If You Live in Canada, Christian College Courses Are Transformed By Online Bible Colleges
Updated: Jul 13
Author: Richard Jones, Chief Operating Officer, Maritime Christian College
The Christian higher education landscape has been undergoing significant foundational changes for the past twenty years. The changes were slow to see at first. I relate it to the root system of a tree - when the root structure undergoes stress and loses its health, all parts of the tree eventually show this lack of health. What type of roots have been revealed?
Significant declines in membership for many mainline Protestant denominations in Canada have resulted in reduction in enrollment in many Bible colleges and seminaries.
Declining enrollment for degrees focused on church ministry as young adults choose degrees for secular careers.
Financial pressure on many Christian colleges and universities due to higher costs, shrinking enrollment, and generational changes in traditional donors.
How are educators and administrators of Canadian Christian colleges reacting to this change? One resource is the organization Christian Higher Education Canada (CHEC) (see www.checanada.ca/chec/about_us for details). CHEC's mission is to “advance the efficiency and effectiveness of Christian higher education at member schools, including fostering institutional cooperation, and to raise public awareness of the value of Christian higher education in Canada”.
In Christian Higher Education in Canada: Challenges and Opportunities, a collection of papers given at the CHEC Symposium in 2018 and edited by Stanley Porter, president of McMaster Divinity College, ON and Bruce Fawcett, president of Crandall University, NB, the editors write:
“Christian institutions share the common belief that God has called them to a particular institutional purpose and will, with that calling, provide what is necessary for them, whether that means expansion or retraction or even complete reconceptualization. In that regard, most authors realize that, no matter how optimistic they may be concerning the current situation, Christian higher educational institutions cannot be complacent, but must constantly evaluate themselves and how they relate to their constituencies and other spheres of influence further afield. A final theme of this volume is that there is probably no single and certainly no simple way forward for the diverse institutions that make up Christian higher education. Bible colleges face their own challenges, and even these are varied, but the same can be said of universities and university colleges, as well as of seminaries and graduate schools. This need for individual innovation provides a challenging opportunity for Christian higher education as it looks to its own future within the contemporary Canadian context.”
Ron Benefiel’s 2008 article, “The Ecology of Evangelical Seminaries,” states: “There is a common feeling that the landscape of theological education has shifted. The view of the ministry and how people become ministers is changing. Competition from nonseminary sources weighs heavily on everyone’s table. In many circles, theological schools at one time cornered the market on training ministers. But that is no longer the case, thanks to the Internet, the rise of “virtual seminaries” and online courses, and the proliferation of popular conferences, workshops, and the like, often under the auspices of so-called teaching churches. Choices abound, and increasing numbers of leaders no longer look to theological schools as their primary source for the latest information on best practices, new ministry models, or developing strategic plans for reaching the culture.”
Another important observation from Benefiel is “Perhaps the single most important movement emphasized by members of the task force was the need for seminaries to work more closely with the local church. The seminary needs the local church.” He goes on to state: “The point is that the seminary and the local church need each other in the work of preparing people for faithful and effective ministry in today’s world. For seminaries, this will mean listening closely to pastors and lay leaders and inviting experienced pastors into the seminary community and on to the seminary faculty. We have to aggressively listen to grass roots leaders not only for building relationships for funding purposes but also for the welfare of our curricular efforts to produce quality leaders for the church. In taking the local context seriously, seminaries must continue to engage it.”
Since March 2020 many of the foundational institutions in Canadian society have been irreversibly shifted due to the COVID pandemic. Canadian higher education, I believe, is one of the segments of our society where this shift was already happening – COVID was just an accelerant. In Canada, Christian colleges, like many around the world, shifted abruptly from in-person learning to some form of “online learning”. Most of the time this online learning was just using video conferencing to connect professors and instructors to their students, and it was not a high-quality experience for either the teacher or the student. But this COVID-driven response did point out a few things about online Bible schools: there was potential in using modern technology to improve the way the Canadian Christian colleges taught students to fulfill Jesus’ mission to make disciples.
Another factor influencing what Canada Christian colleges and universities were delivering for programs, and whether they were online Bible colleges, in-person only, or a combination of online and in-person, had to do with enrollment. Many Canadian Bible colleges and universities, and in fact many across North America, that have been focused exclusively on teaching theological subjects, have been experiencing declining enrollment for several years (see article on USA-based Christian Bible college enrollment in January/February 2022 issue of Christian Standard).
I am highly aligned with the sentiment expressed here by these authors that any Canada Christian college needs to have a calling from God as a reason for its specific purpose. I believe every Christian-based organization needs to periodically evaluate whether it still has its calling from God. If the leaders discern this calling, then they also need to be prepared to deal with the societal context they are operating in, some of which was described in previous quotes.
Let me explain how Maritime Christian College (MCC) has responded to this change, and why MCC has positioned itself as an online Bible college focused on training and equipping disciple makers at local churches. Our journey of repositioning started to pick up momentum in 2019.
For several years previously, the MCC Board of Directors, staff, and supporters had been praying, fasting, and discussing how MCC could best deliver on its core purpose of educating and equipping men and women for Christian service. We engaged in discussions with the leaders of independent evangelical churches in our network in Canada and the United States about the trends they were experiencing. An example of this occurred in the spring of 2019 when I participated in a call with several church leaders in the Restoration movement in North America who were involved in planting and growing new churches. The team from MCC asked these church leaders for advice on how MCC might be able to better support the revitalization of declining churches and the planting of new churches in Canada. Their answer was very direct and simple: we should be focusing on making disciples first, and the revitalization and planting will naturally grow out of that activity.
