A Century of Theological Education in Europe: Missions around the World

The International Mission Board has long recognized the importance of biblically sound leadership training. For this reason, the IMB has been active in theological education in Europe for over a century. By God’s grace, generations of well-trained leaders have been sent out to strengthen Christ’s kingdom among European peoples. We praise God for his continued sustaining grace over the years, and we invite you to join with us in praising him and praying for more cultural insiders to become healthy church leaders, missionaries, and long-term influencers.

Theological Education in the Twentieth Century

Early Involvement

The Foreign Mission Board (FMB, renamed International Mission Board, or IMB, in 1997) opened work in Europe in the early twentieth century. FMB personnel were instrumental in establishing seminaries in Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Romania. Although there were interruptions later, all three institutions are operating today and express gratitude for Southern Baptists’ partnership. The FMB also partnered with organizations that operated Bible institutes in other European countries.

“By God’s grace, generations of well-trained leaders have been sent out to strengthen Christ’s kingdom among European peoples.”

After World War II

Following World War II, the FMB resumed its theological education efforts in Europe. In Western Europe, our personnel taught and led at seminaries in Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. In communist Eastern Europe, theological education was severely restricted. FMB leaders did make frequent visits to the region, and FMB missionaries John and Nela Williams were able to live in Yugoslavia because Nela was a native Croatian. She continued to serve there even after John’s tragic death in 1980, teaching in Bible institutes in Yugoslavia until her retirement in 2011. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the FMB placed almost twenty families with theological education as their primary assignment or high priority in Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.

Swings of the Pendulum

In the early 2000s, an IMB paradigm shift led to reduced involvement in formal theological education in favor of less formal approaches. In this period, the IMB placed four families in Europe to work in theological education in Germany, Moldova, and Ukraine.

In 2009, IMB President Jerry Rankin created the Theological Education Strategy team. The goal was to place field-based strategists to help the IMB reengage effectively in theological education and assist personnel and national partners around the world in their efforts to provide sound training for church planters and leaders.

Theological Education in the Present Day

In Europe, the IMB currently has thirteen personnel who have theological education as a primary assignment or high priority in their current role. At least another ten give significant time to theological education through adjunct teaching at local institutes or in extension programs. Many other personnel are involved in informal leadership training, mentoring students, and connecting students with church planting opportunities. Here are some examples.

  • The Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, provides contextualized training for Canadian leaders across five time zones, as well as local training for ministry in local churches, church plants, and engagement of the lost. Currently, three IMB families—the Booths, Watsons, and Peacocks—teach there.
  • Jonathan Sharp has been teaching evangelism and discipleship since 2012 at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Lisbon, Portugal, which was established in 1969 with FMB help.
  • IMB missionary emeritus Bill Wagner helped establish Bonn Bible Seminary in Bonn, Germany, in 1994. His son Mark, also with the IMB, has been teaching missions there and connecting students with practical ministry opportunities since 1999.
  • IMB’s Mikko Sivonen helped establish and still teaches at the Agricola Theological Institute in Helsinki, Finland, to prepare scripturally faithful and theologically engaging pastor-theologians to serve the church in the post-Christian Nordic culture.
  • Southern Baptists have had a relationship with the Baptist Theological Institute in Bucharest, Romania, since the early 1920s and have had a professor there almost without interruption since 1991. Currently, Cameron Armstrong teaches evangelism there.
  • Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary in Lviv, Ukraine, has grown from forty students in 2013 to nearly eight hundred in 2019 through the addition of church planting, international missions, and young leaders programs that train students to be biblical, missional, and accountable leaders in the local church. Two IMB families—the Upchurches and Woodbridges—serve at UBTS. The seminary director, Slavik Pyzh, is a PhD graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
  • IMB personnel established a bachelor’s degree in evangelism and church planting at Kiev Theological Seminary in Kiev, Ukraine. This program, now with a Ukrainian director, has trained many church planters and leaders in the Russian-speaking world. The Midkiff family serves at KTS.

Looking Ahead

In recent years, a number of seminaries around Europe have shifted from semester-long residential programs to modular courses. Key benefits of this change are that it allows students access to training without leaving their ministry context for long periods of time and provides IMB personnel and volunteers greater opportunity for teaching and ministry connection.

“Pray that seminaries will see their purpose as not only preparing students for local church ministry but also mobilizing them to engage unreached peoples.”

Furthermore, technological development has revolutionized the entire learning environment and process. Seminaries across Europe are increasingly making effective use of online learning platforms, ebooks, and other technology-driven resources that help leaders maximize learning while remaining actively engaged in ministry. 

How You Can Help

We invite you to join the work God is doing in theological education among European peoples by contacting IMB to partner with our personnel, churches, and seminaries in order to help them equip cultural insiders to be fruitful evangelists, disciplers, church planters, missionaries, and long-term influencers for the kingdom of Christ.

Of course, the prerequisite for effective partnership is prayer. Be part of what God is doing in theological education in Europe right now by talking to our heavenly Father about the following:

  • Thank the Father! He has done some remarkable things in and through European centers of theological training. In many cases, these seminaries are strong partners with a shared theological foundation and passion for engaging the lost.
  • Pray that seminaries integrate strong biblical content with application to life and ministry in the local church and passion for the gospel.
  • Pray that seminaries will see their purpose as not only preparing students for local church ministry but also mobilizing them to engage unreached peoples.
  • Pray that seminaries will be faithful to, and fruitful for, Christ in a context that is rapidly changing due to the internet, immigration, and other factors.
  • Pray that those who lead and teach at all levels of theological education will model faithfulness to the gospel and passion for the lost.
  • Pray that European churches will embrace their unique role in developing leaders.

Note: Some of the material in this article was drawn from Mark Edworthy, The Wall That Remains (Richmond: IMB, 2012).