Theological Education and Mission in Twenty-first Century East Asia

The article is the keynote address from the consultation for theological educators that OMF hosted from 21 to 23 September 2022. It sets the stage for the questions that would be discussed over the three days.

 

Walter McConnell 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.

 

 

Theological Education and Mission in Twenty-first Century East Asia

Mission Round Table Vol. 17 No. 2 (May-Dec 2022): 4-6

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

 

This article is the transcription of the opening address given on 21 September 2022 at the OMF Theological Educators’ Consultation.

Welcome to our consultation for theological educators. While we are gathering to discuss a topic that is near and dear to each of our hearts, it should be clear from the very start that our interaction over the next couple of days is not intended to raise abstract considerations of the topic as a topic. Neither is it anticipated that we will merely review the way we have conceived of or practiced theological education in the past. Rather, this consultation is intended to help us forward our craft as we consider the needs that exist in our present environments and interact with practitioners from other organizations, institutes, and countries as we seek ways to collaborate so that theological education, at all of its multiple levels, will develop and the church of Christ throughout the broader region can be equipped for every good work.

Theological education in East Asia, at least in its Protestant form, can be traced to the second decade of the nineteenth century when a Hakka teenager from a small village in southern China moved to the big city of Canton (Guangzhou) and came in contact with some of Robert Morrison’s assistants who invited him to join their work carving wood blocks for the publication of Chinese books. Liang Fa,[1] as he was known, soon joined Morrison’s younger associate, William Milne, whom he accompanied to Malacca in 1815 to establish a publishing house for the London Missionary Society (LMS). Through daily Bible reading with Milne and his work printing Christian literature, Liang Fa came to faith in Jesus Christ and, in 1816, was baptized. Within four years, Milne was looking toward the possibility that Liang Fa might be ordained, and, in 1824, Morrison ordained him. Though his theological education did not follow today’s formal methods, Liang Fa demonstrated his knowledge of the faith through preaching and in print. His pamphlet, Quan shi liang yan, “Good Words to Admonish the Age,” contained what has been called “the most complete statement of Protestant doctrine by a Chinese during the first half of the nineteenth century.”[2]

The training of the first Chinese ordained to Protestant ministry got theological education in East Asia off to a good start. And even if it did not develop as quickly as some may have wished and often displayed an interest in issues that were most pertinent in other parts of the world, it has matured greatly during the past two centuries. And as church leadership comes in many forms that have a variety of purposes, theological education has developed what we sometimes call formal, informal, and non-formal training programs. Does the church in Asia need people who have mastered the biblical languages, the history of doctrine, exegesis, and homiletics? I expect that most of us would answer with a resounding “Yes!” And schools have been established that equip leaders with these skills. Does every church leader need to reach this level of competency? I hope that you would respond just as strongly with an “Absolutely not!” And for this level of leadership, a different set of courses and training programs have been developed and continue to be developed.

The question is, how do we determine who needs how much and what kind of training and at what point in life? Do we leave this up to the individual or the local church? Do we allow the academy—the Bible colleges and seminaries—to make this decision? How do we respond to situations in which one’s call into church work seems to correspond with a failure to pass a university entrance examination since the requirements to get into a theological college can be less rigorous? Where do accrediting boards fit in? Is theological education (on any level) an end in itself or is it a servant of the church and God’s mission through the church?[3] Should training take place purely within one’s cultural and familial setting or can someone come away (or be sent away) for a shorter or extended period of time, and, if they do, will they ever really fit back in? How do things like character, personal godliness, spiritual gifts, and the ability to express oneself orally fit into the equation? Clearly, it is neither reasonable nor possible to devise a one-size-fits-all training program or offer an endless number of courses from which a student is free to choose according to personal tastes and interests. Do we shape the contours of a curriculum by choreographing an elaborate dance that highlights the most valuable courses? And if so, who determines which courses are the most valuable and how the dance should be choreographed? Or do the private agendas of opposing groups reduce us to a diabolical fight for academic or practical turf? The issues and potential problems here are as endless as they are critical.

