One of the things I’ve heard pastors who were educated prior to the information age lament is the seemingly counter-intuitive practice of leaving the local church to learn how to serve the local church.
In other words, in the past a man has sensed a calling to ministry under the existing ministry of a local church. Desiring to equip himself through higher education, he would then leave the local church to go to seminary. There he would learn in a sanitized classroom environment occupied with other students all the while removed from the local churches they attended when they first sensed this call.
The result? A man who spends three years learning a lot of “isms” and “ologies” only to realize in his first pastorate that it takes another three years to unlearn all of the unnecessary baggage that is not particularly helpful in communicating and ministering to the average church member who has not attended seminary. This is one of the many problems that I believe the Internet reformation (yeah, I’m pioneering this term) will solve consequentially
Before getting to the solutions, let’s take a quick tour through the educational implications of both the Protestant and internet reformations. In many ways, the internet is to our current theological landscape what the printing press was to the Protestant Reformation (a bold statement, I know).
The Protestant Reformation
The printing press made it possible for the reformers to put the Bible in the hands of the multitudes. They were able to combat the burdensome baggage that the Roman church added to salvation and recover the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ because they could simply point to the Scriptures and say, “see it is right here in the writings of Paul.” Since then volumes of books have been written and reproduced thanks to Gutenberg’s invention.
Because the Bible has been produced in mass and made available to the multitudes there have also been multitudes of different interpretations made available in the printing of further books. The result of this has been varying schools of thought and streams of theology that have been handed down to us today. This means that effective ministers should have at least an introductory understanding of the varying views on important doctrines. In previous generations if you wanted to know the various views on the Lord’s Supper it would mean purchasing a bunch of different books or going to the library and getting them on loan. This meant becoming educated for the purposes of ministering in the local church required some effort, but was much easier than it was previously when you had to spend a small fortune to buy a handwritten copy of a book. Those days have changed.
The Internet Reformation
Fast forward to present day—not only is purchasing books and going to the library not necessary (although both of these options are still popular and utilize the web to provide additional options for us), it is also quite cumbersome. We no longer have to burn any calories to get the answers to our questions. With minimal effort we can learn about virtually limitless topics with the click of a button or the flick of our thumb. Even more so, it has revolutionized our academic endeavors. It is no longer necessary to go to a brick and mortar campus to get your degree.
Now, with the vast information available to us on the web, one can conceive of an astute student who does all of his studies online without ever even registering at an actual school. He could simply drink deeply from the resources available to him free of charge on the web. However, it appears we are still a good number of years away from this reality. Most churches are still quite adamant that their pastor have some graduate studies under their belt (many will only consider those with at least an MDiv.). Nonetheless, there are more and more viable options to acquire degrees from established universities without ever stepping foot on their campus.
I’m a living testament to this reality. While I did put in some face time at some local institutions, the college I ended up graduating from, for both my undergrad and grad degrees, I only visited once in person—and then it was only to accept my diploma! While I’m not naive enough to suggest that there are no drawbacks to online education, it certainly provides solutions to many other problems. Here are three:
Perhaps the most obvious and superficial benefit (although not impractical) of online education is that it tends to be a more cost effective option. Although this is not always the case, many seminaries and Bible colleges offer discounted tuition for online students. Some may charge the ever-ambiguous “technology fee,” but there are other less-quantifiable savings passed on to the student. For example, commuting expenses, dining expenses, and housing expenses. Not to mention that you don’t have to hire a moving truck!
In the past, pursuing education often meant packing up all you own and leaving everyone you knew to go learn in some galaxy “far, far, away.” Now, with the increasing popularity of distance learning, the classroom is brought right to your office (or living room, kitchen, coffee shop, etc.) via your laptop. This is also closely related to what I consider to be the biggest problem solved by distance education.
Leaving the Local Church
This is, in my opinion, the biggest problem with traditional seminary studies. There is something tragically ironic about taking a class on ecclesiology (the study of the Church) in a seminary 2000 miles away from your local church. But with the ever-increasing availability of online education this no longer has to be the case. It is now possible to connect our academic theological training with the practical, boots-on-the-ground training of ministry to real people in the local church.
There are also drawbacks to online seminaries. Those in charge are aware of these drawbacks and many are active in proposing solutions to them. Perhaps in a future post I will examine some of these drawbacks. But for now, if you are exploring a call to vocational ministry and considering further education, have you considered trying distance education? What would your pastor say if you approached him and explored the possibility of doing a sort of ministry internship within your local church while completing your academic education online?