Online or on campus? Come to campus if you can.

“And when He saw the multitudes, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. And opening His mouth, He began to teach them, saying….” (Matthew 5:1-2)

I am a product of the old-fashioned system of education. From first-grade through the doctoral program, I sat in classrooms among other students listening while trained men and women taught us.

No one phoned it in to us nor we to them.

Just so you’ll know where I’m coming from.

Nothing about it was easy. When I was in seminary, taking a full load of classes on theology, Hebrew, church history, Christian ethics, and the like, while trying to hold down an afternoon job at the Coca-Cola Bottling company, the stresses were plenty. With our one-year-old son, Margaret and I had moved from Birmingham, Alabama, into a four-plex on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

This is our story. (Well, okay, this is part of our story.)

Several things happened there that changed this farm boy forever, and for the better, may I say.

I made some lasting friends.

Bill Lowe, perhaps a dozen years my senior, lived down the street from us with his wife Nita and their three children. One day after Hebrew class, Bill approached me.

“Joe, could you help me? This stuff is killing me.”

That’s how it happened that we began meeting at his apartment or mine, a couple nights a week, to spend hours digging into Hebrew.

It was one of the best gifts anyone ever gave me.

Nothing helps you learn academic material like trying to explain it to someone else.

Bill and I bonded and became lasting friends. He passed Hebrew (I have no memory of his grade) and I learned to love the Hebrew language.

You can’t get that online.

The typical online seminary student works in isolation from his home. If he is struggling with a subject, he can either turn to his wife or go online and tell other students or the professor, but it’s not the same.

There is no substitute for sitting across the kitchen table with a friend, your books spread out before you, and hashing out a problem until both of you grasp it. (These days, our students also have the vast seating area inside the Hardin Student Center, a building which housed a Maison Blanche department store when I matriculated here. I never enter the HSC without seeing a group of students sitting around tables or hunched over a couch, hammering out some classroom assignment.)

I came to know and treasure many professors, but one in particular.

George Harrison taught Old Testament and Hebrew. He was perhaps 10 years older than me, which put him in the mid-30s, and carried a reputation as one tough bird. Some students avoided him because of that reputation.

I loved him.

Dr. Harrison had a wonderful sense of humor which no professor would ever type into on-line notes today.  In the class called “Old Testament Survey,” he would drop in small lines such as….

–“Some people have wondered what language Balaam’s ass spoke. Dr. Eddleman (president of our seminary and his major professor from seminary) says it was either ASSyrian or HeBRAYic.”

–“When the whale coughed Jonah onto the shore, someone asked if he was hurt. He told them his injuries were strictly superFISHul.”

–“When David asked Abigail about her husband Nabal, she said, ‘Nabal (fool) is his name and folly is his game.'”

He would drop those gems into his lecture without a pause and continue right along. Whether you caught them or not was your business. I loved his wit.

I came home repeating these to Margaret as well as other choice insights from God’s word Dr. Harrison delivered.  Later, in every post-seminary pastorate save one, we had him for a few days of Bible-teaching for our people. They loved him, too.

In his prayers to begin the class, Professor Harrison would frequently reference what the New Orleans City Council would be dealing with that day and ask for guidance. You knew without asking he had read the morning newspaper that day before leaving for class. (Anyone who knows me recognizes the value I place on that.)

Our relationship was a lasting one, and Margaret and I still treasure this godly man, his wonderful wife Jean, and their three adult children.

I’ve done online teaching, and a lot can be done that way. But you do not eyeball the professor, you cannot pick up on his/her personality, and you cannot interact the way you could in a classroom.

The koinonia is not available online.  Fellowship between students is one of the best things about on-campus seminary.

In between classes, we used to stand around and shoot the bull, gossip about professors, and rejoice at what the Lord was doing in our pastorates.  God used this fellowship time to change my life.

Hugh Martin was my senior by a number of years. We both loved to laugh and we wore our joy in the Lord on our sleeves. If the Lord was doing something special in our churches, in our seminary mission assignments, or in our personal lives, we talked about it.

One day, soon after we had graduated, a church in Mississippi asked Hugh if he had any interest in becoming their pastor. “No,”he said. “I’ve just taken a church in New Orleans.”

The chairman said, “Well, Brother Hugh, I felt the Lord telling me to call you this morning. Perhaps He wants you to recommend someone else to us.”

That’s how it happened that Hugh gave Emmanuel Baptist Church of Greenville, Mississippi my name. He told the deacon, “I’ve never heard Joe preach. But he loves the Lord and loves pastoring. I’d recommend you check him out.”

We spent over three years in that sweet church, then moved on to join the staff of the largest church in the state, and from there to pastor the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, for over a dozen years. Each one prepares you for the next larger assignment. (Incidentally, Hugh followed me in the Greenville church and stayed for many years.)

While in Greenville, I received a letter from Gene Brock, another classmate who was serving a county-seat church in South Georgia. “Joe,” he wrote, “if you are still as enthusiastic for the Lord as you were in seminary, I’d like to invite you for a revival.”

