“Christians are made and not born,” says Tertullian, a prominent early church theologian. In Gen. 2:16-17, God gives humans a framework through which they may make choices for a flourishing life. This freedom of choosing life and death is the biblical basis for formation. John quotes Jesus saying in John 10:27-28, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (NASB, 1995). The goal of formation in Genesis was life; the goal of formation in the New Testament was life; and today, this has not changed. The method remains “relational knowing.” Indeed, as Paul points out in Romans 12:1-2, worship, relationship with God, is the telos of the “newly redeemed and made new” (Rom. 8:1-2; 2 Cor.5:17).
This article explores the importance of understanding the purpose of formation in theological institutions, as advocated by the Asia Theological Association (ATA). ATA, an accrediting agency, grounds its theology of formation on the telos-forma schema, emphasizing that worship is the purpose (telos) of formation and that God’s desire and will (thelema) shape its framework. That is, it’s important to consider why formation is essential, not just how it can be done.
Despite its significance, the question of “why formation” is frequently overlooked. ATA recommends prioritizing the purpose before considering the methods, in order to prevent the implementation of ineffective programs – especially in relation to the use of technology. By delving into the underlying purpose, institutions can develop innovative and successful approaches that embrace technology as a valuable tool, rather than a mere passing trend, as this article will argue. Additionally, this article emphasizes the need to consider the holistic development of individuals while acknowledging the limitations of any chosen approach and while maintaining control over that approach. Through a comprehensive analysis, this article provides insights for theological institutions to enhance their formation programs and promote meaningful growth in students.
Asia Theological Association: Overview
ATA is the largest recognized accrediting body for theological education in Asia. ATA was founded in 1970, as believers saw the need for strengthening evangelical theological education and promoting evangelical theology in the context of the rising influence of liberal theology on the Asian theological landscape. ATA currently serves over 300 member institutions from around 33 countries; it continues to grow. ATA accredits theological programs by employing the Standards and Quality Measurement (SQMs) criteria corresponding to the global standards of the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE).
ATA broadly defines holistic formation as engaging and integrating the cognitive, the affective, and the behavioral. Theological education (TE) is intentionally missional, as described in the Lausanne Cape Town commitment. That is, the telos of TE, as ATA recognizes, is “to strengthen and accompany the mission of the church by training the leaders to be faithful, relevant and clear in expounding and teaching God’s word, and to equip all God’s people to communicate God’s truth in every cultural context” (Kevin Smith, 2011). ATA ensures that this telos is achieved by promoting holistic integration of academic excellence, spiritual formation, and ministerial formation by providing:
- Accreditation standards (SQMs);
- Value added services: Research, workshops, training, and coaching programs in faculty development, curriculum development, discipline models, context-based skill mapping and development models, and strategic planning and organizational development.
ATA accredits formal and non-formal, residential, and non-residential programs, ranging from certificate to doctoral-level studies, offered in English and in regional languages. ATA considers a program’s accreditation based on variables like curriculum and institutional vision alignment, philosophy of education, the context of education, educators, learning resources, curriculum-specific relevant physical assets, adherence to statutory requirements, institutional sustainability, and strategy for growth. Apart from accreditation, ATA also offers other services such as “need-based consultancy services for the institutions, publication of resources meant for Asian pastors, leaders, cross-cultural workers, and students that are biblical, pastoral, contextual, missional, and prophetic, and facilitation of program by establishing consortiums of accrediting school, regionally” (ATA Asia, n.d.).
Formation: Principles, Practices, & Process
The variables mentioned in the previous section for accreditation are essential, but they only deal with education. Each institution, through its philosophy of education and curriculum design, is responsible for aligning its formational goals with its vision, mission, and teaching objectives. ATA strives to help institutions find this alignment by offering a forma – in other words, a way to track formation in five categories:
This forma looks at formation as integrating academics, competence development, spiritual formation, and character education. Although member institutions are invited to design their individual program telos based on the ATA forma framework, they are not required to do so. Table 1 provides the Asia Theological Association’s forma.
