Higher Education in a Digital Age
By Daniel Camp
Pastor, South Garland Baptist Church
As recently as 30 years ago, a pastor wanting to learn more about the Bible, theology, preaching, or leadership did not have an abundance of options. He could go to the local bookstore and spend a small fortune on whatever they had available. She could hit up the local library for a smaller, more dated, but free selection. And given enough time and persistence, pastors could cobble together resources from garage and estate sales, gifts from friends and colleagues, and whatever was available at the latest conference.
But trying to piecemeal an education in this way was so painstaking, haphazard, and unreliable that there was really only one viable way for young ministers to educate and train themselves: formal higher education at a seminary or divinity school, where 3+ years of full-time classes, study, mentoring, and more would yield a wealth of knowledge, a degree to bolster your resume, and a network of colleagues with whom you could walk through life and ministry. For pastors and search committees alike, an M.Div or equivalent degree was proof that you had done the work to educate yourself and that you now knew enough about the Bible to teach it to the laypeople in your congregation.
Fast-forward to the present day and the world looks different for a prospective pastor. For one thing, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, and seminaries are no exception–when you walk the graduation stage, you are most likely receiving not just a diploma, but thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Not to mention, many church members have become more suspicious of what is taught at the university and postgraduate level, perceiving higher education to be left-leaning or otherwise unfriendly to orthodox Christianity, even in the religion department–for some, a degree from the ‘wrong’ school is worse than no degree at all.
Finally, we have a resource–or rather, a web of resources–that barely existed 30 years ago: the Internet. Vast volumes of theology that once would have lined the bookshelves of your office or church library can now be accessed for free as PDFs. Sermons which used to be sold on tape, if recordings existed at all, can now be found on YouTube or church websites. And as for Scripture itself, what pastor worth her salt doesn’t have the Bible app on her phone, where she can access any translation at any time no matter where she is?
In our digital age, the barriers to resources have largely come down and the keys to education are no longer the exclusive property of institutions of higher learning. So with so many other readily available options out there and with an M.Div seeming to cost more and mean less than ever, why should a prospective pastor bother with higher education in a digital age? Allow me to offer, in classic pastoral fashion, three points and a poem to answer that question.
1. Higher Education Sorts Out the Wheat from the Chaff
“TAKE HEED! Signs the Rapture Is Near (Update 2023)”
“You Won’t Believe What JUST HAPPENED during the THIRD TEMPLE Ceremony…!”
“The Bible Says Jesus is NOT God…”
All three of these are real titles of YouTube videos by self-proclaimed experts, prophets, and pastors. Whether they are right or wrong, pure in motive or intentionally teaching falsehoods, their videos go up just the same, and they are viewed by thousands, sometimes millions.
Of course, it’s not fair to judge the Internet by its worst elements. Continuing with YouTube, there are plenty of videos which will serve as a blessing to pastors. The Bible Project has spent the last decade putting out high-quality animated videos offering sound biblical and theological teaching free of charge. Sermon videos by prominent pastors can be found with one click. Even to answer simple questions (for example, how to pronounce a Hebrew word), YouTube can be a goldmine.
The problem is that the Internet is a firehose of information, and pastors–especially young, inexperienced, hungry pastors–need help discerning what information is useful and what is nonsense.
Higher education gives you two profoundly helpful things in this regard: a foundation of names and resources, and the tools to help discern when a source is legitimate. To that first point, many of the names lining my office bookshelf are the authors I was assigned in seminary classes–after semesters spent reading their work, I know them to be brilliant, trusted scholars worthy of reading and citing. They have the endorsement of professors I know personally and in some cases I have gotten to hear them speak or even meet them myself. These figures and their closest colleagues give me an intellectual bedrock on which to build.
Secondly, part of the work of higher education is teaching you how to learn for yourself, which includes how to vet resources for yourself. Through repeated inquiry and research, you slowly but surely get your bearings on which names, institutions, and movements are orthodox and will prove helpful to you.
The Internet is, for better and for worse, a great equalizer, a place where St. Augustine and BibleNerd316 are on the same footing. Higher education helps you learn which sources are worth your time.
2. Higher Education Gives You a Network of Friends and Colleagues
Your education is ultimately up to you–but it’s not meant to be done entirely by you. There’s a reason school happens in the context of community, from kindergarten up through doctoral work. In the context of higher education, you are surrounded by fellow learners with whom you get to discuss big ideas, collaborate on group projects, and more.
What’s more, the professors teaching you in the classroom are trained, vetted scholars who offer a wealth of both scholarly and experiential wisdom. Many seminary professors, in addition to teaching classes and publishing academic research, also serve as interim pastors in the community, and some have previously served churches full-time. So whether your question is about translating a Greek verb or navigating conflict between two ornery deacons, your professors are flesh-and-blood encyclopedias you can consult anytime–including after you graduate, when your answer is often only an email (or, if you’re lucky enough to be close by, a lunch date) away.
To try and replace a seminary community with a mostly anonymous community of online commenters, Twitter bots, and YouTube stars is to do yourself a disservice, and to try to go it alone–watching videos and reading articles and studying all in an empty room, accompanied by nothing and no one but a computer and (hopefully) a Bible–is even worse. You need fellow believers as passionate about learning as you are, because you will not only learn with them, but from them.
Simply put, education is a team sport, and attending a seminary or divinity school gives you your team.
3. Higher Education Has Stood the Test of Time
Ours is an ancient faith, tracing its origins back to the first century (and its Abrahamic roots back much further than that.) So we have a natural appreciation for those things which endure when everything around them changes, fades, and dies.
The institution of the seminary has existed since the days of the Reformation, and the oldest seminaries in the U.S. date back almost to the nation’s founding. One of our state’s own seminaries, Southwestern in Fort Worth, began educating students in 1908. And even for the newer seminaries on the block (looking here at my own beloved school, Truett Seminary in Waco), it’s not as though their professors, administrators, methods, or practices sprung up out of nowhere; they are the product of decades, if not generations, of educational investment.
Institutions of higher education have been at the noble work of educating their students for a long time, and–for all their well-publicized flaws–they have a pretty good idea what they are doing. They answer to boards and alumni and donors and, of course, students. They are not making this up as they go along.
As exciting as the digital age is, we have no idea where it is taking us. Its entrepreneurial, pioneering spirit offers tremendous freedom, but comes with little oversight. Even for those who have grown up with the Internet, we must recognize that this is all relatively new.
So for the pastor seeking to not only accumulate resources, but to learn, higher education offers a level of stability that digital resources simply can’t. An online education could be a steal–or it could go the way of NFTs. There is just no way to know this early in the game. Better then to trust the institutions which have stood the test of time.
In conclusion, the Internet is a gift to pastors everywhere, a wealth of resources and information. But the discerning pastor will recognize that higher education still has its place, and there is wisdom in trusting the people and institutions who have endured instead of the technology that promises to replace them. Perhaps Shel Silvestein put it best in his poem, “The Homework Machine”:
The Homework Machine, oh, the Homework Machine,
Most perfect contraption that’s ever been seen.
Just put in your homework, then drop in a dime,
Snap on the switch, and in ten seconds’ time,
Your homework comes out, quick and clean as can be.
Here it is— ‘nine plus four?’ and the answer is ‘three.’
Oh me . . .
I guess it’s not as perfect
As I thought it would be.
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common