Online education has become a booming business. And online theological education is no exception. In August 2017, “The Complete List of Online Master of Divinity Degrees,” an article written by Ryan Nelson, was posted at Gradlime: https://gradlime.com/online-masters-divinity/. The author noted that there are “more than 270 graduate schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools,” but at the time most offered only ‘slim pickings’ in online education. He also noted that there are 55 schools that offer a large number of online MDiv classes, with nearly forty of them doling out the complete degree online. (It should be noted that not all the 270+ theology schools offer an MDiv, so the ratio of schools with online courses to on-campus-only degrees is significantly higher than twenty percent.) In the last year and a half, the ratios have only gotten closer. One Christian university has nearly 100,000 onlinestudents. Another ratio—the cost to the school for each full-time online student vs. the cost for each full-time on-campus student—reveals just how much online education is good for the school’s finances. It is a fraction of the cost of on-campus education (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/17/magazine/how-liberty-university-built-a-billion-dollar-empire-online.html). Online education is a money-maker for schools.
Many administrators have justified such distance learning, touting it as something that is every bit as good as in-class instruction. But is it really? For those who will be ministering to real people in the most personal way, how is it possible for the virtual classroom, taught by a virtual teacher to virtual students, to be as good as flesh-and-blood instruction? One measure may be to compare it to how Jesus taught.
Jesus the Master Teacher
As yet another Christmas draws near, we are reminded of the life-changing truth mentioned in John’s Prologue: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.14). The Incarnation is one of the great mysteries of the universe. We can describe it in halting terms and even partially explain it, but our finite minds cannot fully grasp it. Ever. Among other things, when the Second Person of the Trinity cloaked his glory in human form he took on the suffering of finitude, of living in a dirty world, of feeling hunger and pain, of rejection, of death. He chose a dozen men to train deeply and personally. They were his acolytes, his companions, his friends. And they were collectively an unsavory lot. Yet Jesus selected them—men who would otherwise never have found a common bond. “The Word… dwelt among us.” The Master Teacher taught the crowds, healed the sick, fed the multitudes, and exorcised hordes from the underworld who had taken up residence in many a human. They had their turn. Now it was God’s. And he lived with a dozen students for three years.
There are untold numbers of lessons we can learn from the Incarnation. One of those in the pedagogical category is this: the most impactful ministry is intensely personal, messy, intentional as well as serendipitous, sacrificial, and communal. Let’s examine each of these briefly.
- The most impactful ministry is intensely personal.
Jesus selected seventy disciples to spend time with. Out of that seventy he chose twelve to live with. Of those twelve he concentrated especially on three of them. For the intimate group, it was no holds barred. The instruction was in your face. Jesus ate with the apostles, walked with the apostles, prayed with the apostles, gave private instruction to the apostles, permitted the apostles to learn from each other and minister with each other. It was 24/7 ministry. Life lessons were learned, not just the content of a course.
- The most impactful ministry is messy.
Jesus did not teach his disciples in a sterile environment. The apostles were sinners. They wanted to call down God’s wrath and destroy a whole village for rejecting their Master. They got angry with each other. They were jealous, petty, cowardly, and disbelieving. They feared for their lives on more than one occasion. They pushed away children, the blind, old women, and Gentiles. But Jesus taught them, and he changed them. They witnessed miracles and object lessons. They saw their Master tangle with the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees. They learned compassion, grace, truth, love, and courage. Their lives were radically changed by the Rabbi in their midst.
- The most impactful ministry is intentional.
The Lord made lesson plans for his instruction. He taught with intentionality. His instruction was thought out. He timed what he taught so that it would have the greatest impact. Much of his instruction to the apostles was before or after he spoke to the crowds. And some of it was for their ears only. The apostles were privileged to learn “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 13.11), to wrestle with how to feed the multitudes, to learn the limitations of their exorcistic powers sans prayer. Above all, they learned to trust—and to put their faith in God Incarnate.
- The most impactful ministry is serendipitous.
Not all that Jesus taught his closest followers was thought out ahead of time, but came about because an opportunity presented itself. Religious leaders confronted Jesus about his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath, about their not doing the ritual hand-washing before a meal, about paying taxes, about who their neighbor was, about the nature of resurrection life. The marginalized in society came to Jesus, were rebuffed by his disciples, and ministered to by the Lord. Jesus used every opportunity to mentor these men, to mold their character, to show them what God was really like. And he did it along the way, largely by spending time with them.
- The most impactful ministry is sacrificial.
