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I Understand
Volume 7.1 / Majority-World Theological Education in the Globalized Age
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Article

Majority-World Theological Education in the Globalized Age

Anthony F. Casey
ABSTRACT
There has been a marked increase in global theological education over the past fifteen years. The move by most US seminaries to modular-format doctoral programs has allowed for a flourishing of incoming international students. However, roughly half of those students stay in the US after graduation. Many of these graduates are hired by US. based churches and ministries working with Unreached People Groups and ethnic communities in the US. Over the same time period, growth of seminaries in the majority world has outpaced growth in the US, although questions remain about the rigor and quality of some of these programs in majority-world contexts. This article explores these concerns and concludes with recommendations to move forward with majority-world theological education in the globalized era with more and better partnerships between institutions that strengthen programs, as well as with a focus on non-formal, localized theological education.

1. Introduction

1.1  What is the Issue?

Missiologists have long struggled with how to best train national pastors and missionaries.  Over time and context, strategies have ranged from the extraction model that withdrew locals from their villages and placed them inside missionary compounds where they were educated in a Western-flavored school, to very contextualized models that are hands-on and non-formal in local contexts.  Western missionaries often have high levels of theological education from formal seminary settings and many times the default strategy is to pass that same level of education to nationals.  Problems abound when educating from a Western perspective.  In an effort to produce a self-sustaining church model, formal education for nationals was largely done away with in some circles.[1]  But was this the best move?

What if nationals themselves desire more formal education?  The world has globalized and nearly every country now has a Western-style university system.  Education is built into the worldview of some cultures, like the Chinese who have emphasized education as a means to a healthy society since the days of Confucius.  Is it wrong for nationals to want formal education to be equipped for ministry?  Should Westerners who have masters and doctoral degrees tell others these are not necessary or even good for local leaders?

            Overlaying these historic discussions on formal education is the phenomenon termed “brain drain.”  In its essence, brain drain occurs when the best and brightest citizens of a country leave that country to pursue education or work abroad but never return.  There are dozens of universities in Malaysia where I lived, but few Malaysians consider studying locally unless they cannot get into a program in the US, England, or Australia.  Even bottom-tier schools in America are often preferred to a university in Malaysia.  Students leave with promises to return and make their country a better place.  And they mean well.  But it sometimes happens that they find life is better in the new country and, if offered a job, students find the money and standard of living are hard to pass up.  So, they stay and send money back home but not their skills and service to their country.  Over time, brain drain can begin to deplete the real culture producers in the home country, or so the argument goes.

Nationals pursuing theological education are not exempt from the brain drain phenomenon, especially at the seminary level.[2]  The costs associated with moving overseas for three to five years of study are immense.  Many times, nationals begin to adjust to, and ultimately prefer, the new country.  They begin to question if they really want to go back.[3]  Often, they do not.  I knew an Indonesian student in seminary who told me he was living sparsely in his dorm and sleeping on a wood floor to make sure he remained tough in a luxurious America.  He had every intention to return to Indonesia.  Yet, ten years later, he remains in America.

In recent years, many US seminaries have moved to non-residential modular doctoral programs, allowing nationals to remain in their countries if they so choose, and only come once or twice a year for intensives.  Are nationals doing so, or are the travel costs too much so they move to America anyway?  Are modular programs resulting in more international students returning to their home countries after degree completion than the older fully residential models?  This article seeks to answer the question, “In light of a globalized world, what is the best course of action for majority-world theological education?”[4]

1.2 Layout of the Article

This article is broken down into four sections.  First, I look at international student trends.  What is the latest data on students coming to the US for study in general, and then specifically for theological education?  Second, I outline the rationale for the move of seminaries to modular doctoral programs and how this shift is impacting international student enrollment and residency.  Third, I briefly show trends in the growth of contextualized, majority world seminaries.  Finally, I provide recommendations for theological education in a globalized world.

