What Paul can teach us about distance education

For more than a decade, master of divinity degree programs have faced downward trends in residential enrollment. Spurred by the pandemic, many institutions have responded by offering more hybrid (blended residential and remote) and fully online programs.

It might be supposed that distance theological education is primarily an alternative form of education, a technological innovation, even a concession of sorts. But a review of the New Testament, and specifically Paul’s letters, reminds us that distance theological education has been around since the beginning.

In fact, Paul’s letters offer a dynamic view of distance, embodiment and the collaborative formation of the Christian, providing church and academic leaders today a biblical and theological framework for welcoming hybrid and online learning.

Theological distance learning is not new

The apostle Paul formed early Christian communities all over the Mediterranean even though he was unable to be with them in person much of the time.

More than a substitute for his physical presence or a concession to circumstance, Paul’s letters were an intentional feature of his teaching, allowing him to be “absent in the body yet present in the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3). While it is true that Paul sometimes wrote letters because of difficult circumstances (several were written during his own “lockdown” period), he also strongly believed in forming Christians from afar.

Indeed, the fact that a significant percentage of our New Testament canon is made up of Paul’s outgoing mail tells us that theological formation can and does occur at a distance.

Now, Paul’s relationship with the churches he helped form and educate in the faith was, like the state of higher theological education, complex. The apostle visited churches when he thought his physical presence would be helpful for formation.

But by that same logic, teaching remotely allowed Paul to rely on an intricate network of collaborators, including those named as co-authors of his letters, like Timothy and Sosthenes, as well as contacts in the churches’ local communities, like those named in the postscript of Romans.

Additionally, Paul’s absence in the body empowered young churches to raise up their own leaders rather than rely on a limited circle of apostles. For these reasons, some like theologian Russell Haitch have called Paul the “prototypical distance educator.”

Teaching the “body of Christ”

Whether in person or by correspondence, Paul’s commitment to forming Christians and leaders found expression in the image he introduced to the world — the “body of Christ.”

Imagining people as parts of a body, he declares that a body’s feet need its hands just as its ears need its eyes. Members are to treat one another as “indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22), that all may belong in Christ, in order to keep the body whole and flourishing.

In terms of theological education, however, restricting the scriptural image of the body to bodies in a physical classroom dilutes our understanding of Paul’s formative ministry.

For example, what about all the potential students not able to resign their jobs, sacrifice income in addition to paying tuition, move their families to a new city, and leave their material and spiritual networks behind? Historically, such barriers have especially hindered prospective students of color, those with fewer means, and those in midcareer called to serve churches.

Such would-be students are no less members of Christ’s body, even if the physical requirements of a fully residential M.Div. program create distance between them and their inclusion in theological education.

Hybrid and online degree programs are more obviously forms of “distance” learning, but viewed from another angle, they remove distance. That is, by allowing students to remain in their ministry contexts as practitioners, they enable students to learn in context with immediate application of their learning.

Additionally, forms of remote learning often provide greater access and affordability overall. Welcoming remote learners and the programs that support them actually expands our conception of the body of Christ, while reminding us of the limits of exclusively residential models of formation.

Embodiment and embeddedness

In Christian theological education, the default critique of distance learning is rooted in the conviction that God took on human flesh and dwelt among us and therefore did not meet us via Zoom.

Alternatives to residential learning, it is thought, can lead to separating the soul of teaching from its physical embodiment. However, hybrid and online programs do not negate the “embodied” learning of residential models; they reverse them.

Human beings come from local contexts, which rely on specific material and spiritual networks. The best distance education programs recognize the embedded nature of remote learning, drawing on the strengths of learners’ contexts. Such learning may take the form of collaboration with local practitioners, field education in a local ministry context, and the immediate application and integration of academic learning.

Thus, while some might be inclined to reject remote learning for its “disembodied” feel, there is sometimes a deeper embodiment among remote learners in their contexts. Indeed, the rise of bivocational (or even trivocational) ministry leadership suggests that the situation most remote learners experience reflects emerging realities in ministry today.

Paul imagined that his “remote learners” had everything they needed to grow where they were — intermediaries to deliver and interpret Paul’s teachings, contextual collaborators to equip learners, and a local network of material and spiritual resources.

Certainly, remote learning is not without risk. More agency rests in students’ hands. Instruction does not orbit as tightly around institutional faculty members. More educational ground is ceded to practitioners in widely varying contexts.

Risk comes with the trust and choreography required among faculty, staff, practitioners and students to make learning work. Such trust and its inherent riskiness is evident throughout Paul’s letters. But Paul’s conviction remained steady — namely, that he could teach Christians from afar.

