What’s the Diagnosis? A Physical Exam for Theological Education in East Asia

This paper collates the various ways that participants responded to the questions asked over the three days at the OMF Theological Educator’s Consultation in September 2022. Comparing our examination of theological education to a medical physical, Walter McConnell asks “What’s the diagnosis?” What are we doing well and what do we need to improve? Where do we need to cut back and where do we need restoration?

Walter McConnell

Walter has directed OMF International’s Mission Research Department for more than nine years. He has previously served in Taiwan as a church planter and team leader, taught Old Testament and other subjects in a number of seminaries and Bible schools in Taiwan, Singapore, Ireland, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and served as pastor of the Belfast Chinese Christian Church. Walter has recently published How Majestic is Your Name: An Introduction to Biblical Worship.

 

What’s the Diagnosis? A Physical Exam for Theological Education in East Asia

Mission Round Table Vol. 17 No. 2 (May-Dec 2022): 14-25

To download a PDF of this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 17:2.

 

Many of us visit a doctor every year or so to get a check-up on our physical and perhaps mental well-being. During these visits, the doctor may remind us that we need to cut down on certain foods, put away our bad habits, and/or do more physical exercise. The prospect of a health check can cause many to experience stress and guilt. Even so, these examinations are a positive means of evaluating just how well we are taking care of the bodies that God gave us.

The need for evaluation isn’t just for people. Organizations need to be examined to ensure that they are fit for purpose and thus able to fulfil their mission. And though there is no standardized checklist for assessing whether a mission organization is fit and healthy or whether it needs to beef up in one regard or trim down in another, evaluation is still essential to know if they are accomplishing God’s mission as revealed in Scripture and the more simplified task outlined in their mission statements. A well-fashioned evaluation will make clear what the organization is doing well and what it isn’t. And since a mission performs a wide variety of tasks, the evaluation should focus on many different issues.

For nearly ten years, OMF International’s mission statement has proclaimed that “We share the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with East Asia’s peoples to the glory of God.” If we want to evaluate how the organization is doing, we should examine this statement from several points of view. Do we share the good news of Jesus Christ or not? Can we articulate what the good news of Jesus Christ is? Can we share it in a way that it makes sense to the people we work with? Is our sharing of the good news equivalent to the Apostle Paul’s claim in Acts 20:27 that he shared the “whole counsel of God” while he was in Ephesus or does it mean something else and, if so, what? Does an emphasis on “all its fullness” give us room to take part in mission without explicitly articulating that Christ is Lord and Savior of all or demonstrating what that means for daily life in his world? There is a lot here that could be placed under close scrutiny.

Now, clearly when OMF says that we share the good news of Jesus Christ with East Asia’s peoples, we don’t mean literally all of East Asia’s people. There are too many of them and too few of us for this to be a reality. Currently, our focus is limited to about 123 East Asian peoples with a population of about 637 million, the majority of whom do not know Jesus Christ. Though this is a small fraction of East Asia, it is still a sizeable number of people. Are we doing a good job in our sharing of Jesus with them or not? What are we doing well? What needs more work?

Self-evaluation should not only focus on the large issues. We should also zoom in to see just how successful our church planting programs are and whether or not our outreach ministries to students and through business, medical, and other means are bearing fruit. We similarly need to reflect on how well our service to the church in East Asia through local congregations and theological education is going. And though all of these ministries and more should be evaluated, this paper will only look at our work in theological education. Just how healthy is our educational work through theological colleges, local churches, and in other more informal settings?

To do this examination, we need to identify members engaged in different types of theological education—on whatever level and whether full-time or part-time—and ask how fruitful their work is. We similarly need to question whether the schools and other organizations we partner with are the right places for us to do ministry. Should we stop working with some or start working with others? We similarly need to consider how our members who serve in different countries can work together and with others in a network of theological educators. We further need to assess how best to mobilize or otherwise develop new workers who can serve the church through teaching Bible, theology, mission, and other subjects at various levels.

Like a physical exam, such things do not happen automatically. They need to be deliberately planned, scheduled, and carried out. And like a physical, it can take a long time from the initial planning until the examination actually happens. While OMF has considered its role in theological education in East Asia on a number of occasions over the years,[1] a new conversation developed in mid-2019 when we held our last mission research consultation. At that time, we discussed hosting a consultation on theological education toward the end of 2020. But then, COVID-19 got in the way and the consultation was postponed until September 2022. Our original thinking led to the following considerations.

Overall Purpose: To cultivate a strategic network of theological educators in Southeast Asia—from within OMF and also significant partners (both in the national church/institutes as well as our partner agencies, e.g. IEM, Avante, ProVision, etc.)—to accomplish the following:

  1. Identify the key themes needed in the region. Learn about what is needed from the national leaders so that our theological education can be strategic.
  2. Work through the placements of theological educators. For example, if a placement does not work out in one location due to a visa problem, a placement could be found elsewhere.
  3. Create a pool of non-residential educators for modular teaching where the acquisition of visas is difficult.
  4. Cultivate relationships and reconnect with theological institutes throughout the region.
  5. Establish which qualifications are needed, not just academically, but also experientially.
  6. Provide resources and help institutes in the region.

These initial ideas got us off to a good start as we probed some of the key issues involved and considered the way forward. As the lockdowns brought on by COVID-19 began to lift, we were able to make more concrete plans for a consultation with revised goals, more direction on who should be invited, and questions we wanted our participants to consider. We recognized up front that OMF—as an international mission agency that sends foreigners to work in a number of different countries—can bring people together to ask questions, but has no right to direct the conversation regarding theological education in Asia or the way it should be done. However, as we have helped found a number of theological colleges in the past and still provide lecturers for a number of institutions, we keenly desire to know whether and how our present efforts impact theological education and what part we might play in educating East Asian Christians in the future. For that reason, we aimed, as much as possible, to keep our ears open and our mouths closed during the conversation to learn what we can from our Asian brothers and sisters in Christ.

