An architectural rendering of a future Yellowstone Theological Institute structure in Bozeman, Mont. (Locati Architects)
An architectural rendering of a future Yellowstone Theological Institute structure in Bozeman, Mont. (Locati Architects)

Mont. theology center has missional aim

The Yellowstone Theological Institute will be an ecumenical venture with a "Baptist ethos" at its core, organizers say. 

By Jeff Brumley

A Baptist-inspired project envisioned to inspire and retool pastors and congregations for the missional church environment is taking shape in Bozeman, Mont.

The Yellowstone Theological Institute has secured $4.5 million in land and money pledges. While probably two to three years from breaking ground, it will launch its inaugural series of  “Big Sky Immersion” seminars this summer.

Leaders include individuals with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ties and non-Baptists who are recognized leaders in the missional church movement. The group’s goal is to provide “leadership, training and resources for the missional re-imagination of Christianity in the 21st century,” according to its mission statement.

Pastors, other ministers and theologians will come to Bozeman for week-long sessions, said Bruce Gourley, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society and interim president of YTI. Many will be held outdoors at Yellowstone National Park.

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Gourley, who lives near Bozeman, said readings and discussions will be geared toward how the larger church and individual congregations can be reinvented for service in today's world. Pastors will also be challenged to rethink how they conduct their own ministries. The institute will foster an “entrepreneurial mindset that is key to the future of doing church, which is going out to where people are,” he said.

Baptist beginnings and ethos

Several of the organizers are Baptists, Gourley said. They include Jay Smith, lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Bozeman.

Smith said the project began coming together about two years ago, when he arrived at the church with a promise to create some kind of theological-education programming in Bozeman.

“I realized Gourley was here, and since we both share CBF connections and Baptist life,” he said, the idea took off. It also dovetailed with a similar calling Gourley, who has a Ph.D. in history and has written five books, said he had sensed years before.

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The catalyst was a wealthy church family who blessed the project with a significant donation, including an 80-acre parcel on which to build and grow.

Smith said he envisions the institute as a place where young ministers will prepare to lead Baptist and other congregations in that region of the country. First Baptist will remain “a kind of originating parent, so we will always have members on the board,” he said.

There also will be a “Baptist ethos” at the heart of the institute in that it will promote freedom of conscience, congregational autonomy and the priesthood of all believers, Gourley added. “Just as Baptists in the past were change agents in the realm of Christendom, they are change agents today,” he said.

The offerings will not be a curriculum on Baptist studies, however. Some of the already-hired faculty are from other traditions. Among them is John Franke, a Presbyterian theologian, author and speaker on missional and emergent Christianity, the institute's academic dean and professor of missional theology.

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Franke said the institute’s offerings will be relevant to participants regardless of their denominational backgrounds. “We will address the whole spectrum," he said, "of how do we prepare the church for the so-called ‘nones,’ and what theological changes do we need to think about?” 

Franke said that doesn’t mean jettisoning core doctrines like the Trinity but rather recognizing that God has a particular way of engaging the world, and the church’s job is to figure out what that is. That’s what it means to be missional.

“A lot of the structures of the traditional Western church have been shaped by the assumptions of Christendom,” Franke said. “What we need to do is recover what the mission of God is and relate to that through … our given cultural contexts.”

That’s what participants of the “Big Sky Immersion” courses will be learning to do, he added.

'A new coalition of possibilities'

“It’s going to be looking at what church can look like ... what leadership can look like, what worship can look like,” he said.  “And it’s not cookie cutter. It will look different in different places.”

Baptist theologian Bill Leonard, a consultant for the YTI project and a guest speaker at its upcoming seminars, said the institute’s very existence is evidence that American religious life is in a state of permanent flux.

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“Old institutions are being redefined or declining, and new endeavors are taking shape,” said Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

The ecumenical composition of YTI leadership and faculty represents “a new coalition of possibilities that reflects the nature of post-modern religious life in the West,” Leonard said.