map making illustration banner

Globalization and Online Theological Education: Questions We Must Ask

Globalization and Fuller’s Missiological Education

Although located in Southern California, Fuller has had global reach for a very long time. This has been especially true in the former School of World Mission/School of Intercultural Studies, which was tasked with equipping students for more effective global mission. In its earliest years, the school quickly developed a reputation as a preferred location for students from the rest of the world to study mission, in part because faculty members were willing to travel almost constantly. They may have lived in Pasadena, but our current senior faculty have often recounted the adage that at least one School of World Mission (SWM) professor was on an international flight at any given time.

Over time, this commitment to equipping students beyond the confines of our Pasadena campus led to the development of various experiments in distance learning, and eventually to offering fully online classes—all with the goal of making a Fuller education more accessible, regardless of where a student lived. Fuller was also the first to push the boundaries of our accreditors, demonstrating that thoughtful and sound program and course design could support a program offered almost exclusively online when our MA in Global Leadership launched in 2003. Furthermore, while we have long acknowledged that online teaching requires sacrificing some aspects of the je ne sais quoi of a live, in-person classroom, allowing students to remain engaged in their local contexts and with their current ministry commitments has also increased the vibrancy of the class experience and made learning more vital in entirely new ways. The challenges and problems discussed in these classes are less likely to be hypothetical or based on old stories and more likely to involve vigorous consideration of problems that students are actively addressing wherever they are now. Similarly, while stories of technical difficulties and illnesses have seemed unusual enough when students have offered them as reasons for late papers through most of my time teaching at Fuller, they seem remarkably mundane in comparison to the stories of police detention related to participation in protests and cattle raids in Africa that I have received more recently.

At the same time, our commitment to offering accessible and effective online theological and missiological education has led to surprising trends, as increasing numbers of students living in Southern California and even across the street from campus have unexpectedly expressed a preference for online classes simply because they afforded greater flexibility with their schedules. So, by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all of our classes were forced online in March 2020, this was a remarkably easier transition for Fuller than for many other schools, since most of our classes already were online, and we already had the necessary training and support structures in place. Furthermore, this strengthened commitment to online learning is a key feature in Fuller’s future plans, as our institution has pledged to maximize the scope and availability of our online offerings moving forward and decrease our engagement with traditional face-to-face teaching modalities.

In one sense, this represents a flowering of that early commitment to share educational resources with any interested student from around the world that began with those long plane flights by SWM faculty members. Yet we would be unwise to take this increased opportunity for global connectivity as an indisputable good. Surely there are aspects of our easy global engagement that should be attended to, and warning signs we should not overlook.

Here is where, once again, missiological education may have something to offer. For the past ten years, the former School of Intercultural Studies (SIS) has incorporated the study of globalization in a required class for all students in our MA in Intercultural Studies program. The class was created by now-senior professor Bryant Myers, who eventually published much of his content as a book in 2017, titled Engaging Globalization: The Poor, Christian Mission, and Our Hyperconnected World. Both have been important contributions, since the history of modern global missionary efforts can be seen as a product of, an agent of, and facilitated by globalization. Therefore, it is essential that missionary efforts remain distinct from the primary drivers of globalization in our era.

Because the meaning of “globalization” is more than a bit slippery and mercurial, I should take a moment to define how I intend to use the term in this space. The central features of most definitions include consideration of interconnections across great distances, and especially those interconnections that are facilitated by newer historical developments such as telecommunications, transit, and financial exchange.1 Harvard scholar Theodore Levitt is generally credited for coining the term, and also for the initial focus given to it as represented in the title of his book, The Globalization of Markets.2 Furthermore, a key part of globalization studies features consideration of how these interconnections have multiplied and intensified since the end of World War II, and especially how the rise of the internet has accelerated these dynamics even further. Consideration of globalization provides a helpful lens and set of tools for noticing, analyzing, and critiquing a wide range of social connections across barriers of distance, culture, and nationality. As the pandemic and its associated physical isolation has necessitated increased online connections, the opportunities and needs for such analyses have only increased.