We decided to invite around thirty OMF members and thirty guests who are involved with theological education in East Asia to discuss the topic from 21–23 September 2022. The number was formulated, to a great degree, in accordance with the space available at the OMF International Center in Singapore. In the end, about fifty-six attended: twenty-two OMF members and thirty-four guests. The invitation letter for the consultation stated:

The main goal for this consultation is to identify the key needs for theological education in the region. This includes all levels of theological education from “grassroots” training to undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate biblical/theological education. Only after the needs are clarified can we address ways in which they can be met, including identifying the kind of people needed to teach at each level, ensuring they have the necessary qualifications, and placing them in strategic positions of service. In addition to benefitting the church in East Asia, we believe this discussion will help OMF and similar organizations that seek to mobilize and send foreign workers to teach in these settings.

To help participants prepare, we provided a series of questions that focus on various aspects of theological education. Each of these questions were taken up during different sessions of the consultation.

  1. What are the main theological/missiological priorities for the churches in your context? How can theological education on various levels address these priorities?
  2. What models and delivery systems do you have for theological education? What place is there for TEE and similar programs, online courses, hybrid courses, and other digital formats for theological education in your country? What would you like to see developed in the future?
  3. What are the five most important things that foreigners can do to help theological education in your country? What type of ministries can they best do and what level should they work at? What kind of person is needed to do it? How can they be best prepared for this?
  4. Please give us an honest appraisal of how foreign gospel workers (whether from somewhere else in Asia or another part of the world) perform in your culture. How can mission agencies better prepare missionaries to serve in your country? What kind of training would you like to see them have? What kind of school/program should they attend to receive that training?
  5. What questions would you like to ask other theological educators serving in Asia about their work? What questions would you like to ask foreign missionaries and their agencies regarding our place in theological education in East Asia?

The questions were formulated to be open-ended and to focus on the particular needs of various parts of East Asia. They were also designed to help us all “reflect on the current state of theological education in the region and discuss how we, as the global church, can work together to meet those needs so that national and local churches can be adequately equipped for ministry to Christians and the unchurched.” And though some participants asked why it was that foreigners had instigated the consultation and formulated the questions, the fact that the consultation spanned East Asia meant that whoever called the meeting would inevitably be a foreigner from the perspective of most participants. It was also recognized that OMF’s lead as an international and interdenominational mission agency made some things easier as there was no national or denominational position that could potentially put off others and it was not located at a specific theological college that could make others feel uncomfortable.

We expected, and were later proven correct, that since theological education has developed in different ways in various countries, different settings would produce different answers to the questions. For this reason, many of our initial discussions were held in country or regional groups with reports being given to the full assembly.[2] Positively, this helped participants focus on their immediate needs before interacting on the broader situation and needs in the region. As the discussions began, we discovered that a few regions were represented by too many foreigner missionaries and too few locals. This, of course, impacts the answers that are given, though it is hoped that the foreigners taking part did their best to speak for the local church.

The following sections will consider the answers given by the various groups to the questions raised at the consultation. It should be appreciated that even though not every group responded to every question, each set of questions produced about seven to eight pages of notes that have been collated here.

1. What are the main theological/missiological priorities for the churches in your context? How can theological education on various levels address these priorities?

Leaders from multiple countries noted the need for theological education to adequately answer questions that are faced in their local settings—particularly by younger people today—rather than simply replicating traditional courses and educational patterns. They similarly recognized that the process commonly known as contextualization is feared by many conservative church leaders who reject it as being “liberal” or “heretical.” It is therefore difficult to address directly and move forward on. Even so, national and regional issues, the existence and influence of other major religions or lack thereof, along with pedagogical considerations should guide a right practice and reformulation of theological training. Some felt that the existence of a “global youth culture” should influence the questions that should be asked and, thus, the answers derived.[3]

Some felt frustrated by the importance placed on learning English in many circles since so many resources are available in the language. This results in many church leaders being sent overseas to study who may not be able to readjust to “home” when (and if) they return. It is also feared that it may influence their adoption of foreign-developed training programs that may not adequately prepare workers for their own church setting.

Many agreed that churches in East Asian countries need to know what it means to be an authentic Christian in a society dominated by other religions or none. Whether Christians live as members of a minority religion, in a pluralist setting that rejects absolute truth, in a Christian culture where liberal or folk religion retains the name of Christian while rejecting or ignoring the core, biblical tenets of the faith, or where Christian thinking and practice is grossly impacted by a secular-sacred divide, they need to be taught how to respond to their cultures. In such contexts, how can the church and the academy work together to address real issues—e.g., divorce, LGBT+, filial piety, ancestral veneration, authority, etc.—for the benefit of the church and the rest of society? Can seminaries lead the way in providing critical thinking regarding the major issues faced in politics, ethics, truth, and justice?[4] Can we teach people how to find truth for themselves rather than simply being told what is right, to distinguish between what is beneficial and what isn’t? How can churches and academic institutions do a better job working together rather than competing against each other?

Some participants echoed a much wider recognition that while the internet contains much that is good, the opposite is also true. The nature of the material often makes it difficult for pastors to distinguish between biblical teaching and heresy. If this is so, how can the average church member be expected to know what to accept and what to reject? When church members regularly interact with false teaching on social media and other online resources, how can we prevent sound theology being silenced or negated? How can the church be salt and light in society and not be turned by lies and propaganda promoted by popular politicians and the media? How do we train people to reject the evil and cling to that which is good?

