In the summer of 2000, my new bride Jennifer and I moved into our apartment in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, just a few weeks after our wedding. I got a temp job a few days later (at the company that would become my employer for the next 9 years). And then a few days after that, I began classes at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Four years later, that institution awarded me the M.Div. These decisions, mixed with a great deal of God’s good providence, were some of the most monumental of my life. And I am much richer for them. I am very thankful that I went to seminary. These days, I’m thankful that I did not even have the option of taking seminary classes online.
Over the past several weeks, several different individuals have posted articles online about the advantages of getting your seminary degree via residency. Daniel Wallace made this case back in late December. His article argues that local, residency seminary education follows Christ’s own ministry. Then Dr. Tim Miller, a professor at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, published his own excellent reflections on this topic. Then Ben Edwards, another Detroit prof, wrote some thoughts in two articles interacting with Wallace and Miller.
I have mixed feelings about online education. I know that in some instances it’s good use of technology. My own seminary (Central Baptist Theological Seminary) now offers online classes in a very strict and specific manner (in what must be the best way for online classes to be offered). I thank God that, while online education is far from best, that it makes theological education possible in situations that would be otherwise nearly impossible, especially for students in other countries. I do not think that online education is a moral evil. Indeed, I believe that it can be a necessary solution.
We should not think of technology as purely neutral. A book is not to be preferred to live teaching or preaching. Ben Edwards is right about that. Books are good and a gift of God. And while God gave a written inspired book, it is not God’s will that believers merely read the Bible personally by themselves in isolation. Jesus wants all his followers to have the Word of God ministered to them through pastors and other believers in covenant community. But reading the Bible is good nonetheless. Reading other books can be good. The technology of writing and the printing press are to be received with thanksgiving and used for the glory of God.
Again, not all technology is created equal. Some is better than others. A written letter is better than an email. (I don’t write love emails to my wife; I hand write letters to her.) But email is a good gift of God, and men may use email wisely in many situations. Not all technology is created equal. Not all transportation technologies are not equal. Technology may be a means, but we should not regard technology to be indifferent. The technology you choose to do something will change the thing you are trying to do.*
Yet I would strongly encourage any young man who wants to get a seminary degree to do so in person. Here are some of the rich treasures and gifts of God that I would have missed if I had gotten my degree online:
- Collegiality with my professors. If you take online classes, you lose the ability to develop a personal relationship with your professors. You don’t see them in the hallway. You don’t get to visit their home. You don’t get to have them in your home. You can’t go visit them in their office and chat with them about things important and things unimportant. You can’t talk about their books lining the shelves in their office. By the way, this is one of the reasons Central Seminary is such a great place. It’s a small school, and the ratio of students to professors is small. You get a lot more out of your professors at a place like Central than you would at a place like Southern. I pity the future ministers who trade a live, personal relationship with their professors for online education.
- Collegiality with other students. If you take online classes, you lose the ability to develop friendships with other students. Friendships certainly happen in a virtual setting, but they don’t happen as well. Just look at your Fakebook friends. It’s now been fifteen years since I graduated from seminary. I admit that some of the friendships I had during my seminary days are a shadow of what they were then. But many of my friendships have remained, and I am extremely thankful for them. I still remember studying with friends, or reading Greek and Hebrew (kind of) with friends in empty classrooms during off hours. I remember having friends over. These friendships shaped me, some of them for the worse, many of them for the better. Seminary friendships help fortify and strengthen the things being learned in the classroom. Discussing and debating what you’ve learned in class helps you formulate your own way of teaching the things you’re learning later on. I pity the future ministers who trade live, personal friendships for online education.
- The Library. An online education also forfeits the library. I know that the library is going to vary from institution to institution, but the library is a good thing. Digging around a library far surpasses searching for books online. I do not deny that you can find great books online through search technology and otherwise, but you lose something when you are not around the physical library of the seminary where you’re enrolled. That catalog has been curated for years, and by people who know better than you what books are worth having and what books are not.
- Trust. Getting up and moving to the Cities asked me to trust the Lord. It was not an easy move to make. There was a lot of apprehension. I moved to the Cities without a job. I had to sign a contract for an apartment when I didn’t even know where my first paycheck would come from. I learned a valuable lesson by having to go to the Cities. I saw the Lord provide for me and my wife in real time. I’ll never forget it. I know there are other ways to learn this, but I list this here more than anything simply to attest to those who read this that God will take care of you. Don’t let such worldly matters keep you from what is best.
- Accountability. Being present at seminary gives you a sense of commitment to the whole project that wouldn’t be present otherwise. If you get up and move, you are under much more pressure actually to get the degree done. You have professors that you know you will likely see again if you decide to drop out. But your investment in seminary becomes greater when you leave you current situation and move to a new city.
Here is the point: if you are considering seminary, I would urge you to do everything you can to upend your life and move to the place where the seminary is at. Take classes in person. Get a job that accommodates this. This will be hard. There will be sacrifices. But this is the way all of life is, especially life following Christ. This is the path of following Christ will always be. These sacrifices will be well worth it.
*In some cases, technology cannot be used. In the case of a local church, we have no authority to substitute online church for the real gathered community. Indeed, there is no gathering in an online church. The idea violates the very idea of church in Scripture. And if you do not gather as a church, you cannot keep the commands of Christ blameless.