Looking back at five years of historic growth, looking forward to a promising future
By Midwestern’s President, Jason K. Allen
Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 35
At Midwestern Seminary, we are beginning a new tradition: the faculty lecture.
Formal academic presentations have a rich history in theological education and a rich history within the Southern Baptist Convention. After all, it was a faculty lecture that birthed Southern Baptist theological education in the first place.
The newly minted professor, James P. Boyce, delivered his inaugural faculty address entitled, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” at Furman University in 1856. Many Southern Baptist leaders, including Basil Manly Sr., Basil Manly Jr., Jesse Mercer, W.B. Johnson, and R.B.C. Howell had advocated for a theological institution in the South. It was Boyce whom God raised up as the ultimate catalyst, founding Southern Baptists’ first seminary in 1859.
During his two-hour address, Boyce argued for three changes in theological education in order to produce an abundant ministry, a learned ministry, and an orthodox ministry. To achieve these ends, he argued a new seminary should make available programs of study to every student regardless of their previous level of education or even if they had no education at all. He also contended that the seminary should facilitate and promote the highest level of academic achievement. Then, to attain orthodoxy, every professor must subscribe to a confessional statement.
In short order, Boyce’s dream would be realized through the founding of the SBC’s mother seminary in 1859. But, he not only founded our mother seminary, he set the course for theological education within the SBC. So much of what is right about our six seminaries, over 150 years later, can go back to that founding address—“Three Changes in Theological Institutions.”
More than a century later, and closer to home, Ralph Elliott stood before his Midwestern Seminary colleagues on September 8, 1960, and delivered his inaugural academic address. In a matter of months, he would publish The Message of Genesis and in so doing plunge both the institution and the denomination into a season of great upheaval and controversy.
Yet, one did not have to wait until The Message of Genesis was published to sense what was to come. All you had to do was hear his address. You could clearly sense his appreciation for Julius Wellhausen, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and others, as well as his desire to build an Old Testament department free from doctrinal fundamentalism and biblical literalism. The storm which would come to be known as the Elliott Controversy appeared in seed form that day for all who had ears to hear.
Now at Midwestern Seminary, we celebrate an important occasion, not as auspicious as Boyce’s proved to be, and not as catastrophic (I trust) as Elliott’s, but significant none-the-less. In concert with my fifth anniversary as president of Midwestern Seminary, we are initiating a new tradition, the faculty address. In so doing, we are restating, reviewing, and reasserting our vision For the Church.
On this campus five years ago, we set out on a new institutional course. Our stated goal was simple—to be the premier institution in North America training pastors, missionaries, and ministers to serve the local church. For the Church was born.
For the Church at Present
We believe For the Church is a biblical mandate. We find our charter in the church’s charter in Matthew 16, where Jesus promised to build his church. We see that theme picked up and reiterated throughout the New Testament in places like Ephesians 4, where Christ promises to gift his church with pastors, ministers, and evangelists. We witness the theme in the book of Acts where we see the church birthed, growing, and metastasizing throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond.
We move to the Epistles, and what do we see? We see letters to churches about how the church is to be governed, how the church is to function, what the church is to teach, and what Christians are to believe. Then, we come to the end of the Book, and what do we see? We see the book of Revelation—seven letters written to seven real churches—and we take in this great picture of Christ coming back ultimately and triumphantly for his church to rule and reign throughout the cosmos.
We argue and believe that Midwestern Seminary’s right to exist, therefore, is directly tethered to our faithfulness to the local church. Moreover, I believe that any para-church organization or ministry should be evaluated primarily based upon its faithfulness to serve, support, and strengthen the local church. Christ has promised to build his church, not his seminary. But as we are faithful to his church, doubtlessly He will build this seminary.
For the Church is also denominational expectation. In 1957, the SBC founded Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City, its sixth and youngest seminary. Some were arguing for Chicago, others Jacksonville, still others Denver. Kansas City won out for three reasons. First, in Kansas City the seminary was positioned to penetrate the West and the North, which remains to this day needy for the gospel. Second, burgeoning enrollments at both Southern Seminary and Southwestern Seminary compelled the convention to say, “We need a seminary in Kansas City to alleviate the enrollment burden on those two schools.” Third, we were founded to serve the underserved churches in this region so they might have a sufficiently equipped clergy. In other words, there is a denominational expectation, explicitly set forth both in our founding documents and in our formal ministry assignment from the SBC, to serve the churches of the convention, especially the churches in our region.