Theologizing on Globalization

In light of this definition, Paul’s missionary journeys can be seen and understood as an early function of globalization, creating connections across Asia Minor through sharing disruptive good news about the radical life and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth among Jews and Gentiles. He then instructed them to establish local faith communities connected across great distances under a shared identity of being Christ followers and reinforced these connections through a protracted letter-writing campaign. In fact, the offering that Paul took for the Jerusalem church demonstrates the kind of interconnectivity that globalization is intended to understand and assess. However, modern missionary efforts are an even better case study, as they motivate people to cross national and ethnic barriers for the sake of the gospel, and these efforts often include charitable or relief work as well as the sharing of culture and faith.

As a matter of fact, there are striking similarities between the connections created by the forces of globalization and the many New Testament images about God’s desire for the church to be global in scope. For example, Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 28 to preach the gospel “unto the ends of the earth” made it explicit that the followers of Christ were never intended to be just a local sect. Their work was quite literally expected to change the world. No wonder, then, that William Carey cited this as a primary text in his historic effort to use British financial resources to travel to India as one of the first known Protestant missionaries.

The dramatic depiction of the Holy Spirit’s arrival to the church in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2 also shares many of these features of globalization. The miraculous speaking in tongues that is recorded there was an important sign of the global identity and intentions of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the picture of people from every nation worshiping before the throne in Revelation 7 describes an anticipated future that fulfills this global remit and responsibility and has been interpreted as such for millennia. There is no question that the church that Jesus founded is expected to be global as part of its primary identity.

However, we must stop short of presuming that all kinds of global interconnectedness are God-ordained. It is presumptuous to suggest that globalization is primarily a product of God’s work in the world. Especially as it is understood as a contemporary social phenomenon, there are real dangers to the full scope of globalization as it is experienced today. Globalization should not be seen as a benign force; in many places and for many people it is most commonly experienced as a force for domination, exploitation, and control. Bryant Myers suggests that a Christian understanding of globalization must acknowledge that just like the aggressive colonialism and manipulative commerce that ended up compromising and corrupting the good intentions of many missionaries during the heyday of the modern missions movement, we must critically shape the forces of globalization that we have control over; otherwise, we are liable to be shaped by them. And since the twin gospels of neoliberalism and secular humanism offer only counterfeit answers to humanity’s deep questions of meaning, Myers challenges the followers of Christ today to rediscover and remind each other about the essential relevance of Christ’s death and resurrection for all people.

Myers cautions that globalization is a “complex adaptive social system.” By this, he means that trying to make changes with a broad brush can often have unexpected and undesirable consequences. As such, the contemporary forces of globalization cannot be easily or predictably changed. Instead, he suggests a more focused approach of banding together with other like-minded Christians both locally and globally to highlight those aspects of globalization that are most worthy of celebration with a single voice, while continually organizing and advocating against the unfair costs that it often exacts on the most vulnerable.3

Globalization and Online Theological
Education

A growing body of literature has been using the same lens of globalization to consider the globalization of education more generally. One of the principal observations is the ways that many efforts to globalize education and scholarly efforts more generally tend to take place in English, and therefore disproportionately benefit English speakers. In some of the strongest critiques, postcolonial scholars view the dominance of online education coming from the West as yet another expression of Western cultural imperialism and unrestrained capitalism, and they are particularly skeptical of online theological education in the guise of Christian mission as vehicles of this.4

Considering all of the above, we must be wary that globalization can be driven by, and therefore spread, ideas that compromise our purposes. So we must ask: Is it, in fact, good that Fuller increases its global reach through online education? Given the array of opposing views on every aspect of globalization, we must at least agree that we should only approach this challenge if we are also willing to do the hard work of regularly and soberly asking this question. Therefore, I offer the following critiques of online theological and missiological education, as drawn from this short analysis.

First, despite the appeal of virtual education, we must remember that the world will not ever be fully virtual. We get frustrating reminders of this reality when we try to schedule Zoom calls with groups of students and discover that differences in time zones make synchronous gatherings of even four or five students unfeasible or unfair, with one or more students obligated to gather during times they would otherwise be asleep. Rather, all of us are local, embodied beings in relationship with our physical neighbors. While lockdowns may have prevented us from having daily reminders of this, as they are being lifted, we must reclaim the embodied nature of our witness—perhaps to an even greater degree than we have realized in the past. Online education can have a tendency to even further “cognitivize” education, as students are no longer obligated to gather and relate to peers or instructors, and education is increasingly seen as something that can fit in around other priorities and schedules. This is especially problematic for Fuller, as we actively seek to form scholars and ministers for real world vocations. Therefore, it is more important than ever that we build assignments and other learning activities that require active engagement in local communities, ministries, and churches.

