To chant or not to chant: Why theological education is vital for cross-cultural mission

OMF alumni and principal of Sydney Missionary and Bible College Derek Brotherson shares why theological education in a community context is vital for cross-cultural missionaries.

When Derek Brotherson and his wife Anna were in Southeast Asia as missionaries, he had on his desk an assignment that he completed during Bible college.

It was from a subject called Cross Cultural Teaching and Learning and he used it to prepare his classes at the Bible college he was teaching at.

“It’s profoundly important for someone who’s going to be going to the mission field to know their Bible well and be confident in the Bible. That’s your theological grounding,” he said. “If our own theological knowledge is shallow, what we’re most likely to do is just reproduce what we’ve seen done in our own Christian formation.”

A theological education is important in helping missionaries apply scriptural teachings in a cross-cultural context, Derek adds. “If we’ve only had our own church context, we’re unable to separate the eternal truth of the Bible from the local application that we had in the church that we grew up in.”

He explained that this could lead to missionaries trying to apply that same way of teaching elsewhere. “That’s probably going to cause all sorts of misunderstandings of the good news because one local application of the message will be misunderstood in another context.”

Learning theology in community

Today, Derek is the principal of Sydney Missionary & Bible College (SMBC), where he teaches preaching and mission, and encourages staff and students to live out the vision of the college. He aims to “continue to give it that sharp focus on global mission.”

“Our vision is to see thousands of loving and skilled graduates bring the light of Christ to a dark and needy world.”

Although a lot of theological studying can now be done online, Mr Brotherson believes there is a “formation” that happens in community that can’t be replicated.

“Ministry is actually all about relating to people. Ministry is done in community…The ideal context for preparation for that is actually community as well. Yes, you can go off and read really good books… Theological education is about engaging with the ideas in those books under the guidance of experienced practitioners, theologians and a community of other students.”

Key formational moments also happen in community, such as resolving conflicts, he said.

“The ministry that we hope to do in our mission context will be a ministry with people in community. The best way to try and prepare for that is to do theological education in community with people. The interpersonal and relationship skills we learn as we reflect on God’s word to us that we learned at Bible college is what we hope to model and do when we’re on the field.”

Applying learning to mission

Derek and Anna attended SMBC before serving in South-East Asia for 10 years – he taught at two Bible colleges while Anna was involved in an evangelistic ministry at a women’s refuge.

Soon after arriving, they were faced with a dilemma. A local friend’s son had died tragically and they were invited to attend a ritual that involved chanting prayers to ward off the ghost of the baby so it wouldn’t haunt them.

“What would I do in that scenario? I want to reach out to them and be all things to all people, but do I go along and join in the chant or is that being unfaithful to God? You need to be able to think theologically about that, think contextually about that, and think missionally about that. And SMBC had prepared us for that with the knowledge of the Bible, knowledge of the world and the knowledge of the principles of cross-cultural mission.”

The fruits of his theological education went beyond just having a better understanding of theological concepts, he said.

“It’s not just the theology that I learnt at college but the methods of communicating to people from a different background with different learning skills. That was just vital for me…How to operate cross culturally; the cross-cultural communication and adaptation of your own life, way of living. All that needs to be thought out carefully and deeply.”

​​​​​​​Amy Cheng
OMF Australia Content Writer


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