Reshaping Theological Education in Asia

The church in Africa, Asia, and Latin America possesses tremendous vitality, yet in many parts of the world theological education retains a very western feel. Curriculum, textbooks, content, and often instructors still come from the West.

There is a tension between the demographic reality: that the body of Christ is located in the majority world, while the ‘brains’ are still western. While we might agree that change is necessary, wholesale rejection of two millennia of western experience would be unwise. I propose an amalgamation of western and non-western, teaching and applying historical Christian truth through hybrid models and means.

Western theological educators were faithful in transmitting what they understood as correct doctrine to various parts of the world. Following their forefathers, they taught on the authority and inspiration of Scripture, the nature of God, human sin, the doctrine of the Church, and so on. Theological training often involves the presentation of facts supported by reference to Scripture. This analytical approach requires students to sit exams and write essays to display their grasp of the information. The educational process relies on lectures and PowerPoint in classrooms, supported by library work, according to a linear style of thought. In many parts of Asia, Bible college lecturers require a high-quality master’s degree or even a doctorate. To be fair, this paradigm has equipped generations of students in systemic theology, Old and New Testament, and other areas.

While many missionary educators are justifiably proud of grassroots Theological Education by Extension, there is a sense that something is not quite right at the seminary, where professional church workers study at the undergraduate and master’s level. The cynic might complain that seminaries represent Theological Education by Extraction, as western-derived content is presented through a western teaching model to students with a non-western worldview, ministering in a non-western context.

I believe that there is a better way, which I call Theological Education in an Environment. Training pastors, missionaries, and other church leaders could take into account the learning styles of the students, the needs of their ministry contexts, and their cultural norms, so as to prepare students to serve God’s people in a globalising world.

Theological content can be taught in an ‘environmentally’ sensitive way. For example, rather than follow classic western categories such as the inspiration of Scripture, God, humanity, sin, and so on, a Latin American college structures teaching around the life issues happening just outside the doors of the institution: family, gender, poverty, society, justice, flourishing. The timeless truths of the Christian message are taught, but now embedded in and in response to life.

Apart from reorganising the teaching of doctrines and biblical studies, I propose that students should also learn about the broader non-Christian environment around them. The next generation of Asian church leaders must be equipped to understand local religions, history, and philosophies, and should be exposed to ideas and traditions different from their own, so that they learn to appreciate their wisdom and weaknesses, and respond to them from a Christian perspective.

We must also take account of students’ learning styles. The dean of a South-east Asian Bible college has suggested an Asian form of mentoring; students could belong to small groups attached to a tutor who would be their master or guru for the duration of the course. Like Confucius or Buddha, and of course like our Lord Jesus himself, the master would pass on content, embody the teacher-pastor role, and encourage peer-to-peer learning among group members. The mentor could teach most of the subjects to the group, drawing on other specialist colleagues as necessary.

Like any great Asian teacher, again including our Lord, the master could take his little flock outside the college, exposing them to the challenges and opportunities of the street, taking them to the latest local film, or to museums and places of cultural significance. Along the way, there would be dialogue, informal discussion, and mutual learning and edification.

Learning in context and for context can feed into assessment; lectures and extended essays may not always be the best tools. Short reports, reflections, blogs, video diaries, artwork, and even performances may help students show that they have learned and how they have learned. Colleges could even ask suitable Christians and non-Christians from the community to evaluate students’ learning and behaviour; after all, seminary students need to minister to and with such people.

Theological educators in the West are now striving to make content and instructional style relevant to a new generation, and we should not be surprised that the East Asian context suggests a similar reshaping. I hope and pray that our theological educators can work together with local Asian colleagues towards effective theological education, which draws from challenges and speaks to its own environment.