As I compose this article, I am on the heals of a 10-day trip to South Asia. My primary reason for this trip was to do what I do in the United States — provide pastoral training through theological education to men who have been called to pastor the local church. While there, I taught a week long intensive MDiv course for students in their third year of study at a fully accredited Bible College.
The particular class I taught was “The Theology of Expository Preaching.” I know what you’re thinking. If you have read much of my blog you know this subject is my wheelhouse. It is my passion! And, you are thinking why would you pick this course to teach to those who are simply trying to gain the basic of ministry so that they may quickly get on the field and make disciples. This subject is not basic and time is of the essence.
Furthermore, you may be thinking this seems like too advanced and theologically dense to be effective for the training that is needed. Can pastors in foreign contexts handle such meaty subjects? Is there any interest or need for such a course? But, what if I told you I didn’t pick this topic. This is the course that was requested of me. And, the students engaged the content with enthusiasm, participated and interacted in class, asked more questions than I had time to answer, and each explained in detail how what they had learned would impact their ministries. Several members of the school’s faculty shared with me comments from discussion with the students. They found the instruction invaluable and applicable. What do you think now?
I understand the need of the Gospel to unreached people groups. I know as well as anyone that we must act with haste and utmost urgency to get the Good News of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. However, the strategy that has arisen from this perspective in foreign, and perhaps home, contexts in which we believe pastors must get on the field as quickly as possible for replication, and, therefore they do not have time nor the need for robust theological training is untenable. This position creates an unnecessary dichotomy.
In this post, I want to give you a reflection, of sorts, of my trip. But, I want to do so with an aim or goal. I believe it is vital and imperative for every pastor and minister in the church to receive rich and thorough theological training. And this certainly includes those in foreign contexts. I believed that before last week. I am even more convinced of it now after my travels. I offer you five reasons below from my personal experience.
First, the church is still the church.
Even though they are outside of the US and in different cultures, many times extremely different, the church in any part of the world still has the same basic need. That basic need is having their hearts shepherded by being taught the Word of God. In no way was this better illustrated to me than when I preached in a local church at a Sunday morning service. True the church was “off the beaten path” and different in some noticeable ways than the churches that I normally preach to in the States. And furthermore, I had to preach through an interpreter. But, as the room filled to almost overflowing and I preached Psalm 19, a message entitled “Ancient Words,” a thought occurred to me. This congregation is no different than any other in that they desperately need the Word of Christ and the Christ of the Word.
This was apparent to me in at least a couple of ways. As I preached, multiple “hallelujahs” echoed from the seats in portions of the sermon in which I would have normally heard “amens” back home. Furthermore, after the service a line of brothers and sisters in Christ waited patiently to talk with me about their lives and have me pray for their daily needs. I suspect some of this may have been because they had never met an American before. Primarily, however, I know it was for the same reasons that people wait to talk to their pastor in any congregation. They are normal people with normal needs. They are a church who is trying to live as the church in their homes and in their world.
The first reason it is imperative for every pastor and minister who serves the church to receive rich and thorough theological training is because regardless of location the church is the assembly of the redeemed. And as such, they must be instructed to live as the church and discipled into Christlikeness. Both of these occur through a right teaching and preaching of the Bible from someone who rightly understands it.
Second, pastors are still pastors.
Even though they are outside of the US and in different cultures, pastors and those training to be pastors in any part of the world still need the same basic preparation. The preparation I am referring to here is being equipped to shepherd people into Christlikeness by rightly handling the Word of God. And, they are hungry for and interested in this kind of preparation. This was illustrated to me clearly by being with 15 students for five days in the classroom who are scheduled to graduate in March of 2019.
Most of them are preparing to enter active ministry in some very dangerous areas or in the most difficult of circumstances. You would think that they would be somewhat checked out or at least under-engaged. This was not the case at all. They constantly and consistently questioned me about theology, the person and work of Christ, biblical perspectives on teaching and preaching, how to be as prepared as possible for evangelism, and how to work out this theology of preaching in their ministries.
One student even approached me to discuss a sermon outline he was working on from 2 Timothy 4:1-5. When I asked him if he was already pastoring a church or if he would be preaching the message soon, he looked at me somewhat strangely and said “no.” He had no upcoming scheduled time nor opportunity to preach of which he was aware. He simply wanted to make sure he was approaching the passage correctly in order to become the best “text-driven” preacher he could for the congregation he would someday shepherd. Another student asked if he could email whenever he had preaching questions. Several times they stopped class to ask me if I would be coming back, to tell me that they would miss me, and that they wished I would have come and taught previously. All of this was humbling!
I believe this had little to do with me being me. I do not think this had anything to do with my teaching being superior. I simply believe it is because they want and desire every possible opportunity to prepare to be the most thoroughly equipped pastors and ministers they can be for and in the local church. The second reason it is imperative for every pastor and minister who serves the church to receive rich and thorough theological training is because regardless of location pastors are still pastors. And as such, they must be taught and prepared to instruct and to disciple the church. This only occurs through a person who is “able to teach” and mighty in the Scriptures so that he may rightly understand and then rightly proclaim the Word.