2.  International Student Trends

2.1 Trends among All International Students

In general, there has been an explosive growth of international students studying in the US.  During the 1949-50 school year, 26,000 international students studied in America.  Contrast that to 2018-19[5] when 1,095,299 students were enrolled.[6]  The US is the foremost destination for international students, drawing 24% of the global international student population in 2017.  The UK and China ranked second and third, with 11% and 10% of the population respectively.[7]  International students contribute around $45 billion to the US economy each year.[8]

The majority of international students in America come from a select few countries.  China accounts for one-third of the 1 million international students in the US.  India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia follow.  These students enter mainly on F-1 student visas, which can be adjusted to temporary foreign worker or legal permanent resident visas, provided the student is able to secure a sponsor, which occurs at a relatively low rate, maybe seven percent.[9]

In general, it seems that international students are good for the US in terms of economic gain and advancement of research.  There is little longitudinal data to verify what percentage of these students remain long term in the US.  It remains to be seen what impact presidential administrations and the COVID crisis will have on numbers of international students coming to the US, as well as the perceived safety of living abroad in this country.

2.2 International Students in Theological Education

Specific data on international students studying at US seminaries is difficult to come by.  My research for this article is largely limited to schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the primary accreditation body for such institutions.[10]  ATS does not keep a record of students by respective country of origin.  Rather, they populate general categories such as Asian, Black, and Hispanic.  There is no way to determine what percentage of students in these categories are international students and which are American citizens.  ATS does use a “visa” category, which counts those studying on student visas.  However, this is a general category and is not further subdivided into Asian, Black, etc.  The chart below surveys enrollment trends in these categories from 2005 until 2017.[11]  The goal is to determine if there is a significant shift in enrollment after most ATS schools moved to modular doctoral programs in the late 2000s.
Table A

 

Asian

Black

Hispanic

Visa

White

2005[12]

 

 

 

 

 

Enrollment in all degree programs

5189

8657

2899

6117

50454

Advanced research degrees

481

325

132

1143

3198

2017[13]

 

 

 

 

 

Enrollment in all degree programs

5646

8910

5112

8085

37501

Advanced research degrees

469

323

550

1488

2001

There is approximately a 32% gain in numbers of international students enrolling in all degree programs and a 30% gain in those enrolling in advanced research degrees.[14]  Based on this data, it appears that modular programs have had a noticeable impact on enrollment among international students.  I know from personal interviews that doctoral enrollment has increased in general at many seminaries in the US as a distinct result of the wider availability of modular programs.  Increased enrollment, and also wider reach, are the main reasons for the move to the modular format, as I detail below.

3.  Modular Doctoral Programs

3.1 When and Why?

In recent years, nearly all ATS-accredited evangelical doctorate-granting institutions in the US have moved toward a non-residential, modular program.  In fact, I began my own doctoral studies as part of the inaugural class in such a program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in January 2010.  SBTS piloted the non-residential program as part of an agreement with the International Mission Board to allow for veteran missionaries to pursue doctoral studies without leaving the field.  Previously, these missionaries often worked toward a PhD one furlough at a time and completion could take more than ten years.  It was not long before the majority of ATS schools moved toward these non-residential formats. 

My program required semester-long reading, writing, and weekly online forum discussions, followed by a two-week period of one-hundred intensive hours of on-campus meetings where I received face-to-face instruction from a professor, engaged in book discussions, and presented term papers that were critiqued by students and the professor.  Some professors at SBTS were suspicious at the beginning that the modular format would be easier or less work than the residential programs.  I distinctly remember being told at the beginning that we had better produce the highest quality dissertations because the entire school was under scrutiny as to whether the modular format was quality or not!

The rationale behind the move toward non-residential programs was multi-faceted.  1) At face value, the desire was to allow pastors and missionaries access to doctoral education without requiring them to give up their jobs at churches or on the field.  2) Allowing for “live missionaries” to come together as a cohort should in theory allow for more direct input, discussion, and application of current missiological issues.  3) Secondarily, some of these schools struggled to attract students. Therefore, it was thought that relieving prospective students of the need to move to campus might result in increased enrollment and more tuition dollars for the school.

