In the second half of the twentieth century, IMB missionaries helped start seminaries in places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. To this day, those institutions still exist and are some of our most important partners for theological education in East Asia.
Around that same time, the church in East Asia grew in unprecedented ways. Despite intense persecution in many places in East Asia, tens of millions of people came to faith in Christ by the end of the twentieth century. The enormous response, combined with a lack of resources and restrictive measures, led to massive needs in leadership training.
“Millions of East Asian people came to faith in Christ by the end of the twentieth century. The enormous response, combined with a lack of resources and restrictive measures, led to massive needs in leadership training.”
Challenges to Leadership Training
Much of the growth of the church in East Asia in the late twentieth century took place in rural areas among a segment of the population with low education levels. This situation created numerous challenges, not only because they lived in isolated areas but also because traditional, highly literate approaches to theological education would not be effective for training leaders in these contexts. To help train these leaders, IMB personnel worked with others to create new pre-seminary type curriculum programs, some in oral formats, to help train these leaders.
In recent years, much more growth has happened in urban areas. Although these leaders tend to have higher education levels and are more easily accessible, training them is not without challenges. Most often, work, ministry, and family needs limit the amount of time students can commit to the classroom. Online programs have largely been unsuccessful as well since Asians are community-oriented and less individualistic in their approach to life and learning. In response, IMB has created more modular and intensive programs that fit around students’ schedules.
Need for Self-Theologizers
Currently, the biggest training need in East Asia is for indigenous theologians who can apply the truths of Scripture to their situation. The East Asian context presents a number of complex questions that Western theologians rarely consider, such as honor and shame dynamics or ancestor veneration. The church needs Asians who can rightly handle God’s Word as they seek to guide the church and emerging church leaders to think biblically about these pressing concerns.
This means rather than teaching leaders to simply pass on what they learn from Westerners, equipping indigenous thinkers is far more strategic. It is ultimately what the church needs, but it is not an easy task. In most Asian educational philosophies, the teacher determines what the student needs to know, and the student’s goal is simply to memorize all the teacher’s answers. Such a philosophy does not equip potential church leaders to prepare their own sermons or to bring Scripture to bear on the many other requirements of ministry that require critical, biblical reflection.
Addressing these needs has meant partnering with existing institutions. Many of the seminaries in this part of the world were started by IMB missionaries and turned over to indigenous leadership long ago. Today, partnering means that the IMB places personnel to teach full-time and part-time at some of these institutions. In other cases, we send our national partners there for training, or we work with their leadership to design curriculum programs that meet the needs of our partners.
Since leadership training is a critical part of the missionary task, we must also find church-centered ways to train leaders. Telling leaders to move to a campus in some other country for three years simply isn’t a great option if missionaries want to plant and develop healthy churches with strong leadership. Thus, meeting the leadership training needs of East Asia has also meant starting new, more accessible programs and institutions. This requires a significant investment of time and personnel, but doing so enables local leaders to pursue theological education without having to relocate to another country or learn another language. In most cases, local programs enable leaders to continue serving in their places of ministry while studying.
Perhaps the most significant challenge in East Asia is the need to develop indigenous faculty for these institutions. In many subject fields, the primary (or only) options for postgraduate study are residential programs taught in English. We are currently working on a number of options for providing postgraduate degrees in the local language and in ways that are nonresidential.
“A diploma does not qualify one to lead. But the process of critical reflection and cross-cultural interaction inherent in the postgraduate process is vital to equipping leaders for long-term influence.”
Of course, we all understand that Scripture does not require elders or pastors to have a postgraduate degree. A diploma does not qualify one to lead. But the process of critical reflection and cross-cultural interaction inherent in the postgraduate process is vital to equipping leaders for long-term influence.
Pray for theological education and the training of leaders in East Asia. Leaders in this context face a number of significant challenges: complex theological issues, long hours of commute in urban areas, persecution from the government, and rejection from unbelieving family members.
Despite many obstacles, church leaders in East Asia long for the opportunity to drink deeply from the fountain of God’s Word. They need our prayers and support. Pray also for those laboring to meet this need. Teaching theology in a second language is far from easy. Instructors constantly need God’s wisdom to help the hundreds of godly pastor-theologians who desire to faithfully lead, feed, care for, and protect God’s flock throughout East Asia.
Jonathan Martyn is a theological education strategist who teaches at several seminaries in East Asia. He has over fourteen years of experience in pastoral ministry, church planting, and theological training ministries. Currently, Jonathan focuses on developing strategies for training effective church leaders.