For the Church is also an historical imperative. Every time a seminary or divinity school has drifted from the church, disaster has always followed. One must simply read books like Glenn Miller’s Piety Profession or James Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light to see the drift and what follows. Whether it is correlation or causation someone else can determine, but the facts are clear: When colleges, seminaries, or divinity schools wake up one day and are no longer under the oversight of a local church, disaster follows.
We argue and believe that Midwestern Seminary’s right to exist, therefore, is directly tethered to our faithfulness to the local church.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the church and the seminary; they are to serve, strengthen, and support one another. It is the great, tragic irony that so many seminaries and Christian colleges, founded by churches to serve and support them, end up being the poisonous well that undermines those very churches.
As we contemplate the state of Midwestern’s vision For the Church at present, we feel an urgency. Our denomination, and the broader Evangelical world, is in the middle of a massive generational transition. A generation of ministers is retiring. The churches are asking, “From whence will a new generation come?”
Midwestern Seminary must be ready to respond to that question every year going forward by supplying a new generation of pastors, missionaries, and ministers to serve our churches. Failure to do so will stymie the churches in our region.
Thus, our mandate remains clear. And we remain For the Church at present because of the work we’ve seen this vision compel over the last five years.
The For the Church Track Record
This is why we exist, what we exist for; how we orient ourselves and our institutional goals; how we think of ourselves and project ourselves; and how we make institutional decisions.
Most especially, For the Church is seen through the faculty and the curriculum – who teaches, how we teach, and what we teach. How we teach is incredibly important. A seminary, in its final analysis, is not defined by the buildings it does or does not have, or the president it does or does not have. It is defined by the students it does or does not have, and the men and women it does or does not have teaching them. It makes all the difference to have professors who teach with that vision on the forefront of their minds.
Thus, church history is not just about memorizing names and dates, it is about seeing, knowing, and reveling in God’s faithfulness to his church for 2,000 years. Theology is not about deciphering how many angels can dance on the head of a needle, it is about equipping the people of God for faithful doctrine in the church. Missions is not merely about deploying missionaries, it is about understanding that missionaries are sent to reach the lost for Christ and to see them brought into healthy churches so that the church domestic is indeed the church global. Apologetics is not about merely crafting arguments, it is about equipping our people to be able to answer the questions so that the church might rightly defend the faith.
Moreover, biblical studies – Old Testament and New Testament – is not merely about seeing who can memorize the most vocabulary. It is about equipping our students in the Scriptures so that the people of God may be similarly equipped. Therefore, in every class, the professors must be able to draw a line from their subject matter to the local church.
For the Church is seen in the hires we make. We ask ourselves, colloquially, when we consider hiring someone, are they “For the Churchy”? Do they want to serve the church? Do they see their primary calling as training pastors and ministers for the local church? If their first commitment is to the broader academy, then they are not going to be a good fit at Midwestern Seminary.
This vision touches on the campus culture we seek to foster. From the events we hold to the guests we host, everything we do we want to filter through the question: does it enable us to better serve the church? For Midwestern seminary, this is the ultimate question.
Therefore, we reflect, under this vision, what has God accomplished these past five years?
First, For the Church has taken root. Over the past five years, God has chosen to bless our work in material and immaterial ways. For the Church has taken root and that is no small achievement. It has gone from being my vision to being our vision to being the vision.
This is no small achievement because many seminaries have no idea why they exist. I do not mean that as a statement of condescension, I mean that as a statement of fact. Many seminaries cobble together as many classes as they can, kind of like a shopping mall, and try to get enough people coming through the doors so that they can pay their bills. When that happens, the mission is diluted. So much so that the ministry and the emphases of the seminary quickly transitions to be focused on nothing.