3.2 How are Modular Programs Affecting International Students?

My questions for the purposes of this article are: 1) How has the move toward non-residential programs impacted the number of international students coming to the US for theological education? And, 2) Has this move resulted in more students returning to their home countries after graduation since they may not have needed to move for schooling?  The above data reflects significant change in international enrollment since the period that most ATS schools adopted a non-residential program. 

3.2.1 Student Surveys

 As part of my initial research for this paper, I contacted the fourteen ATS-accredited, doctorate-granting evangelical intuitions in the US.  I asked for numbers of international students in their doctoral programs, both pre- and post-modular format, and how many of these graduates stayed in the US or returned to their home countries after graduation.  The research was not as revealing as I’d hoped, as most schools indicated they do not keep track of where their alumni go after graduation.  Only ten of the fourteen schools responded at all to my inquiries.  Of those ten, only four keep track of graduate placement. 

Over a roughly ten-year period after the move to modular programs, School #1 reported thirteen of their twenty-six international student graduates stayed in the US, while twelve returned to their home country.  School #2 indicated of their thirteen students, of which half are Canadian, roughly half returned to their home country.  School #3 reported that of their thirty international graduates since 2003, fifteen returned to their home country, seven stayed in the US, and eight moved to another country that was not their country of origin.  School #4 reported of their twenty-six graduates, seven stayed, fourteen returned, and five were unknown.  My survey of 30% of ATS doctorate-granting institutions reports that about half of international graduates stay and half return overseas.

Craig Ott of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School indicated they did not have specific data, but he felt that if students stayed in the US it was because they had been hired by an ethnic church.[15]  It is striking to me that roughly 50% of international students at US seminaries remained in the US after graduation compared to around 7% of the general international student population in the US.  This tells me that churches and other ministries may be pursuing a strategy of hiring ethnic graduates for church planting in the US, typically among populations of the graduate’s own ethnic group.

Additionally, I reached out to my former students, whom I taught in the America Degree Transfer Program at my school in Malaysia.  These students intentionally enrolled in the program to get a head start on American-style education and credits, and then transferred to one of our thirty partner schools in the US.  They are not pursuing theological education, though many are Christians, and I found their responses illuminating.  I asked 1) What factors motivated you to come to the US for higher education? 2) Describe your experience so far. 3) Do you plan to return to your home country after graduation? 4) Do you feel pressure to return? If so, from what sources? 5) If given the opportunity, would you consider remaining in the US? Why?

I received varied answers, as one might expect.  One student studies theatre and said Malaysian schools do not have those programs and that he would definitely remain in the US to pursue his dream of acting.[16]  Several others came to the US to be educated through research-based assignments rather than exams, as would be the case in Malaysia’s education model.[17]  One of these students is struggling with American culture and responses to President Trump’s immigration bans.  He plans to return to Malaysia because he finds the cultural climate in America distasteful. Another student studies computer science and came to the US because of the quality of the program and is unsure if he will return or find a job here.  One student from India who is in a theological doctoral program in America replied that he came to the US because of better access to books, scholars, and technology.  He wants to return to India, though admitted there is a strong draw to remain in the US, as he has now lived here for over ten years.

Though small, I feel my survey is representative of the larger picture of internationals pursuing theological education in America.  They come for the quality of the training; most plan to go back, but many end up staying for a variety of reasons – standard of living, their kids are more “American” now, or an opportunity for ministry is presented to them in America.

Several missionary friends of mine involved in majority world theological education have responded recently as I have worked on this article and shared their observations and concerns over nationals coming to the US for education and not returning to their home countries for ministry.  This western perspective on “brain drain” has led to many western theological schools putting pressure on international students to return home and minister to their people.  Students can be subjected to guilt if they end up staying in the US.  In one of my interviews, an Indian student remarked that unless Americans are paying for their education and expenses here (which they were not in this case), they have no say in whether the student returns or not.  He indicated that financial responsibilities are burdensome when studying abroad so many students try to stay a few years after graduation to work at the higher US rate of pay to get out of debt before they return home.

