I'm delighted to have played some tiny role in rolling out the myriad online educational options available to Southern Baptist seminarians today. (Excursus: My role? Other people dreamed it up, did all of the work to plan the specifics, climbed the mountain that is accreditation, named it, packaged it, priced it, sold it, and implemented it. I said "Aye" in a committee meeting.) It is a wonderful and amazing world in which a missionary kid living in Bhutan can earn a Masters of Divinity degree at SWBTS. Thank you, Lord, for redeeming the Internet to do a little good alongside the torrent of bad.
Now that these degrees are available, I'm writing to beg you not to avail yourself of them unless it is impossible (and I don't just mean "inconvenient") for you to attend an actual bricks-and-mortar seminary campus. Here are a few reasons why:
Most people don't learn as well online: Really, I'm just nearly comfortable saying NOBODY learns as well online, but having received a face-to-face education of some significant quality, I've learned to be wary of universals and superlatives.
I'm thankful for online classes because I'm personally indebted to them. I would never have been able to take German face-to-face at SWBTS. I was in my first year at FBC Farmersville. Taking German would've required that I drive to Fort Worth daily. Not possible. So I took it online. I did well enough in German to pass the tests and gain admission into the Ph.D. program. In fact, I did well enough to read books and articles in German for a lot of my papers.
And yet, out of the languages that I have studied (French, German, Greek, and Hebrew), there's no question that German is the weakest of them all. The fact that I took German online is a significant factor in that reality. I'm thankful that I was able to get German online, but I sure am happy that I didn't get anything else that way. Whatever you learn in an online class, you're probably not going to know it as well as you will know something you've learned in a classroom setting.
A seminary education is about more than just the mere accumulation of facts. Last night I sat in Dr. Matt Queen's Personal Evangelism class at SWBTS. For the first fifteen minutes of the class session, I heard student after student as they told stories about the people with whom they had shared the gospel as a part of the "Second Mile" campaign on the SWBTS campus. Dr. Queen and a whole host of SWBTS faculty are out with students walking door-to-door throughout this region of Fort Worth sharing the gospel. That's difficult to replicate in an online class.
There's the experience of chapel. As a student, the chapel experience at SWBTS blessed me many times. No, not every time, but many times! The online student is missing the entire environment of seminary. I think that environment, even for the commuting student that I always was, is quite an important aspect of a seminary education. Think twice—think twenty-two times—before you relegate that aspect of seminary education away to unimportance.
Am I crass to mention networking? There's the network of friends you will meet in your classes. My seminary friendships endure to this day. For example, I commuted to SWBTS with Ken Miller, who now works at NAMB. I sat in seminars with Joe Early, James Egan, David Goza, Greg Tomlin, Rex Butler, Scott Maze, and a whole host of others who remain my friends to this day.
But they are more than just friends. They are also the peer group to whom I often turn when I don't know what to do or when I just want to learn to do something better than I am doing it. Being a part of this cohort is an important part of my life.
Beyond that, there are the relationships that I built with professors. I occasionally get to sit down to lunch with James Leo Garrett. I have an ongoing friendship with Malcolm Yarnell. I have gleaned much from the many who have taught me, and by the blessing of God, those gleanings have extended beyond my time with them in their classrooms.
I could not name a single person with whom I shared an online class. Furthermore, when a church comes to a professor and asks for a recommendation of someone to fill their pulpit, I don't think that they very often reply, "You know, student 'godrules1384' in my Introduction to Philosophy of Religion class seems like a really sharp guy." I think they're going to mention someone into whose eyes they have looked.
Enrollment Does Not Equal Graduation: Online ENROLLMENT is through the roof, not just in theological education at places like Liberty but also in the broader educational world at places like the University of Phoenix. But how many of those online enrollees make it all the way through to graduation? Not nearly as many as you might think. The dirty little secret of Internet education is that such an astounding number of people quit long before they graduate. Easy in; easy out.
Whether it should or should not, the obstacle of moving to a seminary campus to pursue theological education is a testing point for many people with regard to how serious they are about their calling to ministry. The person who has left behind a job, sold a house, uprooted a family, and relocated to Fort Worth is a person who is committed. In moments of horrific sacrifice and despondency, that person can reach the point where it is easier to press forward and finish than it is to go back. Not so for the online student. It is so, so easy just to quit or postpone (indefinitely).
Burn the ships, my friend! Burn the ships! Climb out onto the limb. No turning back; no turning back!