is a pet saying that conveys the impact of Aleksandr Pushkin on Russian culture: “Pushkin is our everything.” A seminary is where you go to learn to exegete the statement “Jesus is our everything.”

They have taken away my Lord,
and I know not where they have laid him.
epitaph on headstone for seminaries

In the future the church must find ways to let Jesus out of academic prison. The core curriculum for all theological education and human formation needs to be … Jesus. All studies have one object: to know Christ and make Christ known. This is the end of all learning and eloquence. In Christ, we experience the full panoply and promise of human existence.

Walking in Faith

  1. The church needs public theologians who will write in the vernacular. When they do, the door of theology swings open, inviting one and all to enter the conversation and enliven the church through truth. How then do we challenge the church’s tendency toward (1) elitism where theology is concerned, and (2) the denigration of theology as the enemy of faith?
    A cult—a “safe place” where people cannot be troubled by disturbing ideas or disturbing people—is not a learning community. When a house of worship becomes an echo chamber, the gospel is reduced to a comfortable set of opinions. If you are a church leader, are you requiring pastoral and other staff members to enter the educational fray and have their mindsets challenged? Why or why not?
  2. Taken from Rings of Fire by Leonard Sweet. Copyright © 2019. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.




Leonard Sweet is a preacher, teacher, scholar, and bestselling author. In 2006 and 2007, Len was recognized by his peers as one of the “Fifty Most Influential Christians in America” (ChurchReport magazine); and in 2010, he was selected by the leading non-English Christian website as one of the “Top Ten Most Influential Christian Leaders of 2010.” Len resides on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington State. You can find Leonard Sweet online at; LenSweet on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Amazon; and

See Leonard Sweet, Viral: How Social Networking Is Poised to Ignite Revival (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2012).

William Muehl, Why Preach? Why Listen? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986).

Matthew 10:39.

Karl Rahner, “I Believe in Jesus Christ,” in Writings of 1965–67, part 1, vol. 9 of Theological Investigations (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973), 167.

Join Our Newsletter