Following the former observation, we must respect that no one lives in a fully “global” reality. As suggested in many of the critiques of the forces of globalization referenced above, more sanguine analyses of globalization tend to operate as if there is one global culture, to which smaller cultures are being invited to participate. We cannot afford to make this mistake. Globalization is always the product of different local cultures coming together; there is no such thing as “global culture.” For this reason, many scholars prefer the term “glocalization.” This is especially true in theological education, which is clawing to move away from White, Euro-American hegemony. All theology is local. There may be shared themes and ideas, but where theology matters most is on the ground, and that is always localized. This also means that we must listen more carefully as we offer instruction, since the contexts we encounter may be very different from what we are used to.

Third, as many globalization scholars repeatedly warn, the poor suffer most in a virtual world, largely due to the high cost of participation. This is especially true given the disparities of income globally in comparison to the unavoidably high price tag on American private education. This has always been true as we have sought to invite students from around the world to attend classes at our various US-based campuses, and this matter is only gaining importance. This must be factored into our expectations about how global the scope of our educational offerings can be. We must address this in the ways we offer our programs and classes, in how we distribute scholarships, and in how we manage our virtual classrooms.

Despite these cautions, the promise of online education continues to animate and excite. Just as on the day of Pentecost, we wait for and expect the Holy Spirit to address the fragmentation and disconnection of humanity, and we celebrate the unity that will be demonstrated from an increasingly diverse student body. In the end, the ways that we attempt to serve each other across divides of gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality are an apologetic for the unity of the church.

Written By

David H. Scott (PhD ’11, MAICS ’04) is the associate dean of the School of Mission and Thelogy and assistant professor of intercultural studies and children at risk. He helped start Fuller’s Children at Risk emphasis as a master’s student in 2003 and has been teaching in the program ever since. His role as an international child advocate began in 1998 when his work with Viva Network first took him and his wife, Charity, to Oxford, England, and Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Scott has recently contributed theological content to a Lausanne Occasional Paper on children at risk and is currently drafting a manuscript on mission with children to be published by Baker Books.

Globalization and Fuller’s Missiological Education

Although located in Southern California, Fuller has had global reach for a very long time. This has been especially true in the former School of World Mission/School of Intercultural Studies, which was tasked with equipping students for more effective global mission. In its earliest years, the school quickly developed a reputation as a preferred location for students from the rest of the world to study mission, in part because faculty members were willing to travel almost constantly. They may have lived in Pasadena, but our current senior faculty have often recounted the adage that at least one School of World Mission (SWM) professor was on an international flight at any given time.

Over time, this commitment to equipping students beyond the confines of our Pasadena campus led to the development of various experiments in distance learning, and eventually to offering fully online classes—all with the goal of making a Fuller education more accessible, regardless of where a student lived. Fuller was also the first to push the boundaries of our accreditors, demonstrating that thoughtful and sound program and course design could support a program offered almost exclusively online when our MA in Global Leadership launched in 2003. Furthermore, while we have long acknowledged that online teaching requires sacrificing some aspects of the je ne sais quoi of a live, in-person classroom, allowing students to remain engaged in their local contexts and with their current ministry commitments has also increased the vibrancy of the class experience and made learning more vital in entirely new ways. The challenges and problems discussed in these classes are less likely to be hypothetical or based on old stories and more likely to involve vigorous consideration of problems that students are actively addressing wherever they are now. Similarly, while stories of technical difficulties and illnesses have seemed unusual enough when students have offered them as reasons for late papers through most of my time teaching at Fuller, they seem remarkably mundane in comparison to the stories of police detention related to participation in protests and cattle raids in Africa that I have received more recently.

At the same time, our commitment to offering accessible and effective online theological and missiological education has led to surprising trends, as increasing numbers of students living in Southern California and even across the street from campus have unexpectedly expressed a preference for online classes simply because they afforded greater flexibility with their schedules. So, by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all of our classes were forced online in March 2020, this was a remarkably easier transition for Fuller than for many other schools, since most of our classes already were online, and we already had the necessary training and support structures in place. Furthermore, this strengthened commitment to online learning is a key feature in Fuller’s future plans, as our institution has pledged to maximize the scope and availability of our online offerings moving forward and decrease our engagement with traditional face-to-face teaching modalities.

