One of the most exciting developments in seminary education is distance learning (DL). Taking courses online is becoming an increasingly popular means for students to pursue theological education. In seminaries accredited by ATS, more than a quarter of the students have taken at least one course online and this number is only expected to grow. At the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary where I serve, the number of credits for online classes nearly tripled from the fall of last year to this year.
DL can be a blessing to the church for many reasons. Students can remain longer in their local ministry context without uprooting their families from their homes and congregations. DL allows for flexibility to family and work schedules that the traditional classroom does not. Seminaries can reach students in foreign lands who otherwise would not be able to attend due to such things as visa restrictions or moving costs. People who may not want to be pastors but desire to deepen their theological knowledge can take or audit classes more easily. DL encourages the further connection and cooperation between the seminary and the local church, as pastors can work with students enrolled in online courses and see what they are learning.
However, DL has limitations. For in order for people to be more fully equipped for kingdom service, we believe it is vital for students to spend significant time at seminary. Let me offer seven good reasons for that assertion.
1) You will rub more than virtual shoulders with the professors. Not only can you listen to the professors give a lecture, but by being at the seminary you can speak face-to-face, spend time in prayer, eat a meal, go to church, be invited to a home, or share concerns in an office with a professor. These personal interactions create friendships that transcend and give greater context to the in-class learning.
2)You will get to know the true servants of the seminary. Often seminaries are known for their teachers, but the professors know that the administration and staff are the real servants there. Our students regularly testify of lessons in service and love they have learned from the wonderful people who serve all of us there. The staff enhance the sense of community at the seminary.
3) You will meet people from all over the world. As I shared after my first day of teaching, I continue to marvel at how the Lord is opening doors for people from the nations of the earth to come and learn at our small seminary. Other seminaries testify that they are experiencing the same. Just last week I heard a student from east Asia describe how he went a number of years ago to Canada for work and that he heard and believed the gospel on the first day he arrived; I saw in the hallway a quiet Asian lady enveloped in the enthusiastic embrace of an African American sister; I enjoyed some friendly banter with a Scottish brother; and I listened as a thickly accented but powerful message moved me in chapel. That was just last week, and I was gone for three days!
4) You will worship with others in a way that gives you glimpses of heaven. Every mid-morning we stop our studies for a half hour for chapel. This time of praying, singing, and hearing God’s Word in praise to our Triune God is a refreshing reminder of the goal of our studies. Also, more than one person has commented that our little chapel looks like a slice of John’s vision in Revelation, as men, women, and children (families of the students) from different parts of the world worship together. You will experience this worship and its resulting love across denominational lines, an experience too few Christians have.
5) You will be exposed to visiting scholars and sacrificing servants in the kingdom of God. Because of its connection with the greater theological community and kingdom ministries, the seminary regularly has missionaries and scholars come to its campus. Having opportunities to hear firsthand their mission stories or their passionate delivery of truth never fails to inspire in new ways.
6) You will experience explosive growth in sanctification. Hopefully it will be in your own sanctification, but even if not certainly you will witness others grow greatly at the seminary. Liberal thinking students become grateful Calvinists. Timid, first-time preachers become bold heralds of the gospel. Haughty know-it-alls become humbled know-I-don’ts. Like plants in a 24/7 greenhouse, the intense time in a seminary environment can produce great growth in students.
7) You will learn in a community of believers. One of the problems with online education is that students are isolated and operate in relative anonymity. They are not forced to discuss face-to-face theological issues with real live people. Thus, their theological thinking can remain at the maturity level of the comment section on blogs – polemical, sharp, and ungracious. Nothing like having to explain and defend your theological position to earnest, loving, but disagreeing brothers and sisters in the flesh who are seated right beside you to teach you the importance of gracious speech. You will be stretched out of the isolationist tendencies we all struggle with, but can be especially dangerous to those whose only experience in theological discussion is online.
Hope to see you here!