Interview with Gabe Lyons on Q and the Future of Theological Education

Mar 5, 12 • Q Practices3 Comments

It’s not a spy ring. It’s not a electronics giant. It’s not a secret NASA project. And it’s not a new method to achieve transcendence.

Well, maybe it is–sort of.

Gabe Lyons and his staff at Q are trying transcend the animosity between church and culture in order to “redeem entire cultures, not just individuals.”

Now that The Burner has been to several Q events, it seems that they are famous for three things: awesome topics, cool venues and not-cheap registration fees. TB spent a few minutes with Lyons to get some A’s about Q, and to talk about the future of Christian higher education.

“The challenge I think we face at Q is that the events become the hype,” Lyons tells TB in the nerve center of the Q Practices event at the über-hip Crosby Street Hotel in Manhattan. “Being at the event and if you were there that you changed somehow. I think we are constantly at work trying to realize that true transformation takes years. We’ve tried to be very specific at Q not just focusing on cultural renewal as an emphasis but actually focusing on personal renewal. The focus of an event like Q Practices with Eugene Peterson is very much on the inner life. How do you stay grounded in Christ as you’re trying to fulfill your vocation to engage the world?”

Q targets broad subjects: culture, future, church and gospel. “Our philosophy is always been that we start first with topics,” Lyons says. “What area of culture that most leaders that we’re assembling haven’t ever heard about? So when you look at a list of speakers for a Q gathering, you’re not wowed by a bunch of Christian superstars always–although some of them might be considered that way–but what you’re finding are world-class presentations and presenters and people who are super educated on a specific area.”

The best speakers and the most interesting venues are not cheap. The admission to Q events usually runs a steep $675. It’s not $3-7k for TED Talks admission, but it’s a lot for cash-strapped churches.

A sitting area at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo.

“Well, we try to run our organization in a sustainable way,” Lyons explains.  He notes that there are ways to make an event less expensive—hosting in a church for free, for example. “We could do that in Northern Virginia, and save $75,000, but instead we choose to host it right at the center of it DC on Constitution Avenue at the Andrew Mellon auditorium. We think the medium is the message in a lot of ways.”

“We think [lower registration costs] would likely take away from the intentionality of everybody there–relationships we want to see cultivated. Our goal is not to grow something to be really big, our goal is just to talk about serious topics and to get people together who are working on these topics and want education on it and collaboration with other leaders.” He goes on to explain that Q presentations are usually released afterwards for those that weren’t able to attend.

It’s not lost on Lyons that New York is not the cheapest place in which to found an organization–and he has his reasons for this, too.

“I wanted to live with my family in place that would challenge my own suppositions about how you live out the gospel in a different environment,” says Lyons. “New York was one of those places. I think the latest research shows that 3% of the city is “evangelical”–very small for a US city. It was a perfect environment to be challenged in my own growth and my own conversations with people that don’t respect Christians, don’t care about the faith, don’t come at it with the same background.

“Another reason is that the work we do with Q is very focused on helping Christians how to live out the gospel in their vocations–not just in their church but in their industries. New York is certainly a crossroads for so many leaders in different industries so we’re able to learn from a lot of Christians who are trying to think creatively and imaginatively how about the Gospel plays out in their sector. We’re able to convene in NY better than other cities in US. And take advantage of the natural flow of people in Manhattan.”

It is not a stretch to say that Q is a better-funded, trendier, non-degree granting institution as compared to Fuller. They must share some of the same challenges Fuller does as it relates to the future of educating pastors and church leaders. Lyons seems to agree.

“The places of higher education have the challenge if the only way to participate with them is to show up on campus for years, I think that’s going to happen less and less. In a world where learning is starting to happen via our screens, and accessibility to that is so much easier, the challenge will be how can institutions and organizations like ours find ways to work together. When you have great content and teaching and learning that’s taking place, how do you leverage that learning but incorporate it into a system that’s had a lot of great thought for decades put into it that helped systemize it, that helps people really achieve learning, that’s able to test that learning, to help people continue to grow in the way they want to grow.

“But I think the future of seminary, the future of higher education, is going to go through a cycle of significant upheaval and change–probably for the better. You don’t just go to a seminary because you want to be a pastor in the future. You actually see theological learning as part of any vocation that you might want to pursue. You need theological grounding. There’s huge opportunity for the seminary to become alive again with not just 80% of the participants seeking to become a church leader or a pastor. But 80% of people of any occupation saying, ‘Look, I really want to go back and get this kind of grounding theologically and how I’m thinking about the world.’”

Lyons should know. He wrote all about this new generation of Christians and their interests in his 2011 book The Next Christians. Their theological training needs are different than previous Christians interested in living out their calling.

“I don’t think in it’s current state [these ‘Next Christians’] really want to go to seminary unless they’re really studying for that church vocation. We talk about a lot of different channels of culture and industry. You’ve got people who are called to go into government and politics, business and enterprise. A whole school of thought is developing around that, but we need more work done to find how to meet that leader where they are at.

“Oftentimes, you might find the person that shows up to seminary or graduate school is a person who is really comfortable as a learner and that’s part of just their calling. The hard work is going out and finding the people who are already on the front lines doing the work and saying, ‘How can we come alongside and support you with solid grounded learning?’ We have to get creative on how we deliver it–not just information, but connect them with practitioners who have gone before them, practicing lives, faithfully in those vocations. The seminary plays a great role in that.

“I’m excited about the conversations I know are happening around the future of seminary. Instead of just some that might say, ‘It’s the death of the institution,’ I actually think there is going to be new life as it kind of reforms to figure out how to support the church. It’s really following suit in the theme of where the church has gone the last decade. Moving away from people who are pastors and missionaries being the ‘super Christians’–those in full-time Christian service–to really recognizing people in any vocation have that same calling and are trying to be faithful to that. Now the institution has to find a way to kind of come alongside and work with them, support them and supply them with the learning that they need. Maybe they don’t always realize they need it or want it. I think we need to get better at how we attract them and communicate with them and make it more accessible to them and how it can fit in to a 40-hour work week. So I think seminaries thinking about moving training from only pastoral to theological training is probably the big shift that will allow it to be applied more broadly.“

So while it’s not a spy ring, Q and its events definitely offer unique and inspiring conversations around church and culture.

You may just have to have a spy-level budget to attend them all.

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3 Responses to Interview with Gabe Lyons on Q and the Future of Theological Education

  1. There’s huge opportunity for the seminary to become alive again with not
    just 80% of the participants seeking to become a church leader or a
    pastor. But 80% of people of any occupation saying, ‘Look, I really want
    to go back and get this kind of grounding theologically and how I’m
    thinking about the world.’”

    I feel validated! Thanks for sharing this interview, folks! – Laura

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