Theological education is near and dear to me. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel a debt of gratitude for the training I received at the “old” Southern Seminary. I use that terminology because of how my studies at Southern reflected a time in Baptist life when prospective ministers were formed to think critically about matters of faith and practice as opposed to the present-day model in SBC life that presumes theological education to be more about right content than right process. In other words, it’s not enough for students to think rightly; they must also know how to think about the right view of things. While I’m certainly understanding of the need to be orthodox in belief, an excessive orthodoxy can totally ignore the realities of one’s context and devolve into dead dogma. Perhaps that’s why when I have the opportunity to cross paths with people who get the value of connecting belief with background, my heart skips a beat or two.
I sensed that skipping today as our team interacted with the faculty, staff, and student body at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. Begun in 1960 by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination discontinued Cooperative Program support of ABTS in the late nineties. What surely must have seemed at the time a burden has turned out to be a divine blessing, as local leadership assumed control of the seminary in Beirut and began to develop a vision for theological education that is continually focused on its immediate context.
Simply put, the mission of ABTS is “to equip servant-leaders for the ministry challenges arising in the Middle East and North Africa.” Anyone who’s paid any attention at all to developments in this part of the world understand those challenges to be daunting. But rest assured that everyone who is a part of this institution relishes the challenges and is confident that with God’s help they will be able to meet them.
The vision of this seminary community is breathtaking. Ask most folk in America their impression of Middle East affairs and they will likely answer that people in this region have been in conflict for millennia, going back as far as the days of Abraham and Ishmael, and the presumption is that things will never change. Ask anyone at ABTS about their situation and they will quickly answer that they are committed to being agents of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, and that in the power of the Holy Spirit a new reality is indeed possible. What makes this vision so remarkable to me is that it comes from a population that is in the distinct minority in the Middle East, but sees its minority status as an opportunity to give witness to radical transformations that only God could bring about.
As I listened to this consistent message from everyone we spoke with at ABTS, I couldn’t help but reflect about how utterly different their place in their context is from the one we enjoy in America. In America, particularly the Deep South, not only is everyone Christian, at least in a nominal sense, they are also “Baptist,” at least in a cultural sense. Identifying with the church is socially acceptable in Mountain Brook; in fact, it makes little sense for someone not to relate to some faith community because of how deeply Christianity is ingrained in Southern culture. Such influence is not the case in Middle Eastern/North African culture, especially for evangelical Christians, who make up less than 1% of the population in this region. Yet, to a person, I heard people speak of the possibilities that are before the church here and the open doors God is opening for disciples to be formed.
I wish everyone at MBBC could have sat in on our conversation with four ABTS students, one from Southern Sudan, another from Kurdish Syria, another from the central region of Syria, and another from Egypt. What impressed me was not only the inspiring stories of their personal spiritual awakenings, particularly the two students who came to faith in Christ out of Muslim backgrounds. I was even more taken with their stories of how each of them felt called to return to their home countries, even though each of their countries is in the middle of internal conflicts that we in America can hardly understand. Moreover, each student expressed the deepest of appreciation for the preparation they are receiving from their experience at ABTS, a preparation that is geared toward helping them return to such areas committed to serving the cause of Christ, regardless of the costs.
Before we came over, I only understood in part the impact of this institution in this most strategic location. I knew, for example, that ABTS was training students in the Arab world from Morocco to Turkey, across North Africa and up to the Syrian border. What I did not know is how seriously they have impressed upon their students the importance of transforming their cultures with the Gospel, whatever their obedience might require of them.
We can surely be thankful that we at MBBC play a small, but significant role in sustaining the Kingdom mission and vision of ABTS. You can be sure that everyone here is thankful for what we do. But I also can’t help but believe that we have much to learn from the model of faithfulness being shown by our friends at ABTS, especially in a day when churches and religious institutions in America are seeing privileged positions slowly slipping away. That slippage may be disconcerting to some; at times I certainly find myself lapsing into self-pity over it. But being here has reminded me that it just may well be that God is in all the loss of cultural dominance, because of how it forces us to be more like the church in the book of Acts – a movement more than an institution and a fellowship more than an enterprise. If those of us here from our church can bring back with us to Birmingham a hint of what we have seen happening here in Beirut at ABTS, then our time and money spent will have been a great investment in how we might connect with what God is clearly doing in this larger world. Now, that would be a theological lesson that all of us would do well to learn and apply to whatever context into which God has seen fit to place us.