TheoEd brings the TED Talk model to Christian leaders

It was an hour before the doors would open. I was beginning to panic. The chairs were set, the sound check was done, and the speakers were ready. All I had left to do was set up the giant TheoEd letters on the stage. The problem was, the lowercase e would not stay in place. It leaned a little to the left, a little to the right, and sometimes it would flop over on its side.

After 18 months of planning and promoting, I thought, this e was about to ruin everything! In truth, it was the least of my concerns.

What I was trying to pull off back in 2017 was risky. At that time, I was a scholar-in-residence at a large church in Atlanta, and I was working with a group of lay leaders to re-imagine the congregation’s annual sermon and lecture series.

We wanted something fresh, something that could reach out into the community. We wanted to make the best learning available in a format that was accessible and engaging to a broader audience.

We wanted to bring a little bit of TED to church.

But could we really pull it off? Would leading thinkers in the church and the academy be willing to give the talk of their lives in 20 minutes or less, as TED Talks do? Would audiences show up? Could we produce the whole thing with the impeccable quality of TED?

We sold out that first TheoEd event, the speakers were fabulous, and the e stayed put.

Since then, we’ve put on seven TheoEd shows, with several thousand in attendance and more than 100,000 viewing our talks online. We have developed discussion guides to go along with each talk and a prize for graduate students. For the first time this February, we took TheoEd on the road, visiting Charlotte, North Carolina.

Through TheoEd, we’ve tried to do for the Bible, theology and spirituality what TED has done for technology, entertainment and design. In the process, we have been learning a lot about what it takes to engage public audiences in conversations about God, religion and the power of faith to shape lives and communities.

Here are three discoveries and how they might help churches and seminaries rethink their approach to education.

Re-imagining the sage on the stage

Conventional wisdom has it that the sage on the stage is dead. At least, that’s what I took away from Parker Palmer’s “The Courage to Teach” when I read it in seminary. Palmer describes a “community of learning” in which the expert is displaced from the center of attention and learning happens through a nonhierarchical web of relations between students, subject and teacher. I love this model and use it in the seminary classes I teach.

Much like Palmer, the TED organizers are convinced that the traditional academic lecture is not an effective vehicle for engaging most audiences. What Palmer solves through decentered, discussion-based learning, TED solves through well-coached speakers, compelling short-format talks, an attractive stage and high-end production.

We’ve followed a similar path in TheoEd. Getting there isn’t easy, as most of our speakers are more comfortable reading lectures from a lectern or delivering sermons from a pulpit. If there’s a secret sauce to TheoEd, it’s the insistence on the highly polished, no-notes, short-talk format that TED popularized.

What TED reminds us is that the church and the seminary of the future will need new wineskins, not just good ideas. We’ll have to let go of some well-established models of education, and we’ll have to lean into creative experiments. Some of those might look like what Palmer describes. Others might, like TED, try to re-imagine the role of the sage and the design of the stage.

Reaching the second audience

What sets TED apart from most speaker series is that its primary audience is not the people who attend in-person conferences. Rather, TED is all about the “second audience” — those who experience its content only digitally. Focusing on the second audience doesn’t just involve remembering to turn on the camera and set up the livestream. From how the speakers are coached to where the cameras are placed, the whole point of TED is to make the second audience feel like the primary audience.

We try to do the same with TheoEd. A case in point: During our February 2020 event, a speaker’s microphone malfunctioned during the first few minutes of the talk. The in-person audience could still hear the speaker, but the malfunction would render the digital recording unusable. Having prepared for this scenario, we paused the talk, fixed the microphone and asked the speaker to start over.

It was a bit awkward for the in-person audience, but we were convinced that this was worth it, because we knew that far more people would eventually listen to this talk through our website than were actually in the room that day.

If churches and seminaries are going to get serious about using digital media to reach new audiences, they will have to start designing offerings with the second audience squarely in mind.

How will that change things? It will mean paying more attention to elements like lighting, sound quality, camera angles, stage design and run of show. It will also mean making strategic decisions about which offerings should be online and which should not — doing less might well be the key to doing better when it comes to reaching the second audience.

Creating communities of curious souls

The look and feel of TED is inviting and inquisitive. The talks prompt the audience to ask questions and to consider new ideas — or to revisit old ones. The point of TED, as its website says, is to create “a community of curious souls.”

Isn’t that what a church should be — a community of curious souls? Becoming such a community will mean valuing questions over creeds, dialogue over dogmatism (whether conservative or liberal) and wrestling with difficult texts over trying to protect God from people’s doubts.

It will also mean rethinking where education happens. We’ve chosen to hold TheoEd in community centers and performance venues rather than church sanctuaries. We’ve found that these spaces can be more inviting to those for whom the institutional church has ceased to be a place of meaningful belonging.

Rather than inviting people to their buildings, perhaps it’s time for churches and seminaries to do their work out where their audiences are already gathering — coffee shops, pubs, community centers, art venues, gyms, parks.