While shared physical space is important for formation, Paul reminds us that just as important are the relationships, networks and influences that compose the contexts in which Christians live and move.

As more theological institutions consider hybrid and online learning modes, new questions arise about the role of local churches and ministry contexts in the formation of theological students.

If churches in the past have been content to send their prospective leaders to faraway schools to be trained, a new era may require theological schools to rely increasingly on churches and their communities to help them equip leaders.

Learning lessons from Paul’s teaching by correspondence can help inspire churches to renew their focus on being equipping communities, allocating considerable resources and energy to the next generation of Christian leaders.

As interest (and, likely, angst) around remote learning continues to grow, we can be assured that we are neither alone nor without scriptural precedents. The original distance educator can help equip us to face the challenges of the future.

It was an hour before the doors would open. I was beginning to panic. The chairs were set, the sound check was done, and the speakers were ready. All I had left to do was set up the giant TheoEd letters on the stage. The problem was, the lowercase e would not stay in place. It leaned a little to the left, a little to the right, and sometimes it would flop over on its side.

After 18 months of planning and promoting, I thought, this e was about to ruin everything! In truth, it was the least of my concerns.

What I was trying to pull off back in 2017 was risky. At that time, I was a scholar-in-residence at a large church in Atlanta, and I was working with a group of lay leaders to re-imagine the congregation’s annual sermon and lecture series.

We wanted something fresh, something that could reach out into the community. We wanted to make the best learning available in a format that was accessible and engaging to a broader audience.

We wanted to bring a little bit of TED to church.

But could we really pull it off? Would leading thinkers in the church and the academy be willing to give the talk of their lives in 20 minutes or less, as TED Talks do? Would audiences show up? Could we produce the whole thing with the impeccable quality of TED?

We sold out that first TheoEd event, the speakers were fabulous, and the e stayed put.

Since then, we’ve put on seven TheoEd shows, with several thousand in attendance and more than 100,000 viewing our talks online. We have developed discussion guides to go along with each talk and a prize for graduate students. For the first time this February, we took TheoEd on the road, visiting Charlotte, North Carolina.

Through TheoEd, we’ve tried to do for the Bible, theology and spirituality what TED has done for technology, entertainment and design. In the process, we have been learning a lot about what it takes to engage public audiences in conversations about God, religion and the power of faith to shape lives and communities.

Here are three discoveries and how they might help churches and seminaries rethink their approach to education.

Re-imagining the sage on the stage

Conventional wisdom has it that the sage on the stage is dead. At least, that’s what I took away from Parker Palmer’s “The Courage to Teach” when I read it in seminary. Palmer describes a “community of learning” in which the expert is displaced from the center of attention and learning happens through a nonhierarchical web of relations between students, subject and teacher. I love this model and use it in the seminary classes I teach.

Much like Palmer, the TED organizers are convinced that the traditional academic lecture is not an effective vehicle for engaging most audiences. What Palmer solves through decentered, discussion-based learning, TED solves through well-coached speakers, compelling short-format talks, an attractive stage and high-end production.

We’ve followed a similar path in TheoEd. Getting there isn’t easy, as most of our speakers are more comfortable reading lectures from a lectern or delivering sermons from a pulpit. If there’s a secret sauce to TheoEd, it’s the insistence on the highly polished, no-notes, short-talk format that TED popularized.

What TED reminds us is that the church and the seminary of the future will need new wineskins, not just good ideas. We’ll have to let go of some well-established models of education, and we’ll have to lean into creative experiments. Some of those might look like what Palmer describes. Others might, like TED, try to re-imagine the role of the sage and the design of the stage.

Reaching the second audience

What sets TED apart from most speaker series is that its primary audience is not the people who attend in-person conferences. Rather, TED is all about the “second audience” — those who experience its content only digitally. Focusing on the second audience doesn’t just involve remembering to turn on the camera and set up the livestream. From how the speakers are coached to where the cameras are placed, the whole point of TED is to make the second audience feel like the primary audience.

We try to do the same with TheoEd. A case in point: During our February 2020 event, a speaker’s microphone malfunctioned during the first few minutes of the talk. The in-person audience could still hear the speaker, but the malfunction would render the digital recording unusable. Having prepared for this scenario, we paused the talk, fixed the microphone and asked the speaker to start over.

It was a bit awkward for the in-person audience, but we were convinced that this was worth it, because we knew that far more people would eventually listen to this talk through our website than were actually in the room that day.

If churches and seminaries are going to get serious about using digital media to reach new audiences, they will have to start designing offerings with the second audience squarely in mind.

