Thursday, October 18, 2007

Theological Education in the Bahamas, Part I

This is the first of a five part series that previously appeared in News from Daniel and Estela Schweissing between February and August 2006. A more in-depth theological treatment of this topic can be found in the upcoming edition of the American Baptist Quarterly.


Of the many tasks that missionaries are called overseas to perform—evangelism, discipleship, church planting, medicine, or agricultural work—theological education is perhaps the least understood. Once just a small part of the missionary task, theological education in recent decades has become one of the central foci of American Baptist missions work overseas. By learning more about the importance of theological education in the Bahamas, you will not only have the opportunity to develop a better understanding of my ministry as a theological educator; you will also gain insight into the work of many of my missionary colleagues around the world who also labor in the field of theological education.

Theological education is simply the task of training—formally or informally—leadership for the Christian church. Pastors, administrators, teachers, counselors, and sometimes even lay people are amongst those who require theological training in order to do their jobs. In the past—during the great pioneering era of nineteenth century missions and even well into the twentieth century—American and European missionaries focused their primary efforts on winning converts for the church. While some attempts were occasionally made to train indigenous leadership for newly-founded Christian churches, it was generally assumed that missionaries would always be available to take care of the day to day tasks of church leadership. During the twentieth century—especially following World War II—this situation began to change. First, missiologists began to realize that indigenous churches would be stronger if they developed their own leadership and became less dependent on missionary churches in the West. Second, most mission agencies no longer had the financial resources they once had to support large contingents of overseas missionaries. Third, many indigenous leaders became resentful of the paternalism of foreign missionaries and were anxious to take over leadership of their own churches. Consequently, mission sending agencies like American Baptist International Ministries have shifted their strategy to place greater emphasis on theological education for the purpose of training indigenous church leadership.

At Atlantic College in the Bahamas, our theology students are generally what we might refer to in the States as second-career or non-traditional students. Most range in age from their mid-thirties to mid-fifties, though we occasionally have a few students who are younger or older than that. Over ninety-percent are women, reflecting a trend that characterizes contemporary Bahamian higher-education. Most of our students also work full-time jobs, have school-age children and, consequently, a full slate of family obligations. Nearly all are active in some area of leadership in their churches.

Except for the fact that he is one of the only men enrolled in the theology program, Anthony Williamson is typical of many of our students who come to Atlantic College in pursuit of theological education. Raised in the Baptist church, Anthony gave his life to Christ as a young adult. Following his conversion, Anthony’s involvement in church ministry led him to discover his giftedness in singing and preaching. As he began to find his niche in lay ministry, the leaders in Anthony’s church pressured him to get married, counseling him that “a man of God should not be single.” Predictably, the marriage was short-lived and Anthony is now faced with the challenge of raising his son as a divorced parent.

Like many young people of his generation, Anthony eventually left his roots in the Baptist church and now attends one of the many Pentecostal/Charismatic congregations that have proliferated throughout the Bahamas during the past few decades. In addition to directing the music ministry at his church, Anthony is regularly invited to sing at weddings and funerals. He is also a popular preacher at numerous local evangelistic events. Five years ago, Anthony sensed a calling to further his studies in order to prepare for full-time ministry. Now in his mid-forties, Anthony has completed the coursework for his theology degree on evenings and weekends while working by day as a mid-level manager at an auto-parts warehouse. Following his upcoming graduation this spring, Anthony plans to pursue a full-time ministry in teaching or pastoral ministry.

In the not so distant past, there were only three or four options for aspiring church leaders like Anthony who wished to obtain an education in theology: First, young single students without families might qualify for one of the handful of scholarships available to pursue their education at an overseas college or seminary. Second, the past several decades have seen a proliferation of unaccredited Bible institutes in the Bahamas, most of which are little better than advanced Sunday school. Third, there has been an exponential increase in recent years in the availability of theological degrees by correspondence from fly-by-night Bible colleges and seminaries based in the United States. Finally, the prevailing attitude amongst many Bahamian church leaders is captured in the oft repeated phrase, “I don’t need to study; the Holy Spirit will teach me everything I need to know.”

Obviously, none of these options have been successful in training effective leadership for the Bahamian national church. Since its beginnings in 1995, Atlantic College—a private interdenominational school—has provided a viable alternative to these choices by giving students the opportunity to pursue academically rigorous theological studies at an affordable price without making the sacrifice of leaving their jobs and families to study overseas. Currently, Atlantic College offers Bachelor of Ministry degrees in theology, Christian counseling, and Christian education, all of which are fully recognized by the Bahamian Ministry of Education. The program is small, typically averaging around twenty to twenty-five students during any given semester. In order to accommodate working students, classes are offered on evenings and weekends.

Recently, the College of the Bahamas (COB)—the country’s flagship public university—has joined Atlantic College in the endeavor of theological education. Beginning with the fall semester of 2004, COB has been offering coursework leading to the Bachelor of Arts degree in theological studies. Unlike our degrees at Atlantic College, COB’s program primarily serves traditional-age students by offering weekday classes. While it is still too early to judge the success of COB’s new theology program, we are hopeful that it will be a positive compliment to the work in theological education already carried out by Atlantic College.

As American Baptists, we can be proud of our efforts to support Atlantic College and similar theological training centers around the world. Providing opportunities for indigenous church leaders to obtain a quality theological education in their country of residence, however, is only a first step. In developing theological training programs for national leaders, many mistakes have been made and many challenges still need to be overcome. In our next newsletter, we will look at some of these issues in greater depth.

Coming Next: Bahamianization of the Theological Curriculum



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