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Formal and non-formal Christian education: definitions, advantages and challenges

two men one dressed in a suit, the other in a t-shirt

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 non-formal 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.

Non-formal 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 attended an adult Sunday School class, an investment seminar or a quilting class at the local fabric store, you’ve experienced nonformal education. But let’s look at it in a bit more detail, and compare it with what we know best. The following chart shows some of the differences, relating specifically to theological education.

Chart of formal and nonformal education

Examples of the differences

Language learning. Classroom (formal) with emphasis on grammar, vs. street (nonformal) with emphasis on communication.

IT. BS in Computer Science vs. certification in “X” (Cisco-certified internetwork expert or Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect).

Leadership. MBA vs. certificate in “X” (Project Management Professional Certification, Certificate in Organizational Leadership).

Ministry training. BA in Bible or Christian Education vs. Entrust’s WWMT: Women-To-Women Ministry Training

Non-formal education has traditionally taken on various forms. Correspondence courses have a long history, particularly in cross-cultural ministry, but were used more for evangelism and discipleship than for theological education. Distance education is a somewhat more organized and sophisticated way for students to study without having to move to a university or seminary campus. Open learning allows students to basically determine their own studies based on their individual interests. People who take MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are an example of open learning.

II. History of the idea

Schools as the place to educate clergy is a relatively new idea. Divinity schools within universities came on the scene late in modern history. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in the early 19th century, developed what became the standard outline of theological study, which in many ways continues to this day. This approach produced a highly educated clergy, but severely limited the number of people who could attend universities, either because they lacked the prerequisite education, were too old, were in churches that deemphasized theological education or for other reasons were unable to move to where these universities were located.

Friedrich Schleiermacher
Friedrich Schleiermacher

Theological Education by Extension (TEE) developed to meet a practical need. In the early 1960s, professors at the Presbyterian Seminary in Guatemala realized that the small number of students who graduated from the seminary were reluctant to return to the rural areas they had come from, and that, consequently, the churches in those regions were lacking theologically equipped pastors. Their solution was to take the seminary education to the people in those remote areas, develop materials at an appropriate educational level, and focus on the needs of the churches and their leaders. They essentially separated theological education from a building. TEE became a philosophy and methodology, which was rapidly adopted by schools all around the world.

Many Bible schools were attracted by this approach because they had seen the ineffectiveness of their own programs. They saw them as very expensive, requiring a full faculty and a campus in order to educate the wrong students. These were often women and young men without standing in churches, churches which had no positions of full-time pastors. So, the need was to train the people who were actually already leading churches.

In the late 1970s, a group of people serving in Eastern Europe saw the possibilities such an approach could have in that region. This eventually led to the formation of Biblical Education by Extension, International (later, Entrust). I became a member of that ministry. At the time, we still used the language of school. We talked of being a traveling seminary, and our name in promotional materials in the U.S. was Eastern European Seminary. The guiding assumption at that time was that school was better but the non-residential approach was necessary and all that was possible. The development was pragmatic rather than philosophical. It was nonformal, or what eventually came to be called church-based education.

Over time, experience led to the belief that this approach was actually better at equipping pastors and church leaders than was a residential seminary. We were all pretty convinced that our approach to theological education was the right one, the best one, not just for that unique context of ministry in communist closed countries, but for theological education in any context. This was actually ironic, given that we had all been educated in formal, graduate-level seminaries in the U.S., and a significant number of us later studied for PhDs in education.

This attitude seems to infect many proponents of nonformal education, who hold a negative view of traditional formal education, seeing it as rigid, more concerned with institutional objectives than the needs of students, and largely ineffective in equipping students for success in life and ministry. In some places this is borne out in the contrast between those pastors who have been educated in seminaries and those prepared through more nonformal programs. The seminarians are often viewed as technically competent in biblical languages and theology, but woefully incompetent in ministry skills and interpersonal relationships. This common complaint, on the part of receiving churches and graduates alike, has led to a strong push in many schools for more emphasis on spiritual or character formation and ministry skills.

Following the revolutions in 1989, there was a huge push, particularly in Romania but also in other former communist countries, to start residential Bible schools. Entrust courses and methods had been seen as appropriate training for pastors before the walls came down, and many Entrust students became pastors. But, these same courses were now characterized as adequate for training Sunday School teachers and lay people, while schools were seen as the right way to train pastors. It was fascinating to observe how deeply engrained the schooling model of education was in the minds of people, even those who had enjoyed a positive experience with the nonformal approach in their own lives. We also observed that when students returned to their own ministries and formed training groups of their own, they reverted to the teaching style they had been brought up with rather than the learning style they had experienced in their own Entrust groups. They lectured rather than led discussions. This was the impetus for us to develop explicit facilitator training.

III. Advantages and challenges

So, which is better, formal or nonformal theological education? Before we can give an answer, we have to recognize that this is not actually the right question. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. Much depends on the student’s context. Formal approaches are better for some people and nonformal will better meet the needs of others. Which is better? The best answer is, it depends.

Formal education offers a number of advantages. Students have the opportunity for an intense, concentrated time of study, in person with professors. They can either step back from ministry responsibilities or have an extended time of preparation for ministry. Accredited schools are recognized by the public. Many denominations require some kind of a theological degree to qualify for ordination. However, traditionally, this methodology has the disadvantage that a student must step out of normal life, uproot and go to the place where the school is located, and then be isolated from normal ministry opportunities. Often school is divorced from life and ministry, and teaching methods in many places around the world still depend on rote memory from students.

Nonformal theological education has advantages as well. It is flexible, in terms of timing, duration, scheduling and curriculum. It doesn’t have to meet accreditors’ standards. It can adapt to the needs of the target population. It doesn’t require prerequisites and is variable to meet different education levels and standards. It is generally cost-effective. But here there are challenges as well. While students can remain in their places of life, job and ministry without uprooting, it can be difficult for them to fit education into already full lives. There is typically little accountability, so it’s easier for students to quit when things get difficult. (The extremely low completion rates of MOOCs gives evidence of this.) Finally, the training may not be recognized beyond their own restricted circle of churches or organizations.

Today, there is a growing convergence, both in philosophy and methodology, such that many scholars contend that the differences are simply those of degree rather than kind. Nonformal methods have been embraced by schools in many places. Distance learning has usually been classified as a form of nonformal education but it has been incorporated into nearly all forms of higher education, at least in the U.S., and obviously, because of COVID-19, into schooling of all forms worldwide. So, the distinctions in many cases have largely disappeared. Non-traditional methods are being incorporated into formal school settings. Training and mentoring, internships, seminars and the like are all available for school credit. The dramatic growth of online programs and complete degrees has demonstrated how formal and nonformal methods have merged. It is possible to earn a seminary degree from anywhere in the world without ever stepping onto the campus of a given school. Seminaries are working hard to make their programs accessible to growing numbers of people, and many offer non-degree programs for those who couldn’t be accepted as normal graduate students.


Which is more appropriate? Each person much decide for him- or herself, based on life situation, ministry context, career plans and available resources. There is no right answer. God has and can use a variety of training and education options to help equip people to be engaged in his work in the world. There has never been a time in history when more resources are available than there are today.

Dr. Scott Klingsmith
Dr. Scott Klingsmith

Consider and discuss

  1. What do you see as additional advantages or disadvantages of both formal and non-formal Christian education?

  2. Where and how did you gain the knowledge and the skills you use most often in your work or ministry?

  3. What knowledge, skills and character qualities do you desire to develop in those you are equipping for ministry?

  4. What are some formal and some non-formal education options available to those you are equipping?

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