Several groups articulated the need to have “spiritual leadership that demonstrates maturity and unity in the church.” This can be seen if their prime focus is on God’s kingdom and they prove their ability to share and pass on leadership to a younger generation. Church leaders need to help all believers sink deep spiritual roots into Christ and be discipled so that theology is closely integrated with life. Suggestions for how this might be accomplished include the utilization of sports ministries, creative arts, music, and drama. While some settings, like Mongolia, mentioned the need for youth to be evangelized and discipled, in many parts of Asia the same is needed for older people. Disciple-making activities, from theological colleges on down, should not be limited to programs and activities but should center on following Jesus and obeying his commands.

Younger churches know the positives and negatives of having foreign missionaries set the model for how church should be done, whether it be the format of a service, dress code for ministers, leadership style, or other things. The missionaries’ impact on the church is multiplied if they control finances. As one participant noted, “Money brought from outside the local churches leads to believers moving from church to church. This is not healthy for faith.” Even so, one group felt that missionaries could benefit the church by funding projects and missions. The major issue is who controls the purse. Missionaries need to learn to work with local church leaders. Missionaries also need to honor, empower, and encourage the local leaders to speak up about issues they believe are important and lead in locally appropriate ways. They also need to learn how to release control of finances into local hands. Foreign missionaries need to develop cross-cultural skills and have an ecclesiology that is robust enough to recognize that different cultures can express their faith in somewhat different ways. All educators need practical ministry experience and the ability to contextualize.

As in much of the world, COVID-19 impacted East Asian church life in both negative and positive ways that raise questions for theological reflection. As one leader rightly said: “COVID didn’t create the problem, but it exposed the problem that was there.” One of the major problems brought to light concerns what, exactly, is the church? How should it be done? How can we ensure that our meetings aren’t devised as a passive experience but allow people to participate rather than be entertained? How can we ensure that it centers on listening to and obeying God’s word? The return to more normal—though often hybrid—services has made it clear that some people prefer to remain at home rather than join a larger group. This may indicate that bonds between church members don’t go very deep. How then, can we facilitate the need (and biblical demand) for fellowship? Is it possible to practice spiritual gifts in isolation?

Several groups noted the rise in foreign mission from Asian contexts and raised the need for training in crosscultural ministry skills. This includes those who aim to take the gospel overseas and those who reach out to foreigners in their own country. Some groups felt that engagement in mission is the major priority at the present time. Even so, the fact that more parachurch organizations promote mission than local churches results in many local congregations lacking a sense of responsibility for mission. The need for churches to be trained to understand and fulfil the Great Commission and Great Commandment and to “integrate mission with good work and godliness” was likewise recognized.

Those who discussed outreach to foreigners acknowledged that majority people often generalize about minorities and may consider them to be uncivilized, even violent people. The actions of a few frequently stain the perception of the whole. Prejudice runs high, even in the church. How can we help Christians develop a heart for minorities? How can we address racism in the local congregation and amend our attitudes and actions so we better reflect the grace that God has extended to us? In addition to direct teaching, seminaries and local churches could organize mission trips designed to serve and engage others in a way that puts members out of their comfort zones and helps them develop proper attitudes toward those who are other.

As churches in East Asia interact with global Christianity, important books need to be translated into multiple languages. At the same time, books written by East Asian Christians should be translated into English and other languages to facilitate worldwide interaction and collaboration.

For theological education to move forward throughout the region, the major questions faced by the church need to be addressed. Some of the ones listed here will be more applicable in some contexts than others. And while different countries have different needs, it is also true that needs vary within some countries. Theological thinking and teaching—at all levels—must therefore keep specific contexts in view.

2. What models and delivery systems do you have for theological education? What place is there for TEE and similar programs, online courses, hybrid courses, and other digital formats for theological education in your country? What would you like to see developed in the future?

Throughout East Asia, whether the church is well-established or relatively new, multiple models of theological education are known and in use. Though not practiced everywhere, these include “traditional” residential colleges with lectures, extension programs where lecturers are sent to churches, hybrid instruction “with video and other digital formats,” church-based training, online courses, TEE programs, intensive courses, and more. In this section, we will look at some responses to the currently used models and some hopes for the future.

Several participants noted that the COVID-19 lockdown forced residential programs to close down and online training was the only way to continue. With the experiment came the realization that online programs are, in many ways, far inferior to residential programs. Part of this is connected to infrastructure. This was well articulated by one participant who noted that, “being in a rural situation with poor internet access and no library resources” made it difficult for students, while “not being able to check to see if students are focused” made it difficult for teachers.[5] He concluded that “We learn best when we are together—discussing.” Another participant noted that, without face-to-face interaction, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to “gauge personal transformation and growth in skills.”[6]

While educators recognized that online and hybrid education is “absolutely needed” today, they insist that something needs to be done so that online students don’t get sidelined. Part of the problem is the lack of physical presence and interaction with other students and lecturers. Several pointed out that since people are communal, attending a purely online course makes developing relationships extremely difficult. As one stated, the “problem is application and true transformation, so there needs to be more one-to-one life impact,” something that can only be done through direct “mentoring and/or coaching.” Another explained that, “The informal, unscripted time is most beneficial” in the development of community. Yet another noted that whether or not “online is great for knowledge,” it is “very anemic on character and spiritual formation” as it contains “no life-on-life discipleship.”

