Online vs. In-Person Education: Theological Training Is Supposed to Be Hard
In my previous post considering Dan Wallace’s recent article discussing online vs. in-person education I concluded that, especially regarding theological teaching, in-person education is superior to distance education—all other things being equal. But rarely if ever in life are all other things equal. Thus, we inevitably are forced to weigh a variety of factors beyond the intrinsic value of any particular item.
A BMW is superior to a Mitsubishi. If you were offered either for free (with no difference in future tax or insurance implications), you would almost certainly choose the former. Unfortunately, you will not ever be forced to make this decision (or probably be offered any car for free). So other factors will inevitably come into play in whether or not you ever get either kind of vehicle, including your personal finances, the initial cost of each, safety scores, ongoing maintenance, preference in style, etc.
Almost all decisions in life involve weighing a variety of factors. Those who are wise are able to determine which factors are truly more significant, while those who are foolish treat unimportant factors as central.
When a student is determining how and where to receive his theological education, he must consider various factors, including the faculty, library/research resources, doctrine, tuition costs, ministry philosophy, location, family situation, current and future ministry plans, etc. When these factors are all considered, some students may find that the value of distance education compares favorably with the value of in-person education. But one factor seems to often tilt the scales in favor of distance education—a factor that should be almost irrelevant for those truly seeking theological education. That factor is convenience.
One of the biggest selling points for online education is its convenience. You can now get your degree without any real disruption to your life. Fit your training where you want it in your schedule! In his article, Wallace contrasts that mindset with the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ teaching of his disciples.
“[Jesus’s] closest followers also made massive sacrifices to learn from the Master. Jesus scolded those who would not make the sacrifice to follow him….“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)….
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….[Though for some moving is not an option] 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.”
In my previous post noting the biblical importance of person-to-person interaction in communicating God’s truth, we looked at Paul’s command in 2 Tim 2:2 for Timothy to teach faithful men who could themselves pass on the entrusted message. It is interesting to note that the very next command is for Timothy to “suffer hardship with [Paul]” (2 Tim 2:3). We live in a day when suffering and sacrifice are increasingly foreign concepts. Everything is driven by convenience and ease. If we find something hard, we assume we must be doing it wrong. This mindset is especially dangerous for those entering the ministry.
All Christians, but especially ministers, are to have the single-minded devotion of a soldier (2 Tim 2:3-4). In a day that emphasizes multi-tasking, pastors need to stay focused on pleasing the one who called them without being distracted by other pursuits. They are to be like disciplined athletes, who committed themselves to master their sport in accordance with the rules in place in order to succeed—nearly always accompanied with great sacrifice (2 Tim 2:5). Pastors must be like hard-working farmers, who day in and day out must diligently labor if they want to receive their crop (2 Tim 2:6).
Perhaps most importantly, Paul emphasizes that it is only those who are willing to suffer in this way—in a single-minded, disciplined, hard-working manner—who will receive the reward: their share in the crops, the crown of glory, and the ability to please God.
If you believe you are called to serve God in the gospel ministry, then you have been called to share in the suffering that all of God’s true servants have endured. You are not called to a life of convenience and ease but of hardship, difficulty, and sacrifice—setting the example for the life all of God’s children experience (Rom 8:17). Yet God’s ministers (and all of God’s children) gladly embrace this life of suffering, because the suffering cannot even be compared to the future glory that is ours (Rom 8:18).
If this is what gospel ministry entails, how could we ever prioritize convenience in preparing for that work? If you choose an online degree, a shorter program, or a program without a biblical language requirement because of convenience, what does that say about your commitment to the task you claim God has given you?
If you believe God has given you a desire to be a church leader but are looking for the most convenient way to get a theological degree in preparation for that work—STOP! Either start approaching this work with the whole-hearted, serious, sacrificial labor it requires, or stop pretending you want to serve the Savior who “suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet 2:21).
Is it difficult to take a lower-paying job that allows greater flexibility for schooling in order to be better prepared for ministry? Yes. Is it a challenge to move to a new location so that you can receive more from your theological education? Certainly. Is it a sacrifice to spend hours and years getting properly equipped for a lifetime of ministry? Absolutely. Is being in gospel ministry hard? Yes—it is supposed to be.
It is worth it? Yes!
“Jesus…suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (Heb 13:12-14).
