What is the nature of spiritual formation? How is it possible to work toward formation in online education? Or, is it?

Questions about Online Education

In recent years, questions like these have often been raised and discussed. Christian institutions of higher education have grappled with market forces. They’ve wrestled with an increasing presence of online initiatives.

In so doing, sometimes serious concerns have been raised. If online students are physically absent from their institutions, does not this absence negatively affect students’ spiritual formation?

Moving toward an Answer

The answer I’d like to give is, in short: “No, online education isn’t necessarily any more problematic than physically face-to-face education when it comes to fostering students’ spiritual formation.”

Each mode—whether online or face-to-face—includes challenges. Sometimes the challenges are common to both sides. Sometimes they’re unique to one or the other. But in neither case do the challenges necessarily make either mode inappropriate for institutions concerned with students’ spiritual formation.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but for about the past decade, I’ve primarily worked in online education in one way or another. This began from force of necessity—employment is a very good thing, especially when you have a family in the mix.

Over that time, as both an online professor and an online administrator, I’ve made (and still make) plenty of mistakes. I’ve seen spiritual formation both grow out of this online context and fail to do so. Yet for all intents and purposes, this has looked to me an awfully lot like what we might experience also if we’re working at formation physically face-to-face.

“Play” as an Approach to Spiritual Formation

But why and how does this happen? And how can Christian educators can move toward doing better at online spiritual formation?

As an attempt at answering these questions, I’m grateful to Theological Education for carrying my essay “Gaming the System: Online Spiritual Formation in Christian Higher Education” (52.2 [2019]: 43–53).

If you’d like a copy of this essay, just drop your name and email into the form below, and I’ll send it along. With it, I’ll also include another related article that expands on a point about presence I was only just able to mention in “Gaming the System.”

My main argument in “Gaming the System” is that the to-and-fro movement of “play” lies at the heart of what enables spiritual formation. And that’s true whether this formation happens online or onground.

If you’re in Christian higher education in whatever capacity (e.g., students, faculty, administration), I hope you find the essay helpful in framing how we might approach spiritual formation online. And as always, I welcome your comments and further discussion below.

For faculty, staff, and administrators, what have you found to be effective “moves” for you to make to encourage online students’ spiritual formation?

For students, what “moves” have your faculty, staff, or administration made that you felt particularly encouraged your spiritual formation?

Header image provided by Ben White

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