Thursday, June 15, 2023

Robert Hunt – Response to Philip Wingeier-Rayo: Implications of Online Education for the Future of the Church, Part I

Today’s post is by Dr. Robert A. Hunt. Rev. Dr. Hunt is Director of Global Theological Education and Professor of Christian Missions and interreligious Relations. This post responds to an earlier series of posts by Rev. Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo, which can be found here: [1], [2], and [3].

In his recent posts, Phil Wingeier-Rayo has brought our attention to the United Methodist University Senate’s recent decision to allow fully online M.Div. degrees for United Methodist ministry candidates. Phil asks what the implications of this decision will be for students, the denomination, and seminaries and suggests a hybrid model as an alternative to a fully online degree.

In my comments about online teaching and the future of theological education, I will essentially make two points.

The first is that modern hybrid theological education actually goes way back to the 1960s and 70s. There are well formed pedagogical models for bringing students together over a period of one or two weeks, and then interacting with them remotely over the rest of the semester. This is classic theological education by extension (TEE). It was pioneered by Pentecostals in the Netherlands, conservative Christians from Texas and California, and others extending theological education to underserved areas.

I was the Director of such theological educational programs in both Malaysia and Singapore. The key feature of these programs was that they focus on forming proven leaders rather than young people who thought they might potentially be leaders. The TEE model allows men and women already in ministry to gain the education and professional skills they need to lead more effectively. Allowing fully online degrees simply makes it possible to do in the United States what has already been well done for many decades in some places.

The second and more radical point is that higher education across-the-board must be rethought. The idea that degrees are necessary to the preparation of persons or ministry must be abandoned. The Master of Divinity degree is declining because it is seen as irrelevant. It is irrelevant to The United Methodist Church, and it is irrelevant to people who are seeking to serve Jesus Christ. Indeed, the very concept of academic credentials needs to be rethought, as it is being rethought across many fields and industries.

Further, in rapidly changing times every possible question that can be asked must be asked. Do pastors actually need to be theologians? Why is critical thinking important for ministry? Why teach people to think theologically, and then demand that they pass tests for doctrinal correctness?

Are pastors entrepreneurial leaders and potential missionaries, or are they functionaries with defined tasks in relation to the congregation and its maintenance? Are the contemporary fields of study in a theological school actually relevant to contemporary Christian ministry? Are PhD programs in theology relevant to creating teachers for men and women entering Christian ministry?

Is it not possible that the entire system linking preparation of pastors to institutions of higher education is no longer useful or relevant? Is it not possible that we should be taking the resources that we have and deploying them in completely new and different ways to serve the church?

Ultimately, I would suggest that Philip is not radical enough. Contemporary theological education is based on an enlightenment understanding of both religion and the human person. We are in the midst of a sea change in which those understandings are being swept away, and along with them, the institutions that served their intellectual and spiritual needs.

We are moving into an era in which changes in the self-understanding of contemporary people will rival and surpass those changes created by the Enlightenment and modernity. These factors at the least are changing human self-understanding. 1. The rise of AI and, related to it, changes in psychology and neurobiology. 2. Advances in medical science, particularly related to the manipulation of genes and the mechanization of the body. 3. Cultural shifts with regard to sexuality. 4. Emergent understandings of the human biome in relation to the biosphere under the influence of evolving evolutionary theory. 5. Multi-cultural and multi-ethnic environments as the norm for human experience. 6. Changing ways in which contemporary people construct their human identity.

These factors are rapidly making Enlightenment era models of human personhood obsolete. As a result, articulations of the meaning of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ for 21st century persons must inevitably change to address them as they are.

In this situation, all past theological work, from the apostolic witness in the New Testament to the theologians of the 20th century, is better understood as normative examples of the process of faithful contextualization rather than as generators of normative doctrines. And that alone tells us that all Enlightenment era constructions of theological school curriculum and even individual courses need to be reworked.