As the table demonstrates, formation will be only partially addressed when the tripartite domain of human development is attended to. So, to achieve holistic formation, one must also consider the external and internal factors that shape the institutional environment. These factors include the administrative and educational values, that then supports the tripartite domain formation, captured in the relational, theological, and missional values. Diagram 1 is a graphic representation of this schema of formation.
Diagram 1: A relational view of the forma
Tables 2.1 and 2.2 offer definitions to clarify the constructs under each value, a direct extract from the ATA’s Manual of Accreditation (p.19-21, 2021). Table 2.1 A & B define constructs that envelop the values of administration and education, and Table 2.2 A, B, & C define the values corresponding to the individual category.
Table 2.1: Structural Constructs and Definitions
Differentiating administrative values as external and educational values as internal helps create a contrast, though both fall under the same theme of structure. The contrast makes clear how variables contributing to a learner’s formation are structural as much as systemic.
Often, institutions concentrate on systemic variables for formation with little attention to the telos and the forma. Table 2.2 shows more systemic variables under headings of relational, theological, and missional values. These values represent methods and agencies participating in the formation process.
Table 2.2 Systemic Construct and Definitions
Upon comparing Table 1 with Table 2.2 B and C, one sees that certain constructs (second, fourth, and sixth) within these theological values, specifically prophetic voice, contextualization, and kingdom partnership and collaboration, are also relevant to missional values. Notably, Table 2.1B lacks a definition for holistic education. Nevertheless, upon considering the comprehensive view presented in these tables, it can be concluded that the ultimate purpose (telos) of formation is a transformative “mindshift,” as expressed by the former Regional Secretary of ATA-India (P. Cornelius, personal communication, March 19, 2023). This mindshift can only occur when formation is approached by recognizing the imago Dei – encompassing the rational, personal, moral, and spiritual attributes of human beings (Kim, 2010) – rather than a simplistic humanist trichotomic perspective that focuses solely on addressing the head, heart, and hand.
Indeed, while the trichotomic perspective acknowledges certain important aspects of human nature – cognitive skills, emotional intelligence, and practical skills – it oversimplifies human nature. It neglects spiritual, moral, and relational dimensions of human existence that contribute to holistic development. So a more comprehensive approach, enacted by recognizing the image of God in each person and integrating the rational, personal, moral, and spiritual aspects, is necessary for a more well-rounded formation.
The integrated formation schema requires the whole institution to be involved in creating a structure conducive to a student’s spiritual growth. The integrated formation schema may be represented through the following diagram.
Diagram 2: Holistic Integrated Formation Schema
ATA believes that the alignment of formational goals with an institution’s vision is crucial. This alignment includes both external and internal factors, to create a holistic formation environment. Additionally, institutions must conceive of formation comprehensively, taking into account the imago Dei in each student, as well as systemic variables and the telos of formation. The next section will discuss the significance of an integrated approach to measuring formation.
Measurements of Formation
ATA’s philosophy of accreditation undergirds its assessment of programs run by its member institutions. ATA understands that every school is unique, and this philosophy allows each school to design its own measures. At the same time, as an ATA team member involved in accreditation visits and as a facilitator of institutional and faculty development programs, I have observed worrying gaps in institutions’ schema for measuring students’ formation. Most institutions have a clear rubric for assessing cognitive development, but they fall short of measuring holisitc formation. To address this need, ATA offers value-added services to help institutions reimagine formation and assess it through organizational development, strategic transformation initiatives, faculty and leadership development programs, and curriculum analysis and development initiatives. For this work, ATA collaborates with strategic partners, such as ScholarLeaders International in the area of instiutional sustainability, as well as other experts in each field to ensure optimal outcomes.
The conspicuous gap in holistic assessment does not mean that institutions lack forms of evaluation entirely, but rather that the present measurements do not intentionally contribute to a student’s complete formation. At present most institutions can showcase some activities and self-reporting processes for formation, like journaling and pastoral care groups. However, often these data are managed independently, as one-time events, and not as part of a more extensive process of formation.