We still laugh at that.

The revival at Edison Baptist Church saw over 25 people come to Christ (this was in a church running 130 on Sunday) and remains a sweet memory of the Lord at work through my early preaching.

Gene had me to preach in two other pastorates, and we remain friends to this day.

We’ve named three great benefits of coming to campus and sitting in a classroom with fellow students and a real live teacher:  studying with other students, relating personally to professors, and fellowshiping with students outside the classroom.

True, uprooting your family and moving hundreds of miles to live in a city where you don’t know a soul is not easy. And it can be expensive. Online education is just so much more convenient.

If moving to campus is not possible for you, then take the online route. It’s a thousand percent better than nothing.

But do not tell a veteran preacher–one who made the sacrifices for a seminary education in the only way it was available in those days–that you’re staying home because seminary is expensive, uprooting your family is difficult, and adjusting to a new city could be hard.

We all did those things, dealt with the challenges, and never regretted it. Consider this….

–Margaret used to walk inside the giant Schwegmann supermarket near the NOBTS campus and be overwhelmed. More than once, she wept. The adjustment to New Orleans–she was born and raised in Birmingham–was difficult on her. But within a year, we were pastoring 25 miles west of the city, on Alligator Bayou, if you can believe it. We learned to love the wetlands, its amazing blends of people, and the Cajun culture.  (After pastoring in Mississippi for 19 years and North Carolina for three we moved back to metro New Orleans in 1990 and have been here ever since. This is home.)

–We did not know a soul, not one, when we arrived on campus. But as our rental van backed up to the apartment building late that Monday afternoon, Vaughan Pruitt stepped out of the building next door and said, “Hey! Need a hand?” You bet.

A first-year student from Union University, Vaughan had become pastor of tiny Pontchartrain Baptist Church on the lakefront, a few miles from campus. We began attending with the Pruitts, I taught a couples Sunday School class, and until being called to another church ten months later, led the worship.  Vaughan and Barbara became lasting friends.

Missionaries-to-be Jerry and Elaine Perrill lived in the same building. We have followed their ministries and prayed for them ever since.

–To be sure, in those days, tuition was low. Our biggest expense back then was just living–the rent was $55 a month I think. These days, it’s another story. But there are scholarships, assistance in finding church positions and secular employment, and, no doubt (I’ve not asked), student loans.

No servant of the Lord must shirk from doing something  God wants just because it’s difficult.

Last fall, as an adjunct professor, I taught a masters level course the seminary calls a “hybrid,” a blend of techniques and systems. Students in other centers (Orlando, Atlanta, and Jacksonville) were connected with our New Orleans classroom by video.  Two large screens at the front of the classroom showed the scenes at each location. I team-taught with professors in Atlanta and Orlando. We met only four times all semester, on Saturdays a month apart, three or four hours at a time. Each teacher had an hour or so to teach. In between–during the month-long intervals–we posted teaching lessons, had discussions, and graded papers, all online.

I have yet to meet a professor who prefers online teaching to the experience of face-to-face classroom situations. You can do a lot online, but you give up a great deal also.

It’s the coming thing, I realize this. To protest (which I am most definitely NOT doing) is tantamount to wishing the sun would not come up in the east or go down in the west.

However–this is a prediction, a hope, and my fervent prayer–there will always be on campus classrooms with flesh-and-blood professors. And that, for my money, is where the best teaching and learning will take place.

“And they said to one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Post Script….

I asked our myriads of Facebook friends to chime in on this subject. “If you are a seminary student, past or present, give us your assessment of the positives and negatives about online education.”  The responses flooded in.

Someone mentioned that seminary is a great place for singles to meet others called to the ministry for marriage.  (That one I never thought of, but it’s so true.)

Several who had taken classes online spoke extremely highly of the system. Some not so highly.  One said, “I live in Montana and cannot get to a Southern Baptist seminary. Online is the way to go.” Good.

Those favoring online seminary education spoke of the convenience, the freedom to work at one’s own pace (and at any time day or night in the kitchen or on the back porch), and the flexibility.  There are no interruptions, one said, from silly students who would divert the professor.

The downside of online education, according to some, is you don’t get to know the other students or the teachers, and students tend to drop these courses at a higher rate than when they live on campus. One said online courses are more expensive.

Those who say “in person, on campus” is the only one to go, say there is a sense of family with the class, that the chapel services (worshiping and singing and praying together) were so memorable, and fellowship between parents watching their children play together helped to bond them.

One minister whose education was all on campus noted, “The Bible says iron sharpens iron. But not aluminum or computer chips.”

Nothing here is meant to discourage students from getting their seminary by laptop if that’s what works for them.  It is intended however, to prod some to do a difficult thing and move their family to campus if that’s what the Lord wills. 

Oh, I should have pointed out that after coming to New Orleans in 1964, God laid this area on my heart for all time. When we returned in 1990, it was to pastor a church for nearly 14 years and then serve as director of missions for another five. I seriously doubt if any of this would have happened had we remained at home in Alabama and tried to get our education online.

