We seem to be entering a new era in theological education in India. All the signs point to it. The tendency, in any discussion on theological education, is to criticize it on several fronts. Faculty, the classroom experience, infrastructure, the irrelevance of curriculum to contextal realities are generally highlighted. This reflection, however, will focus on some positive and negative trends in theological education that are important for us to take note of.
First, it is noteworthy that there is an increased desire from large sections of the church, especially the laity, for some sort of theological training—so, the growth of distance-learning programmes. This trend is accompanied by a perceptible decrease in the enrolment for regular, residential courses of study. The decline of enrolment in some institutions can be attributed, in part, to the mushrooming of theological training programmes across the country. Nevertheless, it is also true that many do not have the time, finance or inclination to enrol for a full-time course of study. The demand for non-residential delivery systems is leading institutions to consider distance learning as a viable means of providing ministerial training.
Distance learning may be conceived of in two ways—traditional TEE methods and the online method. Several institutions are moving towards offering training programmes at both the Bachelor of Theology and Master of Divinity levels in the traditional TEE pattern. This has both positive and negative consequences. This trend is heartening, since it broadens the scope for the church-at-large to be equipped. It offers the possibility for the larger community of the body of Christ to be trained as disciples of Christ in their own contexts. It offers, too, the opportunity for theological education to be tied to, as well as address the, concrete life situations of the people of God.
Negatively, questions can be raised concerning the effectiveness of the programmes offered, especially in terms of the “learning” that takes place. The delivery system is typically one where faculty prepare notes which the student goes through, and, after a few contact hours with a faculty member, write a couple of assignments and a final exam. In some ways this is not much different from the correspondence course which the Indian university system is famous for. Only a handful of institutions have a department that is fully dedicated to the planning and delivery of such distance-learning modes.
Second, and this is linked to the first point, is that we are entering a period where the use of the online method in India is emerging as a significant method of training. As mentioned earlier, only a couple of institutions have taken steps to explore this delivery system. The use of technology increases the reach of theological education in a way that was not possible before. Several institutions are exploring how to offer theological education using this delivery system.
The landscape of theological education in India is changing. But there is more to be done. The future and robustness of theological education must be grounded in a prohetic element which reads the times and carefully predicts what the years ahead have in store for the Indian Church in its life, ministry and engagement in the world
The challenge, however, is to prepare the ground adequately before launching into this mode. Institutions often assume, wrongly, that it is a matter of taking what is taught in the classroom and putting it into a readable format for the student to go through. This is much like the traditional distance-education format. Students’ needs, contextual realities and an effective learning methodology are not intentionally accomodated into the process, leaving much to be desired.
Third, there is an attempt to realign and rethink our traditional patterns of learning. This may not be obvious to many, but the move has begun. In the last two years, Asia Theological Association (ATA) has begun to focus its efforts beyond accreditation to facilitating faculty development programmes in different ways. ATA India has partnered with other entities to conduct three course writer’s workshops, with a view to enhance the learning process for distance-education programmes.
The approach to learning in our seminaries in India has been greatly influenced by a system which was teacher-centric and exam-focused. In this method, faculty approached the learning process with a set of assumptions that did not take into account student needs, creative learning processes and outcome-based learning. Such an approach moves theological education from mere accumulation of knowledge to training for active and effective ministry.
ATA International in partnership with the Global Associates for Transformational Education (GATE) has begun a series of workshops in four countries—India being one of them—to train faculty in the area of transformative learning.
Fourth, we are witnessing a great deal of soul-searching in relation to the nature and content of the theological curricula. There is an increasing dissatisfaction with the four-fold pattern that was handed down to us over the years. This dissatisfaction has led to certain institutions developing curricula that is relevant to the needs of their context. For example, one institution in Nagaland has developed a Master of Divinity programme focused on Family and Youth. A few others have Masters’ level programmes emphasising Management and Leadership from a Christian perspective.
Developing fresh curriculum that addresses the realities of who our students are as well as the diverse contexts they come from and in which institutions are placed in demands intentionality and hard work. Such a curricula cannot be framed overnight. Surveys need to be conducted, stakeholders need to be consulted and a clearly thought out purpose needs to be articulated.
But it is heartening to note that this ferment seems to bode well for the effectiveness and positive impact of theological education in India. In relation to this, we are encouraged by several collaborative efforts that are taking shape. At a recent meeting, the Christian Institute of Management, the Senate of Serampore College and ATA met to consider how best to include issues of management, legal rights and a host of other issues related to regulations and the like in a course for seminary students. Other tie ups will offer the possibility of dual-degree programmes where a student can pursue an M.Div. as well as an MSW and complete the two in a period of four years, instead of the normal five that it would take.
Fifth, we are at a time in India where Church-based theological education is on the rise. Some may also call this non-formal theological education, though, as Dr Prabhu Singh, Principal of SAIACS points that to begin with the word “non” immediately puts this in a negative light. Church-based theological education is the result of the growing number of churches that need trained pastors and leaders. Church and mission movements have understood the need for serious discipleship and teaching in their congregations and mission fields leading to an emphasis on the non-formal method of training believers. The phrase “non-formal” is in itself a misnomer, since the training does follow a developed curricular framework and is generally time bound.
Church-based theological education brings with a freshness that is necessary to rejuvenate theological education in general. Its emphasis on training the pastor in his/her context keeps it real and effective. It is estimated that several thousands of grass-root level workers and ministers are being trained in this manner.
The landscape of theological education in India is changing. But there is more to be done. What is needed is a visionary and forward-looking outlook that will help shape theological education for the years ahead. At best, the theological educational enterprise is playing catch up today. It is more reactionary than trendsetting. The future and robustness of theological education must be grounded in a prohetic element which reads the times and carefully predicts what the years ahead have in store for the Indian Church in its life, ministry and engagement in the world. It is only then that the theological education endeavour will maximise its impact and fruitfulness across the land!