Thursday, June 22, 2023

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

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 my last post, I suggested that the move to online-only M.Div. degrees is another sign that theological education across-the-board must be completely rethought in a radical way. Only by so doing can we respond to the fundamental changes in the self-understanding of contemporary people and thereby hope to present a comprehensible gospel to the contemporary world.

There are ways that theological education can address some of these challenges, and they go hand in hand with the new possibilities for online learning.

First, we must recognize that while a set-apart community life is an important phase in preparation for ministry, it is not necessarily its heart. Instead of assuming that putting students in proximity with one another will manufacture community life, we need to build intentionally constructed retreat-like experiences combining learning, worship, and spiritual formation as part of the theological education experience. There are multiple possible models for this, and any and all will need to be operative depending on specific needs and circumstances.

Moreover, we must take seriously the possibilities for real, virtual communities, many of which already exist. This isn’t simply a matter of capturing the imaginations of Millennials and Gen Z. One of my differently abled students pointed out to me that the best-intentioned disability access programs are still burdensome compared to entering a virtual world in which he and his friends can meet without navigating any physical restraints. For many “virtual” worlds are at least in part better and more fulfilling than “real” worlds, assuming that this distinction is even valid.

Second, given the unsettled state of our churches and church institutions, it is unfair to ask students to commit to a degree program as their initial engagement with a theology school. We’ll need to accept and move toward what are commonly called “stackable” credentials based on focused training in particular skills or realms of inquiry that persons already in ministry need to master. These could then be built up to credit for a full semester course and so-on to a degree. And we need to accept that many competent pastors will not need to complete a degree to begin and carry on good ministry.

Third, we’ll need to recognize that online pedagogy is completely different from classroom pedagogy, but it does match much of what has been accepted in higher education for the last 15 years or more. The “sage on the stage” isn’t dead, but for the most part needs to be replaced by the “guide on the side,” a model suited to online and hybrid education. And after all, I had incredible sages in seminary at Perkins who were no more available to me emotionally and spiritually than if I’d been watching a video of the lecture. People of my generation reveled in the sage on a stage. That simply isn’t true of millennials and Gen Z.

Fourth, this means that credentialing for teaching needs to be seriously reconsidered. American PhD programs are designed to reproduce 20th century scholars, researchers, and authors of monographs, not necessarily teachers and leaders. The church needs professional theologians, but seminaries also need teachers and guides.

Fifth, we must master the emerging digital media as means of communication and interaction.

One of the things most difficult to accept, but absolutely necessary to understand in a rapidly changing multi-cultural context, is that there is no universal standard for either ordering information so that it constitutes understanding and knowledge or conveying that understanding in a comprehensible way. We must become open to the fact that a standard academic essay is only one of many possible models of thinking rationally from question to answer, and thus only one of many possible models of conveying understanding achieved to others. We are training pastors to engage the world with the gospel, not to become members of the academic guild. They must speak the languages of the people to whom they minister.

Sixth, and following from the above, theological educators must create curricula and course content relevant to a rapidly changing social and cultural situation. Precisely because the socio-cultural situation is rapidly changing, there is no fixed model for theological education that won’t soon be out of date. Instead, theology schools will need to create models for learning that have clear goals but are internally flexible -- with the capability of changing on a semester by semester, or at most year by year, basis. There will be no comfortable place where we have mastered our field of study and the ways in which to communicate our knowledge to students.

Similarly, pastors and church leaders cannot be trained just to become competent spiritual guides and denominational functionaries. United Methodist theological education in the 20th century assumed a stable organization within which changing theological expressions would address a changing society. That stability is gone. Now, pastors and church leaders will need to be prepared to foster creativity and manage change within congregations. Critical theological reflection will need to be supplemented by teaching more practical forms of leadership.

Finally, balancing this focus on teaching with the need for faculty to pursue longer term research projects will require new ways of thinking about how research requiring commitment over years fits with the need for constantly changing subject matter in courses. A tenure system that rewards only monographs that take years to write will exclude the necessary faculty who are willing and even desire to engage the edges of change in a field or many fields. Dilettantes and non-credentialed experts have an important role in theological education and shouldn’t be pushed into second tier positions.

There is a church in County Durham in England called the old Saxon church. It has stood for 1250 years. It was built from stones taken from Hadrian’s Wall, which was no longer relevant to the defense of England. Stones intended for one purpose were used for another.

Modern theological educators must look at the stones we have, look at the challenges we face, and begin to both tear down and rebuild. It will not be easy. The old barbarians remain a danger. And yet our defenses against them convey no gospel, no good news to rising generations.

Suggested Readings: Raymond Martin, John Barrisi, The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self; Charles Taylor, A Secular Age; Calvin Schrag, The Self in Post-Modernity; Jeffry Bishop, Anticipatory Corpse; Meghan O’Gieblyn, God, Human, Animal, Machine; Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head.

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