A Review of
Renewing the Church by the Spirit:
Theological Education After Pentecost
Reviewed By Rob O’Lynn
It is no secret that theological education has been in a state of constant flux, as has much of higher education, for several years. This fluctuation can be felt of two entirely different fronts, although they are experienced equally by those in education. On the one hand, there is the general interested in and perceived need for theological education. In an era when many mainline denominations are struggling to remain open and many evangelical and “non-denominational” congregations have implemented more of a “promote from within” approach to ministry training, one cannot be faulted for wondering whether attending seminary (or even attending an undergraduate program in Bible, ministry or religious studies, as I teach in) is worth the mounting student loan payments. As one who has noticed the incremental shrinking of his own classes over the past decade, it is difficult not to ask about the continuing value of formal theological education, especially in an ever-expanding environment of cultural diversity.
On the other hand, there is the location of theological education. While many institutions of theological education remain exclusively committed to a “brick-and-mortar” learning environment, the past year has forced our hand. The future of (theological) education is down the virtual learning avenue. This does not mean that traditional seated models will be tossed out soon. Hardly. What it does mean is that institutions of higher learning can no longer ignore the virtual classroom or treat it as an inferior mode of learning. Personally, I find this incredibly exciting, as I completed my Master of Divinity degree through a hybrid program, took some virtual-learning courses in my doctoral program and have taken advantage of a number of online learning opportunities over the years. Yet, the concern of whether higher education, in general, and theological education, specifically, will be able to adapt to the brave new world of education.
It should be noted that, while the situation seems dire, to say that it is time to lock the doors and shutter our schools is certainly an overstatement. First, the ability to adapt to changing cultural situations is a major factor of institutional health. There are schools doing this. For example, the school where I completed my doctorate had a student make-up of 80% seated and 20% online in 2015. In 2021, the student make-up is 20% seated and 80% online, with a slight uptick in overall enrollment. Comparable statistics can be found in higher learning institutions across the world. Second, God is not finished with the mission yet and continues to pour out the Spirit upon those who earnestly seek to be part of that mission. There is still work to do and theological schools have always been part of the mission strategy (i.e., some missional scholars argue that Paul renting the “hall of Tyrannus” in Acts 19:9 was an early attempt at formal training).
This is the argument that Amos Yong brings in Renewing the Church by the Spirit: Theological Education After Pentecost. Yong currently teaches and serves as dean of the School of Theology and Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, an educational institution that has sought to remain on the cutting edge of following the Spirit in theological education. The third volume in the “Theological Education Between the Times” that is being edited by Ted A. Smith (Candler School of Theology, Emory University), Yong offers a “reflection on how the outpouring of the Spirit of Pentecost two thousand years ago may yet hold some of the keys for engaging many of the challenge that theological education confronts here at the start of the third millennium” (xi). Yong also argues that he is presenting a “pneumatological reimagining of the task of theological education” rather than a specific plan of action (xi). Yong’s intent is to provide a pedagogical reflection on, as he borrows journalist Thomas Friedman’s phrase, the “flattening” of education, a contextual motif that emphasizes a “connectedness” that seeks to eliminate the institutional hierarchical motif that has commodified education (1). In this flattening effort, Yong proposes, education will become more collaborative and adaptive to the global context.
Yong addresses theological education from more of a holistic perspective, laying before the reader the continued beautification of the Church through globalization and the Pentecost mission. Rooted both in the story of Pentecost and within the Pentecostal tradition, Yong seeks to formulate an approach to theological education that moves out from, although not away from, the institution of theological education, returning to the Church, which provides the students to begin with. In addressing the first concern listed above, that of the need for theological education, Yong turns our gaze away from Western (i.e., dominantly white) methods and toward the Global South where surges in mission work need trained ecclesiastical leaders to continue the work. Western methods of theological education can be seen as a form of theological recycling, whereas theological education in the Global South can be seen as a form of theological progression. There is certainly a need for theological education, as the Church continues to grow and flourish in new and regenerative ways. In addressing the second concern listed above, that of the location for theological education, Yong turns our gaze away from the brick-and-mortar institution and toward, again, the Church. The argument is that, ultimately, theological education must lead to congregational and ecclesial renewal. He advocates for increased residency programs, virtual learning workshops and missional connectivity, all which seek to follow the Spirit’s renewing leadership.
Overall, I was deeply challenged and encouraged by Yong’s argument in Renewing the Church by the Spirit. As one who stands with one foot in the theological institution and one foot in the local congregation as both an educator and a minister, I deeply resonate with the desire to foster missional and ecclesial renewal. I find his emphasis on connectivity and multidisciplinary and dialogical learning refreshing, especially as he argues for an approach to scholarship that is, honestly, accessible. There is some ambiguity and lack of resolution here. However, that comes more in the fact that Yong is attempting to discern the leading of the Spirit than a lack of awareness of the trends in higher education. In the end, this volume serves as both a mirror and megaphone — a mirror, if the Church is indeed reflecting the plurality of the Pentecost mission, and a megaphone in doing so if we are not.