In recent blog posts, Ben Edwards from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary weighed in on a post by Dan Wallace decrying the contemporary push towards online seminary training. Both Edwards and Wallace correctly warn prospective ministerial students away from the siren calls of convenience and ease. If ministry requires focus, dedication, and sacrifice, should ministry training require less? Degree mills are not new, but the internet age has produced degree superstores – institutions where the consumer is king and the products are quick and customizable. The current craze, a 5-year undergrad + MDiv, is but a recent example. In some of these programs, languages are either lessened or eliminated, credits condensed, and the intellectual gap between undergrad and graduate all but erased. Challenging this new norm is akin to opening a family furniture store next to an IKEA. What’s a seminary to do?
Several years ago, when Central Seminary was cautiously considering online education, I wrote two pieces on the future of seminary education, published by the Baptist Bulletin (volumes 1 & 2). In these articles I wrote of both the pedagogical dangers and opportunities of the internet. In the end, my institution decided to attempt a tedious tension – embrace a new medium while maintaining face-to-face teaching.
Most online programs employ some sort of self-paced teaching, having students interact via posted videos and comments. Others use conferencing software, allowing students to interact with professors and other students in real-time. This is the difference between asynchronous and synchronous programs. Central’s program employs both residential and synchronous, placing residential and distance students in the same class, interacting with the professor and each other. Course requirements, from attendance to presentations, are the exact same. Of course, distance students don’t get to enjoy hallway conversations and breakroom banter, but they do, however, benefit from live participation. Hence, Central has both residential and distance in one academic program. Nothing has been lessened, no bars have been lowered.
While there were many reasons for this addition, one is more pertinent to this discussion – shifting seminary demographics. While fewer students are matriculating directly from undergraduate programs, we are seeing pastors already in ministry seeking further education. Students are often encouraged to find a ministry opportunity immediately after college (the reason for this is a topic for another time). In some cases, after a decade or so of serving a congregation, pastors realize the need for further and deeper education. This is particularly true with the MDiv degree.
Seminaries, by literal definition, are institutions in which young ministerial seedlings can grow and mature into ministers. A strong residential program is the necessary fertile ground, carefully tended by experienced pastors and learned professors. The goal of course, is to plant the young minister into the field of pastoring, exposed to the elements and firmly rooted in the truth of God’s word. Interestingly, the internet and technology has brought a new dimension to a three-dimensional world. Some pastors, who have already weathered years of ministry, need to be rooted, or in these cases re-rooted, into deeper theology. Seminaries must now do both.
Don’t take shortcuts. Value the things that should be valued. Seek a seminary that educates you. Demand nothing less than excellence. Take the path less traveled. Learn theology from a theologian and history from a historian. Learn Greek and Hebrew from someone who knows them and not from a computer. Study ministry from pastors, not just self-paced programs. Be a student, not a consumer. Be a pastor, not a practitioner.
Whether planting novices or re-rooting the experienced, one thing remains; seminaries must always work for the church. Not necessarily the universal church, though this is a secondary effect. Seminaries must always work for the local church. It is my belief that church-based, high quality schools like Central Seminary and Detroit Seminary, among others, have a unique opportunity in this new education age. Superstores may offer convenience, customization, and quickness, but the small local church offers something much, much more – the fertile soil in which pastors can be rooted, standing firm and weathering the winds of change.
“Consumerism, though convenient, has a nasty side effect: you get what you want. While I do not know what seminary education will look like in the future, I know it will depend almost entirely upon people sitting in pews. If churches demand confident leaders, carefully trained exegetes, and Christ-enamored theologians, there will always be room for good seminaries, no matter which educational medium is employed. If churches seek something other, that is exactly what they will get.” Williams, “The Future of Seminary Education, Part 1,” Baptist Bulletin (2017).