How do we, as theological educators who come from different countries and work in our own country or abroad, collaborate with those from other parts of the world? Is it good enough to associate occasionally through regional or global bodies, like ATA, ICETE, Increase, and Re-Forma, that set criteria for good practices and produce materials for developing and evaluating programs and faculty?[4] Should we find more “neutral” settings in which to meet—whether face-to-face or virtually—to share ideas and methods? And if so, how frequently should we meet and how do we determine what we should discuss? Does interacting with people from different backgrounds—be they denominational, national, ethnic, or whatever—stimulate our thinking and practice so that our teaching skills and content are enhanced? Or does it cause us to shrink back due to the strangeness of what we hear? While many schools and organizations claim that the courses they teach are designed to impact the head, heart, and hands or center on knowing, being, doing, and relating so that students become well-rounded as individuals and in ministry, how can we ensure that this desire proves to be more than just important-sounding talk or wishful thinking?

The kind of questions asked here demonstrate the need for a broad discussion of theological education. Though this has been done at many times in the past, the conversation needs to continue since many of us were not present during the earlier discussions and since our circumstances have changed over the years.[5] The current context of our churches, societies, and training programs leads us to ask the first two questions of the five that we would like to discuss over the next couple of days.

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?

Any discussion we have about theological education needs to begin right where we are. Is the church in our context strong, weak, or strong in some areas but weak in others? Are the formal and non-formal methods we use fit for purpose? Were they developed for another place and/or time? Or are they culturally relevant but biblically, academically, practically, or otherwise lacking? What needs to be done to ensure that the tools we use are adequate for the job before us? What visions do you and/or others have for improving theological education in your context? We need to be sure we address both “grassroots” and advanced theological training and include ideas that we personally find deficient. This is crucial because it is only as we take the ideas seriously that we can evaluate them adequately and determine their value in the overall spectrum of theological education. What works and what doesn’t? Why might this be so? Are we striving for a level that is too high or too low, too academic or too practical? What motivates us to do so?

It is clear that most major models for theological education used worldwide were developed in the West or by westerners working to train church leaders in other contexts. This is true of both formal and informal models. It is also true of those that promote “indigenous” or “contextualized” theology. This reality has led me for more than twenty years to regularly ask Asian theological educators what a truly Asian theological education might look like. But with all the talk about the need for contextualized Asian theology, most of those I have asked have been unable to provide any kind of an answer. No one has yet offered what I feel is a reasonable suggestion as to what this might look like. I have, in fact, been disappointed to find that Asian theologians who critique systems developed in the West use purely Western modes of reasoning to do so. I have been further disheartened to discover that suggested substitutes are often little more than variations of old Western training methods. Surely this is not good enough. And for that reason, we need to consider what the future of theological education in our part of the world should look like. There is space here for dreaming and for addressing local needs and gifts practically.

In addition to providing a venue for evaluating how we can improve our practice of theological education, we hope that this gathering will help us establish and build relationships with people who work with various institutions and organizations so that we can collaborate on multiple levels. One very practical place for this pertains to working with foreigners who would like to help us train new generations of church leaders. Please don’t misunderstand “foreigner” to be a synonym for “western missionary.” Though God used white missionaries to found many theological colleges and training centers throughout the region and many continue to teach at and even lead some of these institutions today, the church in East Asia has grown to the point that most theological educators serve locally. What’s more, the strength of the church in some parts of Asia has led to the sending of Asian missionaries who serve in other parts of Asia and the world. Some of these have actively engaged in theological education for years. It is therefore as important for participants here to get to know believers from other parts of Asia as it is to interact with those from the West.

The presence of theological educators who come from other countries and cultures requires that we take seriously the question Duane Elmer has asked people throughout the world: “What could missionaries do to more effectively minister the gospel of Christ in your culture?”[6] This is not a question that those of us who are counted as missionaries or the organizations to which we belong can adequately answer. We need the help of local believers with whom we serve if we are to rightly see how we fit in and how well we are doing. Our hope is that during this consultation you will apply Elmer’s question to different forms of theological education. As brothers and sisters in Christ who come from outside of your countries and cultures, we need you to tell us what we can do to become more effective theological educators in your cultural context. Our next two question address this issue.

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?

