Still standing firm, but not standing still: RTS in the new millenium

by Becky Hobbs

With those stirring words, RTS President Luder Whitlock began his speech at the dedication ceremonies for the RTS/Orlando campus.

His words were not much different from those of founder Dr. Sam Patterson over thirty years ago. A Mississippi country pastor with a passion for biblical truth, Patterson led other men in a virtually impossible dream in his era-- to start a seminary committed to the inerrancy and authority of God's Word. In the turbulent 1960s and 70s, this would require a very big God.

White House, Jackson campusThe need was urgent, no doubt about that. In addition to great unrest, the country was falling apart socially. The Puritan value system was shattered, and it was unpopular to believe in the ultimate authority of the Bible as God's Word. Placing evangelical scholars on the faculties of liberal seminaries was almost impossible. Patterson and others knew that establishing a new seminary was the best option to perpetuate the faith of the Reformation, the faith of the Bible, in the hearts of a rising generation of church leaders.

American history was strewn with the wreckage of institutions that had once been deeply committed to Scripture, but had abandoned their original commitment. How could that heritage, that goes back to biblical times and was renewed in the Reformation, be perpetuated without a seminary faithful to that heritage? It also required people who realized that, with faith in God, nothing would be impossible."

But such trust is not easy. Even the faithful, godly Mississippi laymen whom Patterson gathered around him initially faltered when they considered the magnitude of their dream. They knew nothing about theological education; besides, they had no money, no buildings, no faculty. But Patterson had enough faith for everyone, and it was contagious. Taking his lead, they stayed on their knees in constant prayer, humbly asking the God who created all things to supply their needs.

They met stiff resistance. Many scoffed at the idea of a new independent seminary and cried, "It can't be done! You'll fail!" Opposition from powerful and influential church leaders was fierce and sustained. Yet, in the face of persistent attack and ecclesiastical ostracism, these men trusted God and resolutely pursued their vision, enthusiastically seeking to expand its scope as God directed them.

Not only has it lasted, but God has blessed the faith of its founders more abundantly than they could ever have conceived. Today, RTS is one of the ten largest seminaries in North America, offering nineteen different programs. From only fourteen students and five faculty, now over 2000 students study at RTS -- Jackson, Mississippi; Orlando, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Washington, D.C., Detroit, Atlanta, and Memphis. More than 3000 alumni are at work in some forty-six states, Washington, D.C., and forty-three foreign countries.

RTS is totally independent and does not accept government funding. The seminary is controlled by a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees. The Lord's people support our work from day to day and week to week.

LOOKING EAGERLY TO THE NEW MILLENNIUM

As we approach the beginning of another century, new problems confront our world and bring fresh challenges. Culture wars ravage our country, secularization threatens to engulf the church, and people from six to sixty are experiencing a devastating loss of community and togetherness.

RTS Orlando campusYet, RTS believes that God has given us a tremendous opportunity in these troubled times to impact our world for Christ. Perhaps we may help usher in a new Reformation, for which so many have been praying. We are determined to bring God glory in the third millennium and do the best that we can to serve His church. We will hold fast to our commitment to God and His Word. Then we will pray for His guidance as we eagerly look ahead to analyze the real problems of our culture and provide solid, biblical, constructive alternatives instead of negative reactions.

"Often within the evangelical movement," explains RTS President Luder Whitlock, "a critical separatist mentality exists that portrays evangelicals as uncompassionate and mean-spirited. At RTS we believe that an institution can stand firm for the truth while being kind and cooperative. Anyone can throw rocks, but fashioning something with them is a much different matter. Instead of pointing out everything that's wrong with the world, we have always sought to initiate policies and programs that build, not tear down."

"One of our greatest challenges in the next century," reveals Lyn Perez, Senior Vice President of RTS/Orlando, "will be to fight the continued secularization of our culture, which will tend to marginalize the church and seminaries. The church is being influenced by the culture more and more; as the church is influenced, so are the students who come to us."

Seminary faculty and staff agree - many of today's students are postmodern thinkers, and they must learn how to address them differently than the previous generation of students. It will be a challenge to our faculty to continue to develop and understand how to address, teach, train and develop these leaders of the postmodern church.

