Complete Guide to Online Religious Studies Degrees
Whether you are drawn to religious studies due to your personal faith or an interest in the cultural aspects of religion, a religious studies degree can be a fulfilling degree option. Online religious studies programs are available from the associate to the doctoral degree level. Programs are available in a number of focus areas, such as Biblical studies, ministry, Christian studies, comparative religion, and intercultural studies. Students graduate with an understanding of world religions, sacred texts, and church ministry functions.
Prospective religious studies students should look for online programs with institutional or programmatic accreditation to ensure that they receive a high-quality education. The US Department of Education recognizes a number of faith-based programmatic accrediting agencies, such as The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc. Read More
Comprehensive List of Schools for an Online Religious Studies Degree ( 12)
Overview of Available Online Religious Studies Degrees
Online associate degrees in religious studies can prepare graduates for paraministry positions or for continued study in a bachelor’s program. Most associate degrees include courses in basic college-level skills, such as writing, math, and natural sciences, as well as religious studies areas. Religious studies classes generally discuss issues of theology and philosophy, as well as particular aspects of sacred texts.
A bachelor’s degree in a religious studies area can open up more career opportunities. These degrees delve deeper into both religious studies and general education coursework, creating graduates with a well-rounded knowledge base. Classes might include fundamental theological issues; church ministry; Bible study; and surveys of the Bible, Torah, or Quran. Depending on the degree program, students may required to do an internship in a ministry or church setting.
Online master’s degrees can be useful for studying theology or another particular aspect of religious studies in depth. Master’s degrees are often offered in seminary areas such as pastoral counseling, religion, or Christian ministry, which are specifically designed to prepare graduates to be leaders in church settings. Other degree programs prepare graduates to be religious educators or Christian counselors.
Doctor of Ministry programs prepare graduates for pastoral or ministry positions and delve into the skills required for leading a congregation and managing a church. Doctor of Philosophy programs focus more on anthropological, sociological, and psychological inquiry into religious studies areas.
Online associate degrees in religious studies allow students to gain a broad understanding of the world’s religious traditions. Students engage in thoughtful reflection on matters of faith. This involves application of analytical principles of the social sciences and humanities in exploring belief systems, histories, philosophies, and practices of world religions. Prerequisites may include math, reading, and writing. Students are required to earn 60 credits, which takes two years.
The coursework allows students to develop a greater sensitivity to the diversity of religions in an increasingly multicultural, global environment. Areas covered by the curriculum include aging, dying, and death; church administration; comparative world religions; Eastern religions; evangelism and church growth; global histories and societies; history of the church; Old and New Testament literature; Western civilization; Western religious traditions; and worship leadership. Students also take courses in anthropology, archaeology, history, philosophy, and world regional geography. Program electives may be drawn from the fields of art and world languages.
Graduates may pursue a wide range of careers in the church and ministry. Other work settings include adoption agencies, assisted living homes, correctional institutions, cultural organizations, foster care, religious organizations, seminaries, and social service organizations. Areas of practice include administration, chaplaincy, counseling, ministry, public relations, and research. Others choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in archaeology, Biblical studies, religious studies, and theology. Graduates may also pursue studies in history, humanities, literature, and interdisciplinary studies.
The bachelor’s degree in religious studies is an interdisciplinary program, exploring religion from a cultural, historical, and theological perspective. These programs follow the traditional bachelor’s degree framework, requiring 120 credit hours and four years of work. Applicants need a high school diploma or GED.
The core classes in the religious studies degree provide an overview of religious history, sacred texts, and religious practices. Some bachelor’s programs include focuses in particular religious areas, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism, in which the bulk of the classes are centered on the theological practices of that particular faith. For example, a degree with a focus in Christianity might include courses in the Old and New Testament, the teachings of Jesus, and Christian ministry.
Other religious studies bachelor’s programs are less centered on theology and instead provide a comparative cultural look at world religions. These programs are more likely to include core classes in areas like philosophy, cultural anthropology, music, and art; comparative religion courses look at faiths such as Buddhism, Christianity, Shintoism, Islam, and Judaism.
Graduates of the religious studies bachelor’s program can go on to careers in ministry and pastoral service, as well as positions in human services. While many churches require graduate-level seminary training for pastor, priest, or minister roles, bachelor’s graduates can become lay-ministers, religious teachers, and church outreach workers. The religious studies bachelor’s degree can also be good preparation for law school, master’s programs, seminary, or doctoral programs.
The master’s degree in religious studies provides students with the opportunity to gain advanced knowledge in the history and practices of a particular religious tradition or area of comparative religion. These programs typically emphasize research skills of the arts and humanities and require a thesis. Students complete 10 to 15 courses over a two-year time span. Applicants need an accredited bachelor’s degree.
