by Jeffrey P. Greenman and Gene L. Green
The Western church can contribute to the health of the whole body of Christ through the wise support of theological education in the Majority World.
A truly historic shift in the center of gravity in Christianity has been well documented in recent years. Christian faith is thriving across much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Churches are growing dramatically. Meanwhile, church involvement remains fairly static in North America and is experiencing serious decline in Europe.
But in much of what is now commonly called the Global South or Majority World, rapid church expansion means that the greatest need in world mission today is leadership development. For example, take the case of Ethiopia. The evangelical denomination Kale Heywet operates nearly eight thousand congregations with over seven million members. Yet only seven percent of their churches are led by a pastor with any theological education at all. Recently, one of their top denominational leaders said that his church was facing a “theological famine” that must be addressed.
The Role of Seminaries and Colleges in Training
Churches like his around the world, including in the West, are facing the hazards of shallow biblical understanding and distorted theological teaching (such as the “health and wealth” gospel). Astute leaders of Majority World churches and elsewhere are aware of the risks of being “blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).
British evangelical statesman John Stott (1921-2011) argued that the seminary is the key institution for the building up of God’s Church. There is a distinctive logic behind his belief that involves three steps:
1. God wants his Church to grow not merely numerically, but in depth of discipleship and spiritual maturity. The Apostle Paul’s greatest aim was to present everyone mature in Christ (Col. 1:28).
2. God’s Church grows to maturity through God’s word. The Bible, which is God’s written word, nourishes and guides the people of God.
3. The Word of God comes to God’s people primarily through preaching, especially through preaching that expounds the meaning and significance of scripture, applying God’s truth in contextually relevant ways.
If these things are true, then the critical question becomes: How can the Global Church raise its standards of biblical preaching and build on the foundations of orthodox theological conviction? Stott’s answer is that this is done through leadership development at strong, evangelical theological colleges and seminaries around the world.
The Great Commission calls the Church to make disciples of the nations, baptizing and teaching them to observe everything that Jesus taught. Pastors who teach their congregations need themselves to be taught to understand and rightly handle scripture, and to reflect theologically on what it means to live faithfully amidst the particular spiritual, moral, economic, and political contexts faced by their people. The frontlines of gospel outreach are the places where theology is born, and where wise theological judgment is most needed. “The earliest mission became the mother of theology,” wrote German New Testament scholar Martin Kähler. In response to this strategic need for theologically astute pastors, teachers, and evangelists, many evangelical denominations and networks have established theological institutions.
Most Western Christians and church mission boards typically give priority to supporting missionaries involved with evangelism, church planting, relief and development work, and Bible translation. These realms of activity have dominated Protestant missionary attention during the past century. Teaching English overseas and tent-making business ventures have more recently become means of gaining access to non-Christian contexts globally. Many churches invest heavily in short-term mission projects.
Yet many evangelical leaders now agree that in most of the Majority World, indigenous Christians who already know the local language and culture of their people are much better equipped for frontline evangelism and church-planting activities than are westerners.
Missionaries from the West have been particularly well equipped educationally to offer support in meeting the global needs for biblical and theological training. An increasing number of young evangelical scholars are opting for teaching at Majority World institutions rather than seeking a teaching post in the West. And many students from the Majority World have been able to gain educational credentials on the doctoral level in North America, Europe, or their home regions through the financial support of various agencies dedicated to the educational dimension of mission. These women and men find their way into seminaries around the world and take up the challenge of teaching the pastors and leaders who will, in turn, teach the church.
In New Testament terms, there are two essential aspects to growing healthy congregations: planting the seeds of faith and watering those seeds. In 1 Corinthians 3:8, Paul rejects the idea that evangelist-church planters like himself are spiritually superior or more necessary to the church’s health than discipler-educators like Apollos. Paul states, “He who plants and he who waters are equal.” In our day, what the Church worldwide desperately needs is for God to raise up and send out a new generation of people with the spiritual and intellectual gifts for a “watering” ministry of teaching and mentoring, like the one exercised by Apollos.
Steps to Building Centers of Leadership Development
Given the crucial need for better equipped and more biblically grounded pastors around the world, our plea is that individual Christians and churches give priority to using their resources to support efforts at leadership development at seminaries serving the Majority World Church. Below are four practical steps that can be taken to help build self-sustaining centers of leadership development in the Majority World.
Consider sponsoring missionaries involved with theological education in the Majority World. Western Christians who have received advanced theological training, and who make themselves available to be servants of their brothers and sisters globally, are being called by God to join the faculties of seminaries overseas. They need to raise their own financial support. Most seminaries around the world have very few teachers who have earned a PhD in their fields of expertise.
Westerners with theological doctorates can assist local educators in developing curriculum and strengthening programs that teach the future pastors of growing churches. In some cases, westerners are being called to help develop doctoral programs in biblical studies and theology in Majority World institutions, thereby becoming the teacher of future teachers for churches in that region. In the next generation, this is an urgent need.
