The challenges that theological schools face are real. But three articles that appeared in my inbox recently have reminded me of something important. People are interested in theology!
The January 10, 2010, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education includes an item called "Theology for Everyone," a review of the popular novel The Shack.
Reviewer Timothy Beal says that the best-selling novel presents some influential 20th-century theological ideas in a nontechnical package that is accessible to popular readers. The Shack, Beal declares, "represents a serious attempt by a lay theologian to communicate some theological concepts in a way that is turning out to be intellectually challenging and exciting for a lot of people with little or no academic background in theology." If you're a Chronicle subscriber, you can read his full review here.
Theology in a congregational setting
A recent item on the Alban Institute Web site is called "Why Would Laypeople Want Theological Education, Anyway?" In the brief essay, author Sally Simmel suggests reasons why lay people need communities where they can engage in theological reflection: Lay people write laws and create new technologies, she says. They work in corporations and health-care systems; they build roads and produce TV shows, raise children and care for dying parents. In all these arenas, lay people are looking for opportunities to make sense of their lives.
Simmel's article, which is found here, provides some suggestions for lay theological reflection in a congregational setting.
The wide appeal of theological education
The new issue of the Christian Century includes an article called "Seminary: Not Just for Pastors." The article by G. Jeffrey MacDonald of Religion News Service cites recent enrollment increases at the Bible schools accredited by the Association of Biblical Higher Education and at seminaries like Iliff School of Theology, Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, and Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.
MacDonald offers a possible reason for the enrollment gains: In an entrepreneurial world, lay people are seeking theological education to help them make connections and do what they want to do -- lead nonprofit organizations or create online religious communities. Read the article here.
I for one welcome theological discussion and reflection wherever it takes place, but especially when it happens in local parishes and congregations. But I suspect that the trend suggested by the Christian Century may be overblown. We don't yet know whether overall theological school enrollment has recovered from its recent (slight) decline.
But we do know that most theological schools have been increasing their lay enrollments for many years. For most schools, the reason have been both economic and mission-oriented. On the one hand, schools need tuition money, and they have reached out to lay students to help fill seats. But on the other hand, almost all theological schools see lay theological education as an important part of their ministry.