News & Blog


Getting to know the neighbours. Theological education in context

There are some obvious reasons why full-time residential training for Christian ministry seems attractive. Compared to training done in your spare time or even done part-time, you get to cover an awful lot more ground… deeper into the Bible, wider theology, more angles on ministry and mission. If you make the sacrifice of becoming residential, you get all those times out of class - casual conversations and informal discussions over evenings and weekends - to chew on things with fellow students and lecturers who live here too and who you’re building relationships with. Many students would say, I think, that it’s the accumulation of these things that made them most glad that they chose to train in this way.

I do want to be clear, though. Every form of training has its strengths, and I’ve witnessed that first hand. For the four years that I’ve been on the faculty at Oak Hill I’ve also been seconded for part of my time to serve on the faculty of Crosslands Training, an initiative started jointly by Oak Hill and Acts 29. It asks people to give 12 hours a week to study as they train for ministry, while they stay in their home situation and continue serving in their supporting church. Many students on this kind of training speak of the virtues of being able to put their learning into immediate practice: what they study on a Monday might directly influence their Friday-night youth group talk. This kind of training is often called ‘in-context’ training. I’ve loved the privilege of being part of it, and it remains vital that training routes like this continue to be developed and made widely available.

However if that kind of spare-time or part-time training is called ‘in-context’ training, what would you call full-time residential training? ‘Out-of-context’ doesn’t seem right, since no one is ever out of a context, free-floating and unattached. We only ever move from one kind of context to another. So if the move to full-time residential training is not a move from ‘in-context’ to ‘out-of-context’ but actually a move into a different kind of context, just what is that different kind of context?

I’ve mulled on this over the last few years, and I’ve got a few ways of describing the heart of the particular context into which someone moves when they move to a place like Oak Hill. My best way of describing it is happily stolen from an image which the theologian Kevin Vanhoozer uses in a book he published in 2016 on the five Reformation ‘solas’: Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. The book is based on some lectures he was invited to give at Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Vanhoozer is talking about the nature of evangelicalism. He pictures it as a street, which he calls (what else?) Evangel Way. Along both sides of this street are individual houses, collectively forming a neighbourhood. The street or the neighbourhood is the breadth of orthodox evangelicalism. The individual houses are the separate denominations, networks and local churches which comprise evangelicalism. As on any other street, there are some residents who rarely venture out of their house to talk with their neighbours, assuming that their house is superior in every possible way to all the others, while other folks are regularly out and about, chatting and conferring with people from quite different houses.

Of course, some would prefer it if the chaos of the neighbourhood were replaced by everyone moving into the same uniform high-rise block ruled over by one individual. The church equivalent of that is the Roman church under papal leadership. Others think that the Protestant approach is always going to lead to total neighbourhood anarchy, with everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. It’s not hard to think that evangelicalism sometimes heads that way. But it need not go that way, says Vanhoozer, as long as the residents of each house on the street are willing to acknowledge that ‘[n]o one Protestant house contains the fullness of Jesus’, and come to see that ‘[e]vangelicalism is a place (neighborhood) for converse and conference between the residents of many houses’ (p.226). Each resident can remain very proud of their own individual house with all its glories, while conversing openly in the neighbourhood with people whose houses are a bit different. What emerges he says, is a unity that is not imposed from on high (as in Roman Catholicism) or given up on (as in anarchy), but is found and sought amidst what he calls the unitive plurality of evangelical Protestantism.

What’s this neat image got to do with full-time residential training? Just this. To move to train full-time, and especially to do so residentially, is to take a big and bold step out of the front door of your particular theological house and out onto ‘Evangel Way’, out into the wider neighbourhood. At Oak Hill, students meet something of the breadth of orthodox evangelicalism, both among the student body and on the faculty. They encounter people who hold different views from them on some of the big evangelical headlines - infant baptism and church government. I guess every student who comes here expects that. But, perhaps even more significantly, they encounter differences they might not have expected - shades (sometimes clashes) of opinion on just how the Bible should ‘properly’ be interpreted; what counts as ‘good’ preaching; how important theology really is for ministry; what values ought to shape the ministry of a local church. Sometimes those differences feel small. Other times they can feel jarring, especially if we had not expected that a ‘real’ evangelical could think differently on that from how we’ve been brought up to think.

I could summarise it this way. In what’s often called ‘in-context’ training, you certainly get all the strengths of continuing to serve in the context you’re very familiar with. But it may be that, while still immersed in that particular context, it’s not so easy to think out of that context - to get some distance from it or perspective on it, and to reflect on it deeply in all its many strengths and (yes) its weaknesses and blind-spots.

Perhaps there’s an analogy with the sabbaticals that pastors sometimes take. My own experience as a pastor  -  and I’ve heard others say the same  -  was that it was only when I took a sabbatical and spent a little time away from the church I was serving that I had time to reflect, pausing for a while so that I could both come to discern where my ministry was stronger and weaker, and find the space to make some changes. It’s very hard both to see the weaknesses and to have space to do something about them, in the constant weekly routine of life and service.

I need to be very clear here. The only transformation that Oak Hill actively seeks to make from the outset in every student is further into the image of the Lord Jesus. But students do change in other ways. We’re not seeking to bulldoze any of the many fine houses there are on Evangel Way. We’re here to serve a variety of churches, not dictate to them. In fact we’re often found helping students decide not to move out of the house they grew up in but to pump some concrete into its foundations (“here are your very best reasons for thinking bishops are a good thing”; “here are the strongest biblical-theological foundations for credo-baptism”). But, yes, we are also constantly encouraging students out into the evangelical neighbourhood to converse constantly and deeply with others, and to have unexamined assumptions and blind-spots brought into the light, and differences explored. We trust that this is our contribution to the great ‘evangelical conference’ that, according to Vanhoozer, gives evangelicalism its unity.

A final and perhaps provocative thought. If future church leaders are only ever trained in (home) context, or only ever trained in the annexe that’s been built on the side of one particular kind of ecclesiastical house, it isn’t easy to see how evangelical ministry will truly progress and reform and deepen. Perhaps it’s more likely on the whole it will tend more to replicate itself - wonderfully replicating its strengths, but also unwittingly replicating its weaknesses. To come to Oak Hill is to accept an invitation to move out of one context and into a different but deeply formative context. It’s certainly the invitation to go on treasuring the many great bits of the house you’ve grown up in, perhaps coming to see more clearly which are the really great bits, and why. It’s also the invitation to step right outside your front door, to discover the voices that form the ongoing life of the wider neighbourhood of which you’re a part.


Support Oak Hill

If you benefitted from reading this and would like to support the work of College by giving financially, please visit our support section.

Support Oak Hill