Or, "Is 'online education' an oxymoron"?

A few weeks back, I started a discussion of what kind of theological education model is best to train church planting pastors in cities of the 10/40 window, and raised questions about the suitability of the traditional brick-and-mortar seminary in this context. Let’s continue by discussing another training approach: the content-only model. 2. Content-Only Model We’re using “content-only” as a catch-all for educational approaches that focus on the delivery of information, through a variety of means. Back in the day there were correspondence courses, then audio or DVD materials, now: MOOCs and other online education. The quality has improved but the principle is the same: receive training wherever you are, according to your schedule. We’re in a golden age of content-only training. Most major seminaries, motivated to serve believers around the world (and help their own bottom lines) have developed online offerings. Beyond that, ministries like BiblicalTraining.org, Third Millennium, and BibleMesh are distributing a remarkable breadth and quality of content for free

or a nominal cost. I thank God for these ministries. Their quality is usually excellent, involving some of the best teachers in the world for each subject. Given their inherent flexibility, content-only programs fit complex modern lifestyles in a way other programs don’t. Many believers globally don’t have access to any other theological training, so praise the Lord for profitable materials being available to anyone with an internet connection. Is this the solution to the global theological education crisis? Should we double down on content-only programs and abandon other approaches that by comparison seem too limited and too costly? In 2016 is it anachronistic, and perhaps profligate, to be initiating live, in-person, instructional programs? No. While content-only programs have a useful role to play, they are not and cannot be sufficient to meet the needs of the global church, because of several limitations: Those who argue content-only training is sufficient assume a reductionistic understanding of education. What happens…

Training pastors for the 10/40 window - are seminaries the answer?

Recently I’ve talked to seminary administrators from the U.S., the U.K., Latin America, India, the Middle East, and Australia, who all agree: theological education is in crisis. Seminaries and Bible Colleges are unable to pay for their campuses, faculties, and administrations. Graduates are saddled with debt. Churches can't find anyone prepared for the ministry they need. Globally, the majority of pastors don't have any training at all. No one denies the vast need; the issue is finding the right model to meet it. The current ones increasingly aren’t working. Without claiming to have solved theological education’s global crisis, I have labored to develop strategy to impart specific goals in training a certain kind of pastor to spread the gospel through a certain kind of church. So, over a few posts, I want to reflect on current models for global theological education and to what extent they may or may not make sense for training church planting pastors in cities of the 10/40

window. 1. Traditional Seminary Model The most well-known strategy for theological education is the traditional seminary model. Think of DTS, SBTS, WTS, TEDS, etc. Top-notch scholarship. Bricks & mortar. Big libraries. A wide selection of programs. For generations, this model has been the default for those wanting to seriously prepare for ministry. Should we, in the 10/40 window, try to recreate one of these institutions? Should we be striving toward Westminster Karachi or Trinity Tehran? It’s tempting. One reason, of course, is that myself and several of my team members know this model from the inside out, having benefited from through the many years of our own studies. The depth and breadth of the traditional seminary program is hard to surpass. The burden of proof is on the guy who thinks he has a better curriculum than the exegesis, Bible, theology, and ministry courses that make up traditional seminary degrees. Beyond curriculum, seminaries add value as communities of learning,…

Learning objectives for theological education

Our focus where I teach is on training men to plant and pastor churches in the cities of the MENASA region (=Middle East, North Africa, South Asia). We’ve had to ponder specifically what we want the results of our program to be – what are we laboring to instill in students before they graduate? Well, we’ve got a few ideas. Indeed, here’s fourteen targets we’re using as we plan curriculum and mentor students. By graduation, we want to see students demonstrate: 1. Skill to faithfully exegete texts from any biblical genre and apply exegetical logic in all ministry contexts Students need understanding of how different texts/genres function, knowledge of history and background, awareness of how to handle problems and use external sources correctly, and proficiency in grammatical, lexical, and contextual analysis of the text itself. With this exegetical acumen comes the ability to use exegetical logic to carry out all kinds of ministry in all kinds of contexts in a way directly

tied to the accurate meaning of the biblical text. 2. Gospel clarity in his target context If pastors are being sent to the nations to preach salvation they need to know how to preach salvation. So we need students to understand the basic, unchanging, message of the gospel, and communicate that message in a way that the particular people they are going to be speaking can understand. 3. Ability to teach and preach the Bible with accuracy, clarity, passion, and fruitfulness All good preaching is faithful preaching, but not all faithful preaching is good. Effective urban pastors will need to be both, and getting there involves training in best practices for preparation and communication, but more than that practice and coaching that develops students from beginning preachers to able servants of the body of Christ. 4. Foundational knowledge of and convictional competence in the Bible, biblical theology, and systematic theology Christian pastors must know what they believe because the…

