Theological Education Today for Ministry Tomorrow

Alicia Vargas
A Panel Presentation from Founders’ Day—September 22, 2004

I am going to say a bit about Theological Education, our theme for today, but I am going to restrict my comments to the particular context of the ELCA, which suggests the particular context of our churches in the U.S.A. where one-half of our churches are dwindling toward a slow or fast death within a generation’s time, and where 97% of the pews are occupied by only one skin color and one economic class of parishioners in the otherwise diverse American society.

I’m also going to say a bit about what is one of the things that I think Theological Education has to do today for tomorrow, but the “tomorrow” that I’ll be talking about is immediate. I’m always struck with the fact that the seniors in our classes are called—leaders of their congregations a couple of months after graduation—so “tomorrow” comes fast for the seniors and for theological education.

And as you perhaps might expect, I am going to say a bit about diversity and multiculturalism, but I am not going to talk about the need to teach our seminarians how to lead their congregations in singing “Alabaré, alabaré, alabaré a mi Senor” once in a while or Kumbaya in February. I am going to talk about another kind of diversity that theological education needs to engage and that has to do with the color of our skins only accidentally.

I think one of the tasks of Theological Education today is to train our students in listening to THE CONTENT (and not merely the style) of the diverse spiritual cultures of our time and to develop evangelization skills for our church to be able to share the marvelous hopeful and freeing Lutheran theology with a largely un-churched generation that is, however, searching actively and longing publicly not just for vague spirituality, but for a spirituality with the name of Jesus attached to it already.

I’ve just begun to notice this public longing. For example, on Labor Day weekend this year, at the Art & Soul Festival in downtown Oakland, on a beautiful sunny day, on a large public stage surrounded by hundreds of people in overflowing stands and standing everywhere pushing each other, a pop singer (Mindy Smith) singing as part of her repertoire a song about Jesus—and many, many people sitting in the stands and many, many people standing around the stage and the stands were crying! Her other songs didn’t make them cry, but the one about Jesus did—and I mean “cry:” tears streaming down the cheeks, to the chin, Kleenex tissues out, the whole thing. And all this in public! No one ashamed of crying in public because they heard a song about Jesus—young people mainly: twenty-somethings, some early thirty-somethings, a minority: older; lower middle class people mainly; black, white, brown.

That reminded me of when I was channel-surfing recently and I stopped at the BET channel (the Black Entertainment Television channel) because I saw on the screen a tall steeple with a cross on it and a Gospel Choir with their colorful choir robes and the white dove of the Holy Spirit flying out of a battered woman and the singer, Kanye West, a famous rapper with lots of public credibility, in the pulpit. The song in the music video: “Jesus Walks,” big now on the radio, and it has made it as well to other music video channels such as MTV besides BET. “Jesus walks with me,” says the refrain, and the “Me” is a drug dealer, and the battered woman, and an old man, and a homeless person, and a drug addict. And the “Me’s” are black and white. And Jesus walks with all of them, and in the rapping they all start running with the white dove hovering over them, and they all end up in the church of the tall steeple, and the cross, and the choir robes. And I thought: wouldn’t it be nice if the church they were running to would be real and not just imaginary on TV?

Theological Education for our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America needs to teach church leaders to listen to, to connect with, to walk with all peoples seeking hope, and to imagine churches where they all can run to. Pop singers can touch people and make them cry one day, but Jesus and Jesus’ church on earth can walk with the people of God every day. Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is called to share the tremendously freeing Good News with its emphasis on grace, forgiveness and hope that people of all colors, classes, ages so publicly cry for now.

I don’t know what it is, I don’t know what’s driving the unapologetic public expression of the hunger for Jesus now (I have my theories), but what I see and hear in pop culture and in my interaction with diverse young adults now is that Jesus is not a “nerdy” thing (as it might have been to other young people of other recent generations of the un-churched). What I hear from un-churched young people now is that Jesus is “cool.” My twenty-something year old daughter said to me the other day, talking about the content of “Bartender,” a song by Dave Matthews, the hyper-popular singer among white middle class twenty-somethings, and thirty-somethings, and even some older-somethings, that that song was “heck o’ tight,” and that is the height of her compliments for anything these days. In the song, the bartender is God, and a depressed Dave Matthews is asking the bartender “to fill my glass for me with the wine that set Jesus free after three days in the ground.” It seems to me that the church that proclaims the freedom and the resurrection that Dave Matthews sings about to thousands and thousands of young people can figure out a way to proclaim them to the diversity of people that Jesus walked with in his earthly life, and imagine ways to be inclusive of those that are now unchurched but seeking to run toward hope and new life in God’s grace. Where are they going to find that grace, that hope, Jesus himself, on TV or in church? Theological Education has its job cut out for itself.