A New Curriculum for a Changing Church in a Changing World
by John Klawiter
As Martin Luther, hammer in hand, pounded the nail of his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Church Door in 1517, it was inconceivable to predict how drastic a reformation the church would go through in the years following.
The new curriculum that will begin in fall 2014 at Luther Seminary is not to be confused with Luther's works. But just as Martin Luther was responding to a changing world, Luther Seminary is responding to a changing ministry field with a reformation of the seminary experience for future church leaders.
In an informational flyer about the new curriculum—placed in campus mailboxes and online, not pounded on the door of Olson Campus Center, there was a section titled Reasons for Change.
Perhaps stating the most obvious fact of all, it reads: "The curriculum revision was developed to respond to the needs of the church in an ever-changing world."
But it continued to explain the discernment of this change—it didn't happen overnight. "Over the past few years, the faculty has been listening intently to the needs of students, congregations and church leaders around the world. Students will not just learn how to lead in today's church, but they'll learn how to adapt to the changing nature of their ministries."
In a world full of change, how does Luther Seminary plan to produce leaders for a changing church? As Academic Dean and Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament Craig Koester observed, there are three main changes in society that the new curriculum intends to address.
"Christian identity is shaped by the story of the God we know in Jesus Christ," Koester said. "The contexts in which we live and work are full of competing stories that claim our loyalties and shape identities. The challenge is to foster a sense of identity that is centered in the gospel and open to engage the world in creative and faithful ways."
Assistant Professor of Congregational Mission and Leadership Dwight Zscheile agrees. "I think the big shift in the Western context is that our churches have generally been organized around the assumption that the culture caters towards them," he said. "But that is increasingly no longer the case. We must educate leaders who are able to gather, cultivate and deepen Christian communities rather than just take care of existing ones."
Where the curriculum will address this shift is by preparing students to help them interpret and connect with people in today's contexts. "The depth of the gospel needs to be translated into expressions that speak to where people are," Zscheile said.
"We're poised at a time when we either take the radical call of discipleship seriously or we might as well not be here," said Associate Professor of Systematic Theology Lois Malcolm. "We're not gonna survive unless we do that. I think Lutherans can play an important role in hosting a conversation about preparing leaders for Christian communities that give witness to salvation in Jesus and God's work in the world."
"Theological education is done in community, just as Christian faith involves community," Koester said. "Yet many of our traditional patterns of community formation in the seminary world and the church are undergoing major changes. Broader social patterns too are changing. In a context where older patterns are undergoing such change, we seek to help students engage the questions and to participate in communities of various types, not only on campus but also in various learning contexts."
"Public Christian leadership involves public interpretation, helping people make sense of their lives and world in light of the gospel," Zscheile said. "It's being with people where they are in the world."
"That's why the central theme is vocation," Malcolm said. "How are we shaping leaders who can form communities? How do you introduce the gospel to people who [have been] alienated by the church or haven't heard [the Word]? How do you disciple new followers? What does it actually mean to live out your baptism on a daily basis? How do God's promises relate to all dimensions of our lives—the political, the economic, the personal and so on?"
For Malcolm, the answer to all these questions can be summed up in one phrase: giving witness to the promises of God in Jesus. Yet learning to give this witness entails a transformation of our identities, and this kind of transformation can't take place outside of actual communities.
"We can no longer presuppose Christian identity; we have to be intentional about discerning how the Spirit creates Christ's image within and among us," Malcolm said. "Being a Christian today now means entering into a very different lifestyle. Lutherans can be host to a larger conversation with other Christians about how the Spirit transforms our identities through the public witness to the gospel that happens when communities gather around Word and Sacrament."
"What does all of this mean for the communities that leaders serve?" Zscheile asked. "The shape of Christian community may need to be formed in ways that look very different in order to meet people where they are."
There is also a naming of the reality that leaders will encounter in their ministry contexts. "Our graduates need to be able to listen deeply to the realities people are living in," Zscheile said."They need to find ways to speak the gospel in those realities and accompany people as they live into the biblical story of God and God's people."
The curriculum is fully aware that there is a growing need for lifelong learning. "One of the pieces in the new curriculum is a clear emphasis on creating lifelong learners," Koester said. "That has always been essential for ministry because effective ministry requires ongoing learning. What we are doing is being very intentional about that by building in moments when students assess their own learning and determine how to adapt their studies accordingly."
"One of the things that is unique in the program outcomes is that they don't measure or simply define a leader's performance," Zscheile said. "They actually measure how well the communities the leaders serve can enter into the biblical story and live their faith in their daily lives to join in God's mission in the world."
Malcolm senses that all three changes are interrelated. "As students learn to interpret Scripture, they will learn to discern what it is saying about how God is present within and among us." Malcolm said. "How we prepare leaders of communities is a profoundly theological task. It's about discerning how the Spirit enables us to put sin to death in our lives and live out of the power of Christ's resurrection. Such discernment is deeply lived in a way that's not disconnected from experience."
"In earlier periods, theological education was about performing certain tasks for an already gathered congregation, like preaching, administration, worship or pastoral care." Zscheile said. "What we're trying to do now is recognize that the expressions of Christian communities in many populations are going to need to look very different than the established models. We are trying to educate leaders who are learners—both in the sense of being disciples and in helping congregations discover, innovate, adapt and change."
With this is a concession that, as faculty, students are not going to be delivered as fully polished with the answers to all possible questions.
"We don't assume new students are already fully developed as disciples," Zscheile said. "With intentionality, we're seeking to accompany students as the Spirit forms them in discipleship. Those leaders are responsible for cultivating new communities too while intentionally connecting with their neighbors. Many churches don't know how to be in ministry with their neighbors. We know that churches must engage in a process of learning, discovery and experimentation that requires a different sense of imagination, habits and ability to take risks—to fail and learn from failure."
What it comes down to is preparing graduates to be comfortable in that imagination. "Part of that is an imagination where students can persuasively and compellingly articulate a vision for the gospel of abundant life for the people around them," Zscheile said. "They need to translate the tradition for the people who are in it and steward the practices of the congregations to embody that gospel in relation to neighbors." Those skills will develop over a lifetime.
"What we're talking about is a radical change in consciousness," Malcolm said. "Many of us are not ready for this because it's going to entail giving up a certain privilege. It's not business as usual; it's about the Beatitudes, not traditional success."
For Luther Seminary, this new curriculum is anything but traditional. It is a bold move in response to a cultural reformation that's already in motion.