Change that sustains

summer1As the church evolves, SFTS looks ahead.

“Going to church.” The expression has meant different things over the past 20 years or so. For baby boomers and their parents, worship meant Sunday mornings spent listening to the sermon and singing hymns at a church with an altar and steeple.

Now “Sunday best” is fast becoming an anachronism. A study by the Pew Research Center shows changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated—describing themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “none”—has jumped dramatically from 2007 to 2014.

Change is increasingly visible throughout the church, and ministry is evolving to meet those challenges. “The seminary is reconceiving, researching, and developing relationships in order to best serve the new generation of D.Min. students,” said Rev. Dr. Virstan Choy. “We are committed to teaching students from new generations and from other faith traditions. Just as we are encouraging our students to find new ways of ministry, the Seminary is researching innovative ways to teach.”

One of those ways is by shifting perspective on the D.Min. program. Typically, its focus has been on academic training for individuals who want to enhance their ministry skills. With today’s evolving spiritual environment, SFTS is reaching out to supporters and potential students who view SFTS more as a place where they can explore new ways to create lasting change, a type of research and development laboratory. “Our students come here to study and work on projects and experiments, not for themselves only, but for new understandings, approaches, and tools that can be useful to others engaged in the practice of ministry,” said Choy.

It stands to reason that an innovative program would also hold a new approach to the culminating project—the dissertation. SFTS has redefined the parameters of the traditional 200-page written document by including the use of digital media when appropriate. Said Choy, “For the student using dance as part of their therapy with Alzheimer’s patients, or the one developing a new style of music, a written research paper won’t adequately cover the body of their work. If we’re going to be responsive to new ministry, we have to reconceive our program to not just be print oriented.”

Though many millennials (ages 18–30) are removed from church traditions, they are planting new landscapes based on social justice, human rights, and grassroots engagement that is guided by faith. Non-traditional forms of outreach are being established in nursing homes, the trails, the barracks, as well as in the pulpit. This shift of religious centers doesn’t mean that the need for seminary training has diminished. On the contrary, the demand for qualified women and men is greater than ever. Led by God’s purpose, SFTS students are bringing light and healing to the world, wherever it’s needed.

Originally published in the San Francisco Theological Seminary 2014-2015 Annual Report