Bill Gates says this is “a special time in education.” Adaptive technologies such as MOOCs (massive open online courses) are bringing innovation to higher education. This is good news – except for the study of theology. A recent survey indicates it is one of the “least entrepreneurial majors.” Here is a way to make theology innovative.
LinkedIn recently surveyed over 13,000 professionals who are entrepreneurs. They profiled the most successful ones, including their courses of study in college. Theology turned out to be one of the “least entrepreneurial majors.”1 This presents a problem, since entrepreneurism includes innovation, Latin for renewal, the work of the church. It seems seminaries are perfectly designed to produce pastors who aren’t very innovative.
There is hope. Online courses known as MOOCs are revolutionizing higher education. The New York Times dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” But by themselves, MOOCs don’t make innovators. But coupled with a comprehensive educational approach, they could make seminaries entrepreneurial. It begins with recognizing reality. Max de Pree said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. Sociologist James Davison Hunter writes that “Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever – spiritually speaking – exiles in a land of exile.”2 An entrepreneurial seminary education begins by recognizing reality.
If we assume today’s church is in exile, the precedent becomes the Babylonian exile. In Jeremiah 29, God tells the Judeans they are in exile. Older Judeans refused to recognize this. They didn’t like being judged. It implied failure. Only the sons of Judah “got” it. They recognized reality. Entrepreneurial seminaries will recognize the church is in exile and overlook the strong likelihood that older seminary professors will disagree.
Like the sons of Judah, this entrepreneurial education will immerse promising seminarians with cultural elites. The sons of Judah were emerging leaders. They were immersed in king Nebuchadnezzar’s courts for three years, among Babylon’s cultural elites. They did this to study the language and literature of Babylon (Dan. 1:2-4). An entrepreneurial seminary education would select qualified candidates, having them live for three years in key cities such as Washington, D.C. Washington is important, as it represents one of the densest clusters of cultural elites
Charles Murray says 80 percent of America’s elites are “balkanized” in 882 U.S. zip codes. Most “do not have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian.”3 The densest cluster runs right through Washington, D.C. If we want to change the world, we have to change the “influentials.” We can’t influence “influentials” if we’re not clustered close to them. Getting close is essentially immersion. And that’s the best way to learn a language.
This is where MOOCs can make seminaries innovative. In an entrepreneurial seminary education, students would select from a wide array of online courses. They could earn a degree from Gordon-Conwell or Denver Seminary. They could take courses from Harvard Divinity and Princeton Theological. They could craft a hybrid educational experience. The MOOCs would constitute a large percentage of the coursework. But local instructors would mentor, instructing in how the church operates in exile. They would proctor exams, verifying course work. More importantly, these local faculty would facilitate skunk works, helping seminarians learn how to translate scripture into today’s language and literature.
Skunk works are a far cry from the traditional seminary model. The standard seminary model is based on curriculum and classroom instruction. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, two professors at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, say this approach is not very effective. Curriculums are static. Innovation is dynamic. It is “by definition unpredictable and uncertain.”4 The best approach is a skunk works, where practitioners present problems. Seminarians learn to solve them by translating scripture into street language that practitioners can use.
This is the “live case study model” being adopted by most leading business schools. It is essentially the teaching hospital model – research, instruction, and making the rounds. Govindarajan and Trimble say businesses integrating these kinds of skunk works with the rest of the company become “dedicated innovation machines.” It could work the same way in seminaries. They could build innovation machines.
Students will like this approach, since it’s frugal and effective. Most seminary students relocate to attend school. Why not relocate to a more strategic setting? And MOOCs cost less than traditional courses. The Georgia Institute of Technology recently began offering an online master’s degree in computer science. The fees put a top-ranked computer-science program at a price point more comparable to a typical community college – about $134 per credit, compared with the normal rates at Georgia Tech of $472 per credit for in-state students and $1,139 per credit for out-of-state students.
As the Council on Foreign Relations reported recently, America continues to slip down the international rankings in education. Education technology could contribute to reversing this trend – “if it is not jinxed by politics, bureaucracy and outdated institutional structures,” writes The Economist. Most seminaries are outdated institutional structures. This has turned the study of theology into one of the least entrepreneurial majors. It also produces seminarians who are not very innovative. This trend can be reversed, but it calls for seminaries to recognize reality, building innovation machines that produce entrepreneurial clergy who make a difference.
2 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibilities of Christianity in the Contemporary World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 277.
3 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 107.
4 “The innovation machine” The Economist, August 28, 2010, p. 57.