It is obvious that so many places are relying on distance education—virtual distance education. After all, it is more convenient for all parties in many ways. People who would never have the option of going to seminary are now being trained by the best teachers the church has to offer. Institutions are able to stay afloat because of the minimal overhead that they have to sustain, all the while providing the same courses by the same teachers. Soon, seminaries may not need campuses at all. It will simply require a virtual campus. No one has to travel…not even the professors!
Not only this, but think of the students in other parts of the world who certainly would not have this opportunity. As well, what about the isolated pastors who have shepherded their flock with not much more than a Bible. They are now able to join with the church worldwide and feed from some of the most gifted members of the Body of Christ.
However, with all of these benefits, I don’t think we (the Church) should be too quick to rejoice to the detriment of the better option. I believe that traditional on-sadite training is by far the best option and I think we need to recognize this before we celebrate ourselves to the point of the demise of one of our most important and valued assets—the local seminary.
A couple of, side-notes, caveats, or whatever:
1. I know that I am going against the grain here. I also realize that I am going against the grain to, what some may believe, is my own detriment. Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, of which I am the founder and president, exists in large part due to our virtual constituency. We are facilitating the training of thousands of lay-people, ministers, and ministers-in-training all over the world. I think that we do online education just as good as anyone out there. However, we have never purported to be a seminary or a substitute for seminary. At best, we are a stepping stone for those who might go into seminary. However, in reality, we are here to make theology accessible to those who may never have a chance to get the type of education that a seminary provides. We do not encourage our students to use our ministry instead of seminary training. As well, one of our main thrusts is to get people to use our curriculum locally. We have thousands of churches who have used or are using The Theology Program in their local venue. This is part of the reason why we built the Credo House and why I still teach at local churches.
2. I am going to use somewhat of a heavy-handed conversation stopper (or at least primer). I have been to local seminary. I have experienced the rigors of being on campus at an experienced institution that knows what they are doing. I took 126 hours of courses on campus at Dallas Theological Seminary. I have also experienced online education in many different forms. Since 2001, I have been engaged in utilizing the power of the internet to educate people in theology. I will continue to do this. Therefore, I speak from experience. I know what both are like. (Here comes the heavy hand): One simply cannot compare the level of training—the type of training—that is available onsite to that which does not come readily or easily online. Onsite training from a good institution that knows what they are doing is simply much more effective. Those who have not experienced onsite and online training like this do not have the experience to make effective arguements otherwise.
Okay, now to a few particulars:
RE: Online Ed vs. Onsite Ed
“But online education is just as good as onsite education. Michael, you need to get with the times.”
One thing that you have to understand about my thinking here is that preparation for ministry involves much more than education. If education is all you seek, I agree that online venues can provide such. But preparation for ministry goes beyond education in the proper sense. Besides many intangibles, the primary thing I speak of is mentorship that includes particular encouragement, shaping, fellowship, and discipline. Is it theoretically possible that these things can happen online? Maybe. But not only are they much much more difficult, it simply is not happening.
It is like the debate about virtual churches vs. traditional churches. There is simply no way to argue that online fellowships provide the same intangibles and commitment as being there in person. It is the same with seminaries. It comes in the after class discussions, the group projects, the lunches with the professor, the office meetings where your professor looks at you in the eye and tells you that your paper was an irresponsible mess and you had better take things more seriously (and you crying afterword!). Its about the library as you view all the theological material that is out there on certain subjects. Its about standing in front of your peers (scared to death) giving a sermon (and then being ripped apart by both peers and your professor who truly want you to grow). Its about the encouragement you receive as you are walking down the hall from a classmate who says that your presentation was great. And a thousand other things that simply do not happen to the same degree online.
One further disclaimer:
I am all for using the internet when necessary. Please don’t hear me saying that online training is completely worthless. When there is absolutely no other option, it is most certainly a hundred times better than doing nothing. I am simply saying that we need to get back to promoting the need for and value of local seminaries. Face-to-face discipleship, discipline, dedicated professors, fellowship, and the mental seriousness that is involved in taking your family and moving away to concentrate on your studies and preparation are much more available in local seminaries. And they are much more effective at producing serious and well-prepared pastors and ministers.
RE: Local Church vs. Seminary
“Shouldn’t the local church be training its ministers, not seminaries?”
I would be inclined to say that local churches can provide a better preparation for ministers than online education, but they have their weaknesses as well. You have to remember, there is a reason why the seminary got set up the way it did—increased effectiveness in training. They certainly are not in it for the money!
Think about this: Could local hospitals provide a better place for training than medical school? Not really. Why? Because that is not their focus. They are there to practice medicine. There is a reason why a different type of venue needs to be set up for both—effectiveness in all things pertaining to the training as well as a concerted effort with a very particular purpose. The local church and hospitals serve for residencies, not the primary training venue.
It is like people who ask me after a theology class: “Why isn’t this stuff taught from the pulpit?” My answer is that it is not very likely that teaching systematic theology (along with all the reading and work that is involved) would be as effective from the pulpit. Sure, we are to teach good theology from the pulpit, but thinking that the pulpit can be used as both a place where the word of God is preached with the primary purpose of exhortation and where systematic theology (not to mention the original languages!) can be taught with the primary purpose of educating is simply naive.
At Stonebriar Community Church we knew that since we were so large there were things that we could provide that other churches could not. We had a greater pool of resources, both financial and people, to draw from to accomplish certain things. For example, because of our size, we could provide a biblical counseling ministry that was focused only on helping people who are struggling with addiction, having problems in their marriage, or suffering from depression. Smaller churches from all over would send their people to us because the pastor knew he did not have the time, training, or experience to deal with many issues. We were glad to be there. But even then, we knew that there were certain cases where we had to “outsource” to others who were even more qualified to deal with particulars. These were Christian agencies that focused on certain areas and had even more experience.
The local church cannot expect to do all things and do it well. The local church needs to know where to send people, not attempt to be a “be-all” place that arrogantly thinks it can handle everything. Wisdom is involved here. The same goes with seminaries. Sometimes local churches can provide very good education for their people. Sometimes they might have The Theology Program or The Bethlehem Institute. But most of the time even these will lack what local seminaries can provide.
Even Paul, in the early church seems to have set-up different venues for different types of training. Sure, he did not call it a seminary in Ephesus, but the principles about which I speak were present.
In the end, seminaries provide a particular venue where certain types of education can be done with greater effectiveness with professors who are devoted and gifted differently. The local church should stand behind, support, and facilitate the seminaries. This is not a competition folks.
RE: Foreign Christians without the opportunity of a seminary
“What about all those people who do not have access to a seminary overseas?”
This is a good question, but we must put it in perspective. Many people often don’t have the opportunity to learn from the full complement of the Scripture either. Some places only have the Gospel of John translated. Since they are deprived of these important books, does this mean that we should not talk about their need for Romans, Revelation, or the Old Testament? Of course not. The church should come to the aid of those who don’t have a full canon, translating all the Scripture into their language. We should also come to the aid of those who don’t have opportunities to educate through seminary type of training. However, one thing is certain, in the case with the canon and seminary training we don’t bow to the lease common denominator. It is not about being politically correct saying to the next person, “Well, you have a good heart and are working really hard with what you do have. We don’t want to act like we are better than you so we will just say that we are even.” Again, it is not a competition. It is about being faithful to the Great Commission, making disciples of every nation. Discipleship, training, and education can be better and it can be worse. Let us strive for the better, understanding that many will still not have these opportunities.