Seminaries as Innovation Machines

Michael Metzger

Bill Gates says this is “a special time in education.” Adaptive technologies such as MOOCs (massive open online courses) are bringing innovation to higher education. This is good news – except for the study of theology. A recent survey indicates it is one of the “least entrepreneurial majors.” Here is a way to make theology innovative.

LinkedIn recently surveyed over 13,000 professionals who are entrepreneurs. They profiled the most successful ones, including their courses of study in college. Theology turned out to be one of the “least entrepreneurial majors.”1 This presents a problem, since entrepreneurism includes innovation, Latin for renewal, the work of the church. It seems seminaries are perfectly designed to produce pastors who aren’t very innovative.

There is hope. Online courses known as MOOCs are revolutionizing higher education. The New York Times dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” But by themselves, MOOCs don’t make innovators. But coupled with a comprehensive educational approach, they could make seminaries entrepreneurial. It begins with recognizing reality. Max de Pree said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. Sociologist James Davison Hunter writes that “Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever – spiritually speaking – exiles in a land of exile.”2 An entrepreneurial seminary education begins by recognizing reality.

If we assume today’s church is in exile, the precedent becomes the Babylonian exile. In Jeremiah 29, God tells the Judeans they are in exile. Older Judeans refused to recognize this. They didn’t like being judged. It implied failure. Only the sons of Judah “got” it. They recognized reality. Entrepreneurial seminaries will recognize the church is in exile and overlook the strong likelihood that older seminary professors will disagree.

Like the sons of Judah, this entrepreneurial education will immerse promising seminarians with cultural elites. The sons of Judah were emerging leaders. They were immersed in king Nebuchadnezzar’s courts for three years, among Babylon’s cultural elites. They did this to study the language and literature of Babylon (Dan. 1:2-4). An entrepreneurial seminary education would select qualified candidates, having them live for three years in key cities such as Washington, D.C. Washington is important, as it represents one of the densest clusters of cultural elites

Charles Murray says 80 percent of America’s elites are “balkanized” in 882 U.S. zip codes. Most “do not have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian.”3 The densest cluster runs right through Washington, D.C. If we want to change the world, we have to change the “influentials.” We can’t influence “influentials” if we’re not clustered close to them. Getting close is essentially immersion. And that’s the best way to learn a language.

This is where MOOCs can make seminaries innovative. In an entrepreneurial seminary education, students would select from a wide array of online courses. They could earn a degree from Gordon-Conwell or Denver Seminary. They could take courses from Harvard Divinity and Princeton Theological. They could craft a hybrid educational experience. The MOOCs would constitute a large percentage of the coursework. But local instructors would mentor, instructing in how the church operates in exile. They would proctor exams, verifying course work. More importantly, these local faculty would facilitate skunk works, helping seminarians learn how to translate scripture into today’s language and literature.

Skunk works are a far cry from the traditional seminary model. The standard seminary model is based on curriculum and classroom instruction. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, two professors at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, say this approach is not very effective. Curriculums are static. Innovation is dynamic. It is “by definition unpredictable and uncertain.”4 The best approach is a skunk works, where practitioners present problems. Seminarians learn to solve them by translating scripture into street language that practitioners can use.

This is the “live case study model” being adopted by most leading business schools. It is essentially the teaching hospital model – research, instruction, and making the rounds. Govindarajan and Trimble say businesses integrating these kinds of skunk works with the rest of the company become “dedicated innovation machines.” It could work the same way in seminaries. They could build innovation machines.

Students will like this approach, since it’s frugal and effective. Most seminary students relocate to attend school. Why not relocate to a more strategic setting? And MOOCs cost less than traditional courses. The Georgia Institute of Technology recently began offering an online master’s degree in computer science. The fees put a top-ranked computer-science program at a price point more comparable to a typical community college – about $134 per credit, compared with the normal rates at Georgia Tech of $472 per credit for in-state students and $1,139 per credit for out-of-state students.