The religious studies master’s degree curriculum is highly individualized to the student’s interest areas. Many programs require an emphasis in one area of religious faith, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, in which students study historical, cultural, and regional issues of the faith. Other programs’ curriculum focuses on a more unique subset of religious studies, such as religion in the Americas or religion in Asia. A significant portion of the master’s degree involves learning about religious studies research theory and methods. Students learn how to utilize primary and secondary texts and develop an original research project. Most master’s programs require the completion of a thesis, a specialized research paper in a specific area of religious study.
The master’s degree in religious studies can be used to enter positions as a research assistant in anthropology, history, psychology, or another social science. The master’s degree is also solid preparation for doctoral programs in religious studies or related social science areas. Other graduates become postsecondary teachers in religious studies at the high school or community college level. Curator, museum technician, and archivist are other possible career areas.
The PhD program in religious studies provides graduates with the skills and scholarly background to do significant research into an area of religious faith or practice. These degrees require four to five years of work, depending on the applicant’s highest degree. Applicants are expected to have an accredited bachelor’s or master’s degree.
While all religious studies PhD programs focus on research methods and study in a particular aspect of religion, the particular track pursued by the student can vary greatly. The bulk of the coursework the student completes will depend on their focus. Degree focuses may look at a particular region of the world, such as religions in Asia or religions in Europe. Other programs look at particular religious faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. Others take an anthropological or cultural approach, with tracks in modern thought and religion or the philosophy of religion.
After completing a year or two of advanced coursework, students are expected to begin a dissertation research project. The dissertation requires students to put forth a hypothesis and conduct research that sheds light on a previously unexplored religious studies topic. Traditionally, the religious studies PhD is designed to prepare graduates with the research skills and scholarly background to pursue university-level teaching positions. Graduates may seek out postdoctoral fellowships or apply for assistant professor or instructor roles at community colleges and four-year universities.
If you have a strong interest in becoming a member of the clergy or would just like to explore the wide range of religious doctrines around the world, you may consider getting a certificate in religious studies. Graduates gain the skills they need for careers in social services, community outreach, religious education, and volunteer coordination.
Certificate programs usually take between one and two years to complete, depending on the academic institution. Most students should expect to fulfill 15 to 18 credit hours. Those with high school diplomas or GEDs are eligible to apply. Students should be aware that religious studies programs can approach the topic from a variety of angles; some programs look at religion from a philosophical and social viewpoint, while others study the skills necessary to serve in a religious setting.
Certificate programs in religious studies provide students with basic knowledge of various religious belief systems. However, some schools offer training in a specific area of interest. Examples of concentrations include Biblical theology and Christian ministry. Core classes in some certificate programs may include ethics, Bible study, popular religion and American individualism, ministry and pastoral care, and sociology of religion.
Enrolling in a legitimately accredited degree program is essential to your academic success and the success of your prospective career. Accreditation is an evaluation process that is carried out by a several different independent agencies for schools and degree programs. It lets students know that the program they're enrolling in is worthy of their time and financial investment and that the degree they earn will be a valid, respected credential on their resume. Attending an accredited program is also necessary for students who plan to apply for federal financial aid or transfer credits to other colleges or universities in the future.
Institutional accreditation is awarded by regional accrediting agencies, and programmatic accreditation is awarded to individual degree programs. Both types of accreditation are valid, as long as the accrediting body is recognized by either the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Some of the recognized accrediting agencies for religious studies degree programs include the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc., the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, and the accrediting commissions of the Association for Biblical Higher Education or the Association of Theological Schools.
Students who plan to become licensed in a particular professional field should also make sure that the degree program they plan to attend is recognized by their state’s regulatory boards. For example, Christian counselors who plan to become licensed will need to enroll in an accredited counseling degree program that has been approved by their state. Please visit Guide to Online Schools' accreditation hub for more information about accreditation.
There is a wide variety of certifications and ordinations available for people who wish to become religious leaders or work with the community as a representative of a particular faith. Most religious organizations require candidates to participate in a combination of some or all of the following requirements: completion of certain education programs, workshops, or training seminars; membership in a particular group or order; experience serving religious communities; travel to certain parts of the world; interviews; exams; and application fees.
Examples of some of the organizations offering such certifications include United Methodists' General Board of Higher Education and Ministry; the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc.; the US Conference of Catholic Bishops; and the Jewish organizations ALEPH and the Refuah Institute.
Students who plan on becoming a counselor with Christian ideals may choose to obtain a counseling license from a ministerial organization in addition to obtaining a counseling license from their state's regulatory board. Since state governments often require that counseling be secular as part of the mandatory separation of church and state, many Christian counselors choose to acquire licensing through a ministerial organization. By obtaining a counseling license from a Christian organization, licensed counselors must adhere to the rules of that organization in addition to those of the state government.
