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New Horizons

The Internet Seminary

Steven Vanderhill

Isaiah prophesied the emergence of the Internet! Well, not the Internet specifically, but he did prophesy that one day people would "beat their swords into plowshares." Like the swords of Isaiah's prophecy, the Internet was first designed for military purposes, but has now been transformed into a tool serving the needs of people around the world.

In the early 1960s, when fears of a nuclear holocaust drove millions of Americans to build backyard bomb shelters, civil defense strategists began developing a decentralized communications network between important military centers in order to sustain communications even after a nuclear catastrophe. This communications network became the forerunner of the Internet, which now connects universities, schools, businesses, government agencies, organizations, ministries, and individuals through their computers and phone lines. Only in the last few years has the general public gained access to the Internet through commercial Internet service providers.

Now that so many are connecting to the Internet, it has joined radio and television as one of the leading forums for mass communication. Although most of the content currently carried on the Internet is text or images, audio and video account for an increasing share of the traffic. By combining text, images, audio, video, and user interaction, the Internet will offer one of the most comprehensive means of communication available.

The Internet in Education

Although the Internet is still in its infancy, it already appears ready to transform the way we spend our leisure time, perform our work, conduct business, gather information, and communicate with one another. While most of the fanfare in the news media concerns the way we spend our leisure time on the Internet, one of the most significant areas that the Internet has begun to transform is education. Universities and colleges were instrumental in establishing the Internet to support research, and some are now using it to enable students to come to class without ever leaving home.

The Internet enables a professor to teach in a "virtual classroom," where students communicate electronically with the professor and each other. By posting lectures, announcements, and assignments in designated areas of the Internet, students can access from home much of the information they need to fulfill their class requirements. Through e-mail messages and live discussions conducted by typing questions, answers, and comments on a computer, students can personally interact with their professor and fellow students. In addition to using the Internet, these classes usually rely on textbooks, cassette tapes, and videotapes to deliver the core content of the course. As Internet technology improves, a growing share of the audio and video portions will be accessed by computer.

The Internet and Seminaries

Universities are not alone in harnessing the power of the Internet to reach students. Many seminaries are also plugging into the Internet to promote their programs, offer library access, and teach students. Although most of the seminaries serving the OPC maintain promotional sites on the World Wide Web (which is one part of the Internet), the most extensive educational efforts have been undertaken by seminaries serving other denominations. As these seminaries utilize the Internet to teach students, many other seminary educators are closely monitoring the progress and results of these efforts in order to assess the strengths and weaknesses of this new approach to ministerial training. The Association of Theological Schools, the national accrediting agency for seminaries, has already approved some seminary programs that rely on the Internet and it will continue to scrutinize other programs as they develop.

One of the most successful seminary efforts offers an "In Ministry M.Div." program designed for those who are employed in ministry but who have not received or completed seminary training. To bring seminary education to those who cannot relocate to attend seminary, this program incorporates textbook reading, audio- and videotapes, short-term intensive sessions on campus, and continuing interaction through the Internet. Although this effort was undertaken by a non-Reformed seminary, similar projects are underway at several seminaries that serve the Reformed community. One of the most comprehensive listings of seminary Web sites is available through the Internet at www.iclnet.org.

Internet-assisted seminary programs offer many opportunities and several advantages over campus-based programs. By offering flexibility in seminary training, Internet programs serve students who cannot or should not leave behind jobs, professions, families, or churches to attend a seminary located in a distant location. As the average age of seminarians increases to the mid-thirties, more and more of them are married, have children, are already in leadership positions, and are serving in ministry.

Family responsibilities, financial limitations, and housing needs present significant obstacles to many would-be seminarians. Internet-assisted seminary programs overcome many of these obstacles by avoiding relocation and allowing seminarians to remain in their homes, jobs, and churches. The greatest advantage for ministerial training is that seminarians remain under the immediate oversight of their local church, where their skills can be applied, their gifts can be evaluated, and their calling to ministry can be confirmed.

As seminaries develop Internet-assisted programs, there are many logistical details to work out, but three areas stand out as central concerns: interactivity, accountability, and community.

Interactivity

The first student ever enrolled in a seminary correspondence course was Timothy. Paul's letters to Timothy may be regarded as the earliest example of seminary education at a distance. Although Paul's letters testify to their sufficiency for teaching and training (2 Tim. 3:16), they were complemented by his personal interaction with Timothy. Timothy could question Paul and expect a response. He could rely on Paul for advice in handling challenging ministry issues. He could spend time with Paul to learn from his example.

Textbooks, lectures, and audio- and videotapes cannot replace the mentoring relationship between teacher and student. Like Timothy, students enrolled in Internet programs must be able to develop a personal bond with their teacher, based on both on-line and face-to-face interaction. During intensive on-campus sessions, students and teachers can establish relationships which continue to develop through on-line correspondence and telephone conversations.

Students can interact with their teachers and with each other in Internet "chat rooms," which are virtual gathering places where a student can participate in a group discussion by typing messages that appear on the computer screen of everyone else in the group. By circulating e-mail messages among the members of a class, students can engage their classmates in debate, just as they might in a seminary hallway.

Accountability

Although Timothy was appointed as an overseer of a church, he continued to be under the oversight of Paul and received counsel from the elders of his church. While Internet programs enable students to learn independently, they are not intended to liberate students from accountability to a teacher who can rebuke and correct when necessary.

In addition to maintaining accountability to their teachers, students establish mentoring relationships with their local pastors and churches, who provide a level of individualized supervision and guidance that even an on-campus seminary program cannot parallel. By including the local pastor and church in the seminary training program, Internet-assisted programs also teach pastors and churches how to fulfill their responsibilities in equipping seminarians for ministry to the body.

Community

Paul's letters to Timothy are filled with practical advice on issues and questions arising from Timothy's leadership in the church. Timothy's day-to-day involvement in the challenges of pastoral ministry formed the background against which Paul's doctrinal instruction was illustrated through living examples. Whether in person or by epistle, Paul instructed Timothy while he was engaged in hands-on ministry in the life of the church.

Seminarians in Internet-assisted programs continue to function within their local churches, where their developing gifts and skills can be immediately sharpened and tested. Rather than isolating a student in the quiet contemplation of a computer screen, Internet programs reach students who are functioning members of a local church body and face the day-to-day challenges of ministry.

Conclusion

The Internet was conceived as a means of reconnecting and rebuilding a society after catastrophic events. Although its designers were preparing for a future catastrophe, the Internet can now serve the church as an effective tool for building up the church in the midst of a society oblivious to the catastrophic events it has already experienced. Seminaries, students, and churches face many challenges in utilizing the Internet, yet the opportunity to reach many with the gospel, to teach many in the Scriptures, and to equip many for ministry compel each one to make the most of this opportunity.

Mr. Vanderhill is the executive director of ministry resources at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and an elder at Gwynedd Valley OPC in Gwynedd, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 1997.

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