by Barbara Burns
Teachers and students alike discovered fresh ways to serve one another, their churches, and their communities.
It was my second week as the only American teacher in the Cianorte Bible Institute. "Here Donna Barbara, you give the Word," was what I heard above the noise of the crowd at the market place. One of the students pushed the microphone into my hands and there I was, for the first time in my life, standing in an open air meeting with all eyes upon me. I keenly felt the expectation of the students in sharp contrast with my fear that now it would all be revealed-I had not the vaguest idea of what to say or do.
I was supposed to be the teacher but, really, I was the one who had most of the learning to do. In spite of trying to cover up my ignorance (since I had been taught that teachers know most everything), I’m sure my patient students were not deceived then, or during my next seven years at the lnstituto Biblico Presbiteriano de Cianorte in Brazil.
In 1964 Pastor Jonathan F. dos Santos, filled with a new vision for evangelizing dozens of little towns springing up all over the northern part of the state of Parana, decided to enlist the help of several enthusiastic young men and women. Five girls joined his family of four and 15 boys moved in next door. It was the beginning of a new Bible school-a teaching center and headquarters for evangelists in action.
Soon after I arrived at the institute in August of 1971, after a year and a half in Brazil, I realized that no previous school experience had prepared me for the structures and concepts of this Bible school. Not only was it very different from North American schools, but also from the other much more affluent and well-equipped missionary-operated school in the area.
Because there were only three main teachers and by then almost 90 students (and no paid staff), it was necessary for the students to do most of the work. They had already cleared some jungle and built a few crude buildings. All the maintenance, ranging from cleaning toilets to secretarial and accountant work, depended on teams of students, supervised and helped by the professors. Students did not pay tuition but shared in a cooperative, or division of expenses as they occurred each month. (This helped reduce any complaining about food and accommodations; the students themselves were in charge of their own buying and expenditures.) They also particpated in every faculty meeting, helped make decisions, and planned for every phase of the spiritual and practical life of the school. Everyone had to work together.
The heart of school life was the practical outreach on the weekends. Cianorte was not a theoretical school preparing future ministers, but a community where people who were actually working could live and share together under the guidance of the teachers. Informal learning by doing was the key to theological education in Cianorte. As a result, today more than 80 percent of the graduates are active in churches, a much higher rate than the Brazilian average. Many have graduated with higher degrees, some are teachers, others are working in rehabilitation centers, a few are on the mission field, but most are pastoring their churches just as they learned at the insitute.
This unusually high percentage of graduate integration into the pastorate and a healthy church growth in the area surrounding the institute can be attributed to several specific factors.
1. The Leadership. Both Pastor Jonathan and Pastor Decio, who joined the faculty in 1967, graduated from the Presbyterian seminary in Campinas, one of the excellent seminaries in Brazil. After graduation they both spent a few years pastoring churches in developing areas in Parana". They were well-equipped academically and experientially to lead a school for preparing others for the same work. Jonathan now had a master’s degree in theological education; both are involved in theological education by extension; are leaders of the Antioch Mission, a Brazilian cross-cultural mission; and are involved in national and worldwide endeavors.
Before Pastor Jonathan and Pastor Decio began the Bible institute, they both had experienced a charismatic renewal in their relationship with God. As a result, they rejected traditional structures in a willingness to explore new methods of working. Practical necessity, plus the models of the life of Jesus and the Scriptures, became important criteria for their decisions.
2. Informal Schooling. When Jesus was on earth he did not start a formal school. He chose his men and then lived with them. He showed them with his own life what was possible as Christians and taught them as they walked together through many different situations.
Cianorte was not a school where students and professors met for class and afterwards went their separate ways. All the responsibilities of the school were shared. We lived together in a not too comfortable campus; we worked together; we solved problems together; and we went out together on three-day weekends to reach the lost and start churches.
It was always possible to see the students put into action what they had learned during the week and then reinforce it or add a correction or two. The teacher was shoulder-to-shoulder with the student-his family, personal, and spiritual life an open book and a closely demonstrated model.
3. Training in Leadership. Teams and team leaders were responsible for the work and for the spiritual well-being of the institute. Besides work teams, there were community teams of eight or 10 students and an elected leader who was to know and help his group. Once a week the leaders met with one of the teachers to discuss special problems, or to offer ideas from the members of the group that could benefit the school as a whole. Two of the leaders were always present during faculty meetings, and on special occasions all of them were included (serious discipline problems, etc.).
