Formal and nonformal Christian education: definitions, advantages and challenges

Updated: Mar 4

By Dr. Scott Klingsmith, Denver Seminary, assistant professor of intercultural studies; missiologist-in-residence

About 15 years ago, I taught a course called “Alternative Approaches to Theological Education” at a school in Germany. At the beginning of the course, I warned the students that I wouldn’t be fulfilling their normal expectations of a professor by filling up their notebooks with lecture notes. Instead, we would be practicing what we were talking about – an approach that included many aspects of nonformal education. With this warning in mind, the students were happy to participate, and they learned a lot. A couple of years later I taught a different course in that same school but neglected to mention that I would be practicing many of the same teaching methodologies. Halfway through the course, several students came to me complaining that we were doing too much discussing and they weren’t getting enough content. At that point I had to be explicit about what I was trying to do in my teaching. Again, with that explanation, they tolerated the rest of the course.

Contrast this to a recent survey of remote students at Denver Seminary. Their biggest complaint was that there was too much lecturing by the professors, and their desire was for more possibilities for small group discussions. They wanted to be more involved in their own education and to have more chances to integrate what they were hearing into their own ministries. Granted, this could have been due to Zoom fatigue, or the difference between German and (mostly) American students, but more likely it could be attributed to a convergence between formal and nonformal educational methodologies.

I’ve used the language here of formal and nonformal education. But what are we talking about? What follows is a cursory and over-simplified overview of two approaches to education, a brief history of how they developed, and a description and evaluation of the two approaches. Finally, I’ll ask the question: Which of these two approaches to theological education is more appropriate and effective in equipping pastors and leaders for the church around the world?

My experience over the past 35 years has involved a pretty even mix of formal and nonformal theological education. We served for 14 years with Entrust in Eastern Europe, then 10 years between the Austrian church-based training program and the Academy for World Mission in Germany. And I’ve now been teaching for 12 years at Denver Seminary. I’ve observed and experienced the advantages and the challenges of both methodologies.

I. Definitions of formal and nonformal education

Let’s start with some definitions. Take into account that these can be found on a continuum, and that the lines between the different categories can get blurred at times.

Formal education means school. Structure, classrooms, accreditation, professors with different ranks, emphasis on content and testing, certifications or degrees. Professor as content expert, who practices what Paulo Freire called the banking model of education, in which the professor deposits knowledge into the mind of the student who in time withdraws that knowledge for some purpose. The educational experience is time-bound and tied to a building/campus. The end result is a degree.

Nonformal education is structured, but without the full apparatus of a school. The emphasis is on life-long learning, adult learners, applicability to life, with the teacher as facilitator of learning. It is primarily aimed at the needs of the students. It is action-oriented. The learner may or may not earn a certificate of some kind.

Informal education is learning that just happens in life. Ministry training by living with a pastor. Martin Luther’s Table Talks is an example of education by a pastor and teacher as he chatted with his students around the kitchen table during meals.

We’ll focus on the first two here. Formal education is what we’ve all experienced, because we’ve all gone to school. And most of us have probably also experienced nonformal, but perhaps without the language to describe it. If you’ve at