In one sense, this represents a flowering of that early commitment to share educational resources with any interested student from around the world that began with those long plane flights by SWM faculty members. Yet we would be unwise to take this increased opportunity for global connectivity as an indisputable good. Surely there are aspects of our easy global engagement that should be attended to, and warning signs we should not overlook.

Here is where, once again, missiological education may have something to offer. For the past ten years, the former School of Intercultural Studies (SIS) has incorporated the study of globalization in a required class for all students in our MA in Intercultural Studies program. The class was created by now-senior professor Bryant Myers, who eventually published much of his content as a book in 2017, titled Engaging Globalization: The Poor, Christian Mission, and Our Hyperconnected World. Both have been important contributions, since the history of modern global missionary efforts can be seen as a product of, an agent of, and facilitated by globalization. Therefore, it is essential that missionary efforts remain distinct from the primary drivers of globalization in our era.

Because the meaning of “globalization” is more than a bit slippery and mercurial, I should take a moment to define how I intend to use the term in this space. The central features of most definitions include consideration of interconnections across great distances, and especially those interconnections that are facilitated by newer historical developments such as telecommunications, transit, and financial exchange.1 Harvard scholar Theodore Levitt is generally credited for coining the term, and also for the initial focus given to it as represented in the title of his book, The Globalization of Markets.2 Furthermore, a key part of globalization studies features consideration of how these interconnections have multiplied and intensified since the end of World War II, and especially how the rise of the internet has accelerated these dynamics even further. Consideration of globalization provides a helpful lens and set of tools for noticing, analyzing, and critiquing a wide range of social connections across barriers of distance, culture, and nationality. As the pandemic and its associated physical isolation has necessitated increased online connections, the opportunities and needs for such analyses have only increased.

Theologizing on Globalization

In light of this definition, Paul’s missionary journeys can be seen and understood as an early function of globalization, creating connections across Asia Minor through sharing disruptive good news about the radical life and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth among Jews and Gentiles. He then instructed them to establish local faith communities connected across great distances under a shared identity of being Christ followers and reinforced these connections through a protracted letter-writing campaign. In fact, the offering that Paul took for the Jerusalem church demonstrates the kind of interconnectivity that globalization is intended to understand and assess. However, modern missionary efforts are an even better case study, as they motivate people to cross national and ethnic barriers for the sake of the gospel, and these efforts often include charitable or relief work as well as the sharing of culture and faith.

As a matter of fact, there are striking similarities between the connections created by the forces of globalization and the many New Testament images about God’s desire for the church to be global in scope. For example, Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 28 to preach the gospel “unto the ends of the earth” made it explicit that the followers of Christ were never intended to be just a local sect. Their work was quite literally expected to change the world. No wonder, then, that William Carey cited this as a primary text in his historic effort to use British financial resources to travel to India as one of the first known Protestant missionaries.

The dramatic depiction of the Holy Spirit’s arrival to the church in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2 also shares many of these features of globalization. The miraculous speaking in tongues that is recorded there was an important sign of the global identity and intentions of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the picture of people from every nation worshiping before the throne in Revelation 7 describes an anticipated future that fulfills this global remit and responsibility and has been interpreted as such for millennia. There is no question that the church that Jesus founded is expected to be global as part of its primary identity.

However, we must stop short of presuming that all kinds of global interconnectedness are God-ordained. It is presumptuous to suggest that globalization is primarily a product of God’s work in the world. Especially as it is understood as a contemporary social phenomenon, there are real dangers to the full scope of globalization as it is experienced today. Globalization should not be seen as a benign force; in many places and for many people it is most commonly experienced as a force for domination, exploitation, and control. Bryant Myers suggests that a Christian understanding of globalization must acknowledge that just like the aggressive colonialism and manipulative commerce that ended up compromising and corrupting the good intentions of many missionaries during the heyday of the modern missions movement, we must critically shape the forces of globalization that we have control over; otherwise, we are liable to be shaped by them. And since the twin gospels of neoliberalism and secular humanism offer only counterfeit answers to humanity’s deep questions of meaning, Myers challenges the followers of Christ today to rediscover and remind each other about the essential relevance of Christ’s death and resurrection for all people.