How will that change things? It will mean paying more attention to elements like lighting, sound quality, camera angles, stage design and run of show. It will also mean making strategic decisions about which offerings should be online and which should not — doing less might well be the key to doing better when it comes to reaching the second audience.

Creating communities of curious souls

The look and feel of TED is inviting and inquisitive. The talks prompt the audience to ask questions and to consider new ideas — or to revisit old ones. The point of TED, as its website says, is to create “a community of curious souls.”

Isn’t that what a church should be — a community of curious souls? Becoming such a community will mean valuing questions over creeds, dialogue over dogmatism (whether conservative or liberal) and wrestling with difficult texts over trying to protect God from people’s doubts.

It will also mean rethinking where education happens. We’ve chosen to hold TheoEd in community centers and performance venues rather than church sanctuaries. We’ve found that these spaces can be more inviting to those for whom the institutional church has ceased to be a place of meaningful belonging.

Rather than inviting people to their buildings, perhaps it’s time for churches and seminaries to do their work out where their audiences are already gathering — coffee shops, pubs, community centers, art venues, gyms, parks.

Taking TED to church is no panacea for all that ails traditional models of Christian learning and theological education. But learning from TED is, as their tagline puts it, an idea worth spreading.

What TED reminds us is that the church and the seminary of the future will need new wineskins, not just good ideas.


As a professor at UCLA Chavez, Robert Chao Romero witnessed a struggle happening in many of his Latino and Latina students. They were struggling to reconcile the Christianity of their upbringing with their desire for justice in their daily lives.

Like Chao Romero himself at one point in his life, they felt theologically homeless.

“I’m thoroughly versed in liberation theology and other movements, but I never considered the fact that other brown people are wrestling to find their place as Christians as I have,” Chao Romero said.

Brown Church To search for and create that theological home is the goal of his recent book, “Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology and Identity.”

In the book, Chao Romero presents the “cultural wealth” of Latino/a church history, highlighting the justice message present from the 16th century onward. Not only will Latinos/as learn from this history, he says, but the entire church can learn from its history of deconstructing and reconstructing Christianity.

Chao Romero received a J.D. from UC Berkeley and a Ph.D. in Latin American history from UCLA. He is also the author of “The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940,” which won the 2012 Latina/o Studies Section Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association.

Chao Romero spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the diversity of Latinos/as, what he means by “brown church,” and what its theology says to the present moment. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What’s the personal story behind writing this book?

Robert Chao Romero: When I got tenure at UCLA, it was not related to scholarship in this area. My first book is a book about the Chinese in Mexico, which is sort of related to my own background. My mom is an immigrant from Hubei in central China. My dad is an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, northern Mexico. My first 10 years or so as a professor, I was actively engaged in ministry with my wife working with activist students, but my scholarship was all about Asians in Latin America, which was great, and I loved that, but there was no integration there.

I wanted to integrate my scholarship with my experience being a pastor and so forth. I was tired of leaving two-thirds of myself outside the door. I wanted to bring myself in, my full self in.

That led me on the road to “Brown Church.” I went on a sabbatical. I studied at Fuller, and I began to figure out how do I reconcile faith, justice and this long history of the Latino community, this very complicated history of interaction with Christianity from the colonial period into Jim Crow to the present moment. There’s a very complicated history between the Latino community and Christianity, at least as an institution, and I wondered if there was a way to reconcile that or to understand that.

The posture of the field of Latino studies is that Christianity is simply a racist, classist and sexist religion. That’s kind of the party line, if you will, among the vast majority of scholars. But that’s not the experience of most of the Latino community itself.

We’re a very faithful community. Our grandparents, our parents, our communities all have faith. If you look at the statistics from Pew, it’s like over 80% identify with the Christian faith in one expression or another, and so for the discipline of Latino/a studies to just not engage Christianity for better or for worse just doesn’t make any sense.

If we claim that we want to understand the Latino community but we very conspicuously leave out the Christian faith, whether Catholic or Protestant or evangelical or mainline or whatever, I think it’s disingenuous. “Brown Church” was my attempt to reconcile those questions and address these different issues.

Another thing I’ll say is the main goal of “Brown Church” is to provide a spiritual home for many. There are thousands if not millions of spiritually homeless Latino/a students. They are in these borderlands of Christianity and activism, Christianity and social justice, spiritual borderlands, because they want to reconcile the two but they don’t know how because of this complicated history. It’s religious, it’s theological, it’s political, it’s historical. It’s issues of gender, race. Christianity is so complicated for us, and it always has been.