As we move into the third millennium, building an effective and caring church will become even more critical. With families falling apart, the church will have to offer a sense of belonging - to God, to family members, and to the community of believers. It must show a way to bring about healing in human relationships as well as restoration in people's relationship to God. It will also have to offer the solution to our culture's crisis of identity - "Who am I and what is the meaning of my life?"

The Gospel is about the formation of the real body of Christ, the family of God, the true community of believers. By rebuilding community through the love of God, we want to offer a solution to the brokenness and fragmentation of the world in which we live. To accomplish this, we must continue to provide well-prepared and godly leaders for the church, thereby strengthening it and influencing our urban, high-tech world.

DARE TO BE DIFFERENT

We have learned to ask, "Why are we doing it this way? Could we do it differently and be more effective? How can we achieve our goals in the very best way?" Many times we see that the reason we do things a certain way is merely habit and tradition; getting out of the rut and looking at the world from a new perspective yields exciting possibilities. This approach has attracted a strong team of administrators and faculty who want to push the envelope.

RTS Charlotte campusWe live in the Information Age. The emphasis now is on life-long learning, not merely a short span of years feverishly cramming in as much knowledge as possible. The pressure is for education to be relevant - to the student and to the church. Institutions either adapt or die.

That's the reason RTS continually asks, "How can we help the church? What are her needs?" To remain on the cutting edge of tracking and responding to academic and societal trends, we have always constantly adapted our curriculum and the means of delivering it in a variety of ways. As we look to the new millennium, our strategy will not change.

CURRICULUM REVISION

"In the mid-1980s," remembers Perez, "RTS boldly revised its M.Div. curriculum, a cutting-edge move at the time since no seminary had attempted such drastic changes. We felt we could help students be better pastors and preachers."

Instead of merely "tweaking" an established curriculum, RTS began at ground zero and asked, "What does an effective church leader need to know, need to be able to do, and need to be?" A group of qualified people then used the answers to those questions to evaluate the seminary's courses and ultimately arrive at a stronger, more relevant curriculum.

Also during the 1980s students, graduates, and other church leaders began asking RTS to train people for something other than Master of Divinity and Master of Christian Education degrees. Moreover, the seminary realized the church as a whole was beginning to require more specialized ministers.

This need led first to the addition of the Missions program, which has become not only a major training ground for missionaries and church planters, but also a microcosm of world population, attracting a cross section of rising evangelical leadership around the world. Missions and church planting will remain a priority in the next century. We want to develop a greater on-going international presence around the world. As the global village becomes smaller, the seminary has opportunities to provide education internationally as never before.

Through international cooperation with several organizations and seminaries, the seminary seeks to widen its influence and make its resources available to other cultures. RTS faculty already log thousands of miles a year lecturing and teaching around the world; many contribute articles to highly acclaimed theological works and publish books that have been translated into several languages.

The Marriage and Family Therapy program today is a highly respected regimen of study that provides professional training integrated with Reformed theology and superior psychological research in state-of-the-art clinical facilities. Recently the seminary has added an Anglican Studies program (see p.17) and a sports recreation ministry.

RTS Washington campusAlso seeking to meet the need of those who for various reasons simply want further biblical and theological knowledge, RTS developed the Masters of Arts program in different disciplines, such as biblical studies, theology, and Christian thought.

"We must continue to apply technology internally to the teaching-learning process," says Perez, "as well as using it creatively to deliver our training and resources to different groups. We must stay abreast of the most successful ways to reach both the laity and those preparing for vocational ministry. We want to reach as many people as possible."

KEEPING UP WITH TECHNOLOGY

The 1980s were indeed a decade of vast changes for everyone. By the end of those ten short years, personal computers were rapidly becoming household items. In the early part of the decade, RTS moved to the front of the computer revolution and by 1985 had its first computer in admissions. Professors began to use PCs, although only word processing was available.

"When RTS/Orlando opened in 1989, we installed our first PC-based network," recalls Perez. "All of the campuses are networked now and connected to a wide area network for video teleconferencing."

Ric Cannada, RTS Executive Vice President, feels staying on top of such technology is crucial. "The opportunities afforded by the new millennium to spread the Gospel and biblical faith will be greater than ever because of new technology. The challenge for RTS will be to remain faithful to the Bible, while creatively using the technological resources available to produce both informed minds and inflamed hearts in church leaders of the twenty-first century."

