LONG BEACH — At first glance the gathering looks like any other upper-division college class.
Seated at long tables, students hunch over open books, scribbling frantically in notebooks. In a far corner, a tiny fan does little to mitigate the late summer heat.
On closer examination, however, a certain difference begins to emerge.
"Wherever there's liberalism there's death," the professor tells the class in response to a student's comment regarding what he perceives as the penchant of religious liberals for mystical and occult experiences.
The professor responds to other questions, characterizing feminism as incompatible with Christianity, modern psychology as "illegitimate" and George Lucas' "Star Wars" movie as the expression of a philosophy that is opposed to God-centeredness.
"I'm teaching this class from the presumption that Christian theology comes out of the Scriptures and that the Scriptures are true," says Donald Shoemaker, senior pastor at Grace Community Church of Seal Beach.
Want to Be Ministers
The students generally nod their heads in agreement. Most are here because they want to be ministers. And successful completion of Shoemaker's course--"God and Revelation"--is one of the first steps on the road to their goal.
Just a typical session at Grace Theological Seminary, an institution that for 50 years has been turning out conservative evangelical ministers by the hundreds. Until recently, the school's would-be ministers were put through their paces almost exclusively at the seminary's main campus in Winona Lake, Ind.
This month, however, marks the beginning of a new phase in Grace's history: From now on, administrators say, future church leaders will be able to prepare for their ministries at the seminary's first U.S. satellite recently opened in Long Beach.
"We're very excited to be here," said William Male, dean of the seminary's main campus and acting dean of the new Western campus that opened Sept. 1 in temporary quarters near Grace Brethren Church on Atlantic Avenue. The new campus will be formally dedicated in a convocation Monday. "In eight to 10 years," Male said, "we expect this to be our main location."
The move, he said, represents a rather fortuitous combination of need and opportunity.
The need was to bridge a growing chasm between the West Coast and Midwestern flocks of the fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches--with which the seminary is loosely affiliated. In addition, Male said, the seminary wanted to minister to the increasing diversity of ethnic groups in Southern California.
The opportunity came when Grace Brethren Church of Long Beach decided to replace with an accredited school the unaccredited theological graduate school it had run for 12 years.
"It is fair to say that we were having trouble attracting students because of the lack of accreditation," said Jay Bell, senior associate pastor of the 1,500-member congregation. "This is a step in a better direction."
The long-established Grace Theological Seminary--which retained some of the old graduate school's employees--is a nationally recognized institution accredited by the North Central Assn. of Colleges and Schools, one of several accrediting agencies.
Some community members believe the seminary's presence is likely to enhance the church's standing as a local conservative force.
To accommodate the seminary, the church turned over the old graduate school's entire 20,000-volume library as well as the use of its former administrative offices on Atlantic Avenue. The seminary hopes to find a larger permanent site within five years, but in the meantime classes are being held on church grounds at a facility normally used as the church elementary school.
In Indiana, Grace Theological Seminary--which emphasizes classic conservative Biblical education and produces about 350 graduates a year--offers a host of degrees including master's degrees in both divinity and theology and a doctorate in divinity.
In Long Beach, school began with 53 students and offers only a three-year master's of divinity degree. While the seminary does not actually ordain its graduates--most of whom are either Grace Brethren, Baptist or nondenominational--its degrees are generally accepted by churches and independent agencies that do ordain graduates.
"In today's society, people are more inclined to listen to someone who has taken the time to study," said Mark Matthews, 27, an associate pastor at Torrance Baptist Temple who enrolled in the seminary as part of his quest to become a fully-ordained minister. "The 1980s tend to be more intellectual. People go to college, and they don't want to go to church and be bored."
Would 'Plant' Churches
Dave Miller, 36, a Long Beach insurance salesman who started out as a Grace Brethren but said he became a Baptist because of that denomination's more active singles programs, enrolled in the seminary to further his lifelong ambition of someday "planting churches."