Report from the Field
Educational Missions in Eastern Europe
“An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip: “Get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is the desert road.) So he got up and went. There was an Ethiopian man, a eunuch and high official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to wor- ship in Jerusalem and was sitting in his chariot on his way home, reading the prophet Isaiah aloud. The Spirit told Philip, “Go and join that chariot.” When Philip ran up to it, he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” “How can I,” he said, “unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:26–31)
Our invitation to move to Eastern Europe came from one of the main Baptist Unions in the area. Their desire is to redesign and restart a bible school that will teach sound biblical principles in an uncompromising way. However, since arriving here over a year ago we have been surprised by some unexpected comments, both from nationals and foreigners. Here are some examples:
“Theological Education is not needed here.”
“Theological Education is above their heads.”
“There are no pastoral positions open in the existing churches, and the churches are not growing, so why train people for a job that doesn’t exist?”
“All we need here is mentoring and discipleship, not something formal and drawn out.”
Where we are, difficulties are often prompted by misconceptions about the necessity of theological education. As examples, in Eastern Europe there is often no perceived payoff in going to seminary since a pastor often cannot earn a living once he graduates except through western sponsors. Addi- tionally, in our location a majority ethnic group does not believe in the office of pastors—only lay leaders. This causes local churches to be hesitant about sending students for theological education as they don’t believe there will be a “payoff”.
2. The Challenge of Existing Teaching
I’m frequently asked, “Are there no other places in your area teaching theology?” As in most parts of the world, that answer is “Yes, there are.” Theological education is ubiquitous. There are multi- tudes of places that self-identify as schools of theology. Like the Ethiopian, many people around the world have a palpable desire for theological knowledge. The question is—what kind of theological education is being offered? Is it biblically faithful or does it accommodate other groups who may teach a different gospel? Does it thoroughly and comprehensively prepare people for ministry? Is it taught by qualified teachers who are proven? Is it based on the gospel of Christ (we are sinners, condemned before God, need to trust in Him alone and not our works, needful of propitiation and reconciliation, etc).
Some schools teach from the bible and may be good for a select group of new believers, but they are not comprehensive “so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Other schools are really just secular schools teaching comparative religions and taking no stand on biblical truth. Still others are hyper-focused on a certain denominational favor- ite perspective and are not theologically comprehensive. There is a school here that only teaches how to conduct “healing services”, yet it still calls itself a School of Theology. To the undiscerning this can be very confusing.
3. The Challenge of Pragmatism
Another response to a ministry that centers on good theological education that we’ve often heard is that we are to simply disciple people—one-on-one theological education as it were. The thought behind this response is along the lines of, “Why teach people to build a restaurant when we can just give them fast food? The hunger is pressing and urgent, the need is now, and we don’t have the time it takes for formal theological education.”
For some reason, people who say this tend to think of theological education as over and against discipleship and evangelism, making them seemingly mutually exclusive. Because of the great needs of many countries, expediency has caused many to try and make quick fixes and address spiritual problems often in the fastest way possible. We can partially agree with this argument. We rarely hear the true gospel being preached within evangelicalism here. We do hear a lot about personal kingdom-building, faith healings and the prosperity gospel. We rarely hear about a sinner who needs Christ. People are starving for the simple gospel. Many people here can be described as self-centered, angry, lonely or depressed. It does seem urgent to fill these needs in the quickest way possible, and formal training seems like the long route to the dinner line. So, is the disparity between what people here (or any other place) need, and what we’re hoping to build just too great to be justified? It’s one thing to argue about the need for formal theological education in the west, but especially in countries where churches are stagnant and the people are unreached for the gospel, should we even be considering formal theological education?
However, if people are starving and all we do is provide them quick snacks, how will that ever permanently help them? The reality is we’ve personally seen the shape of the churches here after decades of various western visitors and random discipling. It’s not enough. That’s because they have often only been given a few crumbs—barely enough to survive. Many times, the crumbs are dropped off by well-meaning Christians who soon leave, and the people face spiritual starvation again.
The point is not the mode of delivery of training. Many modes are needed. The point is, feed them in every way possible so that they are equipped to do every good work. After all, wouldn’t it be better to give them what they are asking for—solid education, instruction in discernment and sound doctrinal understanding? Couldn’t we feed them and raise up those who can produce good food themselves? If we can take a small handful of people and teach them solid theology, then the future brightens. Those “chefs” prepare hearty, nourishing food that will satisfy and fill up hungry hearts. Then those who have tasted the truth can learn to prepare the same dishes for others. In that way, 2 Timothy 2:2 is practiced. People in our region need to be spiritually fed, but they also need their own “theological restaurants” (i.e., formal theological education). We cannot settle for giving them just enough to survive.