Consider supporting theological schools in the Majority World. Many leading evangelical institutions in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia have set up Western organizations to receive donations and disseminate information about their work. In many such schools, local economic conditions are dire, and prospects for raising funds in their own regions are modest at best. Yet their vibrant ministries are energizing mission and evangelism in their regions. Funding for student scholarships is a particularly strategic investment by Western Christians.
Consider supporting Western organizations which exist to support Majority World theological education and leadership development. Some organizations provide scholarships for future faculty members to pursue doctoral degrees in Western institutions or within the Majority World contexts. Others provide needed assistance with construction of needed facilities or library development for Global South theological schools.
Building biblical and theological excellence among Majority World teacher-scholars is one of the best investments toward the spiritual health of the Global Church. Organizations such as Langham Partnership International (founded by John Stott), Overseas Council International, and Scholar Leaders International are examples of agencies engaged in undergirding the Majority World churches in this way.
Consider supporting efforts by North American colleges and seminaries to partner with Majority World Christian leaders. For example, a major seminary in the U.S. is currently partnering with a seminary in Latin America. The American school is helping to establish a counseling program at the Latin American school, and the Latin Americans are helping to create a Spanish-language program for the American school as it reaches out to new immigrants in its city. This is a win-win situation, with each school helping the other in tangible ways.
Challenges to Building Centers of Leadership Development
Within this good quest to develop educational capacity among the Christian seminaries and universities of the Majority World also lay some serious challenges. Below are four.
Not encouraging contextualized teaching. Some Western institutions of higher education do not encourage Majority World scholars to develop their biblical and theological understanding in relation with the context in which they will be teaching. Such scholars return home sounding like Western theologians who have not taken on the task of thinking how the gospel relates to their own context. Majority World biblical scholars and theologians who are truly able to read and teach scripture and theology in relation to their own contexts are expanding the understanding of the faith for all of us.
Scottish missiologist Andrew Walls regards this development as nothing less than a new Reformation. The faith of the whole Church, including the Western Church, will be stronger through the theological contributions coming from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Oceana, and the minority communities within North America. Majority World students who study in the West should be allowed to engage in this task during their theological training.
Hoarding Majority World scholars. With the rise and increasing popularity of Majority World theological education, many Western institutions want to be involved in the conversation. Some believe that the best way to bring their students and faculty into that conversation is to hire faculty members from the Majority World, sometimes as soon as they finish their theological education.
At times, students who have promised their theological institutions and funding agencies to return to the Majority World stay in the West due to the comparatively lucrative salaries offered by Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries. Christian institutions in the West must act as good stewards instead of consumers of the scant educational expertise available to churches in the Majority World. Within the whole of Spanish-speaking Latin America, there are just a few handfuls of Latino/a scholars with a doctorate in theology. By comparison, at Wheaton College where we teach, every advertised position in theology will yield one hundred applicants. Why should we drain the scant theological resources of the Majority World when we are surrounded by such abundance?
Draining local resources. While partnership with Majority World institutions is a way to support and dialogue with theological developments in the Majority World, sometimes these relationships end up minimizing the status of local resources. Visiting scholars from the West come and are given great deference and support, while local educators are left feeling that they have less honor and less to contribute. They listen while the visiting scholar speaks rather than standing as equal partners and contributors who themselves have a contribution to make to the visiting scholar. Western scholars sometimes arrive only to speak but not to listen.
Partnership from wrong motives. Western institutions sometimes seek partnerships in order to enhance their own status and influence as global players by partnership with Majority World institutions. Globalization in theological education can be distorted into a means of spreading Western influence and can be a form of neo-colonialism.
Moving Forward, Together
Despite these potential pitfalls, the Western Church has a critical supporting role to play in the development of theological and biblical capacity in the Majority World. Wisdom dictates that we take our place at the table, alongside our family across the globe, to discuss ways that we can work together for building up the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Each part of the Church has a gift to offer, and we in the West have a continuing role to play in the global Christian community—though this may not be the same role as previous generations. One of the greatest areas where the Western Church can contribute to the health of the whole Body of Christ is through the wise support of theological education in the Majority World.
Supporting Christian scholars in Bible and theology from the Majority World and the West, along with helping develop the institutions where they teach, can be one of our greatest contributions at this moment of great church growth across the Global South and East. The Majority World Church will be built up in faith through these efforts, and we will be also be built up through their theological insights.
Jeffrey P. Greenman is academic dean at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He has served as a board member for Langham Partnership Canada and as a delegate to the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE). He is co-editor of Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective.
Gene L. Green, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, previously served as professor of New Testament at the Seminario ESEPA in Costa Rica. In addition to authoring four biblical commentaries in Spanish and English, he is co-editor of Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective and the “Majority World Theology Series” (forthcoming 2013).
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 44-49. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.