We left for St. Louis and Denver on September 13th. So much has happened in the past week, and we’re bushed! We even contracted colds. 🤧
Our first few days in Colorado were taken up with helping the Everetts (Ben, Katie, and Sasha) pack up their home for their move back to Philly.
They loved well in Denver, and they’re well-loved, making their transition bittersweet.
Of course, we’re happy that they’re moving closer to us and their homeland, but we join them in their tears.
We also just finished up the Anselm Society conference “Imagination Redeemed.” I’ll reflect more on that in my next installment.
For today, I’ll step back in time to give a little report on our return to St. Louis, our adopted mid-West home city.
Speaking at Covenant Seminary
Remember what it felt like to return to that “big sledding hill” you enjoyed as a five year old but now you’re 21 and it’s not so much a hill as a small bump of grass?
That’s kind of how it felt speaking in my alma mater’s chapel.
The place didn’t seem nearly as big.
Chapel services were a lot more packed with people, energy, and expectation in the 90’s. I’d say 80-100 people attended on average.
I saw maybe 45 people scattered throughout Rayburn Chapel.1
Compared to when we lived on campus with our four (then five) kids, the campus was lonesome. I saw no kids zooming around on roller blades, playing street hockey, or creating forts in the woods.
Meeting space was at a premium in those days, and it seems the seminary responded by creating large and comfortable spaces that now sat empty, save for a few students working on laptops.
The well-equipped coffee shop was on pause, apparently shuttered.
To fine-tune my notes, I took up residence in one of the veneered study cubicles (with florescent light) that I once camped in as a student, poring over Hebrew and Greek exegetical assignments and theological papers.
No one was downstairs studying, but a young dad was having a discreet conversation with his wife on speaker phone about their kids.
Once a secret ambition of mine, sitting there in my 30,’s, wondering what I’d say if I ever got the invite to speak to the student body, the opportunity turned out to be blessedly simple.
I enjoyed myself immensely, preaching on a favorite text, John 5, in which Jesus heals a man who had been disabled 38 years. It gave me the chance to commend “shared vulnerability” with our world as followers of Christ, something we value at The Row House, Inc.
Becky and I enjoyed lunch with Jerram Barrs in his corner office made cozy by scads of books and mementos from decades of teaching on Christianity and culture.
I saw signs of energy, inquiry, and promise on campus in the future generation of church leaders, albeit in a shifting educational landscape.
Though the hill looked smaller than I remember it, its impact on our family remains huge.
What’s Up With Graduate Campuses?
Becky and I attended a campus picnic on the evening of my chapel talk. Tom and Tara Gibbs noticed us and promptly approached us. We caught up for twenty wonderful minutes.
They were fellow students, and now Tom serves as Covenant’s President. He confirmed our observations:
The CTS day-time student population is 30% of what we remember in the 90’s.2
According to Tom and Mark Ryan, the director of The Francis A. Schaeffer Institute, there a few reasons for the change.
For one thing, COVID did a number on the population in family housing units where we lived shoulder-to-shoulder with many families and some single students.
More than that, theological students and the Master of Divinity in particular, are on a downward trend.
Apparently, the MDiv requirement in the Association of Theological Schools has been reduced by 20 credits to around 80 to keep in line with conventional Masters degrees.
It seems to me that seminaries everywhere are rallying to bring back pastoral training in a time of cultural shifts such as gender egalitarianism, digital technology, and therapeutic models of ministry.3
The Rise of Therapy
I taught a 75 minute Apologetics and Outreach class of 40 students, 31 of which were Masters of Arts in Counseling majors.4
It used be that mainly the liberal seminaries were losing pastoral applicants, but the dwindling is now happening in the more conservative ones too.5
Lest it seem I’m in a sentimental funk about what was, I’m actually hopeful that there’s a way for folks to learn about the Bible and church work in vibrant communities.
I can imagine more church leaders emerging, not from a cloistered context only, but also from within the lived context of congregations and localities. This is where the online component can actually assist incarnate expressions of the faith.
Engaging Current Culture With Ancient Faith? Yes Indeedy.
It was a joy to share with the seminary class about what we’re doing locally in Lancaster through The Row House.
I was a good boy and spoke for about 30 minutes, leaving ample time for Q&A. I took some really good questions on everything from emotional intelligence to theology of place.
For my presentation, I simply shared some pages from our web site on a big screen while commending five attributes of outreach we do naturally:
Fun: I started by commending joy and “sideways” ways of being human in our social gatherings as well as our serious discussions.
Personal: I focused on our in-person priority and penchant for showcasing local presenters that Forum attenders can engage with closely.
Collaborative: I commended our business sponsors, Board members, speakers, and Members as vital players in engaging Lancaster.
Permeable: I explained why we insist on hosting public events that are easily accessible to anyone who can come, go, and return happily.
Flexible: I shared that as an organization, we’re on the hunt for best ways to engage more people. Thankfully, we’re agile and willing to be creative.
I’m grateful that my study leave has given me extra time to not only articulate our mission before many more people, but also to deepen it. That’s the plan, anyway.
Dr. Robert Rayburn was a father of the PCA denomination and a heavyweight in the school’s formative years. Still, I’ve so wanted them to rename the chapel The Bryan Chappell Chapel, after the President during my tenure. Not gonna happen.
Into the Aughts, the same on-campus vibrancy held, so I’m told.
There was a time when “serious” theologians poo-pooed the advent of a “therapeutic culture” in contradistinction to an emphasis on teaching biblical doctrine. Their prediction came true, but their warning may have been overstated. After all, biblical doctrine recognizes Jesus as high priest (Hebrews 4), the one who came to sympathize (from therapeia in Greek) with broken sinners.
Another section, admittedly, had more MDiv students, but still, the counseling arm at CTS is busting at the seams. This is, perhaps, a harbinger of a needed healing movement in our midst. It’s something a place like CTS would do well to lean into.
A Seminary In Lancaster? Who Knew?
Just before we left for St. Louis, I strolled up to Lancaster Theological Seminary to work on my chapel & class notes.
The librarian told me that only about 20 daytime students were studying there and that most the classes were now in the evening or weekends.
News to me (and I’m a neighbor), the school was sold to Moravian University in Bethlehem, PA. They intend to merge their own seminary and operations with the fledgling institution with an eye to populating the place again.