A Worldwide Vision for Theological Education

The prayer guide Operation World has taught me much over the years. By its estimates, only 16.7 percent of Christians lived in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in 1900. That figure rose to 63.2 percent by 2010 and is projected to reach 70 percent in a few years. Some movements have experienced especially remarkable growth. Today, for example, there are more than 600 million evangelicals in these regions—12 times as many as there were in the year of my birth. Some in the media depict “evangelicals” only in terms of particular US subcultures, yet evangelicals in the global South outnumber those in the West many times over! 

This rapid expansion of Christian movements has far outpaced the availability of theological education. If some strategic oversight existed, Christians would rapidly redeploy the majority of theological resources from North America to provide training for these growing churches. Although various denominations are helpfully supplying many Bible schools in these regions, they cannot keep pace with evangelism. Traditional, multiyear education (in which most of us are involved) is not adequate to the task in such areas.

Some organizations have rallied to supply high-quality training on the internet. Like short-term Bible schools, these programs are essential, especially when available in multiple languages. In many of the most needy areas, however, average Christians have limited personal access to the internet. Moreover, indigenous believers understand local needs better than Western Christians can from afar. Finally, not everyone knows which resources are best: the internet menu offers healthy fare, but it also offers junk food and the spiritual equivalent of potassium cyanide. So we need to supplement these resources where possible.

There are many global contexts where theological education is rapidly expanding. Several years ago, the president of the Society for New Testament Studies suggested that perhaps a generation from now the major theological languages will no longer be English, German, and French but Korean and Chinese. He also noted the proliferation of resources in Portuguese and his own language of Spanish. I would exceed my word count if I began listing high-quality seminaries I have personally visited outside the West.

Obviously, we cannot uproot North American theological institutions and transplant them into other cultures; indeed, investing in trustworthy indigenous institutions already engaging those languages and cultures would be far more cost-effective. Majority-world seminaries have many professors from their own cultures, and the need for training in the West will eventually decline.

In this time of global transition, however, many of the majority world’s future professors are still training in the West, and we have great opportunity to serve them. Serving those who are committed to return to serve their cultures is a great privilege for us, worthy of our deploying of resources.

Even as we seek to serve our international students, we also need to learn from them. Some who humbly sit in our classes have planted churches on the front lines of the gospel, have endured persecution or poverty, have pastored megachurches, or have themselves taught more students than we have. In many parts of the West, these students bring a vibrant faith and experiences that can enrich our own service for Christ. May the Lord grant us a global vision to witness what he is doing in our world today, so across cultures we may partner together for Christ’s mission. 

CRAIG S. KEENER’S latest project explores the historiographic implications of the gospel genre. He also is writing a one-volume Acts commentary.

This article was first published in Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education. Sign up today.

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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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  • Thank you for this article. But I am sad to report that China Evangelical Seminary in Taipei seems to be abandoning its committment to the uniqueness of Christ and belief in the seriousness of human sin.

    Do you know any theologians doing original work in Chinese? It’s a reading language of mine, and I might find something worth translating.

  • Dr. Keener’s article is helpful. Many of the issues / realities he talks about have been part of the conversations of many missionaries and cross-cultural mission agency leaders for decades, now. There is no question that evangelical Christianity is growing and exploding in many countries outside of the US, and theological and ministry training is a great need among our brothers and sisters elsewhere, and the fields and opportunities are wide open. But a major issue has always been the level of training that indigenous leaders have or can attain, the funding needed for that training, and, upon returning to their countries, the open doors among their own people, the funding to pay the salaries (etc.) of the professors trained State side, and the literacy level of their students.

    I am sure that, if Dr. Keener is interested in doing something about this, he can find plenty of contacts throughout the Church in America, our mission agency leaders, our denominational leaders and missions activists and mobilizers that can inform him of this need, partner with him and point him in the right direction. It will take time, money, and interested persons. As an afterthought, Dr. Keener could probably have a great impact by going personally to train pastors and church leaders on a one-week training event, several times a year. His impact may be as great or greater than that of missionaries who have spent a lifetime of service on the field.

Written by Tavis Bohlinger