I wanted to write “Brown Church” to be a window into 500 years of Latino Christian community cultural wealth.

F&L: How do you define the brown church?

RCR: I define the brown church as the 500-year Latino/a social justice tradition, in simple terms. The brown church is actually older than the Protestant/Catholic divide. Its social justice tradition dates back to 1511.

After Columbus got lost and landed in the Caribbean and enslaved all the hundreds of thousands of natives there, which began the conquest of the Americas, a Dominican friar named Antonio de Montesinos saw all these terrible abuses, which was really genocide, and denounced all the Spanish elites of the island. He preached to them and said that he was the voice of one crying in the wilderness and that they were abusing and exploiting the Indigenous people of the land and if they didn’t repent, God was going to punish the nation of Spain and send them all to hell.

This Dominican friar preached the first prophetic racial justice sermon in the Americas in 1511 in this straw-thatched little chapel, and the book chronicles the history ever since, from the colonial period to the U.S. conquest of half of Mexico to Jim Crow segregation to Cesar Chavez to the undocumented immigrant student movement.

It’s important to also flesh out what I mean by “brown.” When I talk about brown, it’s really a metaphor for a couple of things. First, the vast and beautiful cultural mixture that’s in Latin America. In Latin America, we’re everything culturally and ethnically. We have Jewish Latinos/as. We have Asian Latinos/as like myself. We have Indigenous, Spanish, any mixture, anything. So brown is first of all a metaphor for that.

The second meaning of brown is a metaphor for the racial liminality that we experience as Latinos/as in the United States in between Black and white in terms of social constructs, in terms of historical Jim Crow segregation, in terms of political discussion and debate, in terms of denominational structures. We’re in this in-between space, and we have been for hundreds of years.

To give an example of this racial liminality, during the time of Jim Crow, a lot of people don’t know that Latinos/as were segregated as well. There was segregated housing, segregated schools, segregated pools, segregated everything. But then there’s a U.S. Supreme Court case called Hernandez v. Texas, and other cases as well, where we went to the courts and said, “You can’t segregate us, because we’re white.” That was our argument. But were a special kind of white that still experiences discrimination.

And the judges would sit there and scratch their heads and call in expert witnesses from UCLA or USC or different places, and they’d say, “What do you think, professor of anthropology, are Latinos white?” They’d sit there for a couple of days and debate it. Then the court said, “Yeah, actually Mexican Americans are white.” But then we just returned to our homes in our cities, whether it was Pasadena or LA or Texas, and they would still discriminate against us anyway. They’d just find other reasons to, other than the racial argument. That’s a good example of how we’ve been always in between.

F&L: What do you hope people will learn from the book?

RCR: “Brown Church” is trying to lift up to the body of Christ the fact that as Latinas and Latinos, we are God’s children too. We’re not the same as the Anglo church. We’re not the same as the Black church. We’ve been journeying with Jesus for 500 years, and we have our own beautiful, God-given community, and the cultural wealth and history and theology that comes from that. The brown church is just a different entry point into the beloved community.

We’re not perfect. You can say that for every ethnic group. The Latino culture — we have amazing glory and honor, but we also have this thing that’s called machismo that destroys people and families. And thank God that’s not going to make it into heaven. Latina pastors and theologians like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in 17th-century Mexico and Ada María Isasi-Díaz in the present have articulated a “preferential option for women,” meaning that in a sinful and broken world, women experience exploitation and God takes their side in their oppression. Unfortunately, machismo is still a reality in many Latino churches, and much growth needs to happen with respect to the inclusion of women in institutional leadership.

The Spirit has journeyed with us as the brown church, and we have this 500 years of community cultural wealth that God has given us. We are a part of the body of Christ too, and we want to offer this wealth as 1 Corinthians 12 talks about. The larger church needs us. We’re not just an afterthought.

In this particular political moment, where the U.S. is so racially divided — as the brown church, we’ve been wrestling with these issues for 500 years. It’s not new to us. We haven’t seen things in a Black/white binary for 500 years. As my friend and scholar Dr. Tony Lin taught me, we’ve been thinking outside a white/Black binary because we’ve had to.

Another application of “Brown Church” is that many people, millions of people, are currently deconstructing their Christian faith in light of many current events and trying to reconstruct it in a way that’s faithful. I think there’s some good deconstruction happening, but I think there’s very little healthy reconstruction happening. The brown church has been deconstructing and reconstructing for 500 years, and there are many lessons to be learned from this history of the brown church, and also the living, breathing, thriving community of faith that is the Latino community in the United States today.

