How To Provide Affordable Theological Education in the Near Future

studentdebt1For the past 20 years, author Frank Viola has been writing non-stop about the need to eliminate pastors from the rolls of churches. Actually, in one sense, Viola has been advocating the end to all organized churches. He champions the validity and superiority of the House Church movement. He believes the only truly Christian model of the church is the one found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Viola teaches that the hierarchical pastor is the main reason the church is not effective and is not growing. He posits that if we just had home churches led by the average person the church would be much stronger and would have more impact on this world.

 

I don’t want to argue his basic premise. There are aspects of his teaching I agree with and some I strongly disagree with. What I want to highlight is one of the key arguments he uses to base this view upon. He believes that modern college education has made it prohibitive for a person to rise to the calling of Pastor. The cost, the demands, the time necessary and the type of person that has to fit these roles are extremely limiting.

 

I agree with him completely concerning the cost of theological education,. What I don’t agree with is his assertion that we don’t need full-time pastors and other paid church leaders. There is enough biblical basis for paying leaders. But even more so, I have seen cults and aberrant teachings destroy groups of people. And I have seen this happen more in house churches than anywhere else. In any group of people, the strongest personalities always take over. Better to vet those personalities and hold them to a community standard, as many denominations do, than let them take over a small group of people.

But as I said in my last article, we have a looming crisis on our hands. The average young person will never be able to afford their theological education and will certainly not be able to pay it off in a timely manner once they graduate. But I have a number of ideas that I have gleaned from others who are concerned about this matter. I believe all of these could work, and any combination of them would make the situation better.

Re-establish the Specialty Theological Schools: Before the mid-1970s, the average pastor was trained in a Bible School of some kind. These colleges devoted themselves to teaching a pastor the necessary skills and were not overly concerned about accreditation. Therefore they could hire professors and teachers that were more spiritually gifted than academically advanced.  But as more and more people in churches started to get advanced degrees, pastors felt very inadequate teaching this group if their degree was not from an accredited college. So pastors, congregations, denominations and college alumni pressured these pastors, and the colleges who trained them, to get advanced accreditations. This meant that the colleges had to require their teachers to have doctorates or other advanced degrees. The libraries had to contain a certain number of volumes.  The institutions had to offer a larger selection of majors and the administration of the college had to have more overseers to ensure the institution maintained their standing in the accrediting body.  What this meant is these colleges became liberal arts universities. Their focus left theological training and landed on science and arts degrees. They still maintained their theological focus, but the amount of students seeking a bible degree dropped off. In addition, as these changes got more expensive for the college, they had to charge the students more. This accounts for much of the growth of the tuition. Now, most theological students cannot afford these degrees.

 

But the answer is simple. The Bible College degree needs to become fashionable again. Colleges whose purpose is ONLY to provide theological training could be much smaller and even church-based (so they don’t have to build new buildings). At the very least, these colleges could hire professors who have years of ministry experience instead of profs that have multiple advanced degrees. Everything would be cheaper.

Church-Based campuses: This idea is already happening. Organizations like “Antioch School of Ministry” have created curricula that can be used to establish satellite campuses on existing church properties. Most churches do not use their campuses during the day except the offices. The classrooms could be used for any number of theological training options. This has been done for years in developing world countries, but is just now coming to the United States. The American church still has caviar tastes and we now realize that we only have a spam budget. One example of this being done is Salem Alliance Church in Salem, Oregon. They have designed a four-year degree program based on Antioch School’s curriculum. The estimated total cost for four years is $12,000. This is approximately 10% of what it would cost at an existing liberal arts college.

Denominational Changes in Policy: Actually to make theological education more affordable, denominations and church movements would have to make a number of changes to their training policy for pastors. Here are a few changes that would make this process so much simpler.

  1. Decide on the full number of credit hours a person has to have in Bible and Theology and then allow them to be licensed based on that instead of full degrees.
  2. Allow for degrees from non-accredited colleges as long as those colleges show sufficient levels of theological and financial accountability.
  3. Encourage establishment of regional church-based campuses all over the country so that students can save money on room and board.
  4. Maintain scholarship programs for students that show spiritual promise rather than just those who have academic ability. This would mean that denominations would have to work with local churches to find worthy candidates before they even start their education.
  5. Encourage and allow people who feel called to ministry but who have degrees in other areas to be licensed as long as they obtain the minimum level of bible and theology courses.

 

Bible-centered Intensive Programs: I am referring to a relatively new phenomenon where students learn to study the entire bible and learn the basics of theology in less than two years instead of four or more. As far as I know, the most successful of these programs is the School of Biblical Studies run by Youth With a Mission at many sites around the world. The SBS training regimen seeks to teach every student how to do inductive Bible study, and then works with them to study and outline every verse of every book in the Bible. This 9-month intensive course varies in cost depending on location, but averages between $7500-$11,000 for the entire nine months (including room and board and all materials). After completion of this bible intensive, the students are given the opportunity to join a Titus Team, which is an additional practicum, showing the students how to take the skill they just learned and pass it on to pastors and church workers around the world. Titus Teams, as the group of students are called, often go to the remote parts of the world providing bible education for pastors who cannot attend a school or may not even be able to read. These teams are also valuable resources to train people in North American churches who may want to obtain the basic skills to learn the Bible for themselves. But this model could also be used to adequately train pastors for the local church.

Student Loan Forgiveness Programs: One of the great, and least heralded, programs in our country is one where people who have graduated from college and then go to work for a public sector employer can apply to have a portion of their student loans forgiven for every year of service they give to that organization. This program includes school districts, state, federal and local governments and the military. What if it also included churches? If a young pastor who graduated in the past five years with mammoth debt were to work with a local church, the church could agree to pay off 10% of their student loans for every year of service the pastor gave to the church. This money would be tax-free and would benefit everyone concerned. In combination with the other four ideas, it would erase billions of dollars of debt that hangs over the heads of the generation that went through theological training in the past two decades.

These ideas can work and in one sense must work if the church is to survive. I believe if even a few of these are instituted and adopted by the majority of denominations we can have a strong and dynamic group of young missionaries and pastors to carry on the work of Christ’s Church.