In this interview with Walter DeMoss and Jeff Henney, they recount their experience of setting up and running Modular Study Groups. This is an innovative approach to educating the children of missionaries that allows their parent to continue serving long-term in places where other educational opportunities are not available and with peoples who may have little knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Walter DeMoss was raised in Togo and Ghana till the age of thirteen by missionary parents and became a Christian at eighteen. He worked as an engineer for nine years and has a Masters from Moody Bible Institute. He has been serving in East Asia, initially teaching at an international school in Thailand for missionary children and later opened MSG schools in different locations. He is married to Mirjam and they have three children.
An American medical physician, Jeff Henney has been serving in Laos in the areas of medical and TCK education since 2010. He is the Director of MSG-VIENTIANE, a role he took up in 2017. Jeff is married to Laura and they have five children.
An Interview with Walter DeMoss and Jeff Henney
The Modular Study Group: An Answer to One Part of the Problem of Missionary Retention
Mission Round Table17:1 (January–April 2022): 33–35
What is a Modular Study Group and who is it used for?
The Modular Study Group (MSG) is a hybrid school model that seeks to provide high quality academics, discipleship, and support for families living among the least and last reached peoples on earth. In this form of education, students travel from their various cities or villages to a central location where they study for one week a month over a nine-month school year. For the remaining three weeks a month, they work from home to complete assessments relating to their current module of study and further assignments relating to the next week together. The program runs from 7th grade (12–13 years old) to 12th grade (17–19 years old). Students matriculating from the MSG should be ready to begin a university or college program or enter the workforce.
How and why did you decide to form an MSG?
The idea of the MSG came as a direct result of seeing the school magnet effect and its devastating impact on missionary work in various hard-to-live places. Building a large, well-resourced missionary school acts as a magnet that attracts missionaries to work near its location and unintentionally deprives many countries and people groups of long-term workers. The perceived need for an accredited education and the fall in popularity of boarding have significantly changed the way we view missions work and families. To many with a family, the possibility of long-term work in a remote area seemed to be impossible. The demands and expectations of education would eventually remove workers from the field. Challenging this reality, the MSG lightens the educational burden so that missionary families can thrive and remain where they are called to serve.
In our desire to see missionaries serving where they are called to serve, we distinguish between being “on the field” and “in the field”. The former refers to any worker who serves cross-culturally, while the latter refers to those who are unhindered from living among the people they are called to serve. We thus consider a family that lives in Bangkok, Thailand but works among a tribal group that mainly lives in a different country to be “on the field” but not “in the field”. The goal of an MSG is to free as many missionary families to be “in the field” as possible and not just “on the field”. That being said, the MSG is a practical model of education not intended to supersede other models. Rather, it provides help for missionary families whose needs are not met by traditional models or online education.
What challenges did you face to get an MSG going and to keep it going?
There have been two major challenges along the way. One has been trying to explain to the various stakeholders what an MSG is and what it is not. The bigger and more consistent challenge is staffing. To keep this educational method going, about one long-term teacher is needed for every four long-term missionary families. Without enough teachers, the “real” missionary work will not continue effectively as families face decisions that often lead to relocating and/or leaving the field altogether. Agencies may be aware of this on a theoretical level but the practical truth is that, for many agencies, teacher recruitment remains a passive effort at best. Without a sufficient bank of teachers to keep parents with children in place, mission can become very inefficient and piecemeal.
Who benefits from an MSG and in what way?
As mentioned above, the MSG exists to keep missionaries “in” and not just “on” the field. It is our long-term hope that this model will propel more people towards incarnational ministry among the unreached people groups of the world. We believe that the benefits extend to the people groups, the students who study under this model, and their parents. Parents are relieved of the tension of wondering how to educate their children and remain in service, and students are given a tremendous opportunity to take personal responsibility, mature, and move forward in their journey as disciples of Christ. The social benefits experienced by the children are probably the biggest appeal for them. Many students who attend the MSG come from areas where they are the only non-nationals. Coming to “camp” with one’s friends nine weeks a year, even if it is framed as a school, is all the motivation they need to work hard the other weeks.
Do you need a minimum number of students to get going?
We generally recommend that an MSG needs a minimum of ten students whose parents are committed to keep it going for two years to get started. It takes that number of students to generate a strong community feel and it takes that much time to establish credibility among the missionary community where the school is running. That being said, one MSG started with only five students in year one, and grew to thirteen students in year two. The important question to address is how many students are needed to create a viable community of learners.
Do you need to choose a particular curriculum before starting an MSG?
Each MSG site has the freedom to choose its own curriculum, but is encouraged to use well-established and time-honored options. This is both for the efficiency of obtaining resources and to allow for different MSG sites to work together more effectively. From Europe to Australasia to Canada, the curriculum requirements vary greatly, so it is important to select one that will be acceptable at the public school level in a particular country. Since the MSG is not accredited and we have no plans to work towards accreditation, we have a much greater freedom in choosing our curriculum. Even so, whatever curriculum is selected, it needs to be accessible, flexible, and practical, taking the needs of the members into account. That said, families who have very specific requirements will probably not be well served by the MSG. Families who want a well-rounded education with plenty of opportunity for personal growth and discipleship may find that there are not many programs better suited to this than the MSG. We believe that the MSG, regardless of the particular curriculum chosen, will prepare students for university and life. Even so, since university entrance requirements vary so much, we cannot guarantee that the MSG will be able to fulfil them all. We leave that responsibility to be worked out by the parents.
Where would an MSG work best and least?
The MSG works best in a country where there is a central hub city that can be traveled to and from in just one leg. Travel must be accessible, relatively safe, and affordable. A school serving as an MSG hub also needs to be established near to a core group of parents who would like to serve in more remote areas. If a local international school or one with boarding is available, we recommend that parents pursue that option for their children. We have also found that an MSG will likely fail in its vision if it is only seen as the “cheap” local option. The one week on and three weeks at home system can prove difficult for students living in the hub city. The MSG and its community work best when the majority of the students are coming from remote parts of the host country.
What are the long term plans of the MSG?
We intend to continue planting MSGs in countries where the need exists. Currently, we are working on starting such schools in Pakistan and India. Plans are in place to establish schools in Cambodia and Myanmar as well. Though the first MSGs were all started in Asia, the model could prove useful in Africa and South America or wherever there is a need and the Lord provides staff so that a new school can be planted. It must be remembered that the MSG is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a means to free people to obey the Great Commission by making disciples among difficult-to-reach people. As long as missionaries are obedient to the call to incarnational ministry, the MSG will continue to be a practical means to help them do just that.
Where could someone go if they wanted to learn more about the MSG education model?
You can visit the main website at www.msgeducation.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in visiting an MSG in person, you can contact us to set up a time to see the program in operation. We have several video resources available that give further insight into the MSG and its needs.