Based on this dialogue with churches, strategically examining the state of higher education and online Bible colleges, and listening to the Holy Spirit in prayer and fasting, MCC’s leaders came to the conclusion that our institution of Christian higher education should be clearly aligned with the mission that Jesus has given every one of his followers to go and make disciples.
With this confirmation of its calling to offer higher education undergraduate-level courses focused on the theology and practical application of disciple making, it was also clear that MCC needed to shift from its traditional delivery model of in-person learning at our campus. MCC transitioned to a more intentional online Bible college format using the best online teaching resources we could find. This opened the concept of using asynchronous online learning and making our courses attractive to both full-time and part-time students working in their home churches while studying the theology and practical application of disciple making. These decisions were made prior to anyone knowing about the COVID-19 pandemic that was about to sweep around the world.
Once MCC made the commitment to have courses ready for fall 2020, our efforts accelerated during the spring and summer of that year. Dr. Jerry Scripture joined our staff and was instrumental in guiding the structure and format of our online courses. We were able to attract several church leaders from across North America to develop and instruct specific courses on disciple making, and provide a high-quality experience for students.
When we launched the first online courses in MCC’s Disciple Maker Certificate, we were excited to see 23 students sign up, many of whom had never taken courses at MCC before. The feedback we received from course developers, course instructors, and those students, combined with the direction we continued to discern from the Holy Spirit, gave MCC validation that our first experiment with an online Bible schools’ format, and disciple-making focus, have been successful. In 2021 we accelerated and expanded our plans, delivering two new Certificate Programs with specialized focus on disciple making for church leaders and for youth leaders.
As Maritime Christian College focused exclusively on being an online Bible college for educating and equipping students in the theology and practical application of being a disciple maker, it became apparent that our full-time programs also needed to reflect this. Maritime Christian College recently announced a new Master of Arts in Disciple Making & Ministry Leadership starting in January 2023 (www.mccpei.com/master-of-arts-in-disciple-making-ministry-leadership). This fully online Masters degree will provide students with the knowledge and real-world application skills to be an impactful disciple maker in God’s Kingdom, offering a balanced blend of Christian theology, disciple making strategies, and ministry leadership. Students gain hands-on learning experiences from world-class disciple makers and leaders.
Another link in MCC’s “reconceptualizing” (to use a term from the 2018 CHEC publication mentioned previously) was to focus our attention first on the leaders of local churches, not just on individual students within their church membership. MCC staff and Board members engaged first with the lead pastors and elders of local churches in MCC’s network to determine where their churches needed support in transitioning their church to a “disciple making DNA”. There were basically three types of responses to MCC’s outreach.
Some of the churches MCC has worked with in the past three years have been focused on disciple-making since we first talked to them and embraced MCC as an online Bible college that could enhance their own efforts. MCC has been blessed with students actively sponsored by these churches.
Some church leaders we spoke with felt they already good initiatives underway around disciple making and might not require MCC’s online format.
There was a third constituency of church leaders who welcomed MCC’s offer to work with their leaders to transform their local church that had been in decline in attendance and vitality. MCC staff provided strategic consulting sessions to help their elders, pastors, and other leaders align their ministry focus to disciple making culture. These churches embraced the support MCC could offer in equipping their leaders and core disciple makers with the strong theology and practical application of disciple making that is enabled by MCC’s online courses. This deep engagement with church leaders has turned into one of the most important inputs MCC is using to continue to evolve its online programming to meet the needs of local churches.
Most of the things I have described about the Christian higher education landscape in Canada and online Bible colleges are still a huge work in process. The earthquake of COVID since 2020 has shaken the foundations of many institutions in our society, and Canadian Bible colleges and universities are no exception. It is interesting to go back to the pre-COVID CHEC article from 2018 and read the assertion that “individual innovation provides a challenging opportunity for Christian higher education as it looks to its own future within the contemporary Canadian context”. I strongly agree with that statement. I am hoping that as you have read this blog post, you will have gained an appreciation of why Maritime Christian College strategically viewed the Christian higher education landscape in Canada and picked a path of restructuring out focus to that of an online Bible college focused on training and equipping disciple makers in local churches.
We are praying that churches and students taking our online Bible courses will experience a Spirit-led transformation in the way they study and apply disciple-making fundamentals, which in turn will catalyze a revitalization of disciple-making in existing and new churches across Canada and around the world.
Discover our online courses and programs at www.mccpei.com/programs .
 Christian Higher Education Canada website, “Our Mission” https://www.checanada.ca/chec/about_us  Stanley E. Porter and Bruce G. Fawcett, Christian Higher Education in Canada: Challenges and Opportunities (Hamilton: Pickwick Publications, 2020), page 10.  Benefiel, Ron, “The Ecology of Evangelical Seminaries.” Theological Education 44, no. 1 (2008): page 23  Ibid, page 25  Ibid, page 26  Chris Moon, Christian Standard Magazine, https://christianstandard.com/2022/01/january-february-2022/, p.32  Stanley E. Porter and Bruce G. Fawcett, Christian Higher Education in Canada: Challenges and Opportunities (Hamilton: Pickwick Publications, 2020), page 10.