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Speeding up the Great Commission by eliminating student loans

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Jesus called us to go and make disciples. Yet too often, that call gets interpreted as “slow, take on a lot of student debt, and then maybe make disciples sometime in the future.”

Since 2001, tuition and fees have risen by 5% each year and university presidents have predicted a staggering annual increase of 6% going forward, potentially bringing the cost of a bachelor’s degree close to an average of $250,000 within the next 10 years. Another study shows that today, the average debt load for seminary students who have taken out student loans to help pay for an M.Div. degree is $66,000. According to the current annual rate of increase, this number will double to at least $132,000 in the next 10 years.

Eventually, this financial rubber band is going to break, for it is not sustainable for young men and women who are called into fulltime ministry, whether it be in a local church, itinerant ministry or missionary service. In reality, the financial rubber band has already broken, and we have not yet come to grips with it. What often ends up happening is that the ministry is no longer pursued or limited risk is taken because of the student’s debt. 

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Though the traditional education model is valuable for some, is it worth the price to pay for many aspiring ministry leaders, especially those from developing nations where pastors are desperately needed? The honest answer is no. Most young ministers who attend seminary start their ministry in debt, handicapping them from fulfilling the Great Commission and successfully planting churches.

Jesus called us to go. Just as onramps lead us onto our interstates and highways, we must create practical and affordable onramps onto the highway of ministry.

Moving from where to who

According to Dr. Leonard Sweet, the E. Stanley Jones Professor Emeritus at Drew Theological School, “The future of ministry education is not so much about where you go to school as it is who taught you while you were going to school.”

Distance died when the internet was born. Theological education and ministry training are fields where technology is creating a powerful and efficient onramp onto the highway of ministerial education. Amidst the costly barriers of the traditional blueprint of brick and mortar, online learning models are emerging as a beacon of hope, bringing benefits such as global representation, affordability and the gift of time.

In our work with the Global Church Divinity School (, we have witnessed the fruit of shifting focus and adapting to the needs of today’s ministers, or as I like to say, the “now” generation — those of the next generation who are stepping up to make a difference now, not 5, 10 or 20 years from now.

Having moved from “where” to “who,” we have identified some of the world’s leading professors, practitioners, theologians and subject experts, offering a synergistic approach to cultures, languages and experiences. Students are not confined to one location or a select group of experts. Today, students no longer have to choose a “where” when they can be taught by the best anywhere.

I believe this is the future of ministry education – a sustainable and effective approach to raising up wise and well-educated pastors, evangelists, missionaries and church leaders. As the late Dr. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and I stated back in January 2002, when we first launched an online ministry education model, “In the future, more will be trained online than all of the colleges and universities combined.”

Even though many leaders laughed then, no one is laughing today.

Moving from slow to go

If the Lord calls a person to become a fulltime missionary, it usually takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree and another three or four years to complete a Master of Divinity. Even though seven or eight years have transpired, missionary monthly support may still need to be raised and language school still needed before entering fulltime missionary work.

This traditional ministry education model, in addition to being too costly for many, is too slow to keep up with the desperate need for more fulltime pastors and missionaries. The compounding speed of the internet and technology have revolutionized the speed at which we can download specific information, study it and apply it to our lives.

Modern, online ministry education models enable students to study as they go, learning while they serve in fulltime ministry, rather than going to a specific location and taking years to complete their ministry education and training.

The future onramps onto the highway of ministry

If we want to serve this “now” generation of emerging ministry leaders well, our focus should be to move from where to who, from theoretical to practical, and from slow to go. 

Additionally, we must establish low-cost training options and foster a supportive environment for learners through a network of pastors and church leaders globally. There is no better time to synergize our efforts for the Gospel through meaningful ministry education. We must build wide and deep in order to scale high with compounding numbers of ministers being educated to complete the Great Commission.

Dr. James O. Davis is co-founder of Global Church Network, a growing coalition of more than 2,750 Christian ministries and 700,000 churches who are synergizing and mobilizing their efforts to help finish the Great Commission by 2030. Global Church Divinity School has helped train tens of thousands of Christian leaders since 2002. 

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