The future of theological education in Africa
Preliminary thoughts from a Covid-19 perspective
There are a number of similarities between the exile and the Covid-19 lockdown. The world you came from and the one you return to won’t be the same. Theological education before and after Covid-19 won’t be the same either. Fifty plus theological schools in Africa applied for emergency funding to address the Covid-19 related crises. Eighteen got help.
The relief and joy of the lucky ones, the smaller schools, knew no bounds. In the email messages that thanked Barnabas Fund the typical words were: “Praise the Lord for the brothers and sisters that took care of us in this time of need.”
The institutions that did not get help were shattered. The letters to the Network for African Congregational Theology (NetACT) office asking why they did not receive anything were disconcerting. In retrospect, I realize we raised hope by sending hard-pressed institutions a funding template to fill in. They clung to the hope it created as to a lifebuoy.
Is overseas money a lifebuoy for theological education in Africa?
Have no doubt: the help we received is keeping people and theological schools in distress alive was a God-sent. However, Covid-19 will radically influence theological education. Let me share some observations and begin with saying that there are a few cul de sacs, dead ends that we should not take:
- Do not rely on the West for money. After Covid-19 the economy of the West and the Rest will be in recession. Don’t plan or depend on money from overseas. Our theological institutions should be self-reliant.
- Do not trust the “prophets” of the Prosperity Cult, the health and wealth gurus that fly around in their own planes and live in palaces. Theirs is a false gospel. The Old Testament prophets warned against the idols they serve, don’t repeat those mistakes.
- If things get tough, do not run away to greener pastures. True prophets stick it out with their people. Jeremiah served Israel when the leaders of the day despised and ill-treated him. He never compromised the truth.
- Do not go tribal. I refer to race and ethnicity. The Message is about God who loved the world. God plainly told Abraham, father of the faithful (Gen 12:1-3) to be a blessing to the nations. Blessing and serving the nations are repeatedly emphasized during the Exile (Isaiah’s Servant Songs), The Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) is explicit about it. Building tribal theological schools (apartheid style) or denominational empires waste scarce resources and contradict Scriptural principles . Theological education that address the challenges of our continent and serves the Kingdom of God should not be based on tribalism.
- Don’t close your eyes to Islam, to China and to the influence of Western culture and media. Islamic imperialism is a reality that we have to face. The continent suffers and in many African countries Christians are persecuted. We need to address this in theological training we need prophetic insight how to deal with it.
Why are so many of the leaders in Africa blind to see how China is raping and ravaging our continent? Check how many harbours and railway lines in Africa were built and is now run by China. 40 of the 54 African countries have government building built by the Chinese (https://www.worldometers.info/geography/how-many-countries-in-africa/) The Chinese are at present courting church leaders and sponsor visits to China where church leaders receive gifts and are impressed by what the Chinese have achieved. One should ask: “Can’t you we see that this is a pattern in history? The prophets warned against relying on ”that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him (Is 36:6)." Once in debt with China, the Chinese take over harbours, railway lines and extract whatever they want be it minerals, exotic timber, elephant and rhino horns etcetera.
We need to ask our academic institutions, universities like Daystar in Kenya and ABC in Lilongwe to research the influence of Western Media on African life and culture. We need to do research on the influence of globalization on the world and on the continent where we are to be responsible stewards.
- Don’t go academic in the sense that rationality rules and a new elite class are created. The first sign of this is usually when Faculties of Theology becomes Faculties of Religious Studies and the value of absolute objectivity becomes the academic halo of all research. To put it in another way: if theology no longer serves the church and the church no longer strive to be a sign of the Kingdom, the die is cast. Currently theology is challenged to stay focussed on listening to the triune God and to witness about the way, the truth and life. It does not imply a new form of academic monasticism, on the contrary, it challenges us to work interdisciplinary without forfeiting faith.
The proverb “cut your coat according to your cloth” applies to theological education in Africa. In what follows I would like to point to some models that taught me a great deal about contextualized theological education that serves church and society.
A consistent model of theological education found in almost all African countries is that of a theological school on a farm and where farming is part of the curriculum! Let me illustrate it with the story of three such schools, NetACT members, in Angola. One is in the North Eastern part of the country (Uige province) one in the central area (Huambo province) and the third one is in the southern region (Huila province). Historically, in the colonial era, the Roman Catholic Church was the only official church. Protestant denominations were allowed to have congregations, but only in one province. Then came forty years of war starting with the independence struggle from the sixties to 1975 when Angola gained independence. However, the civil war erupted and, with a short respite in 1991, continued until April 2002.
During the war the Protestant churches grew and after the war denominations discovered that they had congregations in many provinces. Theological education continued at the farm-based schools. When visiting these schools in 2004 I personally witnessed the ruins of churches and theological schools on these farms. Everything was demolished. The central and southern schools restored their buildings in time. However, at Kinkuni in the North, the church moved its theological education to the capital city Luanda in 1978. It simply was too dangerous to stay on after the school was twice destroyed.