3.2.2 Assessment of Modular Programs Regarding Return Home

My research indicates there has been substantial growth in enrollment among international students, particularly pursuing advanced research degrees in theological education.  While there is no way to know for certain without conducting hundreds of interviews, directors of many of these programs have told me they feel strongly that the modular format is leading to more enrollment among the general student population.  However, it seems that international students are still choosing to move to the US for these programs, rather than pursue them from their home countries.  Access to resources is likely a main reason for the move. It could also be that larger numbers of middle-class believers now have the resources to study abroad. There could well be other reasons more international students are pursuing higher-level theological education in the US.

So, for a variety of reasons, international enrollment has increased since 2005.  It seems that the move to the modular format has not resulted in more, or a larger percentage of, students returning to their home countries after study.  My research with ATS schools shows that roughly half of international students remain in the US long term after graduation.  I personally know several of these students and they have all been hired by churches or ministries to work with unreached people groups in the US. Such a strategy is part of the larger recent emphasis on diaspora missions.  These believers are now reaching and mobilizing their people here but are not returning to their home countries to serve.  What educational options remain for those who do not wish to study abroad, whether for financial reasons, or perhaps from a desire to study in a more localized and contextual institution?  I now turn to these majority-world schools.

4.  The Growth of Global Theological Education

It appears theological education is growing in global contexts as well. PhD-granting theological institutions have blossomed in majority-world contexts over the past fifteen years, so many students are now staying in their own countries or regions for doctoral education.[18]  Hunter surveyed twenty-three majority-world schools connected to the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) that adhere to an evangelical statement of faith and thus can be compared to the fourteen ATS schools holding to a similar statement.  Hunter found a 50% increase in total doctoral enrollment from 2012 to 2015, for a total non-Korean enrollment of 702 students.[19]  In sum, Hunter concludes that doctoral theological education has been steadily shifting away from Western institutions and toward majority world schools that can teach students in their own cultural contexts.

Yet, Hunter questions the quality of some of these majority-world institutions.  He states that the programs are growing more quickly than the schools can secure faculty supervisors, and that people are being asked to supervise with no previous experience.[20]  Furthermore, many of these schools have difficulty accessing library materials for in-depth research.  Accreditation is also an issue, as some countries do not yet have PhD-level accreditation guidelines in place.  All these challenges were present at the seminary where I taught in Asia.  It did not have the resident faculty to supervise PhD students so it operated in a consortium with several other Asian schools and could occasionally offer a joint PhD through that network. 

In my experience, I found that many students really did not care about the quality of the program, nor, unfortunately, did some of the professors.  Students wanted "PhD" next to their name for prestige or to get a better job, not to make a contribution to the field through writing and teaching.[21]  In fact, I was pressured by the national directors of these programs to go easy on students whom I supervised or for whom I served on doctoral committees, and was distinctly told, “This is not like a US PhD program.”  Such a system is unfortunate, especially considering the recent trends encouraging scholarship from majority world contexts.

Thus, a lack of access to library resources and qualified supervisory professors, coupled with the mentality that less rigorous is sufficient, has led many of these schools in Asia to have also moved to a practitioner-driven model.  Perhaps, in my ethnocentric perspective, western schools are still doing the best job at producing scholars that make a contribution, while the majority world schools are producing practitioners.  Nonetheless, there seems a clear move toward students pursuing doctoral education in their home regions.

5.  Recommendations

5.1 International Students, Global Opportunities

Majority-world students report a strong desire to study abroad, especially in the US. Americans should view these students in a positive light and welcome their presence as an opportunity for evangelism and discipleship.  The majority of general incoming internationals come from predominantly non-Christian countries and most return to their countries as leaders and culture producers.  It is a great opportunity God has given the American church to welcome and embrace these students.  I participated in planting a house church focused on reaching international students at the University of Louisville in a contextual, easily reproducible format.  We had a Chinese PhD student who became interested in the gospel, became a Christian, and ended up going back to China to found a Christian school and disciple-making venture.