Licensing organizations such as the National Christian Counselors Association (NCCA) and the International Board of Christian Counselors offer a variety of credentials, including Board Certified Biblical Counselor (BCBC), Board Certified Pastoral Counselor (BCPC), Board Certified Christian Counselor (BCCC), and Board Certified Professional Christian Counselor (BCPCC). Some credentials, like the BCPCC, are restricted to state-licensed professional counselors who identify and practice as Christian counselors. Others, like BCPC, require an additional license from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, NCCA, or another clinical pastoral organization.
Many different specializations exist within the religious studies field. Here are some examples of more specific religious studies areas that students may choose to focus on:
Online Biblical Studies Degrees
Biblical studies degrees provide a background in theology and Biblical understanding for postgraduate work as a minister, missionary, pastor, teacher, camp counselor, or other church outreach worker. Interested students can pursue online Biblical studies programs at the bachelor’s or master’s degree level. Some programs focus on education and teacher preparation, while others look at counseling or scripture in a global context. Other degrees are Divinity programs that train graduates for positions as pastors and ministry leaders in the church; some Master of Arts degrees focus more on theology. While all Biblical studies programs look at Scripture in depth, students should select a degree with a focus that allows them to pursue their preferred career path upon graduation.
The online bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies teaches students how to read and analyze Scripture with historical and theological context in mind. A core of classes revolve around the study of particular parts of the Bible, such as John, Genesis, Acts, Daniel, and Romans, along with surveys of the entire Old and New Testament. Other courses provide context and discuss the history of the Christian church, world history, and theology. Classes in natural science, humanities, social science, and philosophy round out the degree and provide students with a broad intellectual foundation. These degrees are usually designed to adequately prepare graduates for a variety of related careers in areas such as business, chaplaincy, education, missions, or social services.
Online master’s degrees in Biblical studies can provide an introduction to the field or a deeper study of Biblical areas and ministry strategies. Master’s degree programs typically assume some knowledge of scripture and look at ways to apply this Biblical understanding through sermons, youth outreach, teaching, and other ministry areas. Core classes include world missions, evangelism and church planting, systematic theology, and Old Testament and New Testament studies. Programs that are more ministry oriented may require a supervised internship or fieldwork assignment in a ministry setting. Some master’s degree programs require the completion of a thesis project. The thesis requires the student to explore a particular aspect of Biblical studies in depth and write up their findings.
Online Christian Counseling Degrees
Online Christian counseling degrees provide an introduction to psychological theories and the evaluation of emotional and mental issues from a Biblical perspective. Online Christian counseling degrees are available at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degree level. Almost all Christian counseling degrees require some type of on-site internship in a counseling setting, such as a mental health clinic, hospital, or church outreach ministry. Because counseling requires communication and evaluation skills that can only really be developed in person, it’s easy to see why this internship would be necessary. Graduate degrees that lead to a state counseling license require these on-site internships.
Online bachelor’s programs in Christian counseling are built on a strong foundation of social and behavioral sciences. Required core classes typically include theories in counseling, developmental psychology, and human sexuality. Counseling classes discuss strategies for working with different populations, such as women, children, and families. Students also study different aspects of the Bible, theology, and Christian perspectives on counseling. Like most bachelor’s degrees, the Christian counseling program also provides a wide set of general education classes in natural sciences, art, humanities, and English.
The online master’s degree in Christian counseling is appropriate for students who plan to become a licensed counselor in their state. Required courses depend on the focus of the degree. Some programs look at marriage and family counseling, health counseling, or addictions counseling from a Christian perspective. Coursework discusses psychology research, the professional role of the counselor, counseling theories, group counseling, and clinical diagnosis. The counseling internship is a required component in degrees that lead to state licensure.
Doctoral degrees are aimed at individuals with a master’s degree who want to develop or improve their clinical counseling skills. Most programs specialize in a particular type of Christian counseling, such as pastoral counseling or marriage and family counseling. Some doctorates focus on counseling research. Core classes discuss counseling theories, individual appraisal, and research and program evaluation. Doctoral degrees require the completion of a dissertation, which is a clinically based research project in the student’s interest area.
Master's in Divinity Online
The Master of Divinity (MDiv) is a professional degree used to prepare for work as a pastor, chaplain, or missionary in full-time ministry service. These degrees take three to five years to complete, depending on the pacing of the program. Graduates of these programs know how to provide spiritual guidance, interpret religious texts, and respond to current topics from a spiritual perspective. Some MDiv programs are designed to prepare graduates for a PhD program in theology or another religious studies area. Other divinity programs focus fully on practical training and are not designed to lead to further academic study. MDiv programs are available in many religious faiths and denominations.
