Questioning Theological Education (Part 2)

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, 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 in the classroom with a skilled teacher is not simply the delivery of content but is – even in a lecture-based class – a complex event that takes account of a given context, a given group of students within that context, and seeks to connect those students to the course material by guiding their thinking, provoking questions, and driving them to see what they need to see. Watching all that happen on video, especially with the added potential for distraction that exists when watching, say, at Starbucks, is just not the same experience.

So any given lecture is much less fungible than assumed by advocates of online education, but this is even more true on the level of an entire curriculum. There is a responsive element to seminary courses: Bible introductions respond to Bultmannian demythologizing, Biblical counseling courses respond to psychological approaches, Systematic Theology courses respond to Roman Catholic or Liberal Protestant interpretations. But in a different context, students need to understand the same subjects in response to different issues. Where I teach, students are not much troubled by Evangelical Feminism, Open Theism, or homosexual “marriage.” Instead, they need to know how the Bible and Theology conflict with and confront the claims of Hinduism, of Islam, of today’s complex multi-cultural cities. The (hypothetical) perfect curriculum for a millennial in Minneapolis is not what would best serve the church in a different place.

Content-only education falters in the classroom, but flounders outside it. A season of training that takes place within a community of learners, able to encourage, probe, and sharpen one another, and under the leadership of seasoned mentors, sharing not only their teaching but their very lives, is not something anyone’s replicated virtually with any success. Though there have been attempts.

Finally, I think it’s worth questioning the assumption that the convenience of content-only training is inherently good and the inconvenience of traditional training is always bad. The typical seminary experience for many is a season of personal strain, never-ending labor, sometimes-overwhelming pressure, and desperate dependence on God. Don’t get me wrong – I want to make students’ lives easier where I can. But it’s always going to be hard. And it may be that the sheer difficulty of the comprehensive experience prepares someone for the rigors of church ministry in a way watching videos on the iPad does not.

A Luddite I am not, and I see remarkable opportunities for content-only to leverage available technology to add breadth and depth to strategic training programs. But the inherent nature of content-only approaches means their value will always be a limited one, and there will always be a need for on-site, live theological education.


1 comment

  1. Todd Bolen - January 25, 2016 3:03 PM

    Well said!


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