Myers cautions that globalization is a “complex adaptive social system.” By this, he means that trying to make changes with a broad brush can often have unexpected and undesirable consequences. As such, the contemporary forces of globalization cannot be easily or predictably changed. Instead, he suggests a more focused approach of banding together with other like-minded Christians both locally and globally to highlight those aspects of globalization that are most worthy of celebration with a single voice, while continually organizing and advocating against the unfair costs that it often exacts on the most vulnerable.3

Globalization and Online Theological
Education

A growing body of literature has been using the same lens of globalization to consider the globalization of education more generally. One of the principal observations is the ways that many efforts to globalize education and scholarly efforts more generally tend to take place in English, and therefore disproportionately benefit English speakers. In some of the strongest critiques, postcolonial scholars view the dominance of online education coming from the West as yet another expression of Western cultural imperialism and unrestrained capitalism, and they are particularly skeptical of online theological education in the guise of Christian mission as vehicles of this.4

Considering all of the above, we must be wary that globalization can be driven by, and therefore spread, ideas that compromise our purposes. So we must ask: Is it, in fact, good that Fuller increases its global reach through online education? Given the array of opposing views on every aspect of globalization, we must at least agree that we should only approach this challenge if we are also willing to do the hard work of regularly and soberly asking this question. Therefore, I offer the following critiques of online theological and missiological education, as drawn from this short analysis.

First, despite the appeal of virtual education, we must remember that the world will not ever be fully virtual. We get frustrating reminders of this reality when we try to schedule Zoom calls with groups of students and discover that differences in time zones make synchronous gatherings of even four or five students unfeasible or unfair, with one or more students obligated to gather during times they would otherwise be asleep. Rather, all of us are local, embodied beings in relationship with our physical neighbors. While lockdowns may have prevented us from having daily reminders of this, as they are being lifted, we must reclaim the embodied nature of our witness—perhaps to an even greater degree than we have realized in the past. Online education can have a tendency to even further “cognitivize” education, as students are no longer obligated to gather and relate to peers or instructors, and education is increasingly seen as something that can fit in around other priorities and schedules. This is especially problematic for Fuller, as we actively seek to form scholars and ministers for real world vocations. Therefore, it is more important than ever that we build assignments and other learning activities that require active engagement in local communities, ministries, and churches.

Following the former observation, we must respect that no one lives in a fully “global” reality. As suggested in many of the critiques of the forces of globalization referenced above, more sanguine analyses of globalization tend to operate as if there is one global culture, to which smaller cultures are being invited to participate. We cannot afford to make this mistake. Globalization is always the product of different local cultures coming together; there is no such thing as “global culture.” For this reason, many scholars prefer the term “glocalization.” This is especially true in theological education, which is clawing to move away from White, Euro-American hegemony. All theology is local. There may be shared themes and ideas, but where theology matters most is on the ground, and that is always localized. This also means that we must listen more carefully as we offer instruction, since the contexts we encounter may be very different from what we are used to.

Third, as many globalization scholars repeatedly warn, the poor suffer most in a virtual world, largely due to the high cost of participation. This is especially true given the disparities of income globally in comparison to the unavoidably high price tag on American private education. This has always been true as we have sought to invite students from around the world to attend classes at our various US-based campuses, and this matter is only gaining importance. This must be factored into our expectations about how global the scope of our educational offerings can be. We must address this in the ways we offer our programs and classes, in how we distribute scholarships, and in how we manage our virtual classrooms.

Despite these cautions, the promise of online education continues to animate and excite. Just as on the day of Pentecost, we wait for and expect the Holy Spirit to address the fragmentation and disconnection of humanity, and we celebrate the unity that will be demonstrated from an increasingly diverse student body. In the end, the ways that we attempt to serve each other across divides of gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality are an apologetic for the unity of the church.

David Scott (headshot)

David H. Scott (PhD ’11, MAICS ’04) is the associate dean of the School of Mission and Thelogy and assistant professor of intercultural studies and children at risk. He helped start Fuller’s Children at Risk emphasis as a master’s student in 2003 and has been teaching in the program ever since. His role as an international child advocate began in 1998 when his work with Viva Network first took him and his wife, Charity, to Oxford, England, and Cape Town, South Africa. Dr. Scott has recently contributed theological content to a Lausanne Occasional Paper on children at risk and is currently drafting a manuscript on mission with children to be published by Baker Books.

Up Next
Fuller Magazine

Kevin Doi, Fuller Seminary chaplain, reflects on the possibilities and the limits of spiritual formation and community in online spaces.