Q&A with Wes Olmstead
The following is an interview between Wes Olmstead, our vice-president academic, and Amy Robertson, one of PASSPORT magazine’s staff writers, about Briercrest’s relationship with the church.
Wes Olmstead. Photo by Rob Schellenberg.
Q: Wes, I’ve heard that the faculty have changed the core curriculum this year quite a bit. Can you tell me why?
A: We’d been through a process for maybe eight or 10 years where we were talking about the sort of college that we were becoming and the sort of college that we were aiming to become. And as we were moving there, we recognized that the unofficial core that we had was doing a poor job of reflecting who we are. So we wanted a core that did three or four things.
First, we wanted a core that was going to reflect our mission more obviously, more strategically, and more consistently. So that was sort of the first thing that we set out to do.
We wanted a core that was going to leave room for stronger disciplinary emphasis so that our majors could be strengthened. We wanted a core that was going to give our students a different kind of flexibility in choosing their courses. So there were lots of our old programs where you’d have one or two electives at the end of your program, and this core has a different kind of flexibility built into it. And then we wanted to be responsible fiscally.
Q: So what exactly is Briercrest’s core curriculum?
A: The core is a little bit distinctive. I think when you look at the core, you should see what Briercrest is all about. You should see our concern for gathering around the Scriptures, for students that are shaped by careful interaction with the Scriptures and with the broader liberal arts tradition—engaging in liberal arts learning—and our concern for the church. So put those things together and I think you have a little bit of an idea of what’s distinctive about Briercrest. Put those things together and you’d have a little bit of an idea of what’s distinctive about our core.
One of the things that has come out of our discussions about educational philosophy in the last decade or so is that we want our students to be alert to God’s world. We don’t want a lesser emphasis on God’s Word, but we want our students to be alert to God’s world and the things that are shaping life there.
We have this conviction, as the ancients did, that there’s this unity to knowledge. And so while we gather around the Scriptures and give pride of place to the study of the Scriptures, we also want to be introducing students to these other arenas of God’s truth.
So if you look at our core, it’s actually pretty different than cores of other Christian colleges and universities that you look at across our country. We begin with what’s central for us, and so we have a large section of our core that’s devoted to biblical studies and theology. And then we have things that are pretty traditional in most cores. You’re going to have to do an English literature requirement and a philosophy requirement, and a social sciences requirement, and that stuff’s all quite standard. Then there are some things that are distinctive to our mission and distinctive in our core. For example, we have a section in our core entitled Christianity and the Church. And although you can take a large number of courses to fulfill those requirements, you need to take a course that relates to thinking about the church theologically. You need to take a course in the Western church, you need to take a course in the global church, and the fourth area is the rise of the church.
Q: So does that make Briercrest different from other Christian colleges and universities?
A: Right—actually, I think you’d actually have to look hard if you looked at other Christian universities to find a mention of the church anywhere.
Q: So you’re saying, then, that other Christian schools focus on the Bible, but not so much on the church?
A: Yeah, it would be typical for a Christian university to have some sort of Bible or religion requirement, and then to have a philosophy requirement and a history requirement and an English literature requirement, a math requirement, a science requirement—those sorts of things. But it would be absolutely exceptional for them to have, right at the heart of what they’re doing, at the heart of their core, a section that calls for careful reflection upon the church.
Q: It sounds like this is really important to the faculty. Are they trying to say something?
A: One of the things that I think we’re trying to say is this is how we understand ourselves. We understand that our mission is to call students to be profoundly shaped in these three ways: As they gather around the Scriptures, first of all. Secondly, as they think about God’s world as they engage in liberal arts learning and explore some of the best of the liberal arts disciplines, but thirdly, as they engage in the life of the church.
Q: Hasn’t the church always been an important part of Briercrest’s mission?
A: Yeah, certainly it’s been a part of our mission—although I’d say that it might have come back into a little bit sharper focus in recent times.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about what Briercrest’s relationship has been like with the church through history?
A: Probably you know that Briercrest grew out of a church. It grew out of a little assembly that had a women’s Bible study. So our roots go right back to that in the village of Briercrest, and there’s a way in which, from the earliest days, Briercrest had a really strong relationship with the church. Briercrest was, in their minds, a response to the needs of the church for education of their young people. In the early days, I think, Briercrest would have understood its role to be training ministers for the church and missionaries who were going to serve the church abroad. And while I suppose that was front and centre, it’s always been the case that Briercrest has provided education for lay people who were going to serve in the church.
