In response to my recent post on "Do You Need a Bible Degree to be a Long Term Missionary?", I received the following testimony of a theological student who found his training to be surprisingly relevant on a trip to the Muslim world. For those who are considering doing missions in the Muslim World (or elsewhere), and wondering whether their Western course of theological studies will really help them, Chris' experience should be a helpful encouragement:
"In June 2009, after one year of academic study on the "Theology and World Mission Course" at Oak Hill Theological College, London, I jetted off to a Muslim-majority country for a summer of overseas gospel ministry. As I sat on the 13-hour flight, it was easy to imagine the potential payback of classes I'd taken on Mark's Gospel and the Pentateuch. But, what of the other subjects: abstract, academic and arduous? Would trinitarian theology, critical modern scholarship, Hebrew and Greek pull their weight as well? Or would they turn out to be no more than expensive excess baggage?
Over the next two months, the answer became clear. Again and again I
was pleasantly surprised to see, in all sorts of exciting ways,
cross-cultural ministry dovetailing with what I'd been learning in class
- including even the most unlikely of modules!
On the more obvious side, biblical studies and practical apologetics were of great help when I was teaching the Bible in local churches and guiding Christians in how to share their faith with others. Also, the world mission modules enabled me to train local missionaries, and they helped me understand and evaluate the missionary strategies being used by Christian workers from overseas.
There are just so many cross-cultural issues to think through! Should Muslim converts publicly identify themselves as Christians? What about going to the mosque? Fasting in Ramadhan? Praying five times a day? Eating only halal food? Wearing the veil? Are these things merely cultural, or is there a line you should not cross if you want to stay true to the gospel?
As I plunged into all these questions, I was thankful that I'd been able
to set aside time beforehand to study what the Bible says. How
dangerous to try rescuing others from the raging torrents, without first
securely mooring oneself to the shore!
It was, however, through interacting directly with Muslims, that the rest of my subjects really came into their own. I remember how, back in the classroom, studying critical modern New Testament scholarship had felt a bit like a waste of time; but having worked hard to expose its shortfalls, I now found myself much more confident in defending the authenticity of the Bible against those who wanted to undermine it. The Gospel of Barnabas and liberal scholarship have, sadly, done much to strengthen Muslims in their unbelief.
Similarly, church history helped me stand firm by the crucial doctrines of the trinity, the person of Christ and the canon of scripture, all of which, for Muslims, must be proved and cannot be taken for granted, as we so often do in the West. "How could God become a man?" and "Can't you see that one simply does not equal three?" are still live issues today, just as they were many centuries ago. Had I not been familiar with the relevant Bible passages and the formulations of the great church councils, I just don't know how I would have defended Christ from ridicule and misunderstanding.
Perhaps my most surprising discovery was that even Hebrew and Greek came in handy! I received great respect from Muslims when they discovered that I was learning the original languages of scripture, so as not to have to rely on translations. Hebrew was especially useful: being similar to Arabic, it helped me relate to my Muslim friends better, as I recognised some of their vocabulary and phrases. Intriguingly, I came across a couple of Muslims who, for the sake of exposing apparent contradictions in the Bible, had memorised various Bible verses in the original Hebrew and Greek. Without having studied the biblical languages for myself, I would have found myself completely at sea. More broadly, language study gave me the transferable skill of a firmer grasp of English grammar, which helped me teach Muslim schoolchildren in an English language centre, leading on to some great evangelistic conversations!
One particular highlight was preaching Christ to hundreds of Muslim university students at an interfaith dialogue. Another was sharing the gospel with Muslims at their equivalent of a midweek Bible study. I was able to respond thoughtfully to their objections and explain the good news which otherwise they might never have heard. In these interactions with others, my studies proved their worth, helping me stand firm in the gospel, confident in my ability to respond faithfully to the challenges of others.
Again this summer, I continued to find my 2nd year studies dovetailing with the practical ministry opportunities on the ground. The breadth and depth of Biblical, theological and cross-cultural training I have been receiving on the "Theology and World Mission" course have continued to give me the confidence and flexibility to take new opportunities as they arose, which otherwise I would have been unprepared for.
In my experience, these overseas summer mission placements have stretched me further than ever before; by comparison, even the most fascinating of lectures feels just a little dull! And yet, humanly speaking, it was largely the academic training at Oak Hill College that had prepared me for so many of these fruitful opportunities, which would otherwise have remained beyond my reach.
So now as I return for my third year at the books and set my face like flint to plough through a wall of Hebrew irregular verbs, it's encouraging to remember that theological education is not just a classroom exercise. It's not only biblical studies and pastoral counselling which have real-life application. I know from personal experience that even the abstract, the academic and the arduous have a surprising value out in the field. Theory and practice do indeed go hand in hand.