If you were raised in an Independent Baptist Church then I know you have been exposed to at least one Bible college. They come in many forms and flavors, and speaking about them generally is difficult. My personal experiences are not the same as others that I have talked to about the subject. I ask the reader to accept my thoughts as more general than universal.
Before we go further we must define what we are talking about. A Bible college or Bible institute is an institution for training Christian leadership. They will likely be marketed as a Christian equivalent to a secular university but with targeted ministerial training. Many offer little course options outside of realms of theology, practical ministry, or Christian education.
The Bible college movement began in the late 1800’s. Two of the earliest examples in America are Moody Bible Institute (1882) and Nyack College (1882). Also of note is The Pastor’s College (1856) that was founded by Charles Spurgeon. These early examples were envisioned to be practical training centers for the Christian ministry for those with little or no academic background. Many were largely established in response to growing concerns about Modernistic teaching in denominational schools.
Today, the Association for Biblical Higher Education estimates that there over 1,000 Bible colleges or institutes operating in North America across the entire spectrum of theology and denominations. Some occupy large campuses on hundreds of acres and others are small extensions of local churches with only a handful of students.
I do not have any idea how many Independent Baptist Bible colleges exist, but their influence is great upon churches and leaders of that stripe. There is a general expectation that anyone surrendered to God’s ministry will attend and graduate from some sort of school. Some even promote attending one year of Bible college even if you have no intention of going into the ministry.
With the history and general landscape settled, I would like make some observations based on experience and observation. I do not claim to be any sort of expert on ministry training or higher education in general. I am just a guy with some opinions.
Practical Training vs. Academics
Bible colleges typically follow a different model than a secular college. Bible colleges are more focused on practical training and usually have a apprenticeship model. Expect some sort of hands-on ministry involvement to be required as part of or in addition to classroom training. Those activities will likely be viewed as more important that any academic achievement. Simply put, how you perform in ministry is more important that what you learn in class.
I am not saying this is bad. Ministry training as seen in the Bible is very personal and very practical (see Paul and Timothy for example). The problem I see is that we have turned out a generation or two of church leaders trained in what to do but with little understanding of why to do it. We need both practical and academic elements in balance.
One of my own frustrations was a feeling that I was paying my hard-earned money for the privilege to serve in a notable ministry. I sincerely felt that whatever ministry requirements were put upon me (with little room for discussion or even the right to decline assignments) were emphasized far above any real training I received. I was expected to work and produce with little training more than pep talks and threats of demerits. I was honestly told by school leadership that if you could build a bus route you could pastor a church. I found that ludicrous at the time, and even more so now that I am pastoring.
Spheres of Influence
Historians tell us that the Ancient Greek world revolved around the polis, or city-state. Practically speaking, the many subdivisions of Independent Baptists largely revolve around their own Bible colleges. When a single church, fellowship, association, etc. becomes powerful enough to start a Bible college it begins to draw churches, ministries, and leaders into its orbit. Like it or not, you will be tied to and identified with your alma mater and its supporters.
Most Bible colleges have at least local and at most regional influence. They rely on alumni to send prospective students and thus growing its base even more. These alumni form a network that will likely attend the same conferences and support the same missions works. If you move outside that region you can find yourself with few contacts and little support from your alma mater.
Ministry Opportunities and Placement
When I was young I viewed Bible college as one step in the cursus honorum leading to successful full-time ministry. It did not quite work that way for me; it only took about 14 1/2 years after graduation for me to be in full-time ministry.
While the need is great and the laborers are truly few (Matthew 9:37), that does not mean there are full-time positions just waiting to be filled. In fact, if current trends continue we will likely see more bi-vocational workers in the ministry. I know the ministry is about service and not just a paycheck, but we also promote surrendering to “full-time ministry”.
How will you find a place to minister after graduation? Some will follow a Divine call to a mission field. Some will return to aid the churches they came from. Some will remain part of the Bible college’s mother church. Some will be dependent on contacts with or the recommendation from the Bible college leadership. This last one will likely be dependent on ministry performance and not academic honors.
The “MRS. Degree”
Personally, the greatest failure of many Bible colleges is their anemic offerings for ladies. Typically they will offer a Christian education or secretarial program. Neither of which will equip a young lady to be self-supporting.
The reason for this is because Bible colleges largely exist for the training of men and not women for the ministry. Why do young ladies attend them? Simple, to get married. Bible colleges have become not just training centers but also matchmaking services. The unstated goal is to match spiritually consecrated men and women.
What about those ladies that do not get married? In my own Bible college experience there were far more ladies than men. Some may never marry and these will be holding a degree that will provide little opportunity to provide for themselves.
What You Need to Know Accreditation
Many of the pitches I’ve heard made by those promoting a Bible college will include some statement that they are not accredited and never will be so they can freely teach the truth of God’s word.
First, that’s not how accreditation works. Accreditation is a quality control mechanism that allows outside inspectors to certify that a college is operating properly. They largely do not care what is being taught, but rather how it is being taught. They ensure that the academic rigor meets or exceeds expectation for the course of study.
Second, accreditation is not a method for the government to force a school to teach one thing or another. The United States government is not even involved directly in accrediting any institution. It does recognize certain organizations that do accredit schools. But again, that is not really about what is taught but rather how it is taught.