The central and southern schools that rebuilt their schools and continued training tentmakers (pastors that can farm), were in a much stronger position when Covid-19 hit the world. They ran out of money but not out of food. The northern school ran out of money and food in Luanda. It has 691 congregations, of which 187 do not have pastors while half of the pastors still serving in congregations are post retirement. Theological training in an expensive city like Luanda is contraproductive. It’s too expensive and as such cannot provide the church with pastors that have the skills to survive either by farming or other skills. The IERA church is at present rebuilding their seminary at Kinkuni as a “skill-training seminary”. Half the curriculum will be theology, the other half will be skill training so that the pastor has a way of earning money while in ministry. Thus their financial model is based on theological training cum farming in order to provide food for the school. Secondly, the are replanting the pre-war coffee plantation that provided income for all other expenses.
The central and southern schools that did not relocate their training to big cities recovered much quicker and as a result all communities in their regions now have higher living standards and better schools. The central region school develop bee farming to get income to address unavoidable expenses. What strikes me again and again in visiting these institutions and churches are their sense of community, the discipline of their students and their outstanding denominational leadership that address societal challenges.
Because of the war these schools received little outside help. They learned to take responsibility for what needed to be done. The role of women in Angolan leadership is equally remarkable. There is a beautiful story behind it! School and church choirs played a crucial in faith formation and community building. People sang their faith and in singing survived a terrible war.
Developing leadership for church and society
In 2000 NetACT was formed to develop African theological leadership that stay in Africa and provide the leadership that will address the contextual challenges that we face. We decided to address and transform theological curricula to make it relevant to an African context and train pastors to be disciple-makers on a congregational level. “Let thy Kingdom come” in church and society was our motto. We had to face the AIDS pandemic. The lecturers at our schools needed training and academic degrees. The lecturing staff of the first eight schools that formed the network went on a learning spree and the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch started to change! First, they did MTh degrees, then PhDs followed and in time one University could no longer cope with all the post graduate students from Africa! The network grew the number of students in Southern universities too. Let’s skip a few development stages and simply say that at this stage the Network has fifty members from all denominations and is networked with other Networks like the Oxford Centre for Religion in Public Life (OCRPL) and the Barnabas Fund (BF) that help with training at research at African theological schools.
A new model for doing post graduate theological training and research is developing. Let’s illustrate it with the 2019 group of forty plus prospective PhD students that met in Stellenbosch for three weeks. They were from “the South,” mostly from Africa but also from South America, Eastern and Asian countries; hand-picked leaders sent by their churches. The used the facilities of the Faculty of Theology but leaders from the OCRPL, BF and distinguished academics that share the dream from all over the world came to help. These committed missional Kingdom focussed people took the prospective students through all the steps needed to prepare a good doctoral proposal. It was a wonderful group to observe, a faith based community of discernment that listened and learned from one another, they enjoyed one another and enduring relationships across racial, ethnic, continental backgrounds were formed. The global and local came together in a mutually enriching way and students were helped to translate what they heard God called them to do into well-balanced research proposals that linked them to possible study leaders and to the literature and research methodology that they need to pursue.
They were helped with the admin work to get them enrolled at a university where a suitable study leader is available who were willing to take on a student that had an academic support system in place. It’s a win-win option for student and study leader. Financially and in terms of the time it takes to complete the research and get the degree, the process saves the student at least 50%. The symphony of topics address the challenges of the sending church and society.
These yearly group meetings are now taking place at different African universities resulting in deep and functional Kingdom focused relationships and networks. Within twenty years my institution, Stellenbosch University, was completely transformed. We have a house called Weidenhof House where post-graduate students from other countries stay at very affordable prices. It became the “home away from home” for many students from all over the world. At first it was theology students that stayed there. Now one notices that it is a growing community of Christian PhD students studying at different faculties. It’s a sign of a new dawn for our continent. Beside Stellenbosch, the Universities of Pretoria, North West and Free State in SA are now part of this movement. Similar processes are taking place in Kenya and Nigeria.
Spinoffs is developing
A movement has started at the University of Pretoria that reaches out to the pastors of the single biggest church grouping in Africa, the African Independent (Initiated / Instituted, Indigenous) Churches. The story of the Association of Christian Religious Practitioners is fascinating (https://www.acrpafrica.co.za/).
Access to theological and information is a big challenge in Africa. Within a few years the NetACT Internet Portal stationed in Wellington, SA, has achieved access to internet library resources for NetACT members. Information can be downloaded to students anywhere in Africa with info that they can read on their cell phones (https://netact.org.za/wordpress/nip/).
In the last month of May three church based research institutes from Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa are meeting in order to coordinate church based research and writing. NetACT member Huguenot College and the Andrew Murray Centre for Spirituality (AMCS) represent the South Africans. They host writers' retreats where African writers can work in ideal circumstances. Professional input and guidance are given to young writers (https://www.andrewmurraysentrum.co.za/home/).
One of the first publications birthed at the AMCS is now available in E format or on the shelves of bookshops: African Public Theology, published in May 2020 at Langham. Take a look at https://langhamliterature.org/african-public-theology.
 Priest, RJ., & Barine K., (editors), 2017, African Christian Leadership: Realities, Opportunities, and Impact . London, Langham.
Prof Jurgens Hendriks is emeritus professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and founder and co-ordinator of NETACT, the Network for African Congregational Theology, a network of fifty theological education institutions in Africa.
Church of England Newspaper August 21