The online divinity master's program combines online courses with on-site work. Many programs require that online students are already working in a congregation as assistant pastors, lay ministers, or in some other capacity. Other online programs place students in an internship in a particular ministry setting, such as a military chaplaincy. It is important for online divinity students to gain real-world practical experience in a ministry setting during the degree.
The following courses are often part of the MDiv curriculum:
- Foreign Languages: Most programs require students to study Hebrew, Greek, Arabic or another ancient language so that they can read spiritual texts in a form closer to their original language.
- Practical Ministry: Students learn about how church administrations function and the practical aspects of ministry. Graduates understand how to grow a church congregation, develop a sermon, and budget for the ministry's growth.
- Religious Texts and Interpretation: Students carefully examine major books of the Bible or other religious texts. For example, a student in a Christian program might study the New Testament, Old Testament, and the Gospels. They would also learn about the historical and cultural context for the Bible, as well as how to apply themes of the Bible to current events.
- Spiritual Formation and Guidance: Students learn about the different aspects of spiritual life and how people develop their understanding of spiritual principles. They also study how to counsel churchgoers and provide guidance based on theology and religious texts.
- Theology: Students learn about essential teachings and tenets of their particular faith.
The MDiv program can be used to enter a variety of professional and volunteer roles in religious service:
- Children and Youth Ministry: Many MDiv programs include specializations in outreach and programming for kids and young adults.
- Church Administration: Religious organizations require administrative and organizational leadership just like any other organization. The MDiv can help graduates prepare for management and fundraising positions.
- Lay Minister or Paraministry Positions: Some students use the MDiv to enter ministry positions that support the main leadership position, such as assistant pastor, outreach coordinator, or deacon.
- Licensed or Ordained Ministry: Many religious denominations have particular education and certification requirements that ministers must meet before they can become church leaders. An appropriate MDiv program can prepare you for ordination.
- Military Chaplaincy: Chaplains in the US military have to meet particular education requirements, and the MDiv can help you meet these standards.
- Recovery Ministry: Some programs include training specifically in substance abuse or behavioral recovery counseling.
- Worship and Music Ministry: Some students pursue the MDiv so that they are prepared to lead praise and worship services.
Online Ministry Degrees
Online degrees in ministry provide students with a strong understanding of religious texts, philosophy, and church history, as well as outreach skills. Students learn how to deliver religious messages, work with people from different backgrounds, and extend their religious convictions to others. Ministry is by definition a hands-on discipline. In most cases, students in online ministry programs will need to intern or do fieldwork in a church, ministry, or outreach setting in their local community, in order to complete the degree.
Bachelor’s degrees provide training for ministry or education positions, such as lay minister, children’s minister, religious teacher, or women’s outreach minister. Master’s degree programs are more commonly used to prepare for pastoral or minister positions. Doctorate degrees discuss ministry outreach in a specialized area, such as youth and family ministry or missionary leadership.
Bachelor’s degree programs in ministry prepare graduates with the knowledge of a particular religious theology and an understanding of the concepts of religious ministry required to reach members of the community. Students study how to parse sacred texts, discuss the context of scripture, and apply an understanding of theology to ministry. Other classes discuss the theology of prayer, theology of worship, public speaking, Biblical books, and different ministry outreach strategies. Some bachelor’s degree programs are meant to lead to teacher certification for instruction in religious schools, while others focus in a particular ministry area. Most bachelor’s degrees require an internship or field work experience in a church or ministry setting.
Online master’s degrees in ministry are commonly used to prepare for minister roles in religious settings. Courses discuss topics such as preaching, theology, particular Biblical books, Christian apologetics, ministry ethics, and communication skills. Master’s degree programs typically require the completion of a large research project in a ministry area. In these projects, which may culminate in a thesis paper, students look to develop innovative ministry approaches and strategies.
Online doctorate programs in ministry may or may not require a master’s degree in ministry as a prerequisite. Students are expected to specialize in studying ministry practices for a particular area, such as children’s ministry, pastoral work, church planting, missionary leadership, or family ministry. Some programs expect students to already be working in a church ministry so that the dissertation project is directly applicable to the student’s work setting. Other programs require a more theological or research-based project and do not require that students have a current position in the ministry.
- Accreditation Agency List. US Department of Education. Accessed October 22, 2014. http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/agencies.aspx.
- Board of Christian Professional & Pastoral Counselors. Accessed October 23, 2014. http://www.bcppc.net/ibcc_credentials.php.
- National Christian Counselors Association. Accessed October 22, 2014. http://www.ncca.org.
- National Faith-Related Accrediting Organizations. CHEA. Accessed October 23, 2014. http://www.chea.org/Directories/faith.asp.
- Summary Report for Clergy. ONet Resource Center. Accessed October 23, 2014. http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-2011.00.