Third, Bible colleges are generally exempted from being accredited due to laws respecting religious freedom. A Bible college can generally give any sort of religious degree without accreditation. They cannot, however, award what I will call standard or secular degrees. Any institution offering those without proper credentials will likely be shut down by the government. Note here that many Bible college degrees do not have the same titles as their secular counterparts. For instance, instead of the academic standard Bachelor of Science in Education degree a Bible college may award a Bachelor of Science in Christian Education. Many states have laws requiring unaccredited religious degrees to be clearly identified as such, thus the addition of Christian in the previous example.
Fourth, an accredited degree will be more readily accepted in the greater world. That B.S. in Christian Education I just mentioned will not allow you to work in a public school or even some private schools. Bible college degrees are designed to be focused for use in training for and acceptance in the world of Christian ministry. I have learned in secular workplaces to describe my four-year Bachelor of Science in Bible and Pastoral Theology degree as the equivalent of a trade school certificate. I do not even mention my correspondence Master’s degree, but that is a whole other story.
Fifth, Bible colleges can be accredited. There are organizations that do so. The two main reasons that I think keep Bible colleges from seeking such accreditation are (1) they do not want to be accountable to an outside entity and (2) they present practices and situation simply could not be accredited. Even if they desired accreditation, they are likely unable to invest the time and money to make the necessary improvements.
Sixth, your non-accredited Bible college credits or degree will almost certainly not be accepted in a secular or accredited school. I have a family member that graduated from a non-accredited Bible college, then decided to get an accredited degree to work in the public school system. One accredited Baptist university offered to accept a handful of credits from Bible courses as elective credits. Otherwise none of their credits would transfer. After a four-year Bible college program they were forced to essentially start a second four-year program that did not recognize the first even existed.
Seventh, if you hold an non-accredited degree you need to be honest about it. Multiple states have laws prohibiting the use of unaccredited degrees at least in regards to state employment. When I first learned about the true nature of my degree, I began to note clearly on my secular resume that my four-year degree was not accredited. Know what you have and know what you can and cannot do with it.
Should a Bible college seek accreditation? I can see the pros and cons of both sides. The greater need is not seeking accreditation, but rather being honest about why they are not. Any one seeking to attend a Bible college should know what they are getting into, especially in regards to the type of degree they will be receiving.
College Training or Youth Group?
Most Bible colleges target students nearing high school graduation. The vast majority of students will likely be 18-22 years old. Older students are rare. Those college-age years are not known as being the most serious in our society. In fact, the opposite is quite true. Those years are often an extension of childhood in the guise of adulthood.
My observation is that most Bible colleges are run as an extension of a church youth group. They are marketed to parents as a safe place to send their child where they will not be influence or tempted and where they can find a mate.
The way these students are treated shows this. Rulebooks will be thicker than theology books. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But only slightly. What this does is counterproductive. Instead of leading to maturity it promotes a child-like mentality of subservience to leadership and structure. When those are removed in four years these ill-adjusted young people are in for a rude awakening.
My Ideal Bible College
What is my idea for a perfect Bible college? Glad you asked. Here’s some ideas.
First, I would drop the terms college or university and use something like school or institute. The nature of Bible colleges is practical and not academic. I would drop all pretenses and run it more as a trade school. I would not seek accreditation since I was not a college and there would not be an expectation for it..
Second, I would not award degrees. No Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degrees. Again, I would completely abandon any pretense of being a college.
Third, I think I would instead award certifications upon completion of certain courses or programs. I have worked in an I.T. field and this is the type of system it uses. This would allow for very focused and practical certifications across a wide spectrum of ministry and theological fields.
Fourth, I would still have some sort of program or track that would last multiple years. There would be lesser certifications available, typically taking one or two semesters. These would build towards more intensive and advanced certifications. So, while a two semester certification in youth ministry could be available, that could be integrated into a much more in depth certification in pastoral ministry.
Fifth, I would target only those serious about serving in ministry roles. If this can be done remotely with people actively serving in their own churches that would be fantastic.
Sixth, I would not have dorms or promote campus life and activities.
Seventh, I would have almost all courses be on Bible, doctrine, and ministry. Maybe some history, especially church history. English may be one of the only required classes that would be considered traditional
Eighth, I would go for quality over quantity. In students and in class offerings.
Ninth, I would make everything taught available online as much as possible at no cost to the general public. It should not cost you to learn the Bible. So many Christians could benefit from audio or video recording of lectures being made public. Many secular universities have embraced such an “open” view of education and I think it is time Christians follow suit.
The Status Quo
I doubt that my vision for a general upheaval in Christian education will occur in my lifetime. I can imagine plausible situations where the government could force it upon us.
The Bible college system of today is deeply flawed and has drifted from its original mandate. In some cases it is just a feeder system to bring workers into ministry machine. In many cases I am afraid the level of education barely rises above Sunday school lessons.
I will give you a couple of examples of the poor quality education that Bible colleges are offering. First, the correspondence Master’s degree program I went through awarded me six credit hours for listening to eight sermon tapes each about an hour long and then completing two non-proctored exams that took less than 5 minutes each to complete. Second, at my four-year Bible college I took a class named General Psychology which actually became a book study of Jack Hyles’ Blue Denim and Lace. There is an explanation as to how that second one came to be that I do not feel that I can share at the present, but nevertheless it happened.
Let me say that the importance of effective ministry requires that we produce men and women ready and able to meet the challenges they will face. In many cases our Bible colleges are failing in that regard. The cure for criticism is excellence, but the current system and its products are too often inferior or at best mediocre. But it is the system we have in place. It can be improved. The first step towards addressing these issues is an honest assessment of the situation and the second step is honest communication about it.