It’s no secret online theological education is booming. At theological institutions across North America, the number of online students rises consistently. As a seminarian in the twenty-first century, I’m immensely grateful for the flexibility and freedom online education affords. As a student with a full-time job, online classes allow me to complete my degree in a standard timeframe that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Moreover, as a digital native, online classes are an intuitive means to receive formative theological knowledge and ministry training. Online education allows thousands across the globe to remain in their current ministry context as they pursue a deeper knowledge of God and His Word.
However, I want to make the case for residential theological education. In an age of de-incarnation and digital “community,” residential education provides distinct blessings the internet revolution has failed to replicate. For some, residential education is out of the question. Perhaps they have established ministries and family lives. Maybe other legitimate factors prevent them from packing everything they own and moving to an unfamiliar city. But for those who are able, here are four reasons to seriously and prayerfully consider the residential option.
1. Community with Classmates
One amazing aspect of studying on a seminary campus is the relationships you can form with committed believers from around the country and around the world. The diverse perspectives I have received from fellow classmates with backgrounds different from mine have been invaluable. As a native Midwesterner, it is important I hear my classmates’ firsthand testimonies concerning cultural evangelical Christianity in the South or Finney’s burnt-over district in the Northeast. Likewise, my conversations with classmates from Asia, Africa, and other parts of the globe reveal to me many of my cultural assumptions and sins.
I am confident that many of the relationships I have formed during my seminary season will prove to be lifelong sources of encouragement and conviction. Many of my classmates will be fellow soldiers in the trenches of ministry until we return to the dust or Christ returns to this earth. I would not have developed these irreplaceable friendships had my wife and I not decided to commit to a residential theological education.
2. Relationships with Professors
During my first class at Midwestern Seminary, my professor—a nationally recognized denominational leader—gave an open invitation for students to contact him to get coffee. Needless to say, I took him up on his offer. These occurrences are common on a seminary campus. Your professors are men and women who have dedicated their lives to God and His Scriptures. Consequently, they recognize a successful theological education consists of both theological information and spiritual formation.
The extracurricular conversations and practical mentoring I have received from faculty and staff have been some of the most edifying aspects of my seminary education. It is not every day that you are able to brush shoulders and drink coffee with bona fide Biblical experts who also happen to love Jesus and desire His glory to spread across the globe. A residential education is more than a few years of filling your head with facts. It is an opportunity to receive prayer, wisdom, and theological bearings from a faculty that cares for you.
3. Mentoring in the Ministry
Seminary towns are full of churches looking to develop leaders. Pastoral internships and residencies abound. Seminaries are aware of this phenomenon and often provide programs that help students marry theological education with hands-on ministry experience in the local church (see Midwestern’s Timothy Track). Many would-be residential students falsely believe that leaving their home church would be an act of disloyalty. The truth is that “gospel goodbyes” are a normal part of the Christian life. By sending you to seminary, your church is making a calculated sacrifice for the kingdom of God. Your church twenty years from now will thank you for the sacrifices you made in this season. Though staying in your current context and serving at your home church is a viable option, don’t overlook the immense value a leadership-rich seminary town might provide.
4. The Set-Apart-Ness of Seminary
One final advantage of residential education is the special sense a set-apart seminary season provides. You could describe it as a holy season. By packing all you own and moving to an unfamiliar place, you signal that you have made an intentional commitment to train for the work of ministry. As my professors have pointed out, you are committing a mere three or four years in preparation for the next thirty or forty. With online education, it is often easy to drift in and out: a few classes here, a few classes there. Moving to campus and immersing yourself in a holistic experience shows you are serious about your training and that you have set apart this season for something special.
So, there you have it: my four-part pitch for residential theological education. I have no doubt that God will continue to use online education for the glory of His great name. Nonetheless, for those who are able, a residential education offers particular advantages that online models cannot provide. God is raising up a new generation of Christian leaders, and it is imperative we leverage our time and opportunities for His glory. May He bless you richly as you consider the options He has placed before you.