Before 1563, when the first “modern” seminary opened, academic institutions weren’t really involved in providing theological education. Instead, that task fell primarily to local churches, especially large, urban cathedrals, which were both places of worship and sites for clerical training and lay-focused education. Though they didn’t offer formal degrees, cathedral churches and a few monasteries were where theological study and scholarship happened.

Much has changed since then. Today, even the largest and wealthiest “big steeple” churches would be hard-pressed to provide the specialized ministerial training required for clergy candidates in their own denominations — never mind students from other traditions or with vocational goals outside of ministry. Clearly, independent seminaries and university divinity schools are much needed and here to stay.

Even so, after 500 years of outsourcing theological education, could it be time for the church to also try a different approach? Could the future of theological education be found, at least in part, deep within the church’s past?

I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. The church can gain much by returning at least some aspects of theological education to local congregations — “insourcing” them, you might say. The cathedral church model prompts us to think in new ways about where and how theological education will happen in the 21st century. It calls us to reimagine local churches as viable sites for seminary-level education.

Here are three potential benefits to making the local church a new place for theological education:

First, by offering courses off-campus in accessible, familiar locations, the cathedral model can expand the potential audience for theological education, giving seminary leaders an additional strategy in their efforts to boost enrollment.

This is exactly what we did at Columbia Theological Seminary. In the spring 2016 semester, I taught a three-credit course in Old Testament theology at the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, where I serve as the scholar-in-residence. The course met in the evenings and was open to both Columbia seminary students and up to 10 church members.

The class was a win-win for both institutions. For First Presbyterian, congregants got to take a deep dive into seminary learning in the context of their own church. For Columbia seminary, divinity students were able to learn alongside — and from — smart and engaged lay members. By holding a seminary class in a local congregation, we were able to open up space for contextualized learning. In this class, the starting point was not a body of academic literature but rather the ministries of the church and the needs of the community it serves.

By bringing rich theological content to where Christians already gather, this model has the potential to engage a much wider audience, including congregation members and staff from regional denominational bodies such as presbyteries and synods. Taking seminary off campus can reinvigorate the theological formation of lay members who would otherwise never enroll in seminary while also serving as an effective recruitment tool. Of the 10 lay members who participated in our Old Testament course, two are now full-time students at Columbia seminary.

Second, if the potential audience for theological education is the entire church, we will be spurred to rethink how we package and present our content.

Here’s where we can learn from TED. With more than 1 billion views a year, this wildly popular online speaker series owes its success not only to fascinating presenters and topics but also to its polished short-talk format. In the time it takes to walk the dog, drop the kids off at soccer or, here in Atlanta, drive one exit on the Connector at rush hour, listeners can hear an inspiring talk from a near-endless list of topics. The medium, as it turns out, matters quite a bit when it comes to lay education.

What if the short-talk format was adapted for theological education? Inspired by TED Talks, First Presbyterian last year launched a new speaker series called TheoEd Talks. In this series, we brought together leading thinkers in the church and the academy to give “the talk of their lives” in 20 minutes or less. By packaging powerful ideas in bite-size presentations, such talks provide a fresh and compelling way for diverse audiences to explore important questions about God, theology, and the power of faith to shape lives and communities.

With live events and high-quality videos available online, the TheoEd Talks series recognizes that church-based theological education requires more than just transferring traditional seminary classes to local congregations. It means finding creative ways to translate content into formats that are accessible and engaging for a broader audience of believers and seekers alike.

Third, the cathedral church model can challenge us to rethink the purpose of theological education, re-envisioning it as not merely a pathway to an M.Div. or other degree but an act of discipleship in its own right.

You can find hints of that idea in the final chapter of Luke, in the story of Christ’s appearance to two travelers on the road to Emmaus. Mistaking the resurrected Jesus for a stranger, the travelers told him about the recent events in Jerusalem, including rumors of an empty tomb.

Obviously, the two had much to learn. Yet rather than encouraging the travelers to go enroll in studies at a local synagogue, Jesus brought theological education to them. As they journeyed together, Jesus interpreted the Scriptures for them, and soon their hearts were stirred and their eyes were opened. For the travelers, the road to Emmaus was a road to theological formation.

If we dare to see the church once again as a viable site for theological education, the implications of Luke 24 will be even clearer. The road to Damascus — conversion — has always led to the road to Emmaus — theological education. That latter road, the path of theological education, is not only for those who feel called to ministry. It is for everyone who feels compelled to follow Jesus Christ. The two roads are successive steps, first one and then the other, that many — more than we can imagine — are called to take on the journey of discipleship.