A small Christian ministry with a global footprint turns 40 this year, and there is reason to celebrate.
Forty years ago, a small team of businessmen from the American Midwest found their way to Seoul on a missions trip that was intended, among other modest objectives, to support the Seoul Theological Seminary (STS).
The country’s economy had not yet made Samsung, Hyundai and their kind that fill our streets, homes and globalised economy with ‘Made in Korea’ wares, but the South Korean churches were showing early signs of becoming the large, vibrant communities we know today.
In that context, a fragile training centre, bent on producing pastors for South Korean churches of a Wesleyan slant, was graduating 30 young leaders a year. In conversations with their American visitors, STS’s leadership explained that they felt they could do more with an expanded economic base.
A handful of entrepreneurial spirits thought they might be able to do something about that if they returned to their home country and conspired shrewdly enough. Upon their return to America, these erstwhile short-term missionaries worked with the Korean seminary’s leadership to constitute themselves as ‘The Overseas Council of Seoul Theological Seminary’.
Forty years on, Overseas Council (OC) works, through carefully cultivated relationships, with 130 seminaries and Bible colleges in some 70 countries. The vast majority of our work takes place outside North America and Western Europe.
Around the globe, the Christian movement continues to astonish by growing at unprecedented rates, or under extreme duress. In this context, God is calling remarkable numbers of his sons and daughters to serve by leading. Rarely do these emerging Christian leaders find opportunity for the reflection, training and immersion in Scripture and the Christian tradition that is available to their peers in the West.
OC steps in at this point to open doors, so that such leaders-in-the-making can engage in disciplined studies in communities characterised by faith and learning. The result is pastors, teachers, evangelists, counsellors and myriad Christians, now trained in a way that multiplies their impact throughout a lifetime of service.
As our organisation turns 40, we understand theological education as a subset of Christian discipleship. We seek to support institutions that view things similarly, as they seek to shape emerging Christian leaders with the highest spiritual, intellectual and tactical standards in view.
The results encourage, as graduates, with life-long learning as a way of life, take up leadership roles in the professions, and in such ministries as evangelism, care of the vulnerable and shepherding faith communities.
We believe that ideas matter and eventually shape reality for good or ill. So do the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, as these blossom under the care of attentive mentors.
When a community is fortunate enough to be served by a leader who manifests the triad of vision, integrity and competence, week in and week out, concrete and enduring blessing regularly ensues.
OC has found itself working precisely where Christian mission is at its most acute, to say nothing of it being stained by tears and too often by blood. But the North American Christian community is beset by a deep pragmatism that insists upon fast results.
However, the formation of Christian leaders does not travel at high velocity and is anything but predictable. We find it important to advocate for the long view, one that makes stewardship decisions, not only with an eye to what happens tomorrow, but also to the world in which our children and grandchildren will live.
In our Western environment, the capacity to fund mission depends on articulating why education matters and, in particular, why theological education is relevant in a day of quick fixes, weekend seminars, ubiquitous information and fleeting attention spans.
The accelerated deconstruction of educational structures, processes and means of delivery places nearly every institution that educates in any conventional sense in near- or mid-term jeopardy.
At the same time, new scenarios for expanding access to training for ministry, while not sacrificing the interpersonal core of it, beckon at every turn. We are developing competencies in technology-assisted education that will support our seminary partners.
The need to provide learning opportunities to ‘house church’ leaders from other religious backgrounds, in regions like the Middle East and North Africa, has invited us to experiment via collaboration with unconventional ministry partners.
Our largest project brings together the deep heritage of Middle Eastern Christian-background theologians and practitioners on the one hand, with a from-the-ground-up curriculum developed for a barely fictional Algerian couple, ‘Sa’eed’ and ‘Miryam’.
The product is then delivered via parallel systems: satellite television brings educational objectives to a broadcast audience; alongside this, a purpose-built online delivery serves those who want more depth, in either an anonymous or a mentored environment. Initial results are encouraging.
The leadership training needs in places like China outstrip the capacity of traditional and residential centres to keep up. Some of the best and most urgent thinking involves how to deploy traditional centres of learning as the hub of a wheel, spokes branching out from that learning community to serve populations of leaders-in-formation, who will never have the privilege of time away in a traditional seminary.
The most promising emerging models are hybrid ones that seek to avoid both unbending loyalty to historical models and euphoria over the promise of technology.
At 40 years, we believe our calling is not simply to attempt to fund the status quo of global theological education. Rather, we see ourselves as change agents, whose remit is to use our limited resources to encourage theological education, as it seeks to become more rooted in Scripture and the gospel, more responsive to its context, more accessible, and more sustainable.
In some ways, it’s a far cry from providing scholarship funds for South Korean seminary students. In others, it’s just another moment on the journey that began in Seoul, in the face of deep promise and formidable need.
Rev. Dr David Baer
The author is CEO of Overseas Council, in Indianapolis. He holds a PhD in Old Testament from the University of Cambridge. More information from http://overseas.org