Formal and Nonformal Education

Here is an article written for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Christian Education, called “Formal Versus Nonformal Education” by Stephen Kemp, Academic Dean of the Antioch School.  We thought you might enjoy an early sneak peek.  See our blog for other sneak peeks of articles on “Church-Based Theological Education” and “Leadership Development in the First Century: Paul.”

Formal models of theological education are characterized by the schooling paradigm, whereas nonformal models are not. Rather, nonformal models of theological are characterized by intentional learning in real-life contexts. The differences can be seen through descriptions related to the following categories.

Location. Formal theological education most often takes place on an academic campus. More specifically, it takes place primarily in classrooms according to academic structures. Even distance education programs largely attempt to replicate campus experiences. Nonformal theological education takes place primarily in churches and other ministry contexts according to ministry structures.

Orientation. Formal theological education recipients are generally called students and are expected to be able to function as scholars-in-training with a pre-service orientation. Nonformal theological education recipients are generally called apprentices and are expected to be able to function as ministers-in-training with an in-service orientation.

Curriculum. Formal theological education organizes largely according to academic disciplines and the fourfold curriculum (Bible, Theology, Church History, and Practical Theology) expressed in an often fragmented array of courses. Nonformal theological education may vary greatly in terms of curricular structure from mere observation and reflection on experiences to an intentionally designed set of integrated competencies that are carefully assessed.

Learning Community. Formal theological education learning communities are composed of students enrolled in an academic institution being guided by faculty members. Even in distance education online courses, the discussion forums are composed of students from around the world in conversation with each other and a faculty member. Nonformal theological education learning communities are composed of apprentices in the midst of relationships in their churches, ministries, families, and other forms of community.

Assessment. Formal theological education assessment takes place primarily through examinations and research papers related to content acquisition and critical thinking. Nonformal theological education assessment takes place primarily through review of artifacts and attestations related to character and ministry skill development.

Credentialing. Formal theological education provides academic credentials that are often closely linked to ministry credentialing processes. In most cases, it is difficult to participate in formal theological education apart from an academic credential track. Nonformal theological education is usually linked to ministry credentialing processes, but not always linked to academic credentials, though it is becoming much more common, such as with the Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development.


  • Kemp, Stephen. “Situated Learning: Optimizing Experiential Learning Through God-Given Learning Community.” Christian Education Journal, Series 3, Volume 7, No. 1 (Spring 2010): 118-143.
  • Reed, Jeff. “Church-Based Training That Is Truly Church-Based.” Ames, Iowa: BILD International, 2001. Accessed April 30, 2013.
  • Ward, Ted W. “Education That Makes a Difference.” Common Ground Journal 10, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 22-25.