This raises a grave concern regarding the spiritual formation of pastors—many of whom are first-generation believers. If the best time for interaction with teachers is in person outside of class or during meal times, what hope do online students have to develop in this way? Is it possible to devise a hybrid program that requires a certain amount of face-to-face time? What would it look like? Would students buy into the idea? It may be possible for a teacher or mentor pastor to arrange for a Zoom call, but after three years of Zoom, many teachers and students feel “Zoomed out”. The need for online lectures to be mated with personal interaction between students and between students and lecturers, though widely recognized, remains an unsolved problem. How can we bring online technology and our need to spend time together into the same orbit so that it enhances ministry formation? How do we “design our education to have a right balance between knowing, doing, and being”? And how do we move from virtual lessons to live ministry?

The change to online and hybrid methods impacts both students and lecturers. While they are used to relating to students in a classroom setting, teachers now need to learn how to develop and use new delivery systems that work in hybrid settings. Current learning styles often require lecturers to integrate video and other media into their classroom presentations, a skill they may need to learn. And though various media are expected, it is recognized that presentations found on YouTube or by the Bible Project, as good as they might be, are “still a unidirectional way of education”—one voice speaking to the listeners. How can we develop courses that include “questions for interaction and reflection—guidance on how to dig deeper in certain topics and certain theologies” that will equally benefit students sitting in the classroom and those who are online? How can we design modules that rightly release the tension many lecturers feel between delivering their class notes and integrating their subject across disciplines? Even those who agree with the arguments for having a class that is 70% theoretical and 30% practical, recognize that some students and cultures only want content and do not want to be asked to think about the content or show how they could apply it in their setting and that others only want to know the technical issues of “what they need to do” without necessarily understanding why.

The difference in training models is reflected in the difference in students. At some seminaries, and undoubtedly in many TEE settings, the majority of students are professionals who are engaged in or preparing for bi-vocational ministry. While we “want to help and empower them to study,” it is usually true that “Breadwinners … cannot leave their families for studies.” It is therefore “important to bring theology to them.” Some suggested sending teachers to where the students are, and while some extension programs have done this for years, for others it would require a paradigm shift. And even if ATA or other accrediting agencies agreed to the need for change, some denominations may not agree and refuse to ordain anyone with anything other than a standard degree.[7]

Interestingly, very little was recorded about TEE during this session. While all participants were acquainted with the method, their understanding of it varies greatly. Some see its place as related to “background foundational, biblical understanding.” Others apparently felt that TEE programs were problematic in that they failed to encourage students to attend Bible College or Seminary. Perhaps they misunderstood that one of the main arguments for TEE is that it provides training for those in ministry who cannot, for whatever reason, attend seminary.[8] Langham preaching programs were noted as being highly successful with many partners and preaching clubs across several countries. Some apparently recognized university student training to be low-level TEE programs. Perhaps this is the type of setting that was envisioned by someone who suggested that the Bible Project videos could be developed as a TEE course. Another positive suggestion is that online TEE courses could be used to train people in remote settings.

3. What are the five most important things that foreigners can do to help theological education in your country? What type of ministries can they best do and what level should they work at? What kind of person is needed to do it? How can they be best prepared for this?

When asked to find five things that foreigners could do to help theological education in their countries, very few groups listed that many, though a couple of groups went far beyond five. Even so, their engagement with the questions has produced ideas that missionaries and their agencies should pay close attention to. This section will comment on some of the significant issues discussed by the groups.

Several groups noted that a fundamental role for foreign missionaries should be to serve as mentors for local Christian leaders. In many cases, this seems to be understood in the sense of mentoring higher-level leaders, such as theological educators and doctoral-level students, to help build their skills, confidence, and vision. Some saw them best teaching at the MDiv level and up. One group saw the importance of identifying the worker’s specific competencies. Those who come with the competency to teach in a classroom should begin here. Only after they have become culturally competent should they move on to help the church at a more local level. One participant felt that foreigners should help local leaders think biblically and critically in order to expose and correct false teaching that proliferates on social and other media. People serving in one theological college commented that expats “enrich the conversation by basically just being there.” Their very presence provides “more diversity of people, culture, and methods.” And because of what and who they know, “Expats provide international connections and networks” that locals don’t have that can open doors to advanced degrees, books, and other resources.

The connections foreigners can bring in the area of publishing was mentioned by almost every group. Missionaries can help the East Asian church catch up with the academic and publication standards used in the West and encourage local theologians to publish and produce theological resources for the church. One participant suggested that by helping local pastors write and publish research, missionaries can help the pastors grow as researchers and pastors. This benefits the pastor and models the importance for churches to produce their own literature. If the missionary is seen using and regularly refers to literature in the local language, the recognized value of those materials is multiplied. “This will encourage local people to do the same.” Several said that missionaries should translate important books for the local audience.

Missionaries can also fill a unique role by serving as an “independent voice during discussions on contextualization.” As insiders and outsiders view culture differently, foreigners can often help insiders discover aspects of their cultures that they are blind to. “Sometimes we are in the culture and cannot see ourselves clearly. We need help to reflect on the issues that we may have overlooked.” Sensitive discussions on broad cultural issues can be mutually enriching.

Participants noted that in some contexts, people are drawn to foreigners in ways they wouldn’t be to nationals. This may be because they find the foreigner to be “interesting” or because they provide food or other things they wouldn’t get otherwise. The attractiveness of foreigners is felt in the area of training, as many people are more likely to attend a course that is run by one. Some consider foreigners to be safer to talk to about some things due to the “distance” between them and the local culture. By opening up to a foreigner, one does not expose his thoughts or actions to the local society.

Concerning the important issue of what kind of foreign presence is desirable, one group said that missionaries should have a “mindset to help the church relate to society. Be an adaptable person who is willing to live at the same level as locals. And be willing to fulfil God’s calling by empowering nationals and being religiously sensitive.” Another group identified three types of missionaries.