As importantly, the church must learn to speak the contemporary vernacular, a vernacular that is either missing or transforms the theological language of 20th century Christianity. And it is the task of theological educators to prepare pastors to learn that vernacular, which means first that theological educators themselves learn it, something that many if not most appear reluctant to do.

In my next post, I will suggest some of the ways in which theological schools and theological educators can engage in that very task.


  1. The Church is biblically, theologically, and spiritually illiterate enough as it is! The last thing it needs is illiterate clergy as preachers, Bible interpreters and teachers, practical theologians, spiritual directors, and counselors. I want my preacher to know what a chiasm is and why it's important in Mark's gospel. I don't want mindless, ChatGPT-like sermons. I don't want liturgical drivel. I don't want doctrine devoid of mystery and poetry. To quote Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act 1 Scene 4), "Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!" from such feckless opinions.

  2. Jeez! Now I regret spending nearly ten years of my life getting a Ph.D. in New Testament & Early Christianity. Who knew it would be such a useless thing to do? At least it gave me a leg up on getting the job at the American Church in Paris. (along with my cross-cultural stint in Sarawak.
    My students in the Maine School of Ministry, which more or less follows the TEE model of non-residential, non-degree-granting theological education that you applaud. The Committees on Ministry of the UCC Associations in Maine, which have the ordaining authority all accept our curriculum and assessments as meeting the criteria for ordination. There aren't enough of us old-school academic types (of which you are one, too!) to fully staff the program (which takes, on average, six years to complete), so many of the "practical/pastoral theology" sorts of courses are taught by working pastors who are recognized for their effectiveness. A "mentored practice" segment places students in local churches for a semester or year working with more experienced pastors whose ministries have been effective and/or creative. All attend a CPE course. A very few still attend BU School of Theology or Yale or Nova Scotia or Chicago (often in online or hybrid courses) if they are really motivated to pursue an actual M.Div. or other. Old geezers like me who have Ph.Ds or D.Mins are called on to teach the "foundational" courses in OT, NT, Ethics, Church History. But since there aren't that many around, they can also do online courses that meet our requirements. I think you're right about traditional seminaries disappearing--around here they already have. But I have always believed that the local pastor is the "resident theologian" for the local congregation, and so some formation in critical thinking is essential if they're to be able to do that. Otherwise, we might as well just cede everything to the Southern Baptists who are making inroads even up here, along with Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Pentecostals.

  3. I find it interesting that my observations are read a criticisms of having a theological education. Imagine if those training to be doctors were educated in institutions that didn't teach genetics, or transplant medicine, or the use of contemporary drug treatments. Would anyone want a doctor trained in mid-20th century medicine? An engineer who didn't know anything about carbon fibre or transistors? But many contemporary theology schools are running curricula from 70 years ago based on models first articulated by Schleiermacher in the 18th century. They act as if "contemporary theoology" is Bonhoeffer, Barth, and Bultmann although they may liven it up with a some late 20th century feminists and a soupçon of liberation theology to get within 30 or so years of 2023. Our world is in the midst of rapid and dramatic change that directly affects our human self-understanding, our understanding of the natural world and universe and the human place in it, and any possible grasp of the relationship of immanence to transcendence. The 20th century is over, and 20th century Christianity is disappearing quickly in the rearview mirror. Statistically the same is happening to the 20th century theology school. Enrollments are dropping like a stone across the board, Students demand 100 % financial aid and a stipend or they won't take our degree programs. The seminary experience I had in the late 1970's was and is invaluable. The degree I received is nearly worthless in 2023. We'll either change and engage the contemporary culture in all its complexity and changing languages or we'll die. We'll either offer credentials that have value to churches in our cultural context or those who wish to become pastors and educators will go to those who do. What do those credentials look like? Turns out we don't even want to ask the question. And we won't need to much longer, because once we have no students we won't be offering any degrees at all. Once we have no one applying for ordination we won't have any pastors at all. Then it will be over to the SBC.