In 2008, I was a full-time missionary in Haiti in desperate need of seminary education. I didn’t want to leave the field, but I didn’t think there were any other options. As I prayed for direction, the then-president of Wesley Biblical Seminary, a family friend, invited me to apply at a new online program.
I was cautious. I viewed online degrees as B-league degrees. Plus, our satellite internet was extremely slow and spotty. And I didn’t need just Greek, systematic theology, and inductive Bible study. I needed heart-shaping relationships—friends, faculty, and fellow students. Would an online program suffice? I prayerfully trusted my friend. If he said it was worth it, I was in, especially if it meant I could stay on the field.
The following August, I sat in my mud-brick home in the sweltering Haitian heat with an icy bottle of cane-sugar Coke, reading through my first syllabus and feeling daunted.
The course was Discipleship and Spiritual Formation with Matt Friedeman. To pass, I had to do devotionals—a minimum of an hour daily to qualify for an A—and keep a journal. Required reading included Dallas Willard, Thomas à Kempis, the church fathers, and of course, Scripture.
In addition to participating in rigorous online discussion forums with the professor, students had to engage in volunteer ministry at a local prison, an abortion clinic, or some ministry serving the poor. I began preaching in a Haitian prison.
This class set the trajectory for the rest of my life. It also began to chip away at my skepticism toward online education.
The world of America’s evangelical seminaries has seen a seismic shift. Over the past few years, several leading seminaries have looked to sell their main campuses, including Reformed Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Mostly, they are selling due to financial exigency. But they are also looking for ways to make seminary education more accessible, more affordable, and cheaper to deliver.
Why are American seminaries struggling? The obvious reason is that America is now a post-Christian nation. A cultural shift has sizably downsized the market for the product that seminaries offer: degrees required for ordination.
There are other reasons, however. Seminary education is expensive. The average seminary degree is somewhere between $45,000 and $55,000, a prohibitive price tag, especially as students leave their undergraduate programs with a pile of student debt.
With a shrinking market and increasing costs, the long-standing model for theological education is becoming unsustainable, especially for schools without denominational backing or a sizable endowment.
Wesley Biblical Seminary (WBS), where I now serve as president, was somewhat ahead of the trend. It sold its main campus nearly ten years ago for the same reasons. For years, school leadership could only guess why we struggled to maintain on-campus enrollment.
Leadership at the time pointed to two causes: We did not have a mainstream denomination feeding us students, and students did not want to relocate to a poor, rural state like Mississippi.
Urgency necessitated innovation. In 2007, administrators persuaded accreditors that WBS could deliver its program almost entirely online without compromising its standards. It was clunky, but the online approach tapped into an entirely new market of prospective seminary students. The move probably saved the seminary.
Soon, WBS had more online students than it did on-campus students, which led leadership to liquidate its largely unused and expensive facility six years after launching its online program. In a move that halved the annual budget, WBS downsized from a 110,000-square-foot campus to a 9,000-square-foot building for office space, two classroom studios, and a library.
Yet, WBS enrollment for graduate programs last year was five times what it was eight years ago. We have students from 28 states and 16 countries and one of the most racially and gender-balanced seminary student bodies in the nation (about 50 percent nonwhite and 40 percent female).
Even as seminaries now recognize the necessity of online programming to pay the bills, most seminary educators still view online as the B-league. Residential schools boast of the superiority of learning in “incarnational Christian community.”
In-person learning is invaluable. Jesus, the incarnate and divine Son, dwelt among us. He came in person to redeem the world—not on Zoom. There is something sacred about sharing a physical space. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that virtual church isn’t the same as in-person church.
At the same time, I’m convinced virtual learning offers benefits with which in-person learning cannot compete.
For one, online education today need not be asynchronous. During pandemic disruptions to K–12 schooling, parents across the country discovered polysynchronous learning. We use this model at WBS. Students can join a live Zoom classroom for a real-time lecture and peer interaction. But if conflicts prevent students from attending, sessions are recorded for students to watch (and rewatch) at their convenience.
And WBS student evaluations suggest that seminarians love their experience. Recent graduate Edward Williams shared that, even as his professors were not afraid to critique lackluster performance, they accommodated his family demands after his wife experienced postpartum challenges.
“I have been called and emailed by staff and faculty to see if I needed any assistance, all while ending these calls in prayer for my semester’s success,” Williams wrote.
Of course, seminary education is about making disciples, not just transmitting data. Residential programs claim that forming Christian community over meals in the cafeteria or visiting faculty in their offices is a crucial part of seminary education lost in an online format. But there are ways an online program can compensate for the lack of embodied disciple-making.
The primary influence on students’ hearts is the institution’s personality, culture, and pursuit of holiness—not the mode of program delivery. Are faculty genuinely interested in the personal lives of students? Do students stay cooped up studying, or do they participate in spiritually vibrant community?
Dormitories are not guarantors of institutional health. I have heard graduates of residential seminaries relay how their in-person experience was not only fellowship-deficient but also dysfunctional. A healthy institution online, I would argue, is better than an unhealthy institution in person.
There’s another benefit to online learning that we cannot overlook: The majority of the world’s Christians are now in the developing world. With the increasing difficulty and costs of visas, travel, and a mountain of other obstacles, online education has made training globally accessible and will only continue to reach the Global South.
That is possible in no small part because online education is affordable. The annual expense of educating a student at a peer residential seminary is $41,000. At WBS, it is less than half of that. This means that we can charge less, which in turn drives more students to enroll and means there will be more pastors to serve churches. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, and seminaries charging more than double the world’s average annual income have some soul searching to do.
Online seminary education is here to stay, and it is a win. What could be interpreted as a desperate move for survival should be seen instead as innovative program expansion. We freed ourselves by believing that God could do something new and by having the courage to explore a vision for seminary in a post-Christian culture.
Matt Ayars is president of Wesley Biblical Seminary.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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