Biblical Education in the COVID-19 Era

A recent article detailed what higher education might look like after COVID-19. I agree with most of the observations in that article, if the goal is simply to return to the pre-pandemic status quo. But what if we took this disruption as an opportunity to progress? My focus the past two decades has been innovating new approaches to higher education. Informed by that background, here are a few thoughts about how the pandemic impacts the way we might think about biblical higher education in light of our current situation. 

I have written elsewhere about disruption in higher education (I certainly did not see that disruption being a Global Pandemic). Biblical education, just as higher ed in general, is vulnerable to a set of specific issues. These include rising costs (both institutional and tuition-related), exclusivity, and a disconnect from practice. Most of the contemporary political conversation has centered around affordability, student debt, and different models of “free” (i.e. government paid) tuition. But, what if we asked a different set of questions, such as: 

  • What if affordability was not the problem but merely the symptom? 
  • What if there was another model to provide biblical higher education?
  • What if the center of biblical training shifted away from the academy and moved into the church? 
  • What if producing graduates stopped being the primary goal, and instead it became subordinate to making disciples? 
  • If local churches took precedence and academic institutions took a position of service, how would it alter biblical higher education?

I suggest that we in biblical education address these questions, and the general issue of teaching during coronavirus, through a three-pronged approach:

Distance Education is the New Plan A

For many institutions, offering online/distance education is a second tier option that has been adopted primarily because it serves as an economic engine to fund the “real work” of the institution, namely the campus programs. On the other hand, there are institutions for whom distance/online education is not ‘plan B,’ it is not second tier, it is not a concession to pragmatism, it is instead the primary focus.  

When an institution makes a commitment to prioritize keeping people located in their local church context, innovating content delivery methods is not a concession but an essential reality to achieve the mission. In the article referenced above, the author notes his encouragement that as campuses were closed by COVID-19, his students saw this as an opportunity to “serve their local church and bolster flailing ministries in their hometowns.” What if those students never left their local churches to pursue Bible training in the first place? What if serving a church could incorporate biblical training, rather than merely being a silver lining in a bad situation?  

Shift the Goal Posts

There is nothing wrong with producing graduates. However, in biblical education it should be considered secondary to making disciples; when it becomes primary it causes problems. Institutions that prioritize graduates subtly and unintentionally slip into viewing local churches as means to achieve their goal by providing ministry experience. The institutions subtly shift themselves into the primary position and begin to view churches as serving their goal of producing graduates. What if the institution’s primary goal was not to produce graduates but rather to make disciples? In this situation it is not a far bridge to cross to suggest that the church should be central to learning and the academy occupy a subordinate role. 

It should go without saying that not all disciples need to have a formal degree in biblical studies, but the reality that all disciples need intentional times of training and development seems to have been neglected. Academic institutions should learn the needs of a local church and then develop appropriate educational pathways to meet those needs. Some of those pathways might lead to formal degrees, but many would not. But since graduates are not the goal, this is irrelevant. Instead, training would be available to all. Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a place for biblical scholarship and graduates; I’m simply suggesting the local church take the lead. Institutions of Biblical higher education ought to take postures of service to the church, and therefore ought to strive to be nimble and responsive to the needs of the church. 

Make Education Financially Accessible

There are significant financial benefits to locating students in the context of their local church. The recent debates regarding the rising costs of college have centered around whether tuition should be free or subsidized. In doing so they are missing the fundamental reality that the model of higher education is what should be challenged. If there is no vast campus with extravagant amenities, then costs are greatly reduced. If there are no dorms, then there is no need to finance the dorms and pressure to fill them with students. If there are no athletic programs, gone is the pressure to fund the programs and invest significant resources into being competitive. If biblical higher education simply concedes its place of primacy to a local church and focuses on delivering quality content that meets the needs of the local church, the operational costs of the institution decrease dramatically. The result: quality biblical education that is truly accessible to all. This is a goal worth pursuing.

This is what I’m passionate about. This is what we’re trying to do at Eternity Bible College we’re trying to support the church’s mission to make disciples. We certainly don’t have it all figured out; in fact I could write another post about the mistakes we’ve made along the way. My hope is that the current crisis leads more educational institutions to innovate and develop better ways to deliver quality education rather than attempting to preserve a campus-centered, institutionally-focused model. The COVID-19 shutdown certainly has caused a disruption. Instead of attempting to figure out how to return to the way things were, may we instead collectively look forward to what could be. May God stir our collective imaginations and incite our passions to serve His church by making disciples.

Spencer MacCuish is the President of Eternity Bible College and regularly teaches courses in Worldview, Apologetics, and Counseling. He’s an amateur coffee roaster and will gladly talk for hours about the craft of roasting the perfect bean.

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Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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  • This is the basic mentality that I had when I applied to EBC in 2010. The focus on discipleship and local church/Chrisitan community involvement was what I craved. I didn’t want a school to take me away from discipleship or ministry. I was blessed to be a full-time missionary and part-time student throughout my studies. The discipleship I received in conducting missionary work was most important for how I interacted with people on a day to day basis. However, the academic study provided through EBC was a huge blessing. I was immediately able to take what I was learning and apply it to my situation. Something that would have only been partially possible had I been an in-residence student.

    Being a satisfied alumnus I would be delighted to figure out a way I could help facilitate students’ cross-cultural missions requirement or even join the DE adjunct faculty one day to teach a missions class or two when I finish my graduate degree.

    God bless you and the rest of the faculty and staff.

  • Christianity is a together faith, is we learn from home the higher biblical studies, then we loose out on what is. examined but in practice and ministry operations it becomes far important than the academic courses that are examined in schools. So the need to have biblical studies when students and lecturers physically interact shall remain to be important and should not be discarded even if it might be expensive financially.

  • I am a 70-year-old elder at Grace Bible Church in San Marcos, Texas. Though we do encourage men called to full-time Christian service to go to seminary, we recognize and teach that the local church is God’s tool for making disciples. This idea has been largely lost on most Christians in the West, as they have ceded discipleship to “the professionals.” One of the blessings of the current health crisis just may be this: If the church in the West is to flourish, we must understand that she, and she alone is responsible for making disciples.

    • Harry,
      Thank you so much for your work in shepherding God’s people! I hope you understand that I resonate with your post, I just have one question: Do you think it would be advantageous for the community of San Marcos Texas to keep those who are pursuing vocational ministry in their local church and serving in their local community?

  • Thank you very much for this article that makes one think deeply about theological training. I am writing this comment from the southern hemisphere context. Theological education is not indigenous but mainly imported from the West. Pastors leading local congregations need to upskill their capacity to read the Bible and the context. How does the model you are proposing can help churches in the southern hemisphere? Is it not the perpetuation of the thinking that churches in that context are consumers and not knowledge producers?

    • That is a legitimate concern. But, what is being presented is an educational model that shifts the center of learning to the local church. What that actually looks like may differ based upon the capabilities of the local church.

      We have some situations where local church leaders are qualified to teach courses, have clarity for how the courses fit into their program. We, as an institution vet their Instructors, and work with their team to create an appropriate educational model for their church and we supplement where the local church has need.
      We have other situation where the churches do not have such people available, so we work with their leadership, to determine which content is needed, then we provide the content & the local pastor/mentor facilitate conversation regarding local practice.

      Quite a lot can be accomplished, if the school becomes responsive to the needs of the local church. It is really difficult though, and we certainly do not have it figured out.

Written by Tavis Bohlinger