1.      Missionaries who work with the locals.

2.      Missionaries who work above the locals and use them as workers.

3.      Missionaries who don’t work at all but simply enjoy living in the country.

This unflattering caricature of missionary life was recognized by multiple respondents. One reported that he saw more missionaries “working above the locals these days” than not. Another indicated that some missionaries were sent out by churches that expected them to plant and run their own church or establish their own Bible school. Where this “pioneer spirit” exists and may be demanded, it will be difficult for missionaries to work alongside or under local leaders. And though this may be true in some settings, a missionary who works in a big-city setting said that most missionaries there work under local leadership who are in charge of churches, seminaries, and all finances. Missionaries join the team only by invitation.

When asked how a missionary can best prepare to serve, one group answered “language, language, language.” The necessity of understanding language and culture and exhibiting the ability to form close friendships with locals stood out in many discussions. While this is nothing new, it highlights the need missionaries—whatever their homeland—have to invest in their new friends and their culture if they are to have ministries that are perceived as successful to the ones they have come to serve. In one context, it was noted that single workers “can often be better than families.” This may be due to their relative freedom to interact with local people, and thus learn language and culture at a deeper level.

4. Please give us an honest appraisal of how foreign gospel workers (whether from somewhere else in Asia or another part of the world) perform in your culture. How can mission agencies better prepare missionaries to serve in your country? What kind of training would you like to see them have? What kind of school/program should they attend to receive that training?

As might be anticipated, missionary performance across the region varies greatly. Some do an excellent job learning the local language and culture, settling into church practices they find new, and serving others with the gospel. Others do not. The ones who do best are said to be humble, culturally aware, and willing to adjust to local conditions. Participants were aware that missionaries come from different settings. For this reason, one said that they may need “to be more directive if from an egalitarian context,” and to “trust and empower locals if from a hierarchical context.” It all depends on who one is, where one works, and what kind of ministry one does.

Characteristics that make for good missionaries are numerous. In addition to language and culture acquisition, it is also common to hear that the most effective missionaries are those who become friends with their colleagues or students, love the local people, are genuine and authentic, and can keep confidences and be trusted. Love is key. As one leader said, “Love will cover mistakes.” This can be instantly seen in the way one extends hospitality to the people and how one responds to local timekeeping practices. Do visits out of the blue produce stress or an opportunity for ministry? Does one know the proper way to receive a guest in one’s home? How can we train people from various cultures to know how to be received well in this culture? One final summary of missionary preparedness stated that the best prepared will be “competent in dealing with conflict and reconciliation, aware of their own culture, and aware that such things as methodology and success can’t be neatly transplanted from one’s home culture into the guest culture.”

While participants said that they want missionaries who “become like ‘one of us’ and are real,” they pointed out that Asian churches are not looking for people who can replicate what they can already do but those who have a depth of ministry experience and “seek to add value” by doing things that local Christians cannot. One group identified the need of those who could help them to stop looking in on themselves and start to look outwards and develop a more global mindset. Another participant recalled how foreign missionaries entered his area and began by providing 100% of the funds while training new believers and leaders from scratch. Then, little by little, they withdrew their funds until the church was able to stand on its own. The missionaries had put organizational structures in place that worked and then moved on so that locals could run everything. This was viewed as positive.

A number of reasons were given as to why some missionaries don’t fit in. One participant noted that “Foreign gospel workers who come from very mission-minded churches and are strongly motivated to reach out but lack cultural training have an unhealthy track record.” And if those without cultural training were likely to fail, independent missionaries were often even more so. In part, this is because they had no “program” to follow and unclear or non-existent lines of accountability. To whom do they report? God, the home church, the local church, or nobody? As was rightly noted, “Good intentions, commitment, and passion are not enough.”

At least one table group focused on issues of power. Do foreign missionaries hold onto power or work to empower locals for ministry? Sometimes the issues here are organizationally or situationally determined. Some organizations find working alongside or under local leadership easier. But some places have no local leaders. In certain settings, when foreigners and locals serve in leadership together, “whenever a confrontation needed to be made the foreigner” would handle it. Whether this is because the local leaders were unwilling to confront others or because the foreigners were is left unstated, but either (or both) is possible. These variables all impact who takes charge and how leadership works. Some asked whether foreigners should be given a time limit in leadership positions. But what should be done if no local leader is able or willing to stand in the gap?

Financial control is an ever-present problem. This is true despite the positive story about the missionaries lessening the monetary supply as the church grew stronger. One group recorded that “Missionaries often have very strong personality on finance, funding. Final decisions always lie with them.” While it was acknowledged that “They have some right since they earn the funds,” it was also believed that it “would be good to involve locals” in the decision-making processes.

Not surprisingly, the list of what mission agencies should do to prepare missionaries for their task begins with the teaching of language and culture. Several groups felt that new workers would benefit from a “cross-cultural living experience as part of their training” that includes “guided reflection afterwards.” As one group concluded, “Intercultural competence includes the diversity of cultural nuances among Asians. This cannot be taught in the classroom alone.” Missionaries-in-training would be best served if, instead of simply learning about culture from books, they could experience “life and community with people.” Another group concurred, suggesting that it would be good to “promote the concept to the sending churches to train their missionaries near to the field where they will serve.” This was echoed in another suggestion that encouraged immersion in a local Bible college/seminary for even one of two semesters. Another participant, reflecting on his own experience, felt that missionaries in their first term should serve an apprenticeship to develop ministry skills while building up their language and cultural base. This could be done by organizing shadow internships during which the new worker learns ministry from experienced workers—including local ones.