Third, the context is noticeably non-Christian.
That foreign contexts are significantly more “pre-Christian” and that their society is less familiar with biblical content than ours may mean that indigenous pastors need more familiarity and understanding of the Word of God than pastors in the US. This certainly does not mean that they need less. The axiom that since their people are less familiar with the Bible than ours, it is okay for their pastors to be less educated in the Bible than ours does not hold true.
Think about it. They may need to have a richer understanding of the Bible because they have societies that are based in religions that have pantheistic understandings of creation, naturalistic perspective of morality, and a Christ-less and pluralistic view of the afterlife. Without an ability to intelligibly answer and theologically respond to these perspectives, there is a better chance than not that synchronistic heresy will carry the day and becomes the norm of the church.
This was illustrated to me emphatically through a conversation I had with the director of the ministry and Bible college. Over the last five to ten years his perspective and focus has shifted. He explained that if you would have asked him ten years ago what the primary goal of the ministry was, he would have said church planting. If you ask him that same question today, he will tell you it is theological education and training. The reason — to make sure pastors are equipped to preach biblical expository sermons, avoid heresy, and start and maintain healthy congregations. Essentially, to avoid the problems that I mentioned above.
The third reason it is imperative for every pastor and minister who serves the church in foreign contexts to receive rich and thorough theological training, then, is because the culture does not know the Word. The context is noticeably anti-Christian and not founded on a biblical worldview.
Fourth, this is primarily what they are asking us for.
It costs roughly 580 to 600 US dollars to cover one student’s tuition and expenses for a year of study. One would think, then, that the greatest need they have and biggest request they make is for finances and funding. However, this is not the case. After I preached in chapel on Friday for my second time of the week, a sermon on Matthew 28’s explanation of and call to the Great Commission, the vice principle (our equivalent of a Vice President) approached me. He said that they need and would love for me to continue to come on a regular schedule to teach their students homiletics. They are asking us for a “Great Commission” partnership which will give them the aid and support they need for training their pastors.
This perspective was affirmed during a conversation over dinner with the director of the ministry my last night in the country. I asked him what would be the best or most helpful way that I could partner with his ministry. His answer surprised me. I really was expecting him to say “money!” But, what he said was continue to come and teach our students. Basically he was asking me to be a visiting professor of sorts.
Therefore, the fourth reason it is imperative for every pastor and minister who serves the church in foreign contexts to receive rich and thorough theological training, then, is because they know it is their greatest need. It is what they are asking from us. They basically are begging us to come and partner with them to take the Gospel to the nations. They are asking for a Gospel-partnership that should seem obvious for us. Which leads me to my final reason.
Finally, educators and educational resources are something we have an abundance of.
Maybe this is less a reason why it is imperative for every pastor and minister who serves the church in foreign contexts to receive rich and thorough theological training. Perhaps this is an argument or a position for why we should help them provide it. Regardless, what we have in the US is more than our fair share of resources and educational opportunities. And, not to get preachy, we have not always made the best use of them. I know and confess this is true of me personally.
I spend more at Starbucks on coffee than it costs for one of their students to go to seminary for an entire year. I have more books on one of my shelves then most of their students will be able to afford over their entire ministries. And, I certainly have the capacity to personally help with theological education and access to more information at my fingertips than they can fathom. What am I doing with these resources? Am I making the best possible use of them? How about us collectively?How are we using these? Surely we can spare, or better yet leverage, what we have to help train pastors in foreign contexts to prepare to make disciples and lead the church. It is not a great cost to us. It may be less of a sacrifice for us than we would like to admit.
The final reason it is imperative for every pastor and minister who serves the church in foreign contexts to receive rich and thorough theological training is because we have the resources and the people to help make this possible. It is their greatest need that we can help meet.
Maybe you already knew everything I mentioned above, and all this post did was to reveal my own previous shortsightedness. Even if this is the case, I pray this post either reinforces what you already believe or changes your perspective. More than simply changing your perspective, however, I hope this leads you to consider what role you may play, even if it is simply an awareness to pray.
Furthermore, it is not only imperative for every pastor and minister who serves the church in foreign contexts to receive rich and thorough theological training. It is imperative for those of us serving the local church in the US as well. Therefore, let me make perhaps one or two less obvious applications to you from this post. First, take every opportunity you have to prepare yourself as comprehensively as possible to serve the church and make disciples. For most of the same reasons listed above, whether formally or informally get as much training as the Lord makes available to you. Second, thank the Lord for the opportunities you do get and how easy it is, comparatively, to access them. I genuinely believe this will help you in your calling, desire, and commitment to “Preach the Word!”