I’m not saying God is limited. We are.

The Lord had to put me here to get past all the barriers in my mind and heart about this place.

“And the Lord said to Jonah, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh and cry out against it….” (Jonah 1:1-2)

Some things you just have to do in person.


13 thoughts on “Online or on campus? Come to campus if you can.

  1. I started at the NOBTS extension center in Birmingham and then moved to New Orleans to finish things up. I think the extension center is a great option–something in between online learning and moving to the main campus.

    The main campus and extension center each have their own advantages. You had more access to professors on campus and it was a very focused environment academically. But the guys at the extension center usually had years of ministry experience and wisdom to go along with it.

  2. Glad this option online option is available as well as satellite locations, but I wouldn’t take anything for going to Ft. Worth, not knowing a soul, enrolling and beginning an experience which is still changing me to this day. The interaction with other students and professors. Finding my mate in a church there, marrying and then moving into seminary housing and making friends with other families were part of the preparation for the calling. To this day I miss the part of lecture, classroom interaction, more laughter than any comedy club at things said and pranks pulled, all in good nature of course. This blog plus an experience on a college campus yesterday made me so grateful for my college/seminary experience. It is a testimony of a boy from the rural areas who wasn’t expected to do much, until God took charge of my life, and the rest is an experience I would not trade for a million life times. Though not all the times have been good, after a spell I don’t even remember those times. The church, SBC life, and especially the Lord, have given me a great vocational life in which we have and are still laboring for Him, raised two children, and made a decent income. Thanks for bringing those memories to life again for me. If heaven is anything like fellowship in seminary and church, minus the sour pusses, bring it on.

  3. Could not leave out the memory of chapel each morning where Dr. Robert Naylor, president of Southwestern would go to the podium quote large portion of scriptures and then read the SBC missionary prayer calendar for the day, following by a prayer that brought heaven to earth. You just can’t get that online.

  4. Joe, Dr. Harrison chaired my Doctoral Committee and in addition to the Old Testament class he taught, I took an intensive in Psalms from him. I treasure the note books from his classes. I had an aunt who was a member at First Baptist Church in New Orleans. To call her “eccentric” was gracious. On the first day of OT class when I became aware of a shopping bag crowding its way toward my seat, and my aunt (who was a graduate of the seminary when it was BBI) began pulling from the bag things she thought I would need in seminary, in
    a class taught by the OT professor with the “tough reputation”, I thought I was sunk. George Harrison knew my aunt from church. He had a brief but pleasant chat with her and began teaching as he did every day. Thanks for the memories.

    • He still smiles about the reputation he had of being tough. He told me once, “I came to the seminary thinking these were graduate students and should be doing a high quality of work.” But gradually over the years, he said he eased up when he began seeing that only a small percentage of the students were capable of that. I think he’d gotten easier by the time I arrived. As I say, Ron, I adored him. Still do.

  5. Joe, thank you for an insightful, helpful article about on-campus and on-line theological education. I fear that theological education is moving too far, too fast in the direction of what is market-driven, rather than what is excellent. Some students are demanding convenience, and institutions competing for their business are too eagerly giving in to alternative delivery systems that may be popular but are not as effective as the on-campus, in-classroom experience where students enjoy face-to-face time with professors & classmates.

    As you say, however, online education is here to stay – just like sunrise & sunset. This week, I have encountered several distance-learning students with whom I have connected through the Internet and who cannot leave their setting to come to seminary – they are in ministry positions; they have jobs they cannot afford to leave; their families are established where they are – there are a number of valid reasons to pursue theological education from a distance. For this reason, New Orleans Baptist Seminary strives diligently to make theological education available. The task of the online professor, then, is to make education on the Internet as effective & interactive as possible.

    But still, the responses that you received, Joe, and the article that you wrote show that there still is a place for residential, on-campus theological education – a place that needs to be recognized, enhanced & even expanded, not minimized or replaced by alternative delivery systems that may be popular today, but may prove ineffective tomorrow when graduates take their places in ministry positions.

    I appreciate you, Joe, and others, whose testimonies affirm that the sacrifices demanded by on-campus theological education are repaid by the relationships nurtured during that experience. Students debating the advantages & disadvantages of on-campus vs. distance education would benefit from reading this article.

  6. Amen! The value of friendships made in person during and after class with fellow students cannot be overstated. Thank you, as always, for your tremendous insight!

  7. Cathy, Amanda, and I arrived in New Orleans in 1991, not knowing a soul or what graduate school was like. I soon had a job teaching school, pastoring a church in Plaquemines Parish, and I went to seminary classes at night. We made friends on campus and at our church and I enjoyed the interaction between myself and my professors. My major professor was Thomas Roote, who taught Christian Education and Administration. I would not trade those days for anything. God was working a great work in our lives, and we came to love New Orleans, staying there for 14 years pastoring churches and learning the basics of ministry. Our son Robert was born there. Both children grew up there and were happy with friends and family.

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