Discipleship vs. Seminary: the medium is the message

Discipleship and school are two different media for learning.  If we take the model of Jesus and his disciples and contrast it with theological seminary, we can see significant differences that may help us to address the malaise with which many experience seminary education.  The premise of this post is that the medium is the message.  This phrase, which was coined by the Canadian scholar Marshal McLuhan, means that the vehicle of the message is not irrelevant because it superimposes its own biases on the message’s content.

Seminary is curriculum-oriented and knowledge-based. Every seminary program has a set of core courses and electives which are designed to give the student knowledge related to their desired field.  Students spend the better part of three years increasing their knowledge.  No proximity to teachers is necessary, because it is the teacher’s knowledge which is being passed on.  A student may easily attain the professor’s knowledge through reading a book or from attending a lecture.  Students must write tests and papers in order to demonstrate adequate mastery of the material, i.e., to show that they know the curriculum.  The character of the professor is practically irrelevant, because it’s not about passing on habits but knowledge.  Discipleship is incarnational and relationship oriented.  Jesus is the Word incarnate who represents God on earth and shows what God is like to a world estranged from him.  Jesus called disciples to imitate him.  In order for this incarnational ministry to happen, Jesus called his disciples to be with him and learn to do the things that he did.  Discipleship training focuses on the character of the disciple. Direct contact with the teacher is indispensable.

Seminary is individualistic. Apart from a few discussion oriented seminar classes and group projects, which are rare, seminary learning takes place in isolation.  The student is alone in the large lecture hall as he listens to the professor’s monologues.  Question and answer time is limited.  The professors and students have little leisure time to sit and discuss the material.  Students receive assignments of reading books and research papers which are largely done in complete isolation.  Discipleship is community oriented. Jesus was with his disciples for three years.  They followed him as he taught the people and challenged the religious leaders of his day. Even when Jesus sent them out on a mission, he sent them two by two, so that they would not be alone.  Much of the learning takes place during meals and other intimate occasions.  Even the application process, “Master, where are you staying” (John 1.38) suggests that the potential disciples were asking, “Teacher, how can we spend time with you?”

Seminary is focused on diplomas.  The goal of seminary education is the reception of the prize, the MDiv degree, which will become the key to opening doors to church ministries.  The MDiv is not, however, an interchangeable degree, because every denomination has its own requirements and may require the student to take further courses in their own church’s seminary in order to qualify for ministry.  Unfortunately, the number of students with diplomas often exceeds the number of open positions.  So it is not uncommon for graduates to languish never actually attaining their goals despite jumping through the necessary hoops.  Discipleship is focused on mission. When Jesus finished three years with his disciples, he sent them once again on a mission that had the world as its focus (Acts 1.8).  The purpose of all the training was not the attaining of the title, “apostle”, but the construction of the church.  No one will ultimately languish in unemployment because the church’s mission has not yet been accomplished.

Seminary focuses mainly on theoretical learning. The seminary seldom teaches anything hands-on.  To be sure, MDiv students must go through an internship or practicum.  But this is church-based training that usually has little connection with the seminary, as it is farmed out to local churches.  Very rarely the students are exposed to a real situation, such as when Michael Green took Regent students on evangelistic missions to Victoria, UBC campus, and Penticton (I participated in both all three of these).  Many educational programs have similar emphasis on theoretical learning.  I was once surprised to meet a petroleum engineer who claimed that he never studied at University.  And yet today, four years of theoretical learning with no hands on experience is required for entry-level engineering jobs, and the graduate really begins to learn how to be an engineer in his first job.  The same is true of seminary.  The focus of the training is on the theory and the students remained oddly disconnected from the task.  Discipleship’s main learning method is supervised doing. Discipleship is an apprenticeship, where the apprentice first watches the master, then he practices the craft in front of the master, and finally he learns to work independently of the master’s watchful eye.  In the gospels, we see the disciples watching Jesus, doing and being sent out to do; and then finally at the end of three years (a fairly standard period for an apprenticeship in many trades), we see that Jesus departs and leaves it to his disciples to do the work.  To be sure, Jesus also taught theory, but this was in the context of doing.  So for example, he first taught the crowd but then fed them, using the disciples to distribute the loaves and fishes—the practical and theoretical were integrated in the training process.

Seminary leads to conformity. I asked my wife if she could add something to my list and she suggested this.  Schooling requires that everyone learn the same thing, in a structured setting.  This is difficult of course for squirming boys.  So much of the potential and vivacity of our young people is squandered in making them sit in conformity of the classroom.  The same is true even up to the seminary level; everyone is required to study the same core courses if they want the diploma, even those courses for which they have little interest.  Discipleship helps people learn how their particular gifting fits into the whole. Jesus’ disciples did not all function in the same way.  Judas was a treasurer, though he did a bad job. Peter was apparently groomed for leadership.  In a community it is natural for each person to find their niche and make their contribution because it is organic and living.

Seminary is expensive and runs as a business. Many of the choices that seminaries make are based upon sound business decisions.  Programs and courses may be eliminated because they are not cost effective.  The treatment of employees is related to budgetary considerations.  It also means that seminary admits students into the program that may have shown no demonstrable calling to ministry, because as paying clients the seminary has little choice but to accept them.  The seminary acts as a supplier of theological education and the student as the client.  Discipleship is inexpensive and is closer to the model of the family. Jesus didn’t charge his disciples tuition but rather allowed them to eat the bread bought from the community purse.  So essentially, they were paid to be his disciples.  Jesus taught that God was their Father and that he was their brother.  They were to see themselves as the family of God—it wasn’t a supplier-client relationship.


It should hopefully be clear now that there are aspects of discipleship training as modeled by Jesus that are clearly superior to seminary learning.  I believe that Ivan Illich was largely correct in his critiques about school (see esp. his classic, Deschooling Society), but our culture is stuck in the mud about school; the outlay of billions of dollars in education at all levels has unsatisfactory results and too little to show for the investments made.  Discipleship as a medium of learning recognizes one essential aspect of learning:  Education is more caught than taught. Having spent four years at Bible college, I was surprised to see so many of my fellow graduates contradict their college teachers and imitate the senior pastor of the first church for which they worked.  So even if the homiletics professor stressed good preparation before preaching, the senior pastor’s study habits instead became foundational for that graduate’s later career.  This is also true of how pastors handle money and a whole host of other issues.  It is as though the information learned during those four years of college went in one ear and out the other.

Furthermore, the seminary teaches not only through the curriculum but through its own actual practice of ministry.  So if the seminary underpays or otherwise abuses its workers, we should not be surprised if churches do the same.  If the professors are aloof, lazy, abusive or arrogant, is anyone surprised when their graduates manifest similar characteristics?  Discipleship training, by the bias of its medium, places far more emphasis on character—doing what the master does, becoming like the master, treating people the way the master does.  So when choosing a master, does the apprentice seek out the least successful of the town’s craftsmen? Do they want to study under the one whom nobody likes because he is ornery or a cheat?  No indeed.  An apprentice will seek out the most successful of masters, just as the disciples sought Jesus by asking him, “Master, where are you staying?”  The disciples will learn to do ministry the way the master does, and hopefully, they will be able to replicate their master’s success.

Further Reading:  John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing us down: The hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling, 1992. Neil Postman, Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business, 1985.

This post is intended as a response to a comment by Elderj at Wayne Park’s blog.