Dying Community

Dying Community

When I went up to college in the late 60s, the close community – academic work, worship and service together – had a massive impact on my life. I moved from the library to the chapel, from evangelism to the communal dining room, from a lecturer’s room to a student’s room to continue the discussion. My experience mirrored the majority responses of past students of such colleges; that the one thing which made most impact on them was not the lectures but the close, daily, learning, loving, praying community of which they were a part.

Yet today we are seeing a significant retreat from such a community as the environment of theological education. Why is that? The increasing “university” atmosphere of our colleges has not demanded community and students sometimes come in for courses at different times on different days of the week – or even just for intensives now and then, so daily morning and evening devotions are hard to sustain – something Warfield and Bonhoeffer could not conceive of in their writings on theological education. Concepts of community are also changing with less interest by students in strongly structured community situations. And colleges today are more likely to be found in urban situations which do not require residential places. Above all, theological education is getting more expensive and in-service training allows the student to continue to earn a salary – and probably pay less fees than in a community institutional setting.

Certainly there have been arguments put forward against institutional theological education, for instance from Winter, Kinsler and others connected with TEE in the seventies. But what are we missing? Firstly the lovely coming together of worship, service and learning together which is so rich. Secondly, the best atmosphere to integrate these things into the person of the student. Thirdly, the moulding of a close community where the rough edges are rubbed off and encouragement is given, where safety to make mistakes is offered and learnt. Fourthly, the glories of modelling the breadth and depth of the church of God, learning to live with and love very different Christians. Above all, the experience that it is only “together with all the saints” that we can do theology or learn about the love of God.

Is it artificial? In that it is a special coming together of Christians with a particular calling, for a while, I suppose so, but it does not need to cause the student (or the teacher) to lose contact with the world or the church. It has certainly been the wisdom of history that the purposeful worshipping and learning community living together is the best way to provide holistic integrated theological education in preparation for Christian service. I am not arguing against the many fine distributed learning schemes around today which cater for a necessary market and do a good job. However, such schemes need to know what they are missing and make valiant attempts to build in as much community as possible. Jesus said to some who believed on him “stay with your people” and to others, “leave your people and follow me in my close community of learning and training for three years”.

Let us keep that second option gloriously alive.


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One Comment on “Dying Community”

  1. John Ross Says:

    Graham, this weekend I watched Martin Dobelmeir’s excellent 2003 documentary, ‘Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist and Nazi Resister’. Not only was it a deeply challenging reminder of the remarkable life of a young theologian who lived out his understanding of God’s will with courage and self-sacrifice, but it was also a testimony to a theological educator who, knowing that his students would be tested to the uttermost, saw the absolute necessity of building a confessing (in both senses of the word) community, committed to God and to each other in a true ‘communio sanctorum’. Thank you for reminding us of this desiderata for theological education today.

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