What part should a persons local church factor in the decision? If a person is called to gospel ministry, shouldn’t the church have some confirmation on the matter? What if the local church says, “Yes, you should go into gospel ministry, but we think that you should do online training while the home church.”
I think the local church plays (or should play )a significant role in the decision. No school should be accepting a student without a local church endorsement.
And moving away from a local church should never be done without prayerful consideration that includes godly counsel. Probably the greatest benefit of distance education is that it allows some students who should stay in their local church to be able to receive theological education. A few thoughts, though:
1. If there is a good option for theological education within driving distance, the church should want to accommodate and encourage students to make the commute rather than simply choosing an online option
2. Not all distance education is the same. I think the better options are synchronous options that seek to provide a kind of virtual classroom. This is what we at DBTS have used (in connection with specific local churches—see my next point), since we believe it is the closest to maintaining the value of in-person classrooms.
3. If the student in a church is utilizing distance education, the church must intentionally work to replace some of the mentoring and community that the student would receive from in-person education. It’s one thing for a church to want someone hanging around rather than leaving, but it’s really only beneficial for the student if the church is intentionally and actively involved in the discipleship process for the student—meetings with the pastor, interaction with other students, etc.
4. Is the student going to remain in the church 5 years from now, or be involved as a church planter or missionary sent by the church? If not, then the value of remaining at the church is greatly diminished, making moving to a new location for training probably the better option.
5. Even if the student plans to be involved long-term as either a leader in the church or sent out by the church, there could be value in having the student move away for a time to gain broader ministry and life experience.
Theological education should be about local churches. So schools and institutions that provide theological education must be evaluating their needs. Far too often schools are only concerned with their own bottom line—something I think is driving a lot of the online options (as Wallace noted, there is money to be made there). The real question is how can someone be best equipped to serve local churches long-term (not what do students want or what does the market demand but what is best for the long-term health of God’s people). In-person instruction is the ideal, but staying in your local church is also very valuable. Neither should necessarily cancel out the other.
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Could a person be devoted to Jesus and sacrifice for Him and not move to be close to a professor? Sacrificing for Jesus is one thing that every believer should do. Sacrificing to be close a prof. is only worth while if it convenient. 🙂
Thanks for the note. Since I stated in the post that all believers are expected to be devoted to Jesus and sacrifice for Him, then clearly my answer to your question would be yes (since only a small handful of people are even going to get theological education). To answer a question you didn’t ask, someone seeking theological education could also be devoted to Jesus and sacrifice for Him without moving (something I also stated in my post).
However, I would modify your final statement in this way: sacrificing to move to a location where you can receive in-person education is worthwhile if you believe it is the best way for you to be equipped for service to God. I would strongly disagree that anything we do for God is only worthwhile if it is convenient.
I think the wrong comparison is being made here: that between online education and institutional education. Institutional would win every time. And, yes, there are some who opt simply for the convenience of online ed. But nearly all people I know looking into it are those who could not make the move. The correct comparison is online education vs no education. This is the true choice for most of those I know who are already engaged is some type of ministry role in the local church. And most of these are those who work a full-time job to support their families. Their ministry all takes place after normal work hours. Online is there only real option.
That may be true of the people you know. We have some people in that situation who are involved in our distance education platform. But I’m not convinced that is the majority of students who are choosing distance education options. If distance education options were only being utilized by older students already engaged in ministry in their local church, we would expect a rise in overall enrollment in seminaries that would more or less maintain in-person enrollment while increasing the total number of students to include those people in ministry who were previously unable to do in-person training. But instead, there is a decrease in total students, with the percentage of online vs. residential quickly tilting toward online. See, for example, this article about Moody and Fuller both having to close extension sites as their online programs soar. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/november/moody-bible-spokane-extension-campus-fuller-seminary-online.html
Note the statement about students who live across the street taking online classes (a similar statement was made by Wallace in his post). If the choice is between no training and distance training, then the choice is clear. But for more than you would think that is not the choice, and the decisions are often driven by convenience.
See, on a related note, the trend away from the MDiv to shorter MAs, including this quote from a student highlighting the importance that convenience plays in this decision:
“It all boils down to time and convenience and the culture and lifestyle we see today.”
I would actually choose the Mitsubishi. Much cheaper to fix than the BMW.
Then you should choose the BMW, sell it, and buy a Mitsubishi 🙂
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