With seemingly regular news accounts of struggling seminaries, some may fear for the future of theological education.
Not J.T. English.
A 2015 Ph.D. graduate of Southern Seminary, English is building a theological education program at The Village Church in Dallas that should be able to withstand the pressures and challenges faced by many seminaries. And even though Southern Baptist seminaries today are enjoying what some have called a renaissance — whatever the future of institutional schools — English is confident about the future of theological education in the local church.
“We know that the church will withstand even the gates of hell, and so we know that if theological education happens in the local church, disciples will always be made,” English told Southern Seminary Magazine early this year.
“We know that the church will withstand even the gates of hell, and so we know that if theological education happens in the local church, disciples will always be made.”
English joined the senior pastoral staff of The Village Church in 2014 as pastor of the Village Church Institute to strengthen the discipleship efforts of the sprawling, multi-campus megachurch in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Known as the Village Church Institute, the program seeks to disciple and equip all church members — from new believers to prospective pastors.
Matt Chandler, the lead pastor of The Village Church, told Southern Seminary Magazine English was the perfect fit for the Institute.
“J.T. possessed the four things we thought would be necessary to lead the Institute,” Chandler said.
“He is theologically serious; he believes passionately in theological training in the local church; he has an intuitive ability to take men and women who are in three feet of theological water and gently move them toward deeper water; and finally, and maybe most important to me, was his understanding and belief that theology should have an affectual effect on people. Theology that doesn’t integrate head and heart is dangerous and ultimately damaging to the church.”
In light of today’s cultural challenges, Chandler said, “Training the church to think theologically will empower and strengthen believers to stand in the midst of the crashing wave of secularization. To not arm them in this way or to naively think that our 40-minute sermons will equip them puts the people of God in harm’s way.”
“Training the church to think theologically will empower and strengthen believers to stand in the midst of the crashing wave of secularization.”
Built on a pyramid with a foundation of classes, forums, and resources designed for all church members, the Institute adds another layer with a rigorous, one-year Training Program, both for laypersons and those considering ministry service, with a seminary-track available for qualified students. At the top of the pyramid is the Pastor’s School and Residency designed to equip pastors for The Village Church and other congregations, which will launch in the fall of 2016.
With a congregation numbering 7,000 members in five campuses and 11,000 regular attenders altogether, English has instituted a discipleship plan of subject matter and sequencing intended to advance the theological understanding and deepen the spiritual walk of church members. Currently, about 3,000 members during the course of a year will take classes.
The Training Program is a one-year, intensive theological education effort that currently enrolls 240 church members who must apply to the program and are accepted based on their proven church service. For the first year, 450 members applied for the program. With two semesters comprising courses in the Bible, theology, and spiritual formation, the Training Program includes a seminary-track for qualified students who may earn 21 hours of credit toward a Master of Divinity degree with Southern Seminary.
The participants in the Training Program represent a diverse cross-section of the congregation of “every range of life and spectrum of life,” said English.
Mike Peterson, a retired basketball coach who currently serves as an NBA scout, appreciates the “deeper dive” in discipleship offered by the Training Program.
“I knew what I believed, but now I have a better understanding of why it was that I believed what I believe,” he said.
Lindsey Humbert, who works for a community nonprofit organization, said, “The Training Program was a great opportunity to take my studies to the next level. And, understanding that we live in a very unstable world, I just wanted to be really rooted in the Word.”
Another member, Braunshay Pertile, who works in a local university’s financial aid office, is enrolled in the Training Program to prepare him to help the congregation launch a new church in South Dallas.
English said Southern’s Ph.D. program prepared him well for his role at The Village Church, especially because faculty at the seminary modeled what it means to be a scholar-pastor, citing Gregg R. Allison, professor of Christian theology, as one example.
“Having a model that I saw that was able to integrate a deeply theological life with a life in the church was something that I wanted to latch onto and take wherever I went,” he said.
English, who served as executive assistant to SBTS President R. Albert Mohler Jr., has brought in Southern faculty to teach for the Institute, including Jonathan Pennington, associate professor of New Testament interpretation and director of Research Doctoral Studies, and Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation.
“What’s exciting is that our students are being exposed to writers and thinkers that they would not otherwise get exposed to, which introduces them to Southern Seminary,” English said. “And they love it!”
Kyle Worley, a Ph.D. student in Apologetics and Worldview at Southern Seminary and groups minister for The Village Church’s Dallas campus, helps English with the Training Program.
“It’s rare that you meet somebody who has the mind and ability and skills of a scholar and the heart of a pastor,” Worley said. “J.T. is a good synthesis of both.”
English said throughout seminary, he “yearned to be a theologian in the local church and teach theology.” And now he’s doing just that at The Village Church.
“I get to do my dream job on a daily basis,” English said.