Applying the authority of God in exegetical ministry and theological training

Ministry begins with God himself, and the absolute authority belonging to him as creator of all things. Believing the Bible is the inerrant and authoritative word of this God, we must approach the Bible with the goal not of using it for our work, but submitting to it as God’s word. How can we practically submit to God’s word in various ministry contexts? And how can we train leaders for a ministry that is obedient to the authority of God? Imagine the various theological disciplines in a pyramid: Disciplinary Order The starting point is biblical exegesis, the task of carefully reading and discovering the intended meaning of biblical texts in their original language and contexts. Then we move to biblical theology, wherein we put together the results of our exegesis to understand the theological message of a given section of Scripture, or how a given theme is developed throughout Scripture. Then, and only then, we can develop a systematic theology,

based on our exegesis and biblical theology, that synthesizes logically the teaching of the entire Bible. Finally, we can apply our systematic theology, biblical theology, and exegesis by building a philosophy and practice of specific ministries, such as preaching or counseling. And by following all of these steps the result is a church life and mission that are thoroughly biblical, faithful, and operating in submission to God through his Word. To look at it from the other direction, we might ask - “why is expository preaching so important to the ministry of a church?” (level 5). The answer to that is found in our biblical philosophy of preaching (level 4), which is simply systematic theology (e.g. doctrines of Scripture, of man, of salvation) together with biblical imperatives about preaching (level 3), which is based on a biblical theology and story of a God who communicates and reveals himself through proclamation (level 2), which is based on the exegesis of individual…

Considering a five-stage schema for planning training in various disciplines

Building from the last post about conscious competence, a few words about another educational model. In 1980 brothers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus were researching how to best train Air Force pilots. In the course of this study, they developed a “five-stage model of the mental activities involved in directed skill acquisition.” Thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can download their original report in all its typewritten glory. The Dreyfus brothers propose that as a student acquires a new skill through formal instruction and practice he must pass through five stages: 1. Novice Lacking experience, the student is taught to recognize certain features of an environment. He is then given rules for deciding how to act in response to those features. He doesn’t understand what is going on, per se, but he can follow the steps he’s been taught. The stage is characterized by rigidly adhering to the rules and not exercising discretionary judgment. 2. Competence One moves

from the novice stage to competence after considerable experience in real situations with an instructor pointing our recurring patterns. The student begins to understand better the context and meaning of the rules he’d previously been taught. Still, all aspects of the work are treated separately with equal importance. 3. Proficiency With increased practice, the student is now able to view the whole situation in connection to long-term goals, and various aspects of the situation become more or less important depending on their relevance to the goal. He is now in a position to judge which steps are more or less relevant to this particular situation, and deliberately plan based on the specific situation. 4. Expertise Up to this point, students have relied on rules to know how to connect what is generally true to their specific situation. But an expert, relying on a great deal of experience, is in a position where the response to each specific situation is customized and…

The four levels of competence in theological education

Working on curricular design the last few months, I've been reading a lot of educational theory. Since it's a literature that's new to me, I find myself newly impressed by some old concepts. One of these is the “conscious competence” learning model. Developed in the 1970s by Noel Burch (though the roots are probably earlier), the model describes four stages on the way to competence in a new skill. There’s more to theological education than competencies – like intellect, heart, and character – but we're also teaching skills. And these four stages, developed in a secular context, prove helpful in thinking about the skills developed in theological education, especially understanding and communicating Scripture.  So for example, here are the four stages in relation to biblical exegesis: 1. Unconscious Incompetence The student doesn’t know how to do something, but doesn’t recognize that he doesn’t know it. Maybe he's never heard of biblical exegesis. Maybe he thinks exegesis is busywork and unnecessary for real life and ministry. Or maybe he wrongly believes he already knows how to do exegesis, when in fact he doesn't.

Before he can move to the next stage, he needs to recognize his incompetence and the value of the new skill. 2. Conscious Incompetence The student still doesn’t know how to do something, but he does recognize the deficit and the value of the new skill in addressing the deficit. So even though he doesn’t know how to do exegesis, he’s come to see it as an essential skill for ministry, a skill he currently lacks, so is motivated to advance his knowledge and make the kind of mistakes one needs to learn.  3. Conscious Competence The student understands or knows how to do something, but with concentration. To do exegesis, he has been taught a series of steps, and he is able to carefully follow them, often checking the list to make sure all the steps have been handled. Much of his thinking along the way is about the process he needs to…

What kind of leader do urban churches in the 10-40 Window need?