ATA is seeking to guide institutions to see formation of character as requiring intentional effort and assessment integrated with education. We would like to see institutions develop formational rubrics not for independent domains but considering the whole person. These rubrics should account for the contexts from which students come and into which they will graduate. That is, both the incoming student profile and the graduate profile will be critical in creating assessment strategies. Furthermore, during the educational process itself, formation assessments must consider students’ development as self-reflective individuals. This movement requires self-criticism, as students become aware of themselves as bearing imago Dei.
We know that designing a holistic formation assessment rubric will be tedious and subjective. Yet, acknowledging these barriers, I encourage institutions to begin to consider opportunities by analyzing their vision, educational goals, and graduate profile. This institutional reflection must then produce a system that will disciple learners, entailing:
- soul care focusing on others and the world
- by means of coaching, mentoring, and spiritual direction
- in small groups and one-on-one
- employing formal and informal interactions
- within the scope of a covenantal relationship
- that exists during a students’ years of study and at the desire of both parties thereafter.
Institutionally, this process requires human resources – faculty and/or staff who oversee the process, who have had similar experiences in their own formation, and who can facilitate students’ formation. It requires a tenure process that can help the institution discern who such individuals are. And it requires the development of a qualitative rubric that marries institutional vision with the students’ vocation, so that institutional goals are met and students are thoroughly prepared to pursue God’s calling on them.
An Example of Forma
While I was Dean of the Global School of Open Learning (GSOL), in Bangalore, India, we developed formation forma. GSOL offers undergraduate and graduate theological programs through distance education. While implementing the formation framework, the GSOL team realized that formation is a time-consuming and resource-intensive process that is also extremely rewarding. When the pandemic slowed much of our work, we were able to observe remarkable improvement in the ways our learners advanced holistically.
Under our framework, we started with the students’ application process. During this process, we intentionally connected with an applicants’ references, local church pastor, mentor(s), and family members or close relatives to build a community of accountability for the student. We also paired students with pastor-mentors and academic-mentors, by which we formed a community to support the student. Much of the rubric for the students’ formation would then be determined in consultation with the pastor-mentor and academic-mentor, within the framework of our institutional vision.
After a candidate was accepted as a student, they were required to meet with their pastor-mentor once a month and with their academic-mentor every two weeks. During these meetings, the student would talk about their academic, spiritual, and ministerial growth. They would set goals and deliberate on outcomes with their mentors. We established a system of data collection and reporting so that we could capture feedback and tailor support for each student.
Formation: Technology and Theology
Most ATA member institutions, which were averse to technology-enabled learning before the COVID-19 pandemic, were forced to adopt remote learning during the pandemic. At ATA, we swiftly created platforms and trainings to help institutions persist through the initial challenges. We offered templates for bite-sized learning, especially for those regions that lack stable internet. Overall, for me, as an ed-tech enthusiast, this was an opportunity to see many institutions catapulted into an era that would probably have arrived half a decade later. It was an opportunity for growth.
However, the data that ATA is gathering now during accreditation visits shows that the process of formation was hampered by remote learning. The image below maps the internet speed at which the world’s population operates.
Picture 1: Broadband Speed Map
Source: Internet speeds by country 2023
Bangalore, where I worked, is called the Silicon Valley of India – but even its internet leaves much to be desired. In fact, the average speed that I enjoy is much less than the 20mbs depicted here. According to the image, South Asia operates on about 20-40mbps, which is largely true for the rest of the Asia too, barring China and a few countries in the Asia-Pacific. However, connecting speed is not necessarily consistent. At times, I cannot have a full conversation because of latency in the network. Therefore, one can see how many schools in the rural and semi-urban parts of Asia struggled to connect with students; they could only circulate information or notes because of limited internet. For students in these areas, formation in online programs became extremely attenuated, as remote learning focused largely on depositing information. This situation continues to worry older church leaders, as they watch these students graduate and attempt to step into leadership roles after a lopsided educational experience.
