Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Different models of theological education in an age of globalization

Last Saturday I attended a seminar by Richard Pratt, Jr., the founder and President of Third Millenium Ministries, on theological education in the present era of globalization.

Here is the summary of the talk:
1) The present theological education (especially in America) is all about data transference within an institution, be it divinity school, theological college or seminary. This data transference process is the transferring of data from books to lecturers, and then from lecturers to students. Then students become lecturers, and the cycle perpetuates itself. So people who want theological education need to pay these institutions to get into this cycle. Pratt called this the "scarcity" economic model, which means that data are being made scarce so that anyone who wants it need to pay a lot for it. This model makes theological education a sort of luxury products. Besides, international students in America institutions often do not go back to their country to serve after they have graduated.

Many people in the west enrolled into theological studies not so much to be pastors or missionaries, but to be lecturers. There is no practical exposure or practical application of what they can do with their knowledge. It's all about getting into the luxury business of data transference. He shared with us that when he was full Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, there were 6 (or 7?) colleagues who wished that he would go away soon. Hence, there are many theological students who do not have pastoral concern (for e.g. providing pastoral care to grieving family, drug addicts, etc) in the course of their 3 to 4 years of theological education. This is the problem resulted from the scarcity model.

2) Studies have shown us that data transference is much more effective via multimedia (videos, pictures, interactive platform, etc) than the scarcity model.

3) Therefore if theological education is about data transference, then we should adopt the "ubiquity" economic model, which means that theological education should be made very affordable, if not free, so that people have access to it without much hindrance. This is possible through the internet. The Third Millenium Ministries is an example of this model. The ministry provides free theological education in local languages to anyone with access to the internet. Hence anyone who is already doing practical ministry can get theological education for free and in their own pace and place.

4) Local theological institutions can work with Third Millenium Ministries by using their multimedia products in their courses. It is free of charge. And these institutions can accredit their own diplomas and degrees.
Most of what he shared is neatly summarized in the promotional video at Third Millenium Ministries.

I'm heartened to learn about Pratt's view on theological education and his work at Third Millenium Ministries. However, I don't share his choice of description for theological education.

I think there are more than the two economic models ("scarcity" v.s. "ubiquity") used by Pratt to describe theological education. These two models share the same presupposition that theological education is nothing but data transference. Therefore it is all about how to manage such transference in the most effective and efficient way with the present technology.

If theological study is nothing but data transference, then I agree with Pratt that his preferred economic model is suited as the better facilitator for such transference. Theological education is not nothing but data transference.

By assuming that it is and build an enterprise that is based on this mistaken presupposition only perpetuates the problem (i.e. theological education is a luxury business of data transference that has no real pastoral exposure and concern). Providing free theological education may make this business less luxurious, yet the perception that it is a business of data transference with no pastoral aspect to it still persists.

There is another economic model to theological education that I've witnessed in my three years study at Trinity Theological College (TTC). It is a "ecclesial" model. The college is a united initiative by the four mainline Protestant churches in Singapore (Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Lutheran). 

As the college does not receive any financial support from the government, each denomination participates in governing and contributing to the college. There are individuals in the Christian community that also support the college. This keeps the education fee minimal, only 30% of the actual costs.

Though it is governed by four local denominations, yet it is open for anyone to enrolled into the college. Christians from other denominations or other countries also enjoy the heavily subsidized fees. Locals who want to study at TTC are usually required to be recommended by their own churches. And the curriculum is constantly being evaluated and changed to conform to its mission:
to develop in students a mature understanding of the historic and biblical faith that is grounded in the reflective study of Scripture and critical engagement with the life and ministry of the church through an academically rigorous, spiritually and vocationally formative curriculum that reflects a variety of church traditions from an Asian perspective.
Theological education is not mere transference of data but exhortation. If I may use an analogy, studying at TTC is like attending a 3-year-long Sunday service in all its glorious trinitarian and multi-faceted liturgy. It is like participating in a community that attends to the Eucharistic table where people are exhorted to continue worshipping and serving God and God's people.

Of course, the limitation of this model is that it is not ubiquous. Yet, that is the whole point of Sunday service, where people would gather together physically to be exhorted as the body of Christ for the service of God and people. Such gathering cannot be mediated via the internet and multimedia. Sunday service is not merely about data transference. Neither should theological education be.

It is within this context of exhortation that there are so much more that arose from theological education. Among other things, I've seen one dying old man in a hospital, attended two funeral wakes, and met and served a group of drug addicts while being a full-time student at TTC. For these, I think the ecclesial model has much to offer. 

Globalization does bring a lot of changes. Yet somethings can't be changed. Important business meetings are still best dealt through face-to-face rapport. Besides, why would Pratt travelled so many hours from America all the way to Singapore to give a 2 hours seminar on learning through multimedia and the internet when the organizer can simply screen a recording of his talk or hold a live-telecast?


Andreas Pilipus said...

Responding to the idea of theological education as "data transference business", I can almost hear James Smith saying, "What if education is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires? What if education is primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions - our visions of 'the good life' - and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking?" And Smith has argued convincingly that education is NOT primarily about data transference, although data transference is a part of education. Check out Smith's "Desiring the Kingdom". I think you'll love it. http://www.amazon.com/Desiring-Kingdom-Worldview-Formation-Liturgies/dp/0801035775

Sze Zeng said...


I whole-heartedly agree with you. And I am getting Smith's book!

It is reductionistic to see theological education as data transference. This view is more of the result of being influenced by secular perception of education (students are fed with data that will be commercially or industrially productive).