One of my favorite movies growing up is Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the movie, Indiana Jones travels around to recover the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazi's. At the end, he recovers it and the ark is brought back to America (I'm sorry if that spoils the movie for you, but it's been like 30 years so you should have seen it by now!). Dr. Jones sits down with the "government men" and they explain that "top men" are working on the ark and that it won't be going to a museum. It then cuts to a scene with the ark being put in a wooden box and pushed around a giant warehouse filled with similar wooden boxes. That scene has been etched in my mind since then as a symbol of futility.
When I began looking at masters programs in theology and church history, I saw the option that many had of either writing a thesis or taking some extra courses and skipping the thesis. As an undergraduate looking at those options I thought, "Why would I write some huge paper when I can just take a couple of extra classes?" As I made my way through my masters I realized that writing in my graduate program was totally different than what I did in my undergraduate program. Most of it was me - I had matured and I had focused my own research to several key areas that I really enjoyed not only learning about, but writing about too. Suddenly the thought of a thesis was not overwhelming - like the warehouse scene: filled with boxes that just went on and on. It was something that could be tackled because I knew how to write in my field by the end of my program. More fundamental, I learned how to research. I went to some great libraries as an undergraduate, but I often sat there and just stared at the rows and rows of books, not really knowing where to begin. By the end of my grad program I was sitting at my desk with primary sources, going to the library only when needed for secondary sources, and getting some real work done. I say all of that to just make you aware that it is doable.
Now, which option is better? It really depends. If there is any chance that you're going to continue to a doctoral program, then you should seriously consider the thesis option. If you want to write in your field or do extensive research on a particular topic, then you probably should go the thesis route.
If you are doing a more practical masters and aren't interested as much in the academic side of things (teaching, writing, etc.) then you might not be as motivated to complete a thesis. If you do a non-thesis option, that doesn't necessarily mean that you won't be prepared for doctoral studies. One thing I'd recommend if you go that route is to be strategic in your writing for each class. Almost all of the papers I wrote in grad school touched on church history and historic theology. At the end of my coursework I had a collection of great papers in one field of study. Some of those papers could be reworked into publishable articles or even a thesis or dissertation (as a basis for larger research).
I'd be interested in hearing your own experiences with either your thesis/non-thesis program or if you have any tips for those looking into such programs.
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.