Discipleship
Academic Teaching
by Paul Hazelden


Discipleship: Index
Introduction   |   The Usual Way   |   A Proposal   |   Some Principles

Introduction

Part of this approach to discipleship can be seen as a criticism of traditional academic teaching.

I do have criticisms of our traditional academic approach to teaching, but want to be fair: it is not all bad, and many very good people are involved with it.

A full critique of academic teaching is outside the scope of these articles, but here are a few quick thoughts on the subject.

Strengths

  Necessary

Academic teaching, and the institutions which support it, are needed by the Church.

Academia brings with it a degree of objectivity and rigour. An individual teacher may teach what he or she likes, thinks and believes. Most people who have been Christians for a while will have come across some wierd things being taught at times. The Church needs something to counter-balance our habit of believing what we want to be true.

The institutions are (or, at least, are expected to be) centres of academic excellence, and this is a vital necessity for the Church. Our faith is based on truth, which requires solid historical research and rigorous analysis of the facts.

Modern research in other, related fields must be understood and applied. Students must be taught in the context of an up to date understanding of the world around us.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, academic teaching is good at producing academics. We need good academics.

  Community

Academic teaching is done in community. In a society where individuality takes centre stage so often, the experience of being part of a faith based, learning community is transformative for many people.

  Calling

Young people will always go through a stage where they are exploring the possibilities of adult existence and what they want to do with their life. Spending time in a faith-based environment alongside other people who are thinking and praying about such things, and with ready access to a range of mature believers, is no bad thing.

  Goals

Academic teaching provides concrete achievable short term goals. In some ways, this is a weakness, but it is also a strength. We have a built-in need to achieve, and while the long term benefit of what is being achieved can be questioned, there are many alternatives which have fewer benefits and a number which are far more destructive. If people want to notch up some achievements, this is not a bad way to do it.

  Recognition

Academic teaching provides a reasonably objective way to recognise achievement. In this context, you not only know who the teachers and lecturers are, but you have some assurance that they, and the things they are teaching, have undergone some external scrutiny. This does not mean they are right, but it does tend to filter out many of the dangerous and unhelpful teachings you can find elsewhere.

Weaknesses

  Irrelevant

The main criticism of academic teaching, from those who have experienced it, is that it is almost entirely irrelevant to real life.

I am referring, of course, to the content of the teaching, not to the experience gained or the disciplines learned. In real life - whether you go into 'the ministry' or not - you never need to translate from the original Greek or analyse 2 Corinthians, just as in real life you never need to know the Sine of an angle or the major exports of Paraguay.

  Misleading

Simply being irrelevant is not that big a problem, but it leads to something more dangerous. Students tend to expect - not unreasonably - that their training will teach them what they need to know in order to exercise a Christian ministry. But it doesn't.

The nature of academic teaching therefore gives the students a misleading expectation of Christian ministry, and makes the actual experience of ministry far harder than it needs to be.

And, at the same time as the former student is struggling with the real world challenges of depressed parishoners and a PCC or Eldership which can't agree on the colour to paint the Church Hall, they have to cope with a sense of betrayal: I worked so hard, I poured my heart and soul into my studies ... and for what?

Of course, not everyone experiences this struggle. But enough do.

  Authority

Academic teaching is all based on an un-Biblical concept of authority.

While some questioning of authority by the students may be acceptable, or even expected, the whole system relies on an acceptance of certain authority which cannot be challenged or questioned.

This process is very clear in the USA: you choose your college based on its theology and values (amongst other things, obviously). As a student, you can question and challenge what you are taught - as long as you do this from within the framework establised by the institution you are studying at.

Exactly the same thing happens in the UK, but we are less explicit about the process. Even so, when we are unclear about a minister's stance, the question, "Where did you train?" usually tells us everything we need to know about what they believe.

More than this, the simple fact that you are within the academic world distorts the issue of authority. You rapidly learn, if you did not know it already, that a direct encounter with God and personal experience count for nothing when writing an academic essay: what counts are written sources, the more academic the better.

  Norms

Alongside the Christian training and the community experience, any academic institution will also be providing less tangible input. It will be understood and expressed in many different ways in different institutions, but there is always a deliberate intention to shape the character as well as informing the mind of the students.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. The explicit aims are always good: to produce people of character, or to prepare for a lifetime of Bible-centred ministry (or Christ-centred ministry), or to produce leaders who are able to engage with the modern world, and so on.

But alongside these explicit aims are always social and cultural aims which are rarely recognised. In teaching doctrine and practice, we also pass on culture and values to the students. We recognise that this happens when we look back at Victorian missionaries, but it is hard to see when it is closer to home.

The culture and values, the social norms being taught - they may be helpful to some extent. But the more the student is immersed in a particular Christian culture, the less at hoem they are in the culture of the world around them, and the less able they are to relate to the churches and communities they will be serving.

  Requirement

In most denominations, if you want to be the Pastor/Priest/Vicar/Minister/whatever then you need an academic qualification. The process is very clear:

The point is that you can only start the practical on-the-job training after you have successfully completed the academic stage.

It has frequently been noted that Jesus trained His disciples entirely on-the-job, and that many of them would never have managed to gain any form of academic qualification. Yet we persist in continuing to follow a system which would have excluded most of the people Jesus chose to lead the early Church. There has to be something wrong here.

  Graduation

The fundamental problem with academic institutions is that you graduate from them.

Graduation means a number of things.

And none of these things are true in any meaningful sense.

There is talk, of course, about 'continuing professonal development' or some equivalent piece of jargon. But the reality is that most ministers rarely receive much training once they have graduated, and little recognition that they need it.

The reality is also that we continue to need to learn and grow - partly for our own sakes, and partly because the leaders need to act as a role model for the members.

Relevance

So why does all this matter?

Firstly, this is the model your church leader probably followed. In all the mainstream denominations, if you wish to be ordained or serve as the Pastor of a church, you must first gain an academic degree.

This itself may not be a major concern. After all, only a small minority of Christians end up going to Bible College or Theological Seminary.

But, secondly (and, I suspect, largely as a result of the first point), academic teaching is the model on which almost all teaching and training in the Church is based.

Even in the Greek model, Socrates taught using dialogue. But our primary teaching method is the sermon - a fantastic tool for inspiring people (when done well!) but almost useless for imparting knowledge or enabling people to grow.

God speaks to us in many ways; He works in our lives in many ways. There is nothing wrong with academic teaching when it is the best tool to use for the job, but we must let go of the mindset which says it is the only tool we ever need to use.

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