Of course, this goes without saying for the Lord. But his closest followers also made massive sacrifices to learn from the Master. Jesus scolded those who would not make the sacrifice to follow him. His demands were radical. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26–27). Those closest to him understood this—at least to some degree. Peter spoke for the rest: “We have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10.28). Disappointment and fear reigned during the interlude between the crucifixion and resurrection. The disciples indeed had given up everything to follow Jesus, only to see the Messiah nailed to a cross. But the empty tomb showed them that their commitment was not in vain. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the coming of the Spirit changed everything. These cowardly men were transformed on the Day of Pentecost. And they would eventually make the ultimate sacrifice—for Jesus.
- The most impactful ministry is communal.
Jesus built a new community, the Church, starting with a dozen individuals. He was not the Lone Ranger with just one sidekick. He modeled living out a life for God. He modeled loving the Lord with heart, soul, and mind. And this was acted out by loving his disciples. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now loved them to the very end” (John 13.1 NET). Jesus constantly reminded his followers of the importance of community. We are not to forgive our brothers and sisters just seven times, “but seventy-seven times!” (Matt 18.22). “I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13.34).
Remarkably, although Jesus was the first to put Deuteronomy 6.5 and Leviticus 19.18 together, and as the hinges on which the whole Law hung no less (Matt 22.40), it is the second command that is repeated as a summary of both in the NT (Rom 13.9; Gal 5.14; Jas 2.8). Thrice it is mentioned in the epistles, and thrice it is claimed to sum up the Law. John tells us why: “If anyone says ‘I love God’ and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4.20 NET).
The most impactful ministry in Jesus’ day is still the most impactful today. How do the traditional brick-and-mortar seminary education and online theological education measure up?
The Pros and Cons of Online Theological Education
Obviously, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ cannot be duplicated. Instead, he must be revered and worshiped. He alone is the theanthropic person. The sacrifices made today by seminary students will not be the same as what the apostles went through, and their teachers can’t hold a candle to the sun of Christ. Nevertheless, there are principles that we can extract from the Gospels—principles that were played out in the book of Acts and the epistles, especially with Paul and his associates.
- intensely personal
There can be no comparison between online education and face-to-face education. Unless, of course, the professor considers out-of-classroom time with students to be optional. The better teachers see individual time, and corporate time, outside of the classroom as a must. Even FaceTime or Skype cannot accomplish the same things as 3D communication.
Ditto for ‘messy.’ Although online teaching can, with some effort, involve faculty in the lives of students, it simply is not the same as logging hours with them—both in the classroom and out.
Here is where online education shines. A course can be packaged in such a way that the material is covered in full. Already-created video instruction can cut out superfluous material and achieve high levels of content efficiently. In-class instruction or live video feeds often detour because of Q&A or because of the professor following rabbit trails. But ‘dead’ video instruction can become quickly dated, lack vitality, and require less-than-riveted attention that a live, small classroom can inculcate. Thus, the very type of online course that shines the most in intentionality is also the one with the most serious negatives attached to it.
As strong as intentionality is for online education, it is equally weak in serendipitous education. What happens along the way, how faculty and students respond to current events, to personal crises in students’ lives, to teaching opportunities—all these are the domain of 3D education. That is, as long as the teacher is willing to get outside the four walls and get involved in students’ lives.
Making a sacrifice to uproot and move across the country (or across the globe) for the sake of the best education is the stumbling block to more and more would-be students today. Many are already well established in their careers, have children, own a home, or have other entanglements that would seem to prevent them from making such a commitment. Understandably, some students simply cannot do it. They may live under despotic rule, be too poor to move, have health issues, or be under various obligations that would keep them from taking up residence elsewhere. They are making the sacrifice that they can.
On the other hand, some students are simply lazy. Online classes are, frankly, more convenient. Numerous pupils in theological institutes live on or close to campus but take courses online. Why? Sometimes it is because their schedule will not allow them to do otherwise. But often it is because they want the sheepskin with as little effort as possible. Countless numbers could make the sacrifice but view the degree as more important than the education. They intentionally settle for second best.
Further, sometimes those who teach online courses make as little sacrifice as possible. I do not want to paint with a broad brush here; a good number of excellent teachers work very hard in providing two-dimensional instruction. Yet they often are swimming upstream: in-the-flesh instruction would be more meaningful and more effective than live video feeds, and far more than ‘dead’ video instruction.
Community is a high priority for millennials, the group that comprises almost the entire student body of undergrad and grad schools today. But most millennials have almost no clue how to integrate community into their lives. Many feel terribly lonely, too busy, too disconnected. (For just one example of reports on millennials and community, see this article in the New York Post: https://nypost.com/2018/07/10/millennials-are-horrible-neighbors/.) The comically tragic scene of a group of teens sitting together and each texting someone else outside the group has become commonplace across the country and across the globe. They live virtual lives in a virtual world. But human beings are not virtual. Although it may be uncomfortable, awkward, and presumably artificial at first, achieving real community on a seminary campus with today’s millennial students is deeply satisfying for those on both sides of the podium.