As we train pastors, we need to know what we're trying to do before we can do it very well. A couple weeks ago I shared some thoughts on the ideal church in our urban 10-40 Window context. The logical next question is "what kind of leader is needed for this kind of church?" Or, "what is an ideal pastor?" A Christian: An ideal pastor is first of all a Christian; he has himself believed and been transformed by the power of the gospel, and is continuing to grow in his Christian maturity and ongoing repentance. He displays the fruit of the spirit. He is a man of prayer. He is not a recent convert; he is among the most spiritually mature men of the congregation. He is passionate to know God and make him known. Committed to the Local Church: An ideal pastor loves the local church, serves the local church, and embraces the biblical priority of the local church in God’s mission.

He does not view ministry in the church as in any way inferior to other ministries one might do but is instead eager to invest his life as an under-shepherd of God’s people. Exemplary Character: An ideal pastor is holy and above reproach - he has a reputation that is a credit to the church, there is no valid accusation of wrongdoing that can be made against him. He is upright - he keeps his word; he can be counted on to make wise, fair, righteous judgments for the church. He is sober-minded and not arrogant - level-headed, restrained in his conduct, able to think clearly; humble, listens to others, accepts criticism and counsel, and is considerate. He is disciplined, self-controlled, and not a drunkard - keeping his physical desires in check by consistent self-restraint; does not engage in any activity to excess and is disciplined in his pursuit of spiritual things. He is not violent, but gentle…

How we lost exegetical logic and why we need it back.

Last week I mentioned "exegetical logic" as central to church ministry. Someone asked what I meant, so an explanatory word. When I say "exegetical logic," I'm talking about a way of using Scripture our fathers assumed but we have to explicate because of certain cultural trends: The abridgment of everything: We skim headlines and share 140-character snippets. Published books are the length newspaper articles used to be. Sprinting, we're not interested in the lines above the bottom one. Unwillingness to think: We are lazy. There is always a YouTube meme to distract. With a smartphone in every hand, thinking hard is passé. The exaltation of personality: Being lonely, we are attracted to personalities who seem cool to have a beer with. In a celebrity/social media culture, we follow leaders less for the quality of their ideas and more on the stickiness of their persona. The balancing impulse: Our beliefs in fairness and equality are so deeply ingrained that we find them

where we should not. The spirit of the age is, "you have some verses, he has some verses, let's agree to disagree." Ungodly humility: We are pressured to be uncertain, conditioned to believe that to claim a proposition as true and more reasonable than the alternative is an exercise of privilege or insensitive to someone's needs. These factors and more create a climate where we don't debate the reasons for ideas, to our great detriment. The solution is exegetical logic: an approach to talking about life, ministry, and ethics driven by interaction and debate about specific Biblical texts and their meaning. Exegetical logic means sharing not only the fruit of your exegetical process but how you reason your way from that text to get there. Some arguments are objectively better than others. The difference between Ruth's Chris and Sizzler is not in the eye of the beholder. Christians, we need exegetical logic. We need it in our sermons, in…

Believing the gospel, obeying the Savior, discipling the world, for the glory of God.

What are the goals of a church (any church)? What’s the ministry of that church seeking to accomplish in the lives of people? Here’s my answer: believing the gospel, obeying the Savior, discipling the world, for the glory of God You can get here pretty easily from the Great Commission (Mat 28:18-20): “Disciples… baptizing” → requires believing the gospel. “Obey all I commanded” → obeying the Savior. “Make disciples of all nations… teaching” → discipling the world Baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” → in other words, ministry is in and through and for the glory of the triune God. Looking at the big picture of Scripture, Jesus doesn’t highlight these goals in an isolated way, but as a summary of what all Scripture calls God’s people to. So how does this look in a church? Believing the gospel Without Christ, all people, as sinners, are in the desperate

situation of facing God’s just wrath (Rom 5:12; 3:23). But the amazing truth of the gospel is that God has sent his Son Jesus to deliver sinners. Only Jesus can rescue us, and he does it by taking God’s wrath on himself, dying in our place, and rising from the dead. The sins that should have condemned us, God laid on Jesus. So, the amazing exchange: Jesus endured what we deserved so that we might enjoy what he deserved: eternal life. We access this life by believing the gospel, which involves understanding these truths, turning away from sin, and trusting in Jesus as the one way of salvation (John 6:47, Luke 8:12, 2 Cor 5:21). Guiding people to belief in the gospel is the goal of all a church is and does. A church calls non‐Christians to believe and be saved. But a church must also emphasize believing the gospel to Christians. Why? Because even after saving us, the gospel is…