In addition to language and cultural skills, some groups recognized the need for missionaries to gain awareness of country-specific issues that greatly impact the church. This could include training on the integration of culture and a dominant religion or on government policies regarding any number of pertinent issues. Suggestions on how to grow in these areas include holding team meetings to discuss pertinent topics with locals. As someone said, “Training should, as much as possible, be in a multi-cultural context.” In addition to discussion groups, it was suggested that novels and stories that illustrate key issues could be recommended as they bring out “hidden cultural nuances of a complex society.” Discussion could follow to deepen understanding. One group suggested that developing skills such as church planting would be best learned in-country from local Christians.

Surprisingly, few of the discussions explicitly mentioned the missionary’s spiritual life. Perhaps it was just taken for granted. It was good to find one group that considered “growth and development in spiritual maturity” to be needed for training. Someone from another group felt that the biblical qualification for elders should be required for missionaries to ensure that they are spiritually mature. Another recognized that, though the subject can be controversial, missionaries need training in spiritual warfare, both for one’s personal spiritual security and to help others who may be more directly impacted by evil spirits.

5. What questions would you like to ask other theological educators serving in Asia about their work? What questions would you like to ask foreign missionaries and their agencies regarding our place in theological education in East Asia?

As should be expected, questions that are as wide open as the ones above are sure to produce a variety of responses. Since the overall context was theological education, the questions asked mainly fell within this area. Some questions pertained to the educational processes, outcomes, and individual course selection. Others centered on current and future teachers and administrators. Yet more asked about potential, current, and past students. A few considered how theological education can impact the larger society and culture. Along with these questions that East Asian theological educators would like to ask their colleagues in other settings are a number addressed to missionaries and their societies.

Educational processes and outcomes

A number of questions were raised about educational processes. Some of these were quite wide-ranging and philosophical while others were more narrowly focused on particular issues. We will first consider some of the broader issues and then look at the more focused ones.

Several groups saw the need to begin thinking about theological education by addressing the purpose, the result of our teaching. One group expressly asked: “What is your vision for theological education? What is the end product?” As they saw it, for theological education to work in the context of Asia, it should “be guided by Asian values and culture.” Though they didn’t develop their ideas to any great extent, they believed that setting their goals in the light of Asian values and culture would impact issues such as decolonisation/contextualization, assessment (of students and faculty), and attitudes toward property (i.e., how to gain a right perspective between being locked into property and freeing our resources for “real mission activity”).

Another group connected the end product with Jesus who “commanded us to make disciples. How does discipleship intersect with theological education and church planting?” Clearly, biblical discipleship is never equated with theological education. How then, do they relate? What part does theological education play in discipleship and how does our view of discipleship impact theological education at whatever level?

The questions mentioned earlier regarding school property were apparently raised because many theological colleges and seminaries in the West are facing cutbacks or closing doors due to decreased enrollment and some have sold their main campuses. Is this the future of theological colleges in Asia? To raise a broader discussion about this issue, they asked, “what are some proactive measures your seminary is taking to avoid this also happening to Asian seminaries in the future. How are you increasingly keeping relevant?” Though most theological colleges continually discuss property matters, it would be good to dialogue with others who face the same challenges so that we can learn together.

Conversations should not, however, be restricted to buying, developing, and using land and buildings. Some thus promoted discussions of other matters that are at the core of all theological education no matter where we teach or at what level. What are some of these issues? How do we, as several groups questioned, practically collaborate with the local church, other seminaries, and different departments within our seminary? AGST was raised as a model of collaboration that should stimulate us to find more ways to work together. What might these be and how might they be worked out across the region?

In addition to these broader issues, a few more narrowly focused matters were also raised.

  • How should a curriculum review be carried out? How often should it take place? What should the process look like?
  • What delivery methods are being used or trialed? How do students respond? How do faculty members respond?
  • What forms of assessment can be used for holistic learning outcomes that do not require written assignments?
  • “How do you encourage integration and interaction in your classroom settings?”
  • “What is the place of the ‘degree’ in theological education? What is your expected outcome for theological education?”
  • “How can we use symbolism to communicate the gospel better? How do we teach students to be sensitive to these possibilities?”
  • “How do you do theology in your country? If you say contextual theology, what do you mean by it?”
  • How does theological education address the change in focus from a deeper knowledge of theological foundations, biblical languages, and exegesis of texts to developing skills and practical outcomes? What is gained in the process? What is lost?

Courses

The change in focus mentioned in the last bullet above highlights a modification, if not a transformation, in educational philosophy that impacts the courses taught and the way they are taught. Though this is an essential discussion, few participants engaged the nature or existence of individual courses. Only the biblical languages were actually discussed. “What is the place of Biblical language in theological education?” Recognizing that few students study Greek or Hebrew in seminary and very few continue to use it after graduation, it was suggested that they be given the tools necessary for doing word studies instead. In the estimation of this group, close to 90% of graduates will continue to do word studies throughout their careers as they prepare to preach and teach the Bible. They do not, however, explain how one can perform a word study without reference to the original languages.

Current and future teachers/lecturers/administrators

A few questions addressed future and current teachers. Some participants would like to know how other schools select or otherwise source teachers and lecturers. Taking it to a slightly deeper level, one group asked, “What kind of professional skills and character traits do your faculty in preparation need in order to serve effectively in your context?” And once new faculty members are in place, how can we help them develop the teaching skills necessary to ensure their courses will not simply pass on information but retain a practical emphasis that students can use in ministry?

Only one group addressed the crucial issue of seminary leadership. “In view of the increased diversity, how is the leadership of the seminary learning to thrive in the increasing complexity?” Though they don’t define “diversity” and “complexity,” these words could refer to society in general or to the overall educational scene. Effective administrators at the highest level need a strong grasp of both and the help of others who can think through tough problems as they arise and do their best to anticipate ones that might reasonably emerge.

