As Christianity is experiencing rapid growth around the world, especially, the Global South - Africa, Latin America, and Asia - Christian leaders are concerned of poor church leadership and shortage of shepherds to lead the growing number of believers.
"With the numbers growing so rapidly, how will we keep up with that kind of growth?" asked James Davis, president and chief executive officer of the Global Pastors Network. "You have to get serious about training leaders in an expeditious way -- not taking them out of ministry, but training them while they are in ministry."
According to Philip Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University history and religion professor, seven nations including the United States will each have far more than 100 million Christians by 2050.
In response to such crisis, the Global Pastors Network, which was created by David and Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, decided to rely on latest technology to enhance leadership training. The main focus of the school is to expand educational opportunities to pastors in other countries where there are not enough resources available to educate leaders.
"Bill was so excited about being able to train pastors who have very little opportunity for education in other countries," said Vonette, wife of Bill Bright, who passed away last year.
The network's online university, which was launched in 2002, is planning to add more courses as it has gained much successful results since its start of operation. They are planning to offer continuing-education course work of more than 100 classes in subjects such as Bible doctrine, history of Christianity, prayer life, and conflict resolution.
So far clergy from more than 40 denominations are enlisted to teach classes. Leaders such as D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral Ministries in California, and Craig Keener of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. are part of the faculty.
Evison and Keener explained why proper education is needed in Christianity.
Evison pointed out that poor church leadership can result in problems such as the sexual-abuse scandal among Roman Catholic clergy.
Another problem that can result is "the wildfire spread of beliefs that faith will bring you material prosperity," said Keener, referring to Africa where prosperity gospel is spreading rapidly. Evison is teaching a GPN course in Bible history.
"It's an imbalanced perspective," Keener said. "Reading more of the Bible and learning what Christians through the ages have believed can helped counter the excesses."
Churches, businesses and other private sources are funding the online university. 75 percent of the $3 million fund has been already raised and students will be charged $5.95 a month for classes. The university will also offer scholarships.
Davis Bright said the online school's denominational diversity, represented by its faculty, sets GPN’s theological-education programs.
"We're not trying to compete with seminaries or Bible schools," he said. "We want to be a resource for continuing education even in those places where resources are scarce, and give people a chance to learn from some of finest teachers in the world."
David Bright added that the group's strategy is to identify churches with online capability and use them as learning centers where ministers can gather to watch courses. The university is striving toward developing courses to become global by translating into 54 languages.
Other ministries that share partnership in running the school include Serving in Ministry (SIM), based in North Carolina, and the Trainers of Pastors International Coalition in Nebraska, which provide books, training and correspondence courses.
Experts note that the quality and availability of theological education varies around the world. There are accredited seminaries, correspondence courses, and grass-roots programs run by local churches that may start with teaching aspiring pastors to read, said Steve Strauss, U.S. director for SIM.
Some of the problems the leaders are confronting as they are running online schools include shortage of books and standards of theological education.
In some places, books are scarce and training may amount to apprenticing with the town minister, said Jenkins, author of "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity."
Christians continue to be worried about standards of theological education and fitness for the ministry, said Ian Evison, director of research at Alban Institute, a church consulting and research group. "Figuring out other ways of helping to train people who can't get a theological degree in the usual way is very important."