September 30, 2011
Where does the future lie in theological education?
In a recent blog Seth Godin proposes the future lies in niches rather than the masses. His new book, We Are All Weird, observes that anything that goes against the norm is weird. At one point in time, however, everything we do or know was weird, deemed against the norm, out of step with whatever everyone at the time thought or did.
Every one of us today has the ability through social media to contribute. We can all be the writer, the inventor, the change agent. But we will connect with our own niche, the people who agree with our ideas or want to react to our thoughts or inventions or proposals.
So what is the niche for Sioux Falls Seminary?
First, it is becoming clearer that it is the upper Midwest region. We get students from all over North America and a small percentage from overseas, but 85% come from South Dakota or a state that touches on South Dakota.
Second, and a contributor to this statistic, we understand the "town-and-country" environment that makes up the upper Midwest, the environment our students understand. What is meant by town-and-country surfaces in a strong work ethic, a connection to the farm even if a person has never lived on the farm, a conservative theological bent that blears denominational boundaries, and a drive to minister in this region.
Third, we seem to keep finding underserved populations as part of our niche. Our whole region is a flyover zone, an underserved region. In the middle of Sioux Falls, a struggling low income population in need of listening ears with a growing number of students who sense a call to minister to this group. We have committed ourselves to finding a way to serve the large areas of native reservation in South Dakota, especially the Rosebud. Even our expansion into Omaha comes because it has no seminary presence at all. Many serve churches and ministries there with no preparation. They have great desire and passion, but little equipping for maximum effectiveness.
Fourth, and perhaps less defined, we have found a niche where our openness to listen before prescribing or even determining what is needed keeps opening doors to people who find our attitude refreshing. I hear people saying things like, "I don't know where this is leading, but I feel like I am supposed to . . . Can you help me?" Or, "Your curriculum and degrees don't say what I want, but would it prepare me for . . ." By listening and finding ways to address their specific direction and goals we seem to have a growing number of students who don't fit into nice, neat places of ministry.
What about technology, you might ask? Everyone has the possibility of buying and using the technology available. Our niche seems to be to keep it in its place as a tool while finding a way to meet the goals of our students.
What about the needs of the Church? All seminaries should attempt to meet the needs of the Church. The question before seminaries today that we need to focus on is what the church local will look like twenty years from now. What will be the best ways to structure worship, grow disciples, transform communities? The Church will persist, but what will the local church look like?
If niches will grow in importance, we will need to define our niches and forge ahead into effective service.