Matt Ayars, president of Wesley Biblical Seminary, recently argued that online degrees need not be “B-league” and that the future of seminary education should be campus-free. In this post we’ll analyze President Ayars’ op-ed on the present and future of evangelical theological education.
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Go here for our previous seminaries at the crossroads posts, where we probe the current status of evangelical graduate theological education.
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Matters of Agreement
President Ayars makes some statements about graduate theological education that few would find controversial. He points to the seismic shift in evangelical seminaries, spurred by culture change, demographics, and economics. We’ve recently pointed to the same trends. Ayars believes that a good online program is better than a poor residential program. Who would argue the contrary position? He points out that quality online programs today are not asynchronous but polysynchronous, available to students in a traditional classroom and simultaneously to students participating in the classroom through a livestream, as well as to online students who view video recordings of the class session at their own convenience. This hybrid approach, spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, is currently available at many seminaries.
Realities like these aside, I am somewhat wary of Ayars’ thinking in other areas.
A Few Concerns
Granted, Ayars’ op-ed post was not the place for a detailed analysis and nuanced proposals. Yet I found his advocacy of campus-free theological education to be simplistic, even triumphalistic. If we learn anything from the history of theological education, it’s the reality of changing modalities. Today’s trends in modality are just that, temporarily useful ways of fulfilling 2 Timothy 2:1-7. We shouldn’t ascribe messianic status to any mode of education, let alone assign it global validity or project its unlimited future utility. Seminaries shouldn’t take an all or nothing approach to delivering their courses to constituents. When Paul was no longer permitted to teach in the synagogue at Ephesus, he moved to the lecture hall of Tyrannus. His two years there led to all of Asia, Jews and Greeks alike, hearing the word of the Lord (Acts 19:8-10). Theological educators can learn from Paul’s “all things to all people” approach to evangelism (1 Cor 9:19-23).
Pragmatics should not control the mode of theological education. We ought to rejoice with Wesley Biblical Seminary (and other schools that have taken a similar path) at their dramatic increase in enrollment. We should also weep with seminaries that have experienced dramatic downturns. Accessibility, affordability, and sustainability are all realities that seminaries must face, but institutional culture, mission, and values are even more vital. Non multa sed multum—the quality of the education we provide is more important than how many students we can enroll and report to our constituencies.
A seminary has to be more than an office building with a robust internet connection. Ayars acknowledges what we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, that virtual church isn’t the same as in-person church. Yet in his view online seminaries offer benefits that outweigh the virtual problem, benefits with which in-person learning can’t compete. Apparently accessibility, cost-reduction, and positive student responses trump concerns about incarnational Christian community. This line of thinking seems like a huge non sequitur to me.
It’s interesting that the headline of Ayars’ piece was altered at some point from “The Future is Campus-Free” to “Online Seminary isn’t B-League.” I wonder whether this change was designed to tone down the article a tad, or maybe it was just to generate more clicks. In any event, I’m personally more inclined to agree with the current headline more than the original one.
A Campus-Free Future?
Decades ago I put together a course in hermeneutics for Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary and Asia Baptist Theological Seminary. The course and others like it made “spiritual wisdom for ministry” accessible for students who otherwise would have had no acccess to seminary. Back then it was called distance education, and we used cutting edge technology—cassette recordings of the lectures and a programmed instruction manual. Students read and reviewed books, listened to the taped lectures, engaged questions that focused on the critical issues, and applied what they were learning to studying the NT letter of Jude. From what I heard from students in the USA and in Asia, it was a beneficial course. I never thought it would lead to campus-free education, and it didn’t.
It goes without saying that today’s online theological education is vastly superior to my cassette tape course in numerous ways. Yet both modalities are weakened by a lack of (1) a community of learners, (2) a direct relationship between the teacher and the learner, and (3) a context for mentored spiritual formation and ministry engagement. These liabilities can be mitigated to a degree by Zoom meetings between professors and students, but the real solution requires partnerships between seminaries and churches, professors and pastors.
Ayars is correct that in-person seminary education is expensive, prohibitively so for many students. Where are the churches and individuals who will give generously to seminaries to alleviate this problem? My friend Ted Hildebrandt noticed this problem years ago and began his BiblicalELearning.org site to provide free online educational resources for the global community. What a great idea! I recommend the site highly, but, like formal tuition-based accredited programs, it is best utilized in a context of mentored spiritual formation and ministry engagement.
Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary is a traditional seminary with a beautiful campus, an extensive library, and a polysynchronous delivery system supported by committed donors. Context Based Theological Education (CBTE) is a promising approach to the problems Ayars addresses. One example of CBTE is Grace Theological Seminary’s Deploy program.
Hopefully many will engage with Ayars’ thought-provoking ideas. Ongoing conversation is crucial, all the more so because it’s not really a conversation about the future of seminaries. It’s a conversation about the future of the church’s mission in the world, and how the church can more faithfully serve the reigning Lord Jesus Christ by teaching people all over the globe to observe all that he has commanded for all the days until the end of the age.