4. Prayer and Fasting. The most important aspect of the spiritual life of the school was prayer. We met early in the morning, late Friday night (a prayer meeting that often lasted all night), in chapel, or sometimes in classes that would be completely taken over by spontaneous prayer. Just as Jesus depended on times with his Father, the school community felt they must seriously depend on him.
Jesus and others in the Bible also spoke of fasting, something that the students felt was significant for their own spiritual development and for success in their frequent encounters with the evil forces of spiritism that dominate Brazil. We fasted often-in groups, as an entire school, and individually-as an expression of worship and desire to seek the Lord.
5. Healing and Deliverance. Everywhere in Brazil are the sick and the possessed. In a country where Satan is freely worshipped and where access to medical help is difficult, healing and deliverance are vital and real. Many miracles happened because the students believed that Jesus helps people now just as he did two thousand years ago.
6. Involvement in the Church. In the New Testament it was the church that was the center of Christian activity. The church was a body functioning interdependently. It was in the churches that the whole people of God studied the Scriptures, learned, and grew.
In Cianorte, the churches were an integral part of the school. Jonathan was first of all a pastor. He needed help in his own growing church and other churches he had begun in the surrounding towns. The students at the institute were already active in these churches. They came from and worked for the edification or the initiation of churches.
The churches felt that the students were theirs. They prayed for them, supported them financially, and welcomed them into their homes whenever possible. After graduation the students returned to their own home churches for their first assignments and possible future ordination, not as strangers but as well-known members of the church family. The institute did not hand ready-made workers to the churches after three years of classroom studies. The churches themselves decided who went to the institute and returned to the churches.
The institute also served the church as a center for pastors’ conferences, extension encounters, and once a year, an Encontro of Christians from all over Brazil. At the Encontro a large tent was erected in the center of the campus, the roof of the kitchen extended to cover extra stone stoves, and floors of the classrooms were covered with straw and canvas for sleeping. For one week students and professors worked day and night, sharing their lives and their homes with as many as three to four thousand people, not counting the local people who came, making the total as high as 9,000. It was a time of renewal, learning, prayer, service, and little sleep for anyone. All worked together in the environment of the institute, creating a sense of unity and providing an opportunity for growth, not just in the local churches but for churches all over the nation.
7. Meeting Real Needs. Jesus met the real needs of the people. He talked in a language they could understand and with which they could identify. The institute manifested this same desire, not only at the Encontro but much more so in its daily routines. The academic course was structured so that the local people could study on their own level. Since the area was rural and many people had very little or no schooling, the first year was a basic preparatory course, offering reading, grammar, simple Bible studies and how to study. The next three years then accelerated according to the capability of the students. The program was also designed so that everyone could attend the regular grammar and high schools in the city at night.
Meeting the needs of Christian workers, who for one reason or another could not attend the residence school, was also a priority. They could attend either a night school on campus or an extension center in other towns.
8. Practical Experience. Jesus sent out his disciples. He gave them simple instructions and authority. Towns within a 100-mile radius of Cianorte provided the field for the students and teachers. The towns were new, with few or no churches. Every Saturday teams and individuals started out, some to travel all day in difficult circumstances, through mud, on trucks, hitch-hiking, or standing up in buses. They led church services, preached in the markets, bus stations, plazas and prisons. They visited the sick, prayed for the oppressed, and stayed in the homes of the Christians, sharing with them.
Initially, young students went with a teacher or with older students, but as time went on they began to take more responsibility themselves. By their last year many had sole charge of a church, or the evangelization of an unchurched town. They always returned to the school with their questions and reports of progress. These were cycles of action and reflection, or increasing decision-making in practical areas that made the transition from student to pastor a smoother process.
9. Servanthood. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He served. He said not to be lords as the secular rulers were, but,
Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve … (Mt. 20:26-28, NIV).
The students at Cianorte attempted to live lives of servanthood. Cultural barriers were broken just as when Jesus knelt to wash the feet of his disciples. The boys washed dishes and helped cook-very unacceptable in Brazilian culture-cleaned floors, and bought food. The girls planted grass and did everything but heavy manual labor. At the Encontro, in the dorms, in the kitchen and dining room, everyone (teachers also) learned to serve.