Wes Olmstead. Photo by Rob Schellenberg.
I think that theological institutions don’t have a particularly strong reputation for working in close partnership with the church. I think that most people who come to teach at a place like Briercrest and other Christian colleges do so because of their commitment to the church, but probably, like other institutions, we’ve been guilty sometimes of not staying in close enough dialogue with the church. And as we look into the future, I think that, particularly in our Christian Ministry programs, we’d love to be working in closer partnership with the church—both in having them speak into what we’re doing and having our students on-site in the church for more of their programs.
I think that David Guretzki has been entering into a number of conversations with pastors around Western Canada in particular, but some across the country, and there’s significant enthusiasm for this—pulling it off and working out all the logistics. I think there’s a fair bit of work ahead of us, but we’d love for the church in Canada to view us as an eager partner.
Q: What is that partnership going to look like?
A: Really, Amy, we expect that the ways in which our students are going to engage with the church are really limited only by their imagination. So we expect that all of them—of course, there’s a little bit of aspirational thinking in that—are going to be engaged in the life of the church and benefitting from the worship and instruction and correction that goes on in the church. In terms of service to the church, we expect that graduates of our college and seminary are going to continue to serve in pretty traditional church roles—teaching and preaching and youth ministry and children’s ministry, et cetera, the way they’ve been doing for 75 years.
But we also expect that they’ll have strategic roles in serving in all kinds of different lay capacities that, you know, I hope that only they can imagine.
Q: Can you tell me whether all the changes in the core classes have more to do with serving the church better, or whether they’re about the growing number of relationships that Briercrest has with universities?
A: When we put the core curriculum together, what we were not thinking is, “How do we do this in such a way that other people will recognize what we’re doing?” Instead, what we were thinking is, “What is the best educational package that we can put together for our students that reflects our own educational mission and philosophy?” And I think it turns out that the more carefully you think about that, then the more apt it is to be a package that people are going to look at and say, “There’s something really good happening there.”
Q: Going back to the church—can you tell me a little bit more about Briercrest’s view of the church?
A: I don’t actually think that I can describe for you Briercrest’s view of the church. In our doctrinal statement, we say that we believe in the unity of all true believers in this universal church. But I think what we’d do is we’d go back to the Scriptures, and we’d say there is this vast array of texts in the New Testament in particular—although there are a lot of Old Testament passages that are relevant—that give us a window into what God thinks about the church.
So Jesus says in Matthew chapter 16, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” This language of the gates of Hades is language that is pretty typical in Jewish texts in that era. It just means the gates of death. Jesus is saying the church will never die. This, I think, gives us tremendous confidence. The church isn’t actually our project. It’s God’s, and Jesus says that He is going to build the church, and it’s going to be around for a while. It will never die.
I think it’s our tendency to see the frailty in the church sometimes because it’s made up of frail people like us, but it’s also God’s idea, and we have this pledge from Jesus that He’s building it and that He’s building something lasting here.
Sometime this week, I was reading in Ephesians chapter 3, and I was reminded that Paul says there about the church that it’s in the church that God intends to display His manifold wisdom to the rulers and authorities in cosmic realms. Because the church is this remarkable display of what God is doing in bringing together from around the world women and men from every nation and uniting them in Christ as a signal to the rulers of where His work is heading.
You know, a little bit later on in Ephesians, Paul says that Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for it. And I hope that informs our understanding of the church. Peter is going to call it a “chosen race” and a “holy nation”—a “royal priesthood of people belonging to God.” There are all these texts that come together that give us this picture of what God thinks about the church, and we want our students to engage in real life in the church and to think about its beauty in God’s eyes, and also to recognize the frailties that come as God chooses to work with real people like us.
Q: Are you excited?
A: Yeah, I’m excited about the church. And I hope that students that leave Briercrest leave with this clear sense of what God thinks about the church and with practice in life together in the church that’s come certainly not exclusively during their time at Briercrest, but I hope that their time at Briercrest isn’t an exception to that in any way and is actually an enrichment of that.