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If you spend enough time in Thailand, one of the phrases that you’ll hear often is “Same, Same but Different,” meaning that two things are almost exactly the same… but not really. The difference may (or may not) be substantial, but that depends on your point of view. A vendor is trying to sell you a wrist watch and you ask if it is a genuine Rolex. Well, it is same same from the vendor’s perspective. But the buyer’s might view it differently.
When it comes to theological education in Thailand, there is a lot that is same same as theological education in the Western world…but there are significant differences too. My point is not to say one in genuine and the other is fake, but rather that on the surface the two have many similarities. But when you dig a bit deeper there are important difference as well. These differences have an impact on how teachers teach and how student learn. Therefore, whether you are teaching Bible school students in Bangkok or running a modular leadership training program in Chiang Rai, it is important to have a heads-up on factors to consider if your previous experience of theological education has been primarily in the West. In this post, I want to briefly consider, in broad brushstrokes, what is the same between Western and Thai theological education, and three things that are different.
As a graduate of two seminaries and as a current seminary instructor, I have often internally cringed at statements like, “Seminary classes need to be more practical” or “The seminary isn’t doing enough to care for the students’ spiritual needs.” On the one hand, a theological education should not be impractical, not should it ignore the spiritual formation of students. After all, the primary purpose of most seminaries is to train people to serve the local church in various capacities. But in the same breath, I fear that statements like those above betray a misunderstanding of the respective roles of both seminaries and the local church.
Many churches (but not all churches!) seem to believe that it is the seminary’s job to train, mentor, educate, and evaluate future ministers, evangelists, church planters, etc. But the seminary is being given an impossible task. Churches often perfunctorily sign-off on a recommendation form, and hand over people who are immature in their faith, expecting the seminary to single-handedly transform them into pastors. The seminary is seen as a pastor factory that should churn out graduates who are academically and practically prepared for full-time ministry, with the requisite personal spiritual maturity and godly character.
I sometimes get asked about places to do theological studies in English here in Thailand but unfortunately there are not many options... largely because most people in Thailand don't speak much English. Most Bible colleges and seminaries in Thailand offer instruction in the Thai language only.
However, the following schools offer English-language theological studies courses within Thailand, mostly on a modular basis (i.e. instructors fly in for one to two week intensive courses in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or some other large city)
This past May marked the end of my first year of teaching seminary in Thailand, so I thought it would be a good time to step back and reflect, and to dispel a persistent misconception.And if anyone reading this is considering teaching seminary classes in a second-language, perhaps this brief account of my experience might give them some idea of what they would be in for.
When other foreigners learn that I teach seminary in Thailand, and that I teach it in Thai (not English), they are often very impressed.Overly impressed, I would say. The reality is much less impressive and I feel much less competent and qualified than many seem to think I am.
I recently had time to sit down with Dr. Manoch Chaengmuk, director of Bangkok Bible Seminary to talk about his life and ministry. We talked about how he came to faith, family opposition, the current state of the seminary and the church in Thailand, and prayer requests. It was a fascinating interview all around and I wish I had more time to chat with him.
I interviewed him in Thai and I have included below an MP3 of the interview for those who understand Thai. For those who do not, I have written up an abridged transcript of the interview in English. I didn’t include everything in the English transcript, but about 90% of our conversation is there. I hope that you find this interview with Dr. Manoch as interesting as I did.
DOWNLOAD MP3 - INTERVIEW WITH DR. MANOCH เดาว์นโลด MP3 การสัมภาษณ์ ดร. มาโนช แจ้งุข
Many times it is assumed that theological education around the globe can be done basically the same way everywhere, namely the way it is done in the West. But in many cases, a cut-and-paste approach to theological education and pastoral training isn’t nearly as effective as some would like to think that it is.
To get some more insight into the nature and challenges of theological education in Asia (and Thailand in particular), I recently interviewed Daniel Kim, director of Chiang Mai Theological Seminary and a missionary church planter in Thailand with OMF International.KD: Could you share briefly about your background, and how you came to be involved in theological education in Thailand?
DK: Korea is my physical birth place. U.S.A. is my spiritual birth place. And Thailand is my missional place. My life has been an exciting journey like the life of Daniel in the OT. I am a trilingual and multicultural person.
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?
Because the need for people to hear the Gospel on the mission field is so urgent, it is sometimes claimed that doing a lot of Biblical studies or earning a degree in Bible is not necessary to be a long-term missionary. “People just need the basic Gospel, and you don’t need a degree for that”, it has been said. There is a lot of truth to that statement. However, once someone becomes a Christian, you need to disciple them. And you’ll need to help new believers form themselves into a church community. And to do that, a missionary is going to need to know a LOT more than just a basic Gospel outline.