DISTANCE EDUCATION AND MULTIPLE CAMPUSES

Virtual CampusPerhaps the most significant modern trend was the decentralization that technology brought to our culture. People no longer want to uproot their families and move to get a theological education. Instead, they want such an opportunity available in their own regions. Moreover, as information became more accessible to people, the seminary realized their delivery system must be more flexible and convenient, driving high-quality instruction closer to the individual.

"As we rethought our method of delivery," says Whitlock, " we realized that the real questions are, 'What have you learned and what are you doing with it?' We also rethought the identity of our students. Why limit education to people who are planning to be pastors and missionaries? Many lay people want to know more about the Bible, what it means to be a Christian, and how they can be useful in serving the Lord. If we can help them also, we can ultimately have an army of thousands doing the work of the Lord out in the church! They will be a pastor's strongest allies."

Part of the reasoning behind the decentralization was the seminary's core commitment to be linked directly to the church and its people, not an institution with its head in the clouds. For too long seminaries have found themselves detached from the church, and they have been criticized for it. RTS does not want that, so we have tried to make our educational program accessible to the church.

During the late 1980s, RTS began to develop distance education. "People began asking if we had courses on tape, and, at first, I couldn't find a professor who would allow me to tape his course," recalls Perez, laughing. "The first taped courses were by guest faculty, J.I. Packer's 'English Puritan Theology' and Roger Nicole's 'Law and Faith.' People mainly bought the tapes to listen to, but they could register for the course and get credit if they desired."

RTS took the concept of accessibility to a new level with the opening of the Orlando campus. Just as with the founding of RTS, it was a pioneering move that required much faith. At that time, other seminaries had extensions, but no institution had successfully duplicated itself. Again, people said it couldn't be done, and again God proved He can do anything.

"We were praying for thirty students when we opened our doors," Perez confesses. "I almost didn't come down here, but on June 5, 1989, I packed a U-Haul trailer to the hilt with office supplies and took the plunge. We had every reason to believe that the interest level was high; Florida had fourteen million people with no accredited, Protestant seminary. God blessed and we had ninety-seven students that first year! Enrollment has risen ever since, and today we have over 800 students."

Thus was born the RTS multi-campus system, which today is made possible by technological advances such as the computer, modem, and fax machine and sits squarely on the cutting edge of seminary education in the country. On each campus, new innovations in distance education were developed, such as block scheduling in Orlando, which made courses more accessible to students and more easily taped for distribution.

RTS also developed the innovative Summer/Winter program, providing intensive one-week courses during the winter and summer. Seeing the outstanding success of such flexible course offerings and the increasing availability of computer technology, in 1997 RTS decided to get serious about distance education by hiring Dr. Andrew Peterson, who has a Ph.D. in educational technology to head the program. More and more courses are online now, and students may receive degrees by doing most coursework on computer with additional on-campus hours.

In 1992 RTS opened its Charlotte, North Carolina, campus, and people knew better than to say, "It can't be done!" Today it also is a thriving campus with about 400 students serving the Carolina region and beyond. Washington, D.C. is now thriving, along with extensions in Atlanta and Memphis. We are offering courses in the Detroit, Michigan, area and plan to open an extension in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2000.

A NEW REFORMATION?

If there ever were a time when a new Reformation was needed, this is it. The demand for a clear witness to God's Word is needed now more than ever to restore discernment and spiritual values among believers; it is time to rebuild a Christian philosophy of life based on the Bible. Can it happen again?

"Perhaps through a place like RTS and others like us, hand-in-hand, working together, it may happen again," says Whitlock, "because our desire is to glorify Him. Nothing is impossible for God."

Today RTS accepts that challenge with enthusiasm and undimmed faith. Our task is to help people understand the profound truth of God's wisdom and how they may discover the riches of knowledge and wisdom in Jesus Christ, bringing all of life captive to the Savior, and doing all to the glory of God.

"We didn't set out to be famous or well-known," relates Whitlock, "but we did set out to be faithful to God, to perpetuate a faithful testimony to the Scriptures and the Gospel to give people hope and to make a difference. That is the reason we exist today. We want to make sure people know that the last best hope of humankind is in the Gospel and in the truth and reality revealed in the Scriptures. We pray that through our teaching, our influence, and our ministry God will raise up people of deep, unshakable commitment who will work hard toward the reformation our civilization so desperately needs.



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