Public domain picture from Wikipedia
- support network
A seventh element can be added to the brick-and-mortar approach to education: the on-campus student has access to a world of knowledge, along with those who know how to access it. Nowadays, online education is exploding with internet-accessible information. But all this is equally available to on-campus students. Further, the full library services, tutors, study groups, mentor-students (those further along in the program), and the school’s other faculty as well as staff are matter-of-course for flesh-and-blood education and difficult, if not impossible, to come by for online education.
It seems that three-dimensional education, when both teacher and student are fully committed to the process, is hands-down superior to two-dimensional education. But we must not think that the latter has no value. Quite the contrary: it is the second best approach. As I mentioned earlier, for some students this is the only way they can get a theological education of any sort. For those who are not enrolled in a program of study, numerous online courses are available from excellent teachers. Once again, however, it must be underscored that whatever an online student can get an on-campus student can get.
In many respects, online education is like a letter from an apostle. John told the ‘elect lady’ in one letter and Gaius in another, “Though I have many other things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink, but I hope to come visit you and speak face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12; see also 3 John 13–14). Paul wrote to the Romans that he longed to visit them (Rom 1.10–11); meanwhile, his letter would have to do. Distance education—whether an epistle or a video course—is not to be cast off as so much refuse, but neither is it ideal.
I would like to close this blog-turned-dissertation with a few random notes, anecdotal and otherwise.
- Dallas Seminary started an internship program in the early 90s, in which a handful of Master of Theology students would be mentored by a faculty member over the course of a school year. The students were required to put in hundreds of hours of work for the professor. Ideally, the internship would help the teacher with his or her projects, and help the student to learn the ropes of an academic ministry. I have had well over a hundred interns during these years. In my three and a half decades of teaching in graduate school, I can say that absolutely nothing has been so rewarding as spending time with these select students. This kind of close, personal attention would simply not be possible with distance learning. Many of my interns have become professors and scholars, distinguishing themselves as gifted, personable, and approachable teachers. Others have become pastors, missionaries, and translators. They have learned what I attempted to model—and often, far better than my meager attempts at mentoring would suggest.
- Every year, I ask all my students to fill out what I call the SSRS—“Succinct Self-Revelatory Statement.” I am very nosey in the SSRS, asking the student about marital status, number and ages of children, weekly work hours, number of courses they are taking, etc. I want to assess the likelihood of their success in my class. Increasingly, students want to have it all: work 40 hours a week, take a full load at school, and raise two preschoolers with their spouse who is also working full-time. It’s a recipe for disaster and I let them know it. I want them to succeed—both in the course and in life. Learning to settle for limited objectives and delayed gratification is key to that success.
In the real-life setting of a living, breathing environment, students often learn of others’ needs and they pray as a family. This past semester, when one student learned of another’s car troubles during our opening prayer time, he gave him a car! Yes, he had another. But he could have sold the second car and paid some bills. Yet the need so impressed him that he donated his car to this student. That’s community at work. Could this happen in an online course? Yes, of course. But the likelihood is greater the more the students know about each other.
I also ask them how much Greek they have had previously and whether any courses they took were online. I can say that, more often than not, the students who are less prepared than others are those whose previous education in the language has been online. To be sure, some students are so highly motivated that they will learn well via any method, even being self-taught. They are the exception that proves the rule.
- Last month I spoke with professors (and even one president) at several theological schools, while attending the annual conferences of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature. I asked their opinion about online education. I was surprised to learn how strongly negative their attitude was toward such an instructional model. Some departments, and even an entire faculty, refused to offer any online classes. They recognized that their stance was old school, and that the institute’s finances were perhaps hurting because of it. But their concern was to make sure that their students were well prepared for a real world—messy, sinful, dirty, ugly and beautiful, unpredictable, filled with heartache and joy. Real ministry involves all these things. They agreed with me that some students simply cannot get theological education any other way than through distance learning. But that’s second best.
- What about those professors who spend no time outside of class with their students? Or those who go through the motions, simply transferring their notes to the students’ notebooks, never passing through the crucible of life? Yes, there are those kinds of teachers. Is it legitimate, however, to compare the worst of 3D teachers with the best of 2D teachers? Minimalist teachers in the classroom are not the way it’s supposed to be. When I was in the master’s program, I sought out the very best professors teaching their best courses. If a particular course was a little outside my orbit of interest, it would still be preferred over one that was inside but taught by a prof with delusions of adequacy. I wanted to learn not only the content of a course, but how to love God with my mind.
- Finally, the bottom-line question that the prospective student needs to ask is not, “What’s the easiest route to take to earn that degree?” but, “What is the best preparation I can get for a lifetime of ministry?”