Facing the Empire: Trends in Ministry Formation

Sadly, the West’s story—that “enlightened” people have
outgrown their need for God—has led to what historian
Andrew Walls calls the “largest and fastest recession in
Christian history.”

Change” is not the first thing a person associates with education. Words like “tenure,” or pictures of ivy-covered stone structures designed to keep threats to privilege from rushing in, are more likely the first picture we have in our minds. As the purveyor of treasures of “wisdom” to the young, we can perhaps justify a sense of permanence.

It is, however, the growing array of questions surrounding what those treasures are, and how they are being passed on, that begs us to “situate” the contemporary educational enterprise, inscribed as it is within a veritable Empire of Enlightenment rationalism (hereafter referred to as “Empire”). These questions become particularly poignant as they relate to Christian ministry formation, the task of entrusting faith to faithful people, to be distinguished from much contemporary “Christian higher education.”

Jesus’ Idea of Ministry Formation
The first picture of ministry formation in the Christian story is that of Jesus inviting twelve apprentices: “Drop everything! Follow me!” They did! He showed them how to pray, how to live authentically out of the presence and promise of God’s kingdom, and how to interpret the story they were in. He gave them practice in announcing the good news by sending them out two by two with virtually only their encounter with him. Through Jesus’ storytelling, the apprentices learned that following Jesus was a reflective adventure in living and relating in revolutionary ways. They learned the pulse of Jesus’ heart, loving obedience through his modeling, and the intimate bonds of comaraderie. They did not “go to school”; their learning “arrived” in the midst of their life together. Ministry formation was relational to the core!

Jesus’ disciples were called to respond, not just to exercise intellect. And yet, even under the best educator who ever lived, they did not always get it right. This is a sobering reminder that “learning” is more than “teaching.” But seeds were planted, which sprang to life after the resurrection.

Paul, with apprentices beside him, provides a similar picture of building into others the living realities of God’s presence in loving service. He, too, illustrates a well-established practice of ministry formation as apprenticeship.

Christendom and Beyond
Ministry formation in the Constantinian world, several centuries later, emerged as something quite different from apprenticeship. While it differed in various settings, ministry formation was quite predictable in broad outline for at least 1,500 years: (1) learn Christian teaching (the kerygma) and (2) learn the sacramental arts, principally around life passages of birth, marriage, and death. Ministry became a “profession” concerned with “dispensing grace” in efficient ways—a kind of “spiritual gate-keeping” in the service of Christendom. In this context, ministry formation became a passport to privilege, and often wealth. And yet, the fact that numerous orders, reformations, and revivals kept bubbling up speaks to the gentle persistence of God calling his people to remember who they were and why they had been called.

The current post-Christendom world of the West invites its own questions about ministry formation. Most notably, will the flood of self-enclosed secularism engulf the Church and blind her to her first love? Sadly, the West’s story—that “enlightened” people have outgrown their need for God—has led to what historian Andrew Walls calls the “largest and fastest recession in Christian history,” even more sweeping than the first rise of Islam.1 Millions of people continue to leave institutional, colonial forms of Christianity in the West. This trend needs to be held together with the reality that, as sociologists and census takers remind us, the majority of Canadians, at least, have not abandoned their belief in God or Jesus.

Hopeful Trends
If there is any hope for a faithful, nimble response to what Christians may be called to today, new approaches in ministry formation are beginning to play an important role. Three trends in ministry formation are particularly hopeful:

1. There is an increasing suspicion of information for information’s sake. One aspect of this is that the notion of personal truth, properly understood, has “been far more congenial to the expansion of the gospel throughout the ages than any canon of propositional certitude.”2 The reality is that the unholy marriage between the kerygma and Enlightenment rationalism, which has dominated evangelical ministry formation, is being challenged.

This is not about succumbing to the flood of radical relativism. It is about a growing appreciation that the end of ministry formation is not information, but transformation. Information is no longer seen as an end in itself, but as a means to obedient response. As a clergy friend says, “My mental assent to certain understandings serves my relationships.” This is part of the deep hunger for authentic (literally, true to the original) truth, truth which shapes us. It is truth which arrives not as an ideological “second-hand artifact,” but as incarnated. It is truth with a present address, in instructors who have a story that is part of God’s story, and who have a testimony as well as a title.

