By Ron Crawford
I am indebted to the thoughtful response of Scott Hudgins to my response to Brett Younger’s original article about seminary education. I will not review these two fine offerings but will extend the conversation.
A key point of interest among the three of us has to do with what is lost and gained when comparing online education with that of the traditional classroom. As I noted in my previous article, often the conversation about the usefulness of online classes in seminary education comes down to one’s personal perspective. I want to weave personal story into the conversation.
Drs. Younger and Hudgins spoke of their personal experience during their seminary years as critical to their spiritual formation. Dr. Hudgins wrote, “I cannot imagine what my own formation and education would have been like divorced from daily worship with classmates and faculty, late night arguments in the dorm lounge or extended lunch conversations in the refectory. Combined with special lectures on campus, artistic and music events, and engagement in a shared neighborhood and space ….”
I celebrate and affirm residential seminary experiences as a critical ingredient in spiritual formation, for some. For my own part, I was a commuter student working 30 hours a week in a local church while pursuing my master of divinity degree. As confession is good for the soul, I felt sorry for the “students stuck in dorms.” I don’t have stories about late night arguments in the dorm lounge. Rather I have delightful and wonderful stories of my spiritual formation primarily in a local congregational setting during my seminary years. The pastor of the church where I served became my mentor, second-to-none. Laity in the congregation embraced and nurtured my spiritual growth and formation. In light of what I was learning in the classroom routine church programs and worship experiences were infused with new and deeper meaning. While my contemporaries had fine campus experiences I was cuddled by a loving congregation.
Here is my point: the historic experiences of Drs. Younger, Hudgins and Crawford are almost irrelevant to the conversation about spiritual formation of seminary students in the present and future; the digital age is just that different. Alas, we all tend to revel in our “Glory Days.”
In the conversation about the inevitable move to online seminary education we need to consider “gains,” “losses” and recognize some things will just be “different,” no gain or loss. In this moment none of us are able to accurately tabulate “losses,” “gains” and “different.”
My fundamental argument in the previous article was, the Information Age is radically different from what we have known in the Industrial Age; I also attempted to describe how the future of theological education might be different. In this article I am adding that one’s personal historic experience is not particularly helpful in the ongoing conversation about the spiritual formation of future seminary students and can serve as an unfortunate inhibitor of progress.
Spiritual formation is dynamic and unique to each individual. We all wish our Industrial Age experiences could serve as accurate predictors of Information Age experiences. This is not possible and illustrates a chief frustration about the future: it is radically unknown in these days as at no time in the last 100 years.
Theological education is entering a season of entrepreneurial change and it makes many of us exceedingly uncomfortable. As we move forward we must focus on adapting theological education to the fundamental values and themes of the Information Age: the best of the past repackaged for the future.
While some will see this as a betrayal of historic values, I remind my readers of the Commission on Efficiency (The Baptist Heritage, H. Leon McBeth, Broadman Press, 1987, pg 612f) which reported to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1914. The report eventually gave birth to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (1917) and the Cooperative Program (1925). In effect, Southern Baptists’ organizational life was reformatted on the model of the Industrial Age, and this eventually included the way theological education was done in most of the 20th century. As in my first article, I recommend Glenn Miller’s three volume history of theological education in the United States.
Let me offer an illustration. Do you know the difference between Gunsmoke and Blindspot? Gunsmoke was the TV series where Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty tried to build a civilized town on the untamed frontier — a theme in harmony with the Industrial Age. Blindspot is a new NBC TV series focused on a woman whose memory has been erased and who is covered in tattoos from neck to toe. The tattoos are a treasure map of crimes about to be committed. The woman struggles with identity and belonging and has no interest in building anything — themes in harmony with the Information Age.
What does it look like to shape theological education around the themes and values of the Information Age? I certainly don’t know the full answer to this question, but I bet it includes online seminary classes. And no, I am not getting a tattoo.