In recent discussions of ministry training, it is observed that, because of the escalating costs of college education, students are tending to graduate with greater levels of debt load. This is tending to exclude lower-income students, those who historically have made some of the greatest contributions to ministry. This increase in the cost of Christian higher education has been the result of the tendency of Christian colleges to migrate toward being Christian liberal arts colleges rather than strictly Bible colleges. It is also due to the fact that the pursuit of accreditation carries with it obligations which tend to increase costs. Here I offer a plan to control costs of Christian higher education so that it is as accessible as possible, especially for those with limited income.
First, I would design a Bible college curriculum to be 2 years at the upper division level. Students can do their lower division work at a community college near their home. In this way, the state, not the church, would pay for general education courses. There is certainly much to be said for a Christian approach to general education courses and interdisciplinary studies, but here we are trying to hold down costs. In addition, many Associates in Arts or Associate in Science programs are vocational in orientation. That is, they contain only a minimum of liberal arts courses (much less than transfer programs) and enable graduates to go directly into the workforce. This is ideal for those contemplating Bible college who may want to engage in certain ministries (e.g. church planting, urban mission, Muslim missions, Bible smuggling), for which the ability for self-support is desirable.
Second, I would recommend limiting the curriculum to Bible, theology, and ministry only. This will stretch scarce resources. It would mean maintaining a clear separation between the mission of the Bible college versus the Christian liberal arts college. In this way, the Bible college could trim many expenses from its budget. Here is a proposed curriculum:
Practicum: 900 hours of supervised fieldwork in student’s proposed area of ministry, to include preparation, mentoring, practicum, and theological reflection
This would be on a quarter system. Each course would be 3 quarter-hours. The typical full-time student would take 4 courses plus do 15 hours per week of practicum. This curriculum should be achievable in 2 years of full time effort. It would presuppose a basic Bible literacy, and the ability, upon entrance, to do upper division work. This curriculum would require only 4 faculty members: a professor of NT, of OT, of theology, and a fieldwork supervisor. This would keep faculty requirements to a minimum.
The heavy emphasis on language study is born of the conviction that exegesis is essential for carrying out restoration and proper theology and preaching. I know from experience that many will argue that so much language study is not necessary for ministry in the local church. I disagree. We have gotten away from doing disciplined exegesis as a background for expository work or for research into theological questions or the doing of restoration. We need to restore the habit of exegetically working the text as a part of the culture of our movement once again.
I have tried to hold the number of courses taken to a total of 24, for an average of 4 per quarter, with the understanding that practicum is a major component of the program, at least the equivalent of one additional course in time commitment. I calculate an average of 15 hours per week over the 6 academic quarters, or 45 hours per week over 2 10-week summers. This quantity of mentored practicum is unusual, but reflects my rejection of a primarily academic model of ministry preparation in favor of more of a hybrid of academics along with concurrent experience. I believe that concurrent experience is essential feedback to the academics and provides an important experiential laboratory.
Unlike much fieldwork in other institutions, this practicum would be closely mentored. Fieldwork would be done under the joint supervision of the fieldwork supervisor and the church or agency in which the practicum would be done. There would be virtually no limit as to the type of ministry that could be done under this fieldwork, so long as it were genuinely Christian service. Typically a minister, a missionary, or an urban church planter would take the intern under-wing.
Third, the campus for such a college would be little more than an office building. The college could keep the physical plant simple and perhaps might even consider not providing housing or cafeteria services, if this will hold down costs. However, I recommend that provision be made for places of community on campus in any event.
Fourth, the college would maintain a library of only books that could not be found at the nearby university, i.e. a small-specialized theological library. Arrangements could be made for interlibrary loans with surrounding libraries, in order to maximize the number of books accessible by the students. Thus, this Bible college would be freed from having to buy and maintain expensive general education materials and journal subscriptions.
Fifth, courses would be offered mostly at night or on Saturdays, so that self-supporting students have the best chances of getting jobs to support their studies.
Sixth, should this “streamlined” (actually, classical) Bible college seek accreditation? If the seeking of accreditation drives up operating costs too much, or causes pressure to hire faculty of questionable theological commitment, or causes pressure to divert it from its original mission, then the answer is “no”. If accreditation can be obtained without making any of these compromises, then the answer is, “perhaps”.
The ostensible purpose of accreditation is to guarantee that certain curricular and institutional standards are maintained. However, in actual practice, accreditation allows the world, in some sense, to sit in judgment over the church, when the opposite should be the case. Does a Christian institution need to hold itself accountable to a worldly institution to ensure that it is obedient to its mission in the service of its Founder? Is an accrediting body going to ensure a Bible college carries out its mission to evangelize the world? If the answer to these questions is “no”, then why seek accreditation? It seems to me that the reason is that the student or parents want an accredited degree. “Accredited” here means, “recognized by the world”. Now if a Christian student wants to earn a BA in education, a BS in business, or a BS in computer science from a Christian liberal arts college, then accreditation might make it somewhat easier to enter a secular graduate program in those disciplines, while at the same time providing opportunity for theological reflection within a Christian culture. If the student intends to enter public education, it is essential to have an accredited undergraduate degree. If the student intends to enter industry, accreditation is only marginally important for their first job only. After that, an employer doesn’t care if the degree is accredited. Track record on the job becomes more important.
However, suppose a graduate has an unaccredited BA in theology, Bible, or ministry. Of what importance would accreditation be for serving the church? Is not the degree itself an accreditation? A diploma is a letter of certification. The Apostle Paul talked about receiving workers with letters. Then if the college has integrity, shouldn’t the diploma be enough? The meaningfulness of that college’s diploma, that is, the reputation of that college, will be determined by the competence and character of its graduates over time. This should carry more weight than accreditation, with churches and Christian agencies. I have known many graduates from accredited Christian colleges or seminaries who could not do exegesis, lived like the world, or whose theology consisted of clichés, borrowed mostly from the church growth movement. If the degree is simply for the purpose of ministry, accreditation is unnecessary, and probably opens up the institution to pressures to dilute its mission. If the graduates wish to go on to graduate school, then if it is a seminary, the lack of accreditation will probably not be a problem. If the graduate school is in a field outside of theology or ministry (e.g. law, philosophy, medicine), then the student will probably be required to take the GRE general exam to certify basic scholastic aptitude. Such a student should not be admitted, accreditation or no, if the GRE general exam score shows weakness. If the student can score high on the GRE general exam, accreditation was unnecessary. If the student from an accredited school scores low on the GRE general, then accreditation was misleading.
If the student wants to gain entrance to a secular graduate program for which the GRE subject-specific exam is required, then it is likely that such a student would need to take a BA or BS in that field first. In that case, accreditation in Bible, theology, or ministry would not have gained them anything anyway.
I am trying to show in this way that accreditation is for undergraduates who do not intend to pursue full-time ministry, and who want easier access to graduate school in secular fields. Since they have already made the decision to major in something other than Bible, theology, or ministry, obtaining accreditation does little harm. But if their purpose is ministry, which only needs to be recognized by the church, then a more concentrated, uncompromising education in Bible, theology, or ministry is to be preferred, and offers a deeper inner processing, without risk of compromise with the world.
Hopefully, these suggestions will make Bible college accessible to many more in the brotherhood, including those not aspiring to paid ministry, and raise Bible college access to a much higher per-capita rate.