Not only should international students be welcomed in general, we should train and mobilize those international believers who are already here.  I have shown elsewhere the extensive networks foreign-born in America often have with similar people, as well as connections with their homeland.[22]  I am friends with an Indian man who introduced me to a network of Indian believers and non-believers that welcomes and cares for new Indian immigrants that come to town for study or work.  These networks are invaluable and local churches should know of them and seek to train believers within those networks for effective ministry.  My same friend hosts a Bible study for Indians and I have provided training and occasionally teach the study, which is attended by both Christians and non-Christians seeking community.

5.2 Think Critically Before Encouraging National Leaders to Come to the US for Theological Education

Though it may sound harsh, I would not often recommend national Christian leaders come to the US for theological higher education.  While I agree that such a decision is largely personal, or between the leader and their church, the proliferation of doctorate-granting graduate theological schools worldwide provides a growing option.  These schools cost far less than Western schools and do not require a significant move for education.  Additionally, professors there are more likely to teach to the context in which their students minister, so the education is more applicable than what is taught in a Western context.  It’s not just the physical location, but the ability to address Asian issues in an Asian context, for example.[23]

At the same time, I would not necessarily discourage someone from studying in the US if they strongly feel that is what God is calling them to do.  It may be that God sends this person to reach people in America before or after their graduation.  I was in seminary with a variety of international students and they were of great encouragement to me and to others, and many were involved with local international ministry as well.  Nearly 10,000 Indians lived in the Louisville, KY metro area where my seminary was located, and one Indian seminary student started a very effective ministry to these Indians that still runs strong today.  Without the input and expertise of this student, this ministry likely never would have happened.

5.3 Form Partnerships with Majority World Schools

While majority world schools are blossoming, they are not without their challenges.  As noted above, many struggle to find national faculty with PhDs to teach in their programs.  At the time of Hunter’s research, all of these twenty-three schools were in some kind of partnership with Western schools that share professors on a class-by-class basis, or sometimes for entire semesters or longer.[24]  These partnerships are healthy and dynamic for both sides.  Western professors often bring a high level of research and skill in their respective fields, but themselves benefit from the spiritual blessing of being with brothers and sisters in majority-world contexts.  Westerners are exposed to issues within the global church that should inform their teaching back home.  Partnerships and faculty mentorship are necessary to spur on majority-world theological institutions.

A globalized world necessitates global partnerships.  Tom Steffen makes this point in his book The Facilitator Era.[25]  The New Testament demonstrates a significant amount of partnership between founding church planters, subsequent disciplers, and local leaders.  These partnerships should continue into the realm of theological education so the global church can in fact benefit from the global church! 

5.4 Localized Non-Formal Training Necessary

It will take time to build up a pool of majority-world scholars with the credentials to teach at the doctoral level, as accreditation agencies in most countries now require.  These national pastors and professors should go into their local communities and provide more non-formal pastoral training and theological education.[26]  Rather than asking the leaders to go to the training, non-formal theological education that goes to the pastors is where the real equipping of the global church will take place.[27]  Yet, without some from within their own ranks who have higher levels of education, who will train the trainers?  So there remains a need for global seminaries and a close partnership between those schools, Western professors, and local churches both in the USand in global contexts. 

6.  Conclusion

Globalization and migration are cousins, if not siblings, in the 21st century.  The world is interconnected and peoples are on the move as never before in world history.  God moves the nations and has presented US Christians with a tremendous opportunity to impact the world from our own shores.  The diaspora era brings significant challenges to traditional missiology.  National leaders stay and reach their people and others in their place of birth.  But they also migrate and reach their people and others in a diaspora context. The “here or there” bifurcation is less helpful than a “here-and-there” model. 