They also served the local community in practical ways. Many people came to the institute for help, financial and spiritual. The students adopted a retarded family of three, a psychotic woman, and an elderly widow. Simple homes were built, the students shared their food, and the girls gave baths and cared for the needs of the women.
The students reached out to people on all levels of life, from the mayor, whose wife often stayed with us because he kept trying to kill her, to the prostitutes who lived in their own part of town. Teams penetrated the blackness of the streets filled with half-naked girls, to tell them of deliverance and God’s love. Jails, hospitals, markets were all targets for the good news. Addicts, alcoholics, and the oppressed were touched by the lives of the students. Many graduates are now pastoring churches that maintain rehabilitation centers and homes for unwed mothers. They are pastoring people who are interested in serving and helping the beaten people of their cities.
Most of what I have said has been almost ideal. The students were servants and most of them are still serving today. They attempted to follow biblical standards and were dependent on the Holy Spirit for direction and ability. They lived and worked together with the main goal of reaching their immediate world with the gospel. They shared learning in a relevant working environment, with constant opportunities to put it into practice in the local churches.
What I have mainly discussed, however, is the structural form of the institute. In contrast to the creativity in structure, there was little creativity in content and teaching methods. The importance of culturally relevant courses, didactically stimulating classes, and concrete biblical exegesis was not recognized. A subtle status gap between students and professors evidenced itself in an attitude of teacher infallibility, which stifled real indepth interaction. We let the students call us teacher and rabbi (Mt. 23:8-11). In the classroom we still wanted, as Zorilla says, to "domesticate students" (1977:D), without giving them tools to actively participate in their own formal educational processes.
Lack of problem-solving in the classroom, no utilization or channeling of the Brazilian style of rote-memory learning, and little goal-setting were serious drawbacks also. Legalism and traditionalism set in after the first creative impact died down.
Since student participation in the beginning was not a philosophy but a necessity, this valuable factor was replaced with hired staff and workers. Before, the students felt that school was not just a learning experience, but a vital, important work. The school could not function, churches would not be built, people would not be edified without them. It was their school, their churches, and their villages to be won for Jesus. As time went on, the churches had their own pastors, the towns were evangelized, the school was running on its own, and the students no longer felt they were really important.
In this we can also find lessons. How can we maintain the spontaneity, the dependence on the Lord, and innovation according to need, the real ministries, and the reaching out, all the time keeping the importance of the Bible foremost in the minds and hearts of the students? Constant vigilance against traditionalism is necessary so that the high quality and character of the school continues.
In spite of these problems, we can look back and measure a great many good results of those first years by looking at most of the graduates. In a large part they are carrying out the same principles they learned from their school model. Just as we lived together, they too live very closely with their people. They rarely do things alone, but instead include church members. They are giving their own people increasing responsibilities and trusting them with jobs. The men, women and the youth of the churches lead services, evangelize, open up new areas for church planting and expansion, and direct helpful community projects, like going out after midnight to serve hot soup and give blankets to the beggars.
The pastor takes others with him when he visits, counsels, and preaches. Brazilians have many services in their homes (all the neighbors are invited), on their farms, and in slums and other suburbs where the members of the church play an important part in planning and leading. Most of the graduates of Cianorte are repeating their own past experience in helping their people develop their gifts and take on more responsibility and decision-making. They know how to utilize the resources in their churches to obtain common goals.
Ted Ward says that "leadership for the church is to be nontyrannical servanthood . . ." (1978:22). Using Matthew 23:3-12, he gives challenges to act, not just speak; to be participating and not delegative; to seek no exalted status, privileges or recognition; to reject titles of authority; to develop real relationships, sharing with all as God’s people under one master; and to be servants, living in humility and unselfishness (Ibid.).
Our theological institutions could very well glean from one poverty-level Bible school in Cianorte some similar lessons in discipleship training. Dependence on God; high spiritual quality; relevant learning; student involvement in true life situations; integration of school and church; close teacher modeling; honesty and openness in student-teacher relationships; emphasis on the practical working out of gifts instead of just preparation for the use of those gifts in the future; the need for a deep appreciation of the Word; and care to maintain all of this instead of falling into the traditional are a few of these lessons.
Most of all, we must learn that true leadership in God’s church is based on servanthood. I Peter 5:2-3 states,
Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers-not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock (NIV).
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