Students

Some questions focused on the students. One group questioned if others had noticed any trends among students that would help us better teach and prepare them for future ministry. Whether it is a trend or not, some participants apparently noticed that students can begin studies in one context and change to another. They therefore asked, “Can students attend one semester or short course with credit in another seminary in the same country, or even outside?” What about a student who can demonstrate competence in a subject or skill learned through TEE, individual study, or some other means? The principal of one institute questioned whether they should consider recruiting a more multi-cultural faculty and beginning English-language courses in order to draw new students.

Questions pertaining to current students included how to evaluate which delivery methods they find enjoyable and which they find challenging. One group suggested asking for the students’ response to this question and considering how their responses might impact our teaching methodology and outcomes. Another consideration for current students is how to design and implement courses that help them apply what they learn to their lives and ministry rather than just collecting information. One group questioned how we can help students relate to the wider political and cultural world. Highlighting an extremely important question that is easily missed, another group asked, “What is the place of nationals in the theological/missiological education of missionaries?” This is a question that mission agencies can’t afford to miss.

Beyond potential or current students, several groups asked about graduates. One wanted to know what a graduate profile should look like and how it might shape the ongoing work of the seminary. Others wanted to know how we can help students continue learning and growing spiritually after graduation. As one group phrased it, “How are your graduates doing? Are you tracking them or maintaining relationships with your alumni?” In part, this was to get feedback about their studies and how the school could improve. It was also to discern whether they were “still in ministry or thriving in their workplace and transforming lives.” A special concern was shown for women students. A further recognition is that alumni are a good resource for a seminary. This is undoubtedly true with regard to recommending new students and perhaps to providing financial support.

Society and culture

Some groups expressed a concern to serve the larger community and culture. One explicitly asked, “How can we serve our country?” Another wanted collaboration between theological educators across countries to be seen, among other ways, by their work in NGOs, in the marketplace, and in societal and community projects. One recognized the similarities and differences between the biblical and their own worldviews, and wondered about “the folk religious structures and worldview of other Asian societies? How are these worldviews understood missiologically?” The same group wondered, “What do you perceive to be uniquely Asian spirituality? How do we use its uniqueness to foster growth?” All these questions deserve deeper investigation.

It is widely recognized that the church and seminary need to discern ways in which to engage the larger society. Sometimes this is because the governments of many East Asian countries influence the church in many ways. How, it was asked, can theological students be taught to rightly relate to governing authorities? What about in countries like Thailand where some members of society are engaged in “aggressive protest?” What can a Bible college do to address such a scene? One group rightly asked, “What is the role of the theological educator” in such conversations? Just how vocal can or should they be in addressing vital issues? Should they be willing to risk prison or exile? Broad discussions between schools and churches in different countries are needed.

When it comes to bringing the political and social context down to the student level, one group expressed a desire to understand “what is the breadth of the curriculum in terms of social engagements and cultural exegesis?” What can be done to improve this situation? How can the church in one country help the church in another? And when in a particular context one feels a “tightening of restrictions on foreign and educational activities,” for whatever reason, what can be done to innovatively support theological education? What might it look like? Should degrees and diplomas be scrapped in some settings? How might that impact job searches and ordination?

While several groups considered how the church and seminary might influence society, only one expressed concern over the influence that society often exerts over the church. One of the major influences they identified is the common desire for status and recognition that drives many to pursue titles, promotions, and power. In addressing this common reality, the group said that, “Status in the church goes against servanthood in the churches.” They concluded that this worldly seeking after position is a topic that needs to be more widely addressed.

Questions for missionaries and their societies

During the consultation, more than one participant questioned why it was organized by members of an international mission organization—OMF International—and the initial questions were drawn up by members of that organization. Why were questions that the church in East Asia had not featured at the same level? The simple answer is that we had to start somewhere and, after more than 150 years working in Asia, OMF leaders wanted to evaluate our ongoing role in this context by asking Asian church leaders how we fit into their understanding of the current needs. If Asian leaders told us that foreign missionaries were no longer needed to help with theological education in the region—as difficult as we might find it—we needed to be ready to listen and respond appropriately. Similarly, if we were asked to provide many more workers to help in this area, we needed to be ready to listen and respond appropriately.

But the consultation wasn’t organized just to answer the questions of a missionary society. It was envisioned to be the beginning of a dialogue in which theological educators working throughout East Asia could address important questions and build relationships that could produce collaborative partnerships that help the church address the current situation and prepare for the challenge of the future. Before the consultation began, we desired to see a network of theological educators developed to reflect on the needs of the church and consider how theological education (on all levels) can meet those needs. And while foreigners (from within and outside of East Asia) will probably have a role in these discussions, it is recognized Asian church leaders should have the premier place in formulating the questions and setting the format (and perhaps languages) that will be needed to answer them.

This openness to the larger questions was designed into question 5. The fact that most groups spent more time with the broader questions of theological education in the area and had fewer questions to ask missionaries and their societies highlights the issues they perceive to have higher priority. Even so, the questions addressed to missionaries give agencies some important areas for discussion that may guide thinking about the kind of people we should be mobilizing to serve in Asia. The questions asked revolve around four main areas in theological education: the role and methodology of theological education in Asia today, the place of missionaries in that context, collaboration across the region, and the place of missionaries in the overall cultural scene. As this paper is a report on the consultation, the questions will be raised without an attempt to provide answers. These are important issues that require more than the reflections of one author.