The same holds true for theological education. US seminaries are still a strong and viable option for graduate education for majority-world leaders.  But the rise of majority-world schools provides new contextual opportunities for global scholars.  As with migration in general, the new paradigm of theological education necessitates a here-and-there model, and one certainly free of the guilt that was historically associated with internationals leaving their homelands.  A global church needs to demonstrate unity that should mark believers in Jesus.  Global partnerships at the formal and non-formal level are necessary between global churches and seminaries.  We all need one another and an isolated idiosyncratic theology, whether Western or Majority-World, robs the global church of all that God would have for it.  As the West engages global theology and theologians, let them also engage us for the glory of God. 



[1] For example, around 1996, the International Mission Board began a systematic withdrawal from formal theological education under the “New Directions” strategy.

[2] The Langham Scholarship fund was established by John Stott with an aim to fund international scholars for doctoral theological education.  The fund stipulates the student must return to their home country for service after graduating.

[3] I have had many such conversations with international students while teaching at various universities in the United States.

[4] This article focuses on the comparison of education in the US context with that in select regions of the majority world.  I do so for the following reasons: 1) The US is the number one destination for international students and subsequently carries the largest impact on global education. 2) I live in the US context now, and formerly lived in SE Asia, so I know these contexts best. 3) A broader survey of global theological education is not feasible given the scope of this article.

[5] I use pre-COVID numbers in this article since the pandemic has had such a drastic, but hopefully temporary, impact on global movement.

[6] “Number of International Students in the United States Hits All-Time High,” Institute of International Education, November 18, 2019. Accessed on March 24, 2022.

[7] Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, “International Students in the United States,” Migration Information Source, May 9, 2018. Accessed March 24, 2022.

[8] “Number of International Students,” Institute of International Education.

[9] Zong and Batalova, "International Students in the United States," Migration Information Source.

[10] http://www.ats.edu.

[11] I use data for 2017 because in 2018 there is a significant drop of students enrolled from the visa category.  I suspect Trump administration immigration policies account for the drop and will likely be temporary.  The goal is to find a trend, rather than report on specific absolute numbers.

[12] Table 2.12-A, ATS Annual Data Table 2009-2010. Accessed December 15, 2020.

[13] Table 2.12-A, ATS Annual Data Table 2018-2019. Accessed December 15, 2020.

[14] Advanced research degrees typically refer to ThM and PhD, though in some instances, the DMiss may apply.

[15] Email to author, February 8, 2017.

[16] I am currently friendship partners with a student in Mississippi from Nepal and he is in the US studying theatre for the same reason.

[17] The grade breakdown in classes at many Malaysian universities has exams composing 80% of the total class grade.

[18] Evan Hunter, “A Tectonic Shift: The Rapid Rise of PhD Programs at Evangelical Theological Schools in the Majority World,” InSights Journal for Global Theological Education (May 2016).

[19] Ibid., 45. Hunter chooses to exclude Korean numbers, both overseas and at US schools, because of their disproportionally large numbers, which would skew the overall global perspective.

[20] Ibid., 50.

[21] See also Michael Crane, “Equipping the Transient for Ministry in a Global City,” The New Urban World Journal 3.1 (2014), 2.  Crane concurs with my observations, having taught in SE Asia for many years.

[22] Anthony Casey and Enoch Wan, Church Planting among Immigrants in US Urban Centers: The Where, Why, and How of Diaspora Missiology in Action, 2nd edition (Portland, OR: Institute of Diaspora Studies, 2016), 57-58.

[23] Hunter, “A Tectonic Shift,” 52.

[24] Ibid., 51.

[25] Tom Steffen, The Facilitator Era: Beyond Pioneer Church Multiplication (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).

[26] Crane, “Equipping the Transient for Ministry in a Global City,” 3.

[27] Several networks are striving to produce this contextualized non-formal training in local communities.  See reachingandteaching.org, trainingleadersinternational.org, and teachingtruthinternational.org.

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