30 September, 2023

The Alternatives: Nontraditional Forms of Christian Education


by | 1 January, 2022 | 1 comment

Traditional ministry formation in our Bible colleges and seminaries face many challenges. Yet I believe these challenges could lead to opportunities for how we develop leaders.

One such challenge is the need for significant hands-on ministry experience. Also needed is more mentoring to help emerging leaders grow in wisdom as followers of Jesus and leaders of people. Cost is another challenge. Ministry graduates increasingly are saddled with high amounts of student loan debt, and this doesn’t bode well for their future in ministry.

Another challenge involves people who serve their churches in significant ways and now desire more formal ministry training. Often, these folks do not want to leave their present job or uproot their family. Several schools now offer fully online programs to help address this need, though online education has its own challenges.

I taught full-time at a Bible college for 19 years and still teach as an adjunct, so I have seen these needs firsthand. We worked hard to create an internship program that provided valuable hands-on ministry experience, but the results were mixed. Students not only carried a full-time course load, but many also had to work to pay bills, so students understandably had difficulty giving the appropriate time and attention to an internship on top of their other obligations. (The school I’m associated with is working to address this by creating a full-on residency experience as part of their academic program.)

A robust alumni tracking program at the school consistently showed that graduates who fared best in life and ministry were those who had a close, mentoring type relationship with a staff or faculty member while they were in school. Unfortunately, staff and professors can’t provide that for every student. And I’ve watched alumni struggle for years after graduation to pay off student loans. I’ve even seen alumni receive stellar assessment scores from church-planting organizations only to be denied acceptance into those programs until they could pay down their student debt.

Add to these needs the fact that culture has changed dramatically since the Bible college movement began, back during a time when Christian virtues still guided American culture to a large degree. But that’s no longer the case. In fact, many new students have difficult family situations and only recently became Christ followers. They need instruction in life skills and character formation as much as traditional theological and ministry education. How can traditional academic approaches address this?

A variety of other approaches to leadership development and ministry training have emerged because of these challenges. Here are a few examples.

Residency Programs

Residency programs focus on providing a mentored ministry experience. At least two megachurches offer this type of program: the 215 Residency at Southeast Christian Church in Kentucky and the Leadership Institute at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Arizona. Both of these programs prefer residents who are college graduates, with many of them Bible college graduates; in that respect, they can serve as supplements—rather than alternatives—to Bible college training.

The 215 Residency Program at Southeast is a two-year commitment. Residents spend most of their time serving as part of a ministry team at Southeast while being mentored by their ministry lead. The program also strives to lay a healthy foundation of spiritual formation and biblical understanding. It’s essentially mentored-ministry experience and provides no degree option. Residents receive a small stipend for living expenses.

The Leadership Institute at CCV is a 10-month program that also provides mentored-ministry experience and a monthly stipend to help with living expenses. In addition to serving in one of CCV’s ministries, residents participate in learning labs and discussion groups. Skilled practitioners provide instruction in various facets of ministry, and residents have freedom to explore some of their own learning initiatives. The Leadership Institute also offers a graduate degree option through Johnson University.

These programs don’t provide the same theological depth as seminary. But for those who received solid theological education from a Bible college, programs like these are a great way to gain robust hands-on ministry experience in a top-tier environment after college.

Institutes, Partnerships, and Schools of Ministry

Another kind of training is non-accredited biblical and ministry education that seeks to equip leaders for the church.

One example is the Russell School of Ministry, which refers to itself as “a non-accredited Bible College.” So, in one sense, they aren’t really an alternative to Bible college training. Their educational approach is distinctive enough, however, to consider them here.

Among their distinctives: it is tuition-free (scholarships cover all costs); instruction is a combination of video-based courses plus in-person learning labs; it includes two years of supervised ministry experience and discipleship (students are discipled in year one and disciple others in year two).

The goal of this approach is to provide hands-on ministry experience that also forms students spiritually and biblically.

The baseline program of the Russell School of Ministry, based near Cincinnati, is a 36-hour Certificate in Ministry. But they also offer more robust biblical education through a diploma program in partnership with Central Christian College of the Bible (Moberly, Missouri) and a full degree program either through CCCB or Hope International University (Fullerton, California).

Another example of non-accredited ministry training is SALT (the School of Advanced Leadership Training) at Hope International University, which “partners with churches to develop effective servant leaders within the local congregation.” HIU provides “short but meaty online courses designed to strengthen the biblical foundation, ministry skills, and emotional and spiritual health of emerging Christian leaders.” University professors and guest lecturers (i.e., “skilled practitioners”) teach the courses.