As the Council on Foreign Relations reported recently, America continues to slip down the international rankings in education. Education technology could contribute to reversing this trend – “if it is not jinxed by politics, bureaucracy and outdated institutional structures,” writes The Economist. Most seminaries are outdated institutional structures. This has turned the study of theology into one of the least entrepreneurial majors. It also produces seminarians who are not very innovative. This trend can be reversed, but it calls for seminaries to recognize reality, building innovation machines that produce entrepreneurial clergy who make a difference.

2 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibilities of Christianity in the Contemporary World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 277.
3 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 107.
4 “The innovation machine” The Economist, August 28, 2010, p. 57.


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. This can also apply in a global context, as we can each benefit from the access provided by the Internet. I am grateful for your weekly post and perceive it as a godly challenge to be sharpened by iron. Consistently you create a line of thought to motivate interaction and creative thought. This in turn encourages Daniels and Nehemiahs to establish the Kingdom where they are. Each temple becoming context specific, as encouraged by the original Clapham group in overcoming issues such as slavery. Many thanks Mike for your faithfulness.

  2. Tried it 2009-10. I was tenured faculty at a large seminary directing a very large church planting department. We tried a field-based seminary experience in a large, innovative, progressive, and highly secularized US city with plans for three more over a five year period. Most classes were online and each student was required to start a church before graduating.

    Student acceptance was overwhelming – 40 applications the first month. Initial results were stunning – 200 new Christ-followers in four months, and 11 new churches started. We literally could not keep up with the growth, but it tanked.

    The experiment failed for three reasons. Each of the three reveal a lack of innovation.

    1) The economy tanked leaving us without funding. Our sponsors had previous commitments to – of all things – building programs. As church offerings shrank 10%, our funding shrank 30%. It took only a few months.

    2) Academic traditionalists protested. Another seminary felt we were encroaching on their turf and refused to cooperate, further decreasing our funding possibilities. The other institution and many established (older) faculty members at our own school rallied against a field-based approach claiming it would undo the benefit of the campus residency experience.

    3) Denominational traditionalists injected the lethal dose. They conditioned further funding on us gathering all 11 groups into one, Sunday morning meeting at a rented facility, with a band. They asked us to move from non-traditional, organic, “we-go-to-you” church gatherings to a traditional, single-cell, “you-come-to-us” gathering. The latter was more easily counted and efficient, to be sure. They also asked that we not appoint any female leaders, require abstinence from alcohol, and send 10% of offerings back to the denomination. Our leaders withdrew their support of the denomination, and the experiment ended with a whisper.

    I do not think my brothers were malicious. Nor are they innovators. They looked at the landscape and felt things needed to be done in ways that were successful from 1980 to 2000. Whether they continue to be successful in 2030 remains to be seen. We can only hope.

  3. So much good stuff here to inspire my thoughts to trail off toward. GCTS’s D.Min. programs seem on par with mentored education, but it’s off limits if you haven’t earned your MA first. Old school thinking: thinking that the rigors of an MA (old school style) “sort” you as capable of D. Min. mentorship, when frankly, experience could qualify you as a D. Min. mentor. Mike, you’re suggesting a great blurring of the lines between old school in-class education and mentored experiences, and I agree that the questions you’re asking need to be asked. As for your MOOC comments – I don’t know how you get around this – or if you need to – but it seems as if you’ve relegated MOOCing to a lowest common denominator thing – like a necessary evil, “oh yeah, the class thing, I guess I should read some books and listen to some lectures” but the real deal is in the mentored experience. On the one hand, some books and lectures by certain author/speakers are priceless. On the other hand, if a GCTS education can’t be w/o some MOOCing, then the necessary evil persists as a bow to old school obligations. Am I getting anywhere near where you’re at?

  4. Dave, you’re in the suburbs. I’m not critical of MOOCs and have a hunch that they might serve seminarians quite well. My point was meant to be positive – MOOCs offer a wider array of courses from top professors worldwide than the traditional model. The immersion experience makes education both/and – MOOCs and mentors.

  5. Love Jack Allen’s remarks: brief, honest, and extremely enlightening about the road blocks extant in our own tribes toward seeing Kingdom progress. Money money money issues mean we need “business people” with the foresight to work with (or around) denominational or church leadership that refuses to innovate. Though, a good business leader can help lead good religious leaders into better perspectives, and fund that better perspective.

