By Brett Williams
Seminaries are strange things. They are both parochial and professional, existing in an often-awkward tension between the church and the realm of higher education. Traditional seminaries, irrevocably tied to the church, are also firmly ensconced within higher education, closely reflecting the trends of academia. As goes the pew, so goes seminary. Conversely, as goes higher education, so goes seminary. Changes in either the church or higher education are quickly mimicked and often magnified in seminaries, and the speed at which these parties are changing is a relatively new phenomenon.
The obvious, palpable changes in churches need not be discussed here in great detail; suffice to say that consumerism has spilled over from economics into ecclesiology. Convenience and experience make up the new church lectionary. Church programs drive ministry and the Biblical office of pastor has given way to official pastor of . . . To see this mimicked in seminaries, take a quick look at most seminary catalogs and see which degree programs are growing. While this trend is disheartening to some, this change, as pastors are aware, is nothing new.
What is shifting at blinding speed is a similar consumerism applied to academic institutions. Traditional, on-campus students are becoming extinct. The Association of Theological Schools, one of the premier seminary accrediting agencies, reports that in the past ten years student enrollment dropped by 11%, while online enrollment has increased by 195% during the same period. Twenty years ago, no ATS school offered any online courses in any format; yet, if current trends continue, the majority of students enrolled in an ATS school will be taking online classes in the near future. According to the American Academy of Religion, academic job postings at seminaries dropped more than 10% last year.
The current online phenomenon in education seems to be a bit like Newton’s first law of motion and makes some in higher education apprehensive. Yet, the growth of online learning is also bringing information to the masses and globalization is forcing cross-cultural communication. As I type this, I have more resources at my fingertips than many in Christian antiquity could have dreamed. Missionaries and pastors in underdeveloped countries are able to further their educations without the cost-prohibitive (and time-prohibitive) travel required of attending a brick and mortar school across an ocean or two. Technological advances have opened doors to the gospel around the world that no one would ever want to close.
In the midst of all of this progress, however, we do well to step back and reacquaint ourselves with the big picture. Information is not the same thing as education, quantity in a school should never be mistaken for quality, and progress is only progress if you are heading in the right direction. Often, in their haste to keep up with a rapidly changing consumer base, an institution might be tempted to apply the historic nomenclature of academic theology to programs that are anything but academic.
Some schools, even in fundamentalism, have handled the online phenomenon well. They have cautiously evolved, adapting to the changing trends and carefully adopting more elasticity in their educational medium. This evolution is to be commended. Other schools have not handled it so well. These schools have begun what a friend of mine calls a “race to the bottom.” Requirements are removed, languages lessened, and degrees, such as the Master of Divinity, are decimated. All of this is done in the name of expediency. Fast degrees in a fast-paced world and tailored training for customized ministry. “Get trained as quickly as you can so you can get out into real ministry” is the steady mantra. This devolution should not be commended.
Seminary administrators face a difficult dilemma: accept this mantra or die. Resistance, as it seems, is futile. But, as many pastors will note, ministry is rarely tailor-made. Skype cannot replace shaking someone’s hand, persons want to be dealt with personally, and real ministry is often really hard. Central Seminary’s founder, R. V. Clearwaters, was known for saying, “If God calls you to preach, he calls you to prepare.”
It seems that Bible colleges are mostly shrinking, online institutions are growing, and seminaries are rapidly giving way to theological graduate schools which offer more specific degrees. Perhaps, in twenty years, my colleagues and I will be academic mercenaries, teaching as adjuncts for a variety of online schools. After all, what is a seminary to do? Should it readily adopt the current educational trends or remain as it has been? How much growth and technological advance should be accepted or rejected and what change is good change? Many excellent seminaries answer these questions differently.
For Central Seminary at least, the immediate answer is to both acknowledge and conserve. We acknowledge the inertia of higher education and the advantages of online learning. Yet we wholeheartedly desire to conserve the rigor and particulars of seminary training. The clear articulation of orthodoxy is something with which our institution has become synonymous. For us, complexity in ministry necessitates caution in training. This fall, if the Lord wills it, Central Seminary will begin a distance education program which will allow non-residential students to participate in classes in real time. While the idea and its implementation is not novel, the capabilities of the software and technology employed have finally caught to the application. Distance students will be able to interact with students and professors while the rigor and expectations remain the same. No degree will be diminished in any way, ensuring the continuation of clear theology and excellence for which our institution is known.
Consumerism, though convenient, has a nasty side effect: you get what you want. While I do not know what seminary education will look like in the future, I know it will depend almost entirely upon people sitting in pews. If churches demand confident leaders, carefully trained exegetes, and Christ-enamored theologians, there will always be room for good seminaries, no matter which educational medium is employed. If churches seek something other, that is exactly what they will get.