At ATA, we are mindful of these technological limitations, so we adopted strategies that we continue to use. We have encouraged institutions to use low-bandwidth, accessible tech, such as community radios, Christian TV channels, educational channels, dial-in telephone lines, printed documents sent through the post, and instant messaging services. During the pandemic, I was personally involved in coaching faculty members and institutions to develop systems that are most feasible and accessible for their students, to form interactive communities using low-bandwidth technologies as much as possible.
Through our exploration, we discovered that even in challenging environments, formation can be achieved by developing tools that prioritize the purpose and framework of formation. Another valuable lesson from this experimental phase is that educators play a crucial role as facilitators of learning in remote settings, going beyond simply delivering content. As facilitators, they become designers of educational experiences, embracing a learner-centric approach that addresses the holistic development of individuals. This involves creating safe learning environments, fostering collaborative learning opportunities, and engaging learners in contextually relevant and meaningful experiences that result in personal transformation.
Furthermore, we realized that while physical communities are essential for formation, they can be intentionally cultivated within remote programs. Transformative communities do not necessarily have to be limited to institutional settings but can extend to the communities in which students already reside and learn. Ultimately, we found that the depth of formation is closely linked to the network of communities to which learners are connected. These communities provide a vital foundation for formation and should be intentionally designed for that purpose.
Finally, we acknowledge the significance of the physicalness of learning, which adds depth, richness, and multi-sensory dimensions to the educational process. It enhances engagement, understanding, and the practical application of knowledge, making it a crucial element of effective learning experiences. Therefore, communities serve as the cornerstone of formation and should be thoughtfully designed to foster growth and development.
While everyone wants to be on the bandwagon of online education, which is (wrongly) perceived as profitable and less resource-intensive, most educators are concerned about the formation of the whole person. The rise of online education during the pandemic has once again stirred the question of formation – the how in context of the what. Many are concerned about the quality of formation, in the absence of in-person relationships and the real community that is catalytic in formation. But no one is asking the critical question of why.
ATA would like institutions to consider the why of formation before they jump to how. We are concerned that leaping to processes will lead to more ineffective programs, as we have already seen during the pandemic. Investing in the why of formation will help institutions create new methods, harnessing technology and making it an ally rather than a fad. Formation in online programs must not only attend to the whole person, but it must also account for technology; it must control the technology, recognizing its limitations rather than trusting it as a solution.
In John 14:6, Jesus says that he is the way, the truth, and the life, referring to being, knowing, and doing. Formation is the task of being. It is a relational reality, but it is not possible without knowing, and it is incomplete if does not demonstrate itself in action. However, in this passage, Jesus does not stop with this self-description. Instead, he explains how he is. By this measure, the measure of Christ’s self-revelation, formation is not just an aspect of being, knowing, or doing but is embedded in the reality of the transcendent Father and His incarnate Son. The goal of Christian formation, then, is that theological students be conformed to the image of the Son within a structure that opens itself to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Asia Theological Association. (2021). Manual for Accreditation. Philippines: Asia Theological Association.
ATA Asia, A. (Ed.). About Us. Asia Theological Association. Retrieved March 22, 2023 from https://www.ataasia.com/about-us/.
ATA India, A. (Ed.). Accredited Members – ATA India. ATA-India. Retrieved March 22, 2023 from https://ataindia.org/members/accredited-members/.
“Internet speeds by country 2023.” Retrieved March 23, 2023 from https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/internet-speeds-by-country.
Kim, Jonathan H. “Personality Development & Christian Formation.” In James R. Estep & Jonathan H. Kim, eds., Christian Formation: Integrating Theology and Human Development. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishing Group, 2010.
Smith, Kevin. Summary of The Cape Town Commitment. Lausanne Movement, 2011. https://lausanne.org/content/summary-of-the-cape-town-commitment.
Wilkins, M. J. “Disciples and Discipleship.” In J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, & N. Perrin, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2013. 202-212.