  6. Mike, I see, great point. Of course “survival of the fittest” prof is good for education with a highly sought after MOOC but the method will put profs not being sought after out of a job. Welcome to exile!

  7. Dear Mike,

    Thank you for taking time to create thought-provoking material, as always.

    (1) What if seminary professors were required to be involved with local churches, including church plants, as I think Westminster Seminary Philadelphia has decided? That seems like this would logically lead to M.Div. (or D. Min.) students working alongside their professors as clergy in contexts where innovation would easily commend itself, and shake up seminary education in the manner in which you suggest.

    (2) Why not send the seminarians to programs located in really “hard-core” post-Christian environments (I think some of the contributors to “The Supremacy of Christ” argue that all of the West is post-Christian now), such as Tyndale Seminary in Amsterdam or London Theological Seminary or Moore Theological College in Sydney? Instead of assuming that re-christianizing America will accomplish what God wants or that this is even the proper goal. There is nothing like being outside of your own country to shake up some of your assumptions, which can lead to innovation.

    (3) The influencers of our world are not necessarily nourished by Washington or by Washington alone. Isn’t it time to end the seduction of evangelical Christians by the Right and the Left? Locate a variety of cities where those who shape what actually goes on in society live, we have, increasingly, a “globalized” culture sloshing back and forth between world-class cities inside and outside of America (check out Redeemer City-to-City). Wasn’t it Henry Kissinger who said something to the effect that people in Washington live off of the intellectual capital they brought with them when they arrived?

    Regards from abroad!

  8. Hi Bob:

    While I appreciate the time and thought you put into these ideas, here is an observations for each of your three points:

    1) The skunk works model I am proposing links seminarians with practitioners, not professors. Practitioners are businesspeople or artists, for example. Most professors lack the kinds of hand-on experiences that practitioners have. I have met few seminary profs who could assist in the kind of endeavor I am proposing.

    2) I never suggested that this is “re-Christianizing American.” But I agree that most of the West is now post-Christian. Therefore, setting up shop in DC, Seattle, San Fran, or DC is just as legit as Amsterdam and London.

    3) I wholeheartedly agree it’s time to end the seduction of evangelicals into right and left camps. I disagree with your reductionist
    description of Washington DC. As Charles Murray points out (“Coming Apart”) the cultural elites in this region represent many diverse disciplines – not just politics. I’m not sure what you mean by the “influencers of our world are not necessarily nourished by Washington or Washington alone.” I said nothing about nourishment. I was talking about placing emerging leaders in proximity with the influentials. This can of course occur in many global cities, not just DC.

    Thank again for your thoughtfulness. Regards from right here!

  9. Interesting exchange. A couple of points that occur to me. First, I’m more amenable to discussions of innovation ecologies than innovation machines. The context and conditions of innovation are vital and they are, mostly, not machine-like. The comments and responses reflect this. I think understanding ecologies of innovation requires greater rigour and insight than machine processes do. Using ‘ecology’ terminolgy isn’t about being careless or less attentive. Something alive and well suited to its context is much, much more intricate than any machine – nothing original in that observation and I know you and your readers are well versed in such things.

    The salient point for me is that you can’t exactly say, “We will innovate this, and this and that” but you can learn about the conditions that give rise to novel and valuable insights, applications, organizational designs, and so on. MOOCs, seminary education, course delivery modes and other elements constitute important contexts for possible innovations (or innovation suppression, as is sometimes the case).

    I have done a few MOOCs over the last year (Data Analytics, Social Network Analysis, etc.). It is very important to actually run through a few to get a sense of their potential and limits. Face-to-face interactions, shared physical contexts (cities, neighbourhoods, workplaces), common labours in such spaces, these all matter greatly and MOOCs are in no danger of replacing them. I think MOOCs represent a threat to education that has been turned into assembly lines – large classes, bulk education, assembly line type training, these are all ripe for undercutting by MOOCs. Deeper collegial and mentoring exchanges can be enhanced by MOOCs but they are in no danger of be replaced by them.

    One other innovation context that is under-represented is city planning. It represents a deeply important intersection of some of the most influential and powerful cultural drivers but remains under-realized in many education settings, seminaries included.

    Thanks for the post and for those who commented.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *