Blog Post

The Promise and Peril of Online Theological Education

No single factor has changed higher education more over the past two decades than the advent of the Internet. The online revolution has affected most every form of higher learning, including theological education.

Some educational purists lament the disruption that online education has brought, as well as the transition of theological education from solely residential to online and modular formats. Nevertheless, the genie is out of the bottle, and online education brings both promise and potential peril to 21st century seminarians.

 The Promise of Online Education

The promise of online education is straightforward: virtually any person anywhere on the globe can receive ministry preparation at any time. This accessibility is a new reality that should be celebrated. It promises to unleash a generation of better-prepared gospel ministers than ever before. Given the accessibility of online education, there simply is no real reason for one desiring theological education not to access it.

Online education is especially promising in the Southern Baptist context, given the theological health of our institutions. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the SBC seminaries are enjoying a golden era in theological education, one that now can be projected the world over.

Often times online education functions as an on-ramp or exit-ramp for residential seminary training. As an on-ramp, online education enables students to take classes while tidying up life’s affairs before moving to seminary. Similarly, online classes often function as an exit-ramp. Many residential students find themselves called to church before graduation, and take online classes for degree completion.

For other students, like those called to ministry later in life, serving in a bi-vocational context, or already enjoying in a fruitful ministry, online classes enable them to gain theological training while obeying God’s call to that particular ministry assignment.

Put simply, obedience to God’s call on one’s life might not include relocating to a distant city for residential theological education. By God’s kind providence, the online revolution means theological education can come to you when you cannot go to it.

Proudly, Midwestern Seminary was on the cutting edge of online education, being the first Southern Baptist seminary to offer a completely online Master of Arts degree nearly a decade ago. Midwestern Seminary remains at the avant-garde, with our OnlineYou initiative, which makes online education affordable, accessible, and customizable to the student’s ministry calling.

 The Peril of Online Education

Like any innovation, there are accompanying concerns. The most obvious concern is that to be an online student is to not be a residential one, and therefore miss out on the many upsides of residential study. These include life-on-life ministry preparation; profiting from chapel, campus events and conferences; personal mentorship from your professors; growing together with other students in a community of learning; and being part of the esprit de corp of an institution. There simply is no replacement for studying on campus.

Yet, there is another, less obvious, concern. Indeed it is the greatest potential peril of online education. I occasionally interact with prospective students who, though without putting it so bluntly, seem to be utilizing online education as a means of resisting God’s call on their life.

The scenario goes something like this: A young man believes God has called him to ministry, but he is reticent to take those initial steps of faith. Whether it is because he has a good paying job, enjoys living in his mother’s zip code, or some other material concern, he just can’t get out of the boat. He simply wants the path of least resistance in ministry, and online education appears to be it; enabling him, in essence, to not follow God’s call on his life.

Almost as a tool to assuage his conscience, he occasionally takes an online class, sort of bumping along with no real ministry pursuit. Strangely, online education has not enabled him to follow God’s call on his life; it has stymied it.

The call to ministry is a call to sacrifice for ministry. If one is not willing to make sacrificial steps in the small things, don’t assume one will be willing to sacrifice in the greater things. Thus, in the final analysis, the issue is not so much whether or not residential or online education is the most optimum mode of study, the issue is whether or not the student is following God’s call on his life.

In conclusion

If Midwestern Seminary had a 100 billion dollar endowment, we would still happily offer online education. Our online program is more than a source of tuition revenue, it comports with our mission to exist for the church, and to train a generation of pastors, ministers, and missionaries for the church, residentially or otherwise.

Inasmuch as online education expedites one’s training and broadens access, it is ripe with promise. But if it becomes a pacifier, enabling one to skirt God’s call as opposed to facilitating it, online education is laced with peril. Within each student, and their particular calling, lies the difference.

topicsHigher EducationMidwestern SeminarySBC

2 Responses to “The Promise and Peril of Online Theological Education”

May 11, 2015 at 6:43 am, Gordon said:

Dr. Allen,

I gladly receive and read your publications every week. This is the one that resonates the most to date. As I consider the last section of your thoughts, I am forced to chime in. Online education is my only option. I live in the Caribbean. I’m not a US citizen so I cannot apply for financial aid in order to afford the cost of residence education. I must work while studying in order to pay the bill. I am married to a wide that is not keenly interested in moving to the US alongside me while I study.

While I definitely agree that certain helpful aspects of residence life is missing. For many of us, we have literally no choice. Unless Midwestern opens a school locally or regionally. I would encourage you and others to pray about ways and means to open up for many of us to be able to study via residence. But in the mean time I believe God has made online education available to those of us who would not otherwise have the option.

May 26, 2015 at 10:36 am, Dr. Jon F. Dewey said:

I have a different perspective. I took Bible college and seminary through a non-traditional school. It was not because I was trying to avoid God’s calling, but because as a husband and parent of 4 children, it was my only viable option. To have quit my career (and not support my family) to attend seminary would have been irresponsible. I am grateful to have been able to get the training I did from a school that was more interested in training pastors than keeping the status quo.

The goal for Bible college and/or seminary attendance must be to produce trained pastors, teachers, evangelists. Distance learning does have its problems, but without it the very by-God qualified people will never get the training they need. It is the information, not the institution, that is important.

I personally would like to see major seminaries have satellite initiatives where they hold for-credit classes in multiple locations near where people are. Secular colleges and universities are already doing this.

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