SALT is not a degree program (though students can transition into one at Hope), but it does offer certificates in ministry, evangelism, and children’s ministry. In short, SALT is designed to aid churches in raising up their own leaders.

Informal Online Course Packages

A vast assortment of Bible and ministry video and audio resources is available online. These resources aren’t structured programs, nor do they present themselves as alternatives to Bible college or seminary, but they can be used by churches in their leadership development programs. To achieve that, however, churches need someone to provide leadership and direction so that these resources can be most effective.

Here are three examples of these resources:

1. NextLevel at Ozark Christian College: These video courses, taught by Ozark Christian College professors, are designed and produced for online teaching, so they are not mere recordings of classroom lectures. Most of the courses are studies of Bible books or theological topics. Additionally, NextLevel offers webinars that explore various ministry and leadership topics.

2. RightNow Media: RightNow Media is a self-described “streaming library of more than 20,000 Bible study videos for leaders to share with their people.” Production quality is high for most of the Bible studies. The teaching quality varies. Typically, these are aimed at personal or small-group use for churches; they usually don’t offer in-depth Bible teaching. They do offer a “professional development” track, which intends to provide deeper studies in leadership, apologetics, and Bible. This more in-depth area could be used to equip leaders within the church.

3. Classroom by BibleProject:  Many people are familiar with the extremely popular BibleProject videos (the largest Bible teaching channel on YouTube). Recently, BibleProject launched Classroom. BibleProject provides seminary-level Bible courses online taught by Dr. Tim Mackie and other college professors. The best part? They are free and are super-high quality. The focus is on Bible teaching, not ministry training, but if a church wanted to use these courses to train leaders with a solid biblical foundation and provide their own ministry training, this resource could be helpful.

Since this is a brand-new feature of BibleProject, only four courses are available so far, but new courses are being planned and filmed.

Plenty of other online options are available, including my own Core Training for Christians series of online courses and Listener’s Commentary on the New Testament. But here’s the thing—most of these online resources are aimed at discipleship and deepening the faith and understanding of Christians in general; they don’t aspire to provide the full scope or depth of traditional Bible college or seminary. They should never be viewed as a ministry-training track that could lead to a job in ministry. But with leadership and direction, they can be a key component of how churches train and equip their leaders.

Raising up leaders from within has become very popular for megachurches. Leaders developed in this way typically are successful midcareer college graduates who have good management and people skills but lack a theological foundation. Some of the online resources mentioned here could be a great help in meeting that need, but it would require time and leadership to coordinate and oversee.

— — —

All these alternatives represent innovations in ministry formation, leadership development, and church-member equipping. They recognize some of the challenges and needs, as well as opportunities, of culture today and seek to address them in unique ways. A strength of some of them, it seems, is in providing hands-on ministry experience. And a deficiency of many is that they fall short of being a true theological education, which they often address by partnering with a traditional Bible college. (In fact, all these options are led or developed by people with Bible college and/or seminary education.)

This kind of partnership between Bible colleges and the church or parachurch organizations is perhaps the best innovation: each organization plays to its strengths. The college provides the biblical and theological education, and the church carries out a robust mentored ministry experience.

I personally believe we need to keep praying, collaborating, imagining, and experimenting so we can create a method of ministry formation that is richer, deeper, and wiser than is now available. In his Book of Pastoral Rule, Gregory the Great contended that only those experienced in humility, virtue, and knowledge of God should be put into positions of spiritual authority. I think he was onto something. I say, let’s keep dreaming until we figure out a way to form church leaders with that kind of experience.

John Whittaker has been a pastor in two churches and taught New Testament, theology, and preaching at Boise (Idaho) Bible College for 19 years. Currently he equips people to follow Jesus by creating podcasts, YouTube Bible studies, and online courses to help people learn and live the Bible. John’s website is www.johnwhittaker.net.

John Whittaker

John Whittaker has been a pastor in two churches and taught New Testament, theology, and preaching at Boise (Idaho) Bible College for 19 years. Currently he equips people to follow Jesus by creating podcasts, YouTube Bible studies, and online courses to help people learn and live the Bible.

1 Comment

  1. Dr Kathy Lacina

    As a graduate of a Bible college I felt ill-equipped to counsel the many individuals that came to me with a spiritual need. I became a Christian Counselor rather than a minister and sought guidance outside the church because I needed more education on mental illness. Praying it away is not the answer. Theology and Bible studies were not the answer. These individuals need group support, similar to AA or other 12 step groups. People are hurting in the churches and the needs are not getting met. We can’t close our eyes to the abuse, neglect and addictions that members of the congregation need to talk about. Pastors/spiritual leaders need to step up and reach deeper into the soul of his congregation. Otherwise the church remains dead and superficial.

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