Religious education will hold the most potential for change in the online world. But I fear it’s too much of an institution to simply do away with.
Simply put, there is no way to vet the ability of an individual outside of firsthand experience, without a governing body of one form or another. Are you qualified to be a pastor of a church? Your mentor would be able to say so. Your pastor should be able to as well, and a teacher might be able to. But the search committee on the other side of the country won't.
They are (however disdainfully) going to look at your resume and a piece of paper called a degree. Both documents can be full of lies, pending only the character of the person in possession, or not, of either.
The courses that make up the work behind a degree can be passed with plagiarism and no one on that search committee is ever going to find out if the college or seminary didn’t catch it. Little white embellishment lies can be passed on a resume simply because a search committee can’t know for sure if the details displayed are in fact, facts!
In order for a pastor to be hired on the basis of his education, he needs to have his degree. If not multiple. Plenty of churches ask a minimum of a Master of Divinity to even do youth ministry, for close to the minimum wage I might add. Which is a high standard for sure, but one that takes a passionate young pastor wannabe in his late teens and drags him through a decade of school before he’ll ever host a game of fluffy bunny at a lock-in The passion that now 30-year-old pastor had in youth group, in his God-given desire to minister to youth, will have to endure. Through 8-10 years of schooling and under the financial price tag of nearly 100,000 dollars in tuition books, and living costs.
All for a piece of paper that while significant does no real thing for the pastor in question. It’s not a licence to marry people, it’s not a badge to exercise church discipline. It’s not a card to get the pastor out of discipline himself should he fall into sin. The education and experience he received will no doubt play an inherent role in the way the individual pastors his church. The degree however and more importantly the pedigree of that degree means nothing in real life!
There is a disturbing reality in play in today’s modern Christian education. That much of what is paid for is never actually used but all the intangible things that are experienced and learned are. The hours spent in a theology class don’t count towards a ticket like a carpenter building homes. But the needed recognition of a bachelor of arts or masters of divinity to enter the mission field might as well be a red seal required position.
In the end as an ungraduated Bible college attender, I spent six years striving for a degree that really will only get me a second interview by default. And in its place I now have a picture frame with the worlds, “This is where I’d put my degree…If I had one!” over top of a meme from Fairly Odd Parents.
The church and its relationship with formal education for ministry, is starting to show its age. If the intangible things are what is really valued by the students in seminary. Things like the content of the classes or the personalities of their professors. Then paying thousands of dollars seems a bit much. Especially when a courses lecture can be posted as an online video. Where a discussion can be hosted on a Google Hangout. When papers could be peer-reviewed via the HALF-CENTURY OLD PRACTICE OF FORWARDING EMAILS!!!
What is stopping the world from embracing online education? Is it the fact that it’s really easy to find a wife a Bible college? How about the homey feel of a prairie town seminary or living with four dudes while you work on that theology 101 paper. Maybe it’s the taste of Ramen noodles and Red Bull that literally got you through midterms.
Again these are intangible feelings and memories that if we look hard, dare I say even critically, don’t need to be there for a person to become qualified for ministry work. This balancing act between the needed things and the needed experiences of Biblical education is what comes into contrast with how Biblical education happens in the age of the internet.
This is, however, a balancing act we see played out on the web right now. Wikipedia is often hailed as a marvel of the human species. As information on everything can be posted and curated leading to a database far greater than any encyclopedia before it. The downside. People can edit any article, and for a time if read, that opinion may be taken as fact. Political figures and celebrities even hire staff to manage these entries as fast as they are changed by differing opinions about who George W. Bush was or what Kim Kardashian is really like.
This is the unfortunate reality of the online world. Anyone can post content. And non-crowd accessible content puts people off. And if that content differs from the norm it can still be taken as canon from the audience it reaches. With a more formalized system of education, people have to commit to common standards. Compounded by a common place having differing teaching styles or values would require real-life conflict to resolve inconsistencies in what’s being taught. But when a student can take an online course on the gospel of John in one place, and watch a video series on the Pauline Epistles on YouTube, continuity will be absent from the picture.
There are no Dean’s or Proctor’s in the online world that can oversee a program designed to prepare people for ministry, and pull aside wayward students for a heart to heart.
But perhaps that has some hidden assumptions behind it as well. It assumes that a post-secondary level of education is needed for ministry work at all.
Remember fishermen built Christ’s church too.
But those fishermen were also steeped in the gospel’s creator Jesus. Having been a part of Christ’s earthly ministry and eyewitnesses to his resurrection and teachings before and after. Not exactly a well-intentioned layman watching YouTube and scamming free eBooks on theology off a torrent site.
There needs to be accountability and standards but there very clearly doesn’t only need to be what we have right now either in the current Bible college model. Somewhere in-between there is a medium where the freedom of the internet lends itself to the edification of the church and the training up of its clergy in theological prowess. Online Christian education could be cheaper, if not free, and with the internet only getting bigger in its reach and faster in its speed. There might come a time where instead of used Bibles and books sent to the mission fields, old tablets and smartphones are sent with solar panels to fuel the budding online seminaries. Available to the most remote villages that need the gospel preached because of satellite internet and mission-minded churches. Where a young urban church planter and a rural Indian pastor can attend classes together via webcam. The possibilities are there, just not the follow through. Yet.
One more thing before we go. I knew a professor in Bible College that could not only quote scripture from memory but also read from a Greek new testament in class. He also knew how particular Bible translations, translated words in general. He knew how John 3:16 would sound in NIV, NASB and KJV on the fly. He would be the perfect person to debate scripture within the room. He was a riot every time a freshman pulled out the Message, let me tell you hehe.
But let’s be honest that level of memory isn’t something everyone can or will do. We have a hard time remembering our memory verses and the concerted effort it takes to memorize the scriptures completely isn’t something a lay leader needs.
However, it’s also something that’s not demanded online.
The ability to cross-reference and quote scripture is essential. Yet it’s not something that is inherent to the human brain. It takes years of study to quote entire passages from memory and to have the Bible at your mental disposal but being able to search for things is now second nature to everyone online. Ask yourself honestly.
Do you go to the concordance in the back of your study Bible when you need a Bible verse? No, of course not, your Bible isn’t written in the words you remember the Bible in but Google knows better. So when you type something remotely close to the most published book in history, it will find an NIV reference from your personal recollected translation in 2.4 seconds along with close to a million other hits in case it got it wrong.
We have entire kids and youth ministries dedicated to memorization of the Bible and that same generation is more fluent with mobile internet searches than any of us millennials leading them will ever be. Memorization is, of course, a good thing when all you have is one Bible for an entire church. Even a good thing if all you have is a Bible at all.
Do any of you (possibly reading this as an eBook, one that’s downloaded off the internet), have access to only one Bible?
No? Didn’t think so.
A quick Google search will bring you to an online Bible and even quicker highlighting and cut/paste functions mean you can quote scripture with near 100% accuracy. As if you memorized it.
So do you?
We are the millennial kids who were told “You’ll never have a calculator on you all the time.” in 5th-grade math and then grew up owning a mobile computer we don’t put down until we fall asleep and it slips from our hands. One that has more computing power and calculation capacity (Damn, alliteration again), than the first rocket that put a man on the moon! A scathing indictment that lies are in fact taught in school. Ready for some of that sweet copy and paste action because the next two verses like the rest of this book were copied off the interwebs.
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Psalm 119:11 (ESV) (22)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV) (23)
There is no excuse not to have a text copy of the Bible available to you online, so where appropriate use one.