Have you ever been really thirsty? Not just-ran-a-10K thirsty, but so thirsty that ditch water looked tempting? I have complained many times that I was “dying of thirst,” though I doubt I’ve ever been close. As a westerner, I have multiple options for drinking water: filtered, bottled, sparkling, flavored, even tap. All of it is ready at hand. The same can be said of my access to rich biblical teaching. My whole adult life this water for the soul was available in radio, cassette (!), CD, download, print, and best of all, through the teaching ministry of faithful pastors in my local church. I have felt like a tree planted by streams of water (Psalm 1:3).
Amid such abundance, it is hard to imagine life-threatening thirst. And yet vast portions of the church are dehydrated and languishing. Why this drought of the word of God? In some places in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, evangelism is far outpacing discipleship. Churches are being planted faster than pastors can be trained. Many of these churches suffer without any pastor at all. But even those with shepherds struggle because so many (some estimate 85%) have never had formal training in Bible or theology. Imagine having a pastor who has never learned principles of Bible interpretation or been taught theology. How are they to clearly dispense the only water that can satisfy (John 4:14)? How will they present Christ's bride radiant and pure, washing her with the water of God's word (Ephesians 5:26-27)?
Some have suggested our own seminaries as a solution. We can select the most promising students in the majority world, bring them to the West, give them the finest training available, and then send them back. This can work, but too often it encounters one of several problems. Many prefer life in the West and never return home. The few who do return often find their relationships have weakened during their absence. Or they find they smell too much like the West and have become outsiders to their own people. And, because of financial constraints, this model only can train a very few.
A better way to equip church leaders is to take the training to them. This makes strategic sense. It shouldn’t shock us that churches tend to cluster around Bible schools and seminaries. Rather, it should surprise us if this wasn't the case. But there is an inverse truth, also unsurprising, that in locations where there is no adequate pastoral training, churches are fewer and more faltering. Planting a pastoral training school is like creating a seedbed for local churches. Indeed, that’s exactly what “seminary” means: a seedbed. We plant pastoral training schools in places where we want a forest to grow.
“We plant pastoral training schools in places where we want a forest to grow.”
There are other advantages to planting pastoral training schools. By keeping the training local, churches are not robbed of their leaders while they are away for a three- or four-year program of study. This is especially true as we use a module-based program in most locations. Students can come in for the module, and then return home to serve their churches. They do their reading and other assignments at home, only coming in for classes. Relationships are not disrupted, and the student stays connected with his culture. Moreover, it allows more seasoned pastors in the region to invest in these young men and mentor them in the context of their ministry.
It also works better for families. Let’s try to enter some of the economic deliberations of a prospective student. Nearly all have dependents counting on them for food, clothing, health care, and school fees. They provide through a job. Many do so by farming. They also know that after graduation, pastoral ministry will not provide a living for their families. A Tanzanian pastor estimated to me that the average offering in a rural church would be five dollars a week, and some of that would be given to the poor. So moving away to attend a Bible college for three years with no prospect of income afterwards feels foolish to the aspiring pastor. But if the Bible school makes a way for the student to continue to provide for his family and serve his church, he is eager for the training. This is what we aim to do—make the training accessible with creative solutions to economic problems.
Planting pastoral training schools also allows us to provide training that is more relevant to the local context. Perry Shaw has identified a troubling tendency among new pastoral school plants, at least those with Westerners primarily in leadership. It is that, not knowing any other model, they airdrop the scope and sequence of their favorite Western seminary into whatever context they are working in, whether it is Ghana, Luzon, or Bogotá. This is misguided on several fronts. For one, it assumes incoming students in Delhi will be exactly like incoming students in Chicago. Second, it wrongly assumes an identical ministry context where the graduates will work. This approach attempts to clothe majority world pastors in the theological armor of the West. Like the shield of Achilleus, it may be impressive, but it won’t be practical. To change the metaphor, it's as ineffective as sending troops to Alpine combat school, then deploying them to fight in the Sahara. In contrast, when we partner with national leaders, we can tailor a program for their incoming students, preparing them for their unique ministry context.
In equipping pastors within their local ministry context and for their local ministry context, we believe we are engaged in one of the most strategic ways to extend the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. We're not just digging theological wells. We’re constructing aqueducts, making vast reservoirs of training, resources, and theology accessible to the multitudes. We’re bringing the clean and refreshing water of God's word to those who can distribute it to others, for those who are truly thirsty.