4. The Challenge of YouTube Theology
Hungry for theological education, people will turn to wherever food source they can find. The most predominant place of theological education in our context is not Bible School Z, but the School of YouTube. Those who speak English have at their disposal a host of Christian offerings on the inter- net, covering a vast array of theological flavors. They can pick and choose whatever seems to look attractive and sweet. The problem is that here this has resulted in pet theologies, error due to lack of guides and much theological confusion. What we have seen is that these searchers often end up with a diet consisting of rotten doctrine and spoiled ideologies, which they in turn preach to people here as truth.
I meet with men who are smart and theologically adept, but because their education has been limited to what they can glean from Internet searches, they have serious gaps in their understanding of Scripture and theology. They have a multitude of questions and conflicting information. They struggle with answers to theological questions that are presented to most pastors like, “How can I be sure of my salvation?”, “What is the gift of the Holy Spirit?”, “How do I interpret biblical prophecy?” They cannot answer someone with practical issues like, “What are the principles of church membership?”, “How do I get better at praying publically?” or even “How do I tell someone the gospel?” They don’t know where to start with questions like, “Should I adopt if I can’t have a child?” or “My husband has cancer—what do I do?” or “How do I tell my wife I’ve committed adultery?”
5. The Challenge of the Missionary Template
The challenges here also have a more practical bent, and come not from the local context but from a sending country, church or even local western missionary. When people hear about the type of mission work you do, it is often hard for some to embrace that “educational missions” (theological training) is just as vital a mission work as planting churches or street evangelism. In truth, without proper training of national Christian workers the state of the gospel disintegrates very quickly in the country. Although educational missions does not usually involve physical labor and is not nec- essarily conducive to short-term teams, it is nonetheless foundational mission work.
6. Moving Forward—Getting “The Right Guide”
So how does one transcend the hurdles of setting up theological education? How does he do this in a way that truly impacts the local state of Christianity to the glory of God?
Trust Our mission agency, Training Leaders International, exists because good theological ed- ucation doesn’t. My attitude to press on must be at the forefront of my mind. Do I believe that God wants the truth to be known about Him? Yes. Do I believe He is desirous of this to happen every- where in the world? Yes. I never have to doubt if what I’m doing is relevant or needed. Without edu- cational missions, how will we fulfill the command of Colossians 1:28, “We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” We must trust that God has His remnant of people whom He wants to lead His people.
Pray “We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spir- itual understanding” (Colossians 1:9). I must pray that the Lord would fill me and the people here with all wisdom and spiritual understanding. I must pray that the shepherds He has put in place to lead His sheep would be equipped to do so. I must pray that my heart would be centered on His glory, and not a building or program. It’s never about the degree, it’s always about the truth of God.
Listen When I arrived, I traveled throughout the area speaking to other schools to determine what worked and what didn’t. I have also met with countless people, within our Union and outside of it. Whether the information is good or bad, I always learn something that helps me in the long run. The more I listen, the more I learn, the better the school will be.
Develop We must develop students by developing relationships. It is paramount that we also develop strategic plans of how the school should look, taking into account the needs of the area as well as the abilities and resources of our mission agency. This includes catalogue and brochure development, teacher recruitment, branding the school, staff development, physical building im- provement and critical pathways necessary to accomplish the myriad of things necessary. Finally, it’s necessary to develop a thick skin, as detractions frequently come both from within and without. The stress of living on the mission field combined with all the problems involved with ministry can make one feel defeated. Skin thickening, like school development, is slow work which only time and trial can accomplish.
Change To be effective, there must be changes in attitudes. We must uproot the mindset that theological education is just for pastors. People must change their bias that theological education is not worth it because there’s no “guaranteed” paying job at the end. Most importantly, there must be change in how the local churches interact with the school. Having an interdenominational re- cruitment policy will help in this respect.
Intercede Consider the call to educational missions and see how the world may be changed. Realize that “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” is an essential part of Matthew 28. Understand that teaching and training others in the truth of who God is will always be honoring to the Lord.
There is sometimes a tendency to default to a misleading attitude that whatever theological ed- ucation an area already has is good enough for them. In missions this is rarely the case. There are at least two possible sources of this thought. Firstly, it may originate from the reality of many other pressing needs on the mission field. This perspective, however, belies a lower view of theological education as compared to other ministries. Secondly, this “good enough” default may also come from looking at the poverty of theological education an area may have and mentally setting the bar lower for their theological needs. This becomes a desire to just give people enough theological education for them to exist. Ironically, this perspective sometimes comes from those who have advanced theological training themselves.
We must give people the tools necessary to accomplish the work of missions, and by doing so fully equip men and women for the work of ministry. The path forward in educational mission work involves teaching, planting, discipling, evangelism, and theological training.