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Week of 22 January 1999

Vol. II, No. 20

Feature Article

Putting the church in touch with the times

$1.49 million grant will help School of Theology develop new model for seminary education

Boston University's School of Theology has received a five-year $1.49 million grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc., to help develop an innovative new model for seminary education. An emphasis on STH's novel practical theology program, say administrators at the school, will provide church leaders with the tools and insights required to adapt the church to the emerging needs of modern society.

"Christendom has collapsed," says STH Dean Robert Neville. "If the church is to continue to fulfill its role of advancing the Christian gospel, it must be done with a solid understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political context of modern society. We need to consider altered institutions, if not entirely new ones, if we are to be successful."

The Boston University grant is part of a total of $53.4 million awarded by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment to 45 theological schools in the United States and Canada as part of an effort to improve the schools' capacities to prepare students to be effective ministers.

At STH, the new focus on developing an educational and research program in practical theology will be designed specifically to train leaders to carry out the critical analysis, situational interpretation, strategic thinking, mobilization of resources, and implementation required to engage people from diverse backgrounds in the church.

"Our program will be the first to focus so strongly on integrating theory and traditional teachings into the practice of religion in a modern cultural context," explains Neville. "The primary obligation of theological education should be to research and develop strategic practices attuned to the reality of religious life in America and internationally. The interpretation of the Bible, the meaning of Christian tradition, or even the definition of God must be made relevant to the different subcultures of our society -- from urban ghetto to urban cultural sophisticate, from suburban consumer to rural fundamentalist, from an American third-generation Methodist to an Asian Buddhist."

Launching a church a year
This effort includes the estab lishment of the Program for Congregational Research and Development, which will provide training in new church development by working with the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church to start up one new church a year for 10 years in key locations throughout New England. It will use the experience as a living laboratory for research on how new communities of faith can be started as well as how congregations can develop and renew themselves.

The program will also aim to serve as a national research center in this field. Two newly designed research seminars, New Approaches to Practical Theology, taught by STH Professor Horace Allen, Jr., and Church and Theology in the Modern World, taught by UNI Professor Peter Berger and STH Assistant Professor Claire Wolfteich, will offer new ways to bridge church and the academy.

The wheels of this schoolwide refocusing were set in motion last year, when Neville, in a presentation to STH faculty, proposed a Th.D. in practical theology. In addition, last fall students in Professor Bryan Stone's course Evangelism and Contemporary Culture began looking at how to conduct research on communities, assessing the opportunity for new faith communities and how to help established churches revitalize themselves in changing demographic situations.

By the end of the five-year grant period, STH will not only have a revised doctor of theology program, but also a new doctor of theology program in practical theology and a modified master of divinity curriculum.

STH has a long tradition at Boston University and with the Methodist Church. In fact, BU originated in 1839 when a group of lay and ministerial delegates of the Methodist Episcopal Church began a school for the improvement of theological training.

Lilly Endowment is a private foundation that supports the causes of religion, education, and community development. "Lilly Endowment's mission in the field of religion is to deepen and enrich the religious life of American Christians, primarily by helping to strengthen their churches," says Craig Dykstra, Lilly Endowment's vice president for religion. "This grants program aims to assist those institutions best poised to make a strategic advance to improve their capacity to prepare the next generation of congregational or parish ministers."