Your answers to these questions will greatly help OMF and other mission and para-church agencies get a clearer understanding of the impact we are having and might possibly have in the future. Are we selecting the right kind of candidates? Do they come with the right level of training? Are they given adequate language, cultural, ministry, and practical training? Do we need to mobilize people who can help with one type of theological education or another? Please let us know if you have noticed that we do certain things well. Similarly, inform us about areas where we need to improve. Undoubtedly, we will come with our own ideas of how certain things should be done, just as each one of you does. And while this can be due to our cultures and upbringing, it can also be influenced by our Christian tradition, education, personality, and so much more. And even if we might not appreciate all of your feedback about our work among you, we need to hear it for the sake of Jesus Christ and his church. Only as we receive honest feedback can we act upon it and thus better fulfill the mission we believe God has given us.

And though a major motivation for holding this consultation is to evaluate how we as foreign missionaries fit into the needs and desires of the church in East Asia, the primary focus should not be on us. For this reason, the final questions that this consultation addresses will come from you. By thinking about the needs in each of your contexts, contemplating the kinds of training programs that are needed and will be needed to meet those needs, and considering how Christian workers from overseas can work together with you, you may begin to ask many more questions about theological education that no one could have anticipated before our meeting. We would thus like to give you an opportunity to formulate and ask these questions both of us—the foreign missionaries who have come to serve the church in your countries—and your fellow theological educators who serve in other countries here in East Asia.[7]

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 how they might best serve theological education in East Asia?

The questions that could be asked here are as broad as the horizon. Let us dare to ask both the easy and the difficult ones and, as God enables us, to work together to find solutions that will help build up church leaders throughout the region and the surrounding world. May God use our deliberations over the next couple of days and our continued labor to train faithful workers “who will,” in Paul’s words, “be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2).

 


[1] Liang Fa (梁发/梁發) is also known as Liang A-Fa, Ah-Fa, and Leong Kung Fa. For more information, see Martha Stockment, “Liang Fa,” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, http://bdcconline.net/en/stories/liang-fa (accessed 14 September 2022), George Hunter McNeur, Liang A-Fa: China’s First Preacher, 1789–1855 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013), Baiyu Andrew Song, Training Laborers for His Harvest: A Historical Study of William Milne’s Mentorship of Liang Fa (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), and Jonathan A. Seitz, “Liang Fa (Liang A-Fa): Leader in Chinese Indigenization,” in Builders of the Chinese Church: Pioneer Protestant Missionaries and Chinese Church Leaders, ed. G. Wright Doyle (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 49–64.

[2] 梁發, 勸世良言 (台北市, 1965). Quote taken from Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume II, 1500–1900 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 291.

[3] Taking the last position, The Cape Town Commitment says, “The mission of the church is to serve the mission of God, and the mission of theological education is to strengthen and accompany the mission of the church.” The Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment (n.p.: Didasko, 2011), 69, http://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment (accessed 14 September 2022).

[4] For links to these groups, see: Asia Theological Association, https://www.ataasia.com/; The International Council for Evangelical Theological Education, https://icete.info/; Increase Association, https://www.increaseassociation.org/partners; and Re-Forma, https://www.re-forma.global/. We could add organizations like the Evangelical Theological Society, Society of Biblical Literature, World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission, and many others.

[5] For historical examples of conversations regarding theological education in Asia, see Bong Rin Ro, “A History of Evangelical Theological Education in Asia (ATA): 1970–1990,” Torch Theological Journal 11, no. 1 (2008): 24–44, and the information he provides there regarding early ATA consultations and publications. For background on TEE and theological education, see Freda Carey and Patricia Harrison, “TEE in Historical Context,” in TEE for the 21st Century : Tools to Equip and Empower God’s People for His Mission, ed. David Burke, Richard Brown, and Qaiser Julius (Carlisle: Langham, 2021), 99–122.

[6] Duane Elmer, Cross-cultural Servanthood (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 15.

[7] Note the call for building “truly global Christian networks” made by Andrew Walls in his “World Christianity, Theological Education and Scholarship,” Transformation 28, no. 4 (2011): 236–37.

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.