Several questions asked for insight into what we might call an outsider’s view of the scene. Some wanted to get the missionaries’ perspective on the state of theological education in East Asia today. Thus, one group asked, “What do foreign missionaries see as ‘holes’ in local Christianity and theological educational curriculum?” As with other questions, the answer will undoubtedly vary depending on who is asked and what context they work in. Good answers will come from asking widely and deeply. Following the previous question, the same groups asked: “What sort of graduates do you think we should be producing for the twenty-first century?” This was echoed by another group who queried “What is the agenda of foreign missions vis- à -vis their Asian ministries?” Restating the question, they asked: “What do you think we Asians need? What is the real need of Asian theological seminaries?” In the right setting, this could lead to an excellent discussion that would, no doubt, benefit all involved.

Focusing more directly on the role of missionaries engaged in formal theological education, one group wanted to know what missionaries can do to help faculty members keep students actively learning by fully engaging their subject. They want to ensure that students are not given a passive learning environment, but one that is stimulating, integrated, and practical. They further wanted to know how we can teach students to apply what they learn to their own lives rather than simply pass on classroom material and expertise. These questions demonstrate a desire for an advisor or conversation partner who can discuss important issues at a deep level. Any missionary who joins this conversation must have great experience and wisdom.

Instead of asking how missionaries might benefit the local church, one group flipped the question by asking how they might strengthen the educational ministries engaged in by foreigners. “How,” they asked, “are you contributing to the theological education in your context, especially in creative access nations (CANs)? How can we help?” These questions demonstrate a profound knowledge and positive assessment of the kind of ministries some missionaries engage in and a desire to help it improve. A discussion here could produce healthy collaboration to carry out an important ministry.

One group’s interest in knowing how missionaries help develop collaboration should give organizations pause for reflection. “How are the agencies aiding or facilitating greater collaboration between seminaries across cultures—especially in Asia? How do they help seminaries be more multi-cultural for a richer understanding of the Word?” The same group asked further: “How can agencies help theological educators have a more collaborative mindset so that collaboration is not just with seminaries but with other like-minded organizations or even the community and marketplace?” As many agencies work in multiple countries, it was suggested that they might be able to use their networks to help students take part in overseas training or internships. Do they? Could they? What would it look like?

A final set of questions address the place of the missionary in the broader society. Though mission agencies often insist that we cannot express political views but must stay neutral since we are guests in a country, the reminder comes loud and clear that “Missionaries cannot sit on the side. Make your stand. Jesus was not neutral. Why do you not care? Do you care? Can you take sides when it matters? How can we help local Christians to express their opinions? How about your conscience in being neutral in these issues? Your theology? How can you express neutrality? Can you explain why you are choosing that?” These questions reject simple answers and will require deep thought and ongoing dialogue as we search out the mind of God and our place serving the church in Asia.

Conclusion

In many ways, the theological educators’ consultation served as a physical examination by reminding us where we are, what we are doing well, and what we need to improve. At the end of the three days of questions and discussions, it was clear that we had only begun to consider the potential needs. This may have spurred on the general agreement that this should not be a one-off event but that deeper reflection should be made so that theological education throughout East Asia can continue to develop.

One important outcome arising from the consultation would be for a group of educators to organize a future meeting to build upon the discussion. Another outcome would be for smaller meetings to be organized, designed to focus on more regional or national concerns. For these outcomes to be achieved, a network of theological educators should be organized who devote themselves to reflect on both local and wider needs and consider ways that they can be met. The precise nature of the group—just how formal or ad hoc it should be—is perhaps not as important as its aim to support and enhance theological education from grassroots to professional level throughout East Asia.

As we seek to develop as people called to serve the church by training leaders, let us not be afraid of asking the difficult questions. And as we seek answers, let us boldly approach others whose experiences differ from ours and, through earnest discussion and reflection, seek to identify the way forward. And in our desire to collaborate with others, let us never forget that it is only as God enables us that we will find solutions to our questions and be able to lay the pathway that will facilitate the training of church leaders throughout the region so that they can faithfully and skillfully build up his church and equip it for ministry.

 

 


 

[1] Warren Beattie, “OMF and Theological Education: Training and Partnership with the Asian Church,” unpublished paper, May 2008 and “Survey of OMF Fields in Relation to Theological Education 2008,” unpublished paper, May 2008.

[2] In some cases, the countries chosen to be part of a group was related to the number of participants representing those countries rather than their geographic proximity or the state of the church and theological education found there.

[3] At least one group considered the possibility that if we asked these same questions to leaders from a younger generation we may be given greatly different answers.

[4] During a different question time, a participant noted that “Our cultural perspective of education does not include critical thinking. This has to be taught in theological education settings, not assumed.”

[5] Teaching online courses to a screenful of dark gray rectangles was experienced by many.

[6] In a different context, another participant said that the kind of person who would seek an online degree may well be the kind who would try to perform ministry without directly interacting with people.

[7] This may be tied to the inherent traditional tendencies of denominations to reject new ways of doing things. In some cases, however, it may be a perception that online programs do not adequately prepare people for church ministry where personal interaction is essential. What can be designed into an online or hybrid program to ensure that students demonstrate their ability to interact well with others and thus show that they are prepared for pastoral ministry?

[8] See the paper, “Contextual equipping for the people of God and their leaders using TEE,” by Graham Aylett, David Burke, and Iljo de Keijzer, later in this issue.

Share this post

Get Involved

Have Questions? Send us an email.

To help you serve better, kindly fill all the fields (required). Your query will be routed to the relevant OMF team.

Contact Form

By clicking Submit, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with the terms in our Privacy Policy.

You’re on the OMF International website.
We have a network of centres across the world.
If your country/region is not listed, please select our International website.