At Midwestern Seminary, we sought to work backward and say, “We are going to build an institution devoted to the local church and then we will figure out who will come around that vision.” God has blessed us by sending us more students than we ever imagined. In fact, over the past several years we’ve been recognized by the Association of Theological Schools as one of the fastest growing seminaries in North America.
When ATS was putting the story together, they called me to inquire of our growth. My interviewer had no idea what we were doing and not much of an idea about theological education proper. She asked me about our growth and said, “What have you done? Have you expanded your advertising? Have you expanded your admissions office?” All her questions were programmatic. I said, “Ma’am, we have sought to bring excellence to every area of the campus, but to understand our growth you have to understand that it is not about new programs or new hires, but rather our vision. We exist for the local church and the vision is resonating broadly within our constituency, the Southern Baptist Convention.” So, God has blessed, and For the Church has taken root.
Second, God has given us a collection of faculty and staff who share our vision. God is calling extremely gifted and faithful people to come here. It is often underestimated how massive it is when a person who has four or five young kids uproots and moves 400 miles, 800 miles, or across the ocean to come to a new place of service. That is a considerable upheaval and no one, in his or her right mind, would do that casually. God has given us such men and women, servants of extreme gifting who serve with a pronounced sense of calling. I am extremely grateful for all of my colleagues at Midwestern Seminary, both those who preceded me and those who have come in more recent years, who are cheerfully laboring For the Church.
Third, God has given us a student body who is choosing Midwestern because of the vision. When enrollment is talked about, it primarily has to do with numbers. But if mere numbers are the focus, the bigger issue is overlooked. The issue in seminary is not how many students you have, it is the quality of students you have. What are they coming to do? How clear is God’s calling on their life? Why are they coming to be trained?
What is more encouraging than going from a seminary of a little over 1,000 to now more than 3,000 students is the quality of our students seems to be getting better and better and better. In fact, one simple metric I have in the back of my mind informally as I walk around and meet students is the thought, “Okay, in five years will this guy be pastoring a church?” I love to be able to think, “Yeah, I can see it. I can see him planting a church, or I can see him going to the mission field, or I can see him doing consequential things for the church.”
Fourth, as already referenced, God has given us a surging enrollment. When I came to Midwestern in 2012, I dreamt of an enrollment of 2,000 students. If I’m honest, I did not think we could necessarily get there. There was nothing empirical that suggested we could, given where higher education and seminaries were trending. The 2,000 number was, frankly, in my mind a goal that if we hit I thought we could have a sustainable business model. This was the ideal student population I hoped to have to be able to support the staff and faculty. God has done so much more than that. He’s done more than any of us could have thought or asked.
Fifth, God has given Midwestern a robust and sustainable business model. This should not be taken lightly. If an administration spends all its time doing crisis fundraising, which is a losing proposition, they are unable to do the things that matter most – investing in the team and, thus, investing in the students. Additionally, it matters because we want to keep tuition low for students, to care for faculty and staff, and to be able to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff. All of these things take financial resources.
Sixth, over the past five years, God has given us a convention of churches who look to us with growing confidence. In a recent video, I was proud to see multiple men talking about how churches are looking to our seminary with confidence. They are proud of who we are, and they are proud of what we are producing. The day that the denomination loses confidence in its seminary, is the day that seminary begins to go out of business.
Finally, God has given us a renewed spirit on our campus. It is one of unity, purpose, cheerfulness, camaraderie, and mission. This, indeed, is a joy-filled place to serve. Like our other blessings, we do not take this for granted.
I am reminded of the great line from Winston Churchill in the aftermath of the miracle at Dunkirk where he famously declared, “Wars are not won by evacuations.” Similarly, great institutions are not built by living in the past. We forget the past to our own peril, but we live in the past to our own regret.
God has given Midwestern a good five years. But we are trusting God to give Midwestern a good five decades (and more).
For the Church. This is the vision that called me to this place and, and it is the vision that has radiated through this campus and reverberated across our great denomination. It is the vision that we, with appropriate institutional self-confidence, are projecting to all who have ears to hear. May we never cease to be thankful to God for the victories he has given us these past five years. May we never cease to serve in such a way that he is pleased to give us such victories going forward.