Learning by heart

More and more church leaders are discovering how (surprisingly) personal online education can be.

At Regent University’s School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, VA, the professors — including James Flynn, Ph.D. — prefer the term “digital education” to “online education.”

As an associate professor of practical theology and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program, Flynn says “online” doesn’t fully describe the model offered to now-70 percent of students in the School of Divinity: a hybrid of on-campus, modular and distance learning.

The trend toward digital education is also evident at Villanova University in Philadelphia. Chuck Zech, director of the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics, says its flexibility makes it an excellent option for students. “Good programs not only offer synchronous — or real-time — education, but also opportunities for asynchronous learning,” he points out.

Ministry, (un)interrupted
As Zech points out, a digital education platform is gaining particular favor among pastors and church workers who can’t take time off from their ministry to attend live class sessions. “The fact that they often work irregular hours (evening meetings and weekends) makes the flexibility even more attractive.”

Flynn agrees. “For many of our students, it’s very important to stay connected to their churches or church networks, and not break ties.”


More than 27% will invest in themselves — via continuing education — by this time next year.

Source: “The Church Executive Reader Survey”

Designed for entrepreneurial types …
While Flynn and Zech agree that digital education students tend to be more comfortable with technology than their counterparts, this is where the commonalities end for Zech. “Otherwise, these students are as dissimilar as any setting of graduate students who share the same discipline,” he says.

Flynn, on the other hand, sees clear differentiations among digital students. “Ultimately, witness and evangelism come down to being able to penetrate a culture and its people and to speak their language,” he explains.

“People with a more innovative or entrepreneurial approach to ministry realize they must help people listen to the gospel to the best of their ability. This generation speaks and thinks in a digital way.”

… But also great for introverts!
Surprisingly, a digital education platform also lends itself well to more introverted students. Zech explains why.

“In my on-campus lecture classes, when I throw out a question, the responses usually come from the fastest thinkers — although not necessarily the most thoughtful,” he says. “Introverts can get left behind. And we’ve all had experiences with live discussions where we think to ourselves, ‘Gee, I wish I’d thought of saying [XYZ].’”

On the contrary, giving students a day or two to respond has invariably elicited more thoughtful and more thought-provoking answers — particularly from introverted individuals.

Real-time application
Digital education allows students to immediately apply what they’re learning in class to their real-world church leadership roles — especially practical/applied theology, Flynn says. “This is where we take biblical principles, apply them to the real world, and do ministry with as much impact and fruitfulness as possible,” he explains. “It comes back to being able to stay in your context for ministry while pursuing your education. There’s no better way to learn.”

Another class he teaches — sermon preparation — is entirely online. Students preach in their real-world contexts, videotape the sermons, and upload them for evaluation by their peer blogging groups.

It’s a far cry from the same kind of training Zech received in seminary, himself. “We would sit in a classroom, learn about homiletics, and then have several opportunities to preach in a classroom setting, or maybe a chapel service,” he recalls. “Then, we’d go on our way thinking we knew how to preach.”

Digital makes the world smaller
In Zech’s experience, a class of about 30 usually includes students from all over the world. They’re preaching in their ministry context and culture; getting a chance to evaluate what they see; and receiving a professor’s formal feedback on their homiletics and rhetorical skills. A lot of learning is taking place.

“There’s nothing like seeing one of your classmates in India, Singapore or Afghanistan preach,” he says. In fact, one of the most moving sermons done for his class was delivered under a camouflage covering in Iraq by a chaplain deployed overseas.

Face-to-face isn’t always “personal”
Everyone has taken an in-person class which nearly (if not literally) put us to sleep. According to Flynn, this is because — even in a face-to-face environment — the instructor failed to create the “social presence” required for learning to be effective.

Granted, in-person learning lends itself to social presence. But, he asserts its inherent advantages are far offset by the global (if virtual) relationships enabled by digital learning.

“People’s perception of reality and what constitutes relationship is changing, so culture and its institutions are changing,” Flynn concludes. “Education will never be the same because of digital technology.”



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