Taking TED to church is no panacea for all that ails traditional models of Christian learning and theological education. But learning from TED is, as their tagline puts it, an idea worth spreading.

What TED reminds us is that the church and the seminary of the future will need new wineskins, not just good ideas.

Before 1563, when the first “modern” seminary opened, academic institutions weren’t really involved in providing theological education. Instead, that task fell primarily to local churches, especially large, urban cathedrals, which were both places of worship and sites for clerical training and lay-focused education. Though they didn’t offer formal degrees, cathedral churches and a few monasteries were where theological study and scholarship happened.

Much has changed since then. Today, even the largest and wealthiest “big steeple” churches would be hard-pressed to provide the specialized ministerial training required for clergy candidates in their own denominations — never mind students from other traditions or with vocational goals outside of ministry. Clearly, independent seminaries and university divinity schools are much needed and here to stay.

Even so, after 500 years of outsourcing theological education, could it be time for the church to also try a different approach? Could the future of theological education be found, at least in part, deep within the church’s past?

I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. The church can gain much by returning at least some aspects of theological education to local congregations — “insourcing” them, you might say. The cathedral church model prompts us to think in new ways about where and how theological education will happen in the 21st century. It calls us to reimagine local churches as viable sites for seminary-level education.

Here are three potential benefits to making the local church a new place for theological education:

First, by offering courses off-campus in accessible, familiar locations, the cathedral model can expand the potential audience for theological education, giving seminary leaders an additional strategy in their efforts to boost enrollment.

This is exactly what we did at Columbia Theological Seminary. In the spring 2016 semester, I taught a three-credit course in Old Testament theology at the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, where I serve as the scholar-in-residence. The course met in the evenings and was open to both Columbia seminary students and up to 10 church members.

The class was a win-win for both institutions. For First Presbyterian, congregants got to take a deep dive into seminary learning in the context of their own church. For Columbia seminary, divinity students were able to learn alongside — and from — smart and engaged lay members. By holding a seminary class in a local congregation, we were able to open up space for contextualized learning. In this class, the starting point was not a body of academic literature but rather the ministries of the church and the needs of the community it serves.

By bringing rich theological content to where Christians already gather, this model has the potential to engage a much wider audience, including congregation members and staff from regional denominational bodies such as presbyteries and synods. Taking seminary off campus can reinvigorate the theological formation of lay members who would otherwise never enroll in seminary while also serving as an effective recruitment tool. Of the 10 lay members who participated in our Old Testament course, two are now full-time students at Columbia seminary.

Second, if the potential audience for theological education is the entire church, we will be spurred to rethink how we package and present our content.

Here’s where we can learn from TED. With more than 1 billion views a year, this wildly popular online speaker series owes its success not only to fascinating presenters and topics but also to its polished short-talk format. In the time it takes to walk the dog, drop the kids off at soccer or, here in Atlanta, drive one exit on the Connector at rush hour, listeners can hear an inspiring talk from a near-endless list of topics. The medium, as it turns out, matters quite a bit when it comes to lay education.

What if the short-talk format was adapted for theological education? Inspired by TED Talks, First Presbyterian last year launched a new speaker series called TheoEd Talks. In this series, we brought together leading thinkers in the church and the academy to give “the talk of their lives” in 20 minutes or less. By packaging powerful ideas in bite-size presentations, such talks provide a fresh and compelling way for diverse audiences to explore important questions about God, theology, and the power of faith to shape lives and communities.

With live events and high-quality videos available online, the TheoEd Talks series recognizes that church-based theological education requires more than just transferring traditional seminary classes to local congregations. It means finding creative ways to translate content into formats that are accessible and engaging for a broader audience of believers and seekers alike.

Third, the cathedral church model can challenge us to rethink the purpose of theological education, re-envisioning it as not merely a pathway to an M.Div. or other degree but an act of discipleship in its own right.

You can find hints of that idea in the final chapter of Luke, in the story of Christ’s appearance to two travelers on the road to Emmaus. Mistaking the resurrected Jesus for a stranger, the travelers told him about the recent events in Jerusalem, including rumors of an empty tomb.

Obviously, the two had much to learn. Yet rather than encouraging the travelers to go enroll in studies at a local synagogue, Jesus brought theological education to them. As they journeyed together, Jesus interpreted the Scriptures for them, and soon their hearts were stirred and their eyes were opened. For the travelers, the road to Emmaus was a road to theological formation.

If we dare to see the church once again as a viable site for theological education, the implications of Luke 24 will be even clearer. The road to Damascus — conversion — has always led to the road to Emmaus — theological education. That latter road, the path of theological education, is not only for those who feel called to ministry. It is for everyone who feels compelled to follow Jesus Christ. The two roads are successive steps, first one and then the other, that many — more than we can imagine — are called to take on the journey of discipleship.