The rising cry against “stand and deliver education” is not a cry against authority, but a cry for the unreduced, uncut, authoritative voice of God. As Walls observes, the present situation just might provide “an opportunity of theological creativity that we haven’t known since the first or fourth centuries.” Like the original autographs of the New Testament itself, this creativity will reflect ways of being present in the world that is ministry.

Ministry formation has moved beyond exams and measuring the rational. “Discerning” ability to love, or growth of prayer life, is beyond counting. Reflective journaling that seeks to give shape and voice to faith in its more storied context is becoming widespread. Ministry formation is returning to its mentoring, relational, and apprenticeship roots.

2. There is a growing desire to integrate faith and learning. Under the reign of the modernist Empire, theology in many seminaries was featured as a “specialization.” This surfaced destructively in undergraduate education. A number of years ago, a brilliant student came to me at the end of the school year and said, “I don’t know what the matter is. I’m getting straight As in my Bible and theology classes, but I’ve never been further from God. Is this normal?”

It was a very disturbing moment. Memories flooded back of seminary experiences, and of the deep divide between “teaching about God” (theological education) and a diminishing “relationship with God” (faith formation). The ability to analyze, to dissect the world and God into ever smaller bits, so to define and control, probably does not lead to faith and love. We may know about “things,” however, it is people we are called to love. Might reducing God to his attributes be a path to atheism? Might cutting God down to the size of our rationality be the ticket to irreverent self-sufficiency? Was Friedrich Nietzsche onto something when he announced that we (Western rationalists) had “murdered God?” Is it any surprise that in places today where Christianity has experienced major growth (Africa, Asia, Latin America), that the universe seems bigger, even more populated, than that within the narrow confines of Enlightenment rationalism?

Ministry formation is responding to these concerns with integrative programs, pedagogies, and assignments. A more healthy balance between being, knowing, and doing has emerged. And creating space for Jesus (learning to pray, meditate, and serve humbly and daily with him) is at the center.

3. There is a growing desire for community. Tired of having their faith relegated to private piety by the Empire, many believers are seeking authentic ways of allowing the grace of community to shape their faith and service. They are finding support in revisited conceptions of Christian community. The “missional,”3 or “borderless,”4 church reflects very high views of the Church. God’s kingdom has a church. She is mission, the agent of God’s presence; she doesn’t do mission. The resurrection community bears testimony to God’s shalom in its worship and teaching, its service and suffering, in every relationship. Through community, boundaries between sacred and secular disappear and every human experience (even dark ones) is brimming with meaning.

Intentional community is increasingly a part of ministry formation. John Harris argues that ministry formation must have “belonging” and “vulnerability,” without which community is only a dream. Living in community enables the relational underpinnings essential for growth “far beyond academic engagement in the classroom.”5 As ministry formation moves beyond an “instructional transaction,” the credentials of staff will increasingly emphasize the ability to practice faith communally.

Facing the Empire means that now, more than ever, the Empire’s tenure is up for review. It means that the good news of God’s presence is already happening in, through, and beyond us. Ministry formation will hopefully continue to take its cue from the nature of God’s kingdom, rather than from the dictates of the Empire.


1. Walls, Andrew F. “The Great Commission 1910-2010.” Unpublished lead-up paper to the centenary of the World Missionary Conference of 2010. Recovered January 2006. Available at http://www.towards2010.org.uk/papers.htm.

2. Raschke, Carl. 2004. The Next Reformation. Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, 19.

3. Comes from Darrell Guder’s 1998 book, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.

4. Comes from David Lundy’s 2005 book, Borderless Church: Shaping the Church for the 21st Century.

5. Harries, John. 2001. “Assessment of Ministry Education to Increase Understanding.” Unpublished paper presented to the American Theological Society.

Ron Fraser has served as president of Alberta Bible College in Calgary, Canada, for the past twenty-three years. Prior to this, he served as a pastor, public high school teacher and college instructor. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Alberta, where his research interest has to do with understanding pedagogies that are appropriate to nurturing robust human and spiritual relationships, particularly in theological education.