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Making ministry training contextually relevant: a South Asian perspective

by Dr. Paul Cornelius, Regional Secretary - India, Asia Theological Association

man rowing boat at sunset

Training for ministry comes in all shapes and sizes. Formal theological education, non-formal education, informal training, residential, non-residential (mostly referring to Theological Education by Extension or TEE) and now hybrid/blended or mixed-method, all make up the mix of modes and delivery systems of ministry training.

The common concern in all these modes is the question of contextual relevance, communicability and applicability in the social, religious, political and economic realities of the recipients’ lives. The late Lamin Sanneh, author, scholar and professor at Yale Divinity School, addressed the issue of contextualizing the gospel, but helpfully referred to it as “translating the message.” This suggests that all who preach and teach from scripture must keep this as the main goal as they communicate eternal and life transformative truths. Contextualizing our training must presume that the gospel is eminently translatable into every context and culture. 

Christians in South Asia have a long history of attempting to contextualize, or make the gospel translatable, with mixed results. Conversations, until quite recently, on “contextualization,” were the prerogative of the academia, with the result that it was largely theoretical with some meagre attempts at practice.

India Theological Seminary at Bareilly, 1895
India Theological Seminary at Bareilly, 1895

The nature and content of the conversations, at least in India, focused on more philosophical categories with very little discussion of the linguistic, cultural, social, religious and economic contexts of the listeners. This meant practically, that training in the majority world, more often than not, borrowed from the local seminary, which, in turn was using a curriculum that was borrowed from the West. This “double” borrowing neglected the fact that theology in the West was itself a response to its own context. Those who did make some attempts at contextualizing realized that they first had to strip themselves of their inherited theology and then try to restate it in new categories, often running the risk of being labelled syncretistic.

And the question still remains: how do we effectively train, equip and disciple individuals and communities in cultures different from our own, into maturity and Christlikeness? How can the transformative power of the gospel penetrate deeply rooted worldviews so genuine transformation is evidenced in their lives?

Here are some reflections based on the Indian and South Asian experience, with a word of caution. Care must be taken to maintain the right balance between the text and the context. A focus on the text generally leads to inflexibility in allowing the context to shape the training. On the other hand, emphasizing the context over the text could lead to the charge of syncretism, accommodation and the diluting of biblical truths. Either of these will prove detrimental to the type of deep transformation we look for in our communities.

A rural Indian woman carrying water to her family
A rural Indian woman carrying water to her family

First, even as we begin with the text or content, it is imperative that equal importance be given to the context of our people. Traditionally, in most formal training programs (and, possibly, non-formal programs) the starting point is the content. The assumption is that the content is in itself sufficient for effective training. Lack of focus on the context stems from a position that does not give importance to the reality that the eternal truth of the gospel (i.e.,  the person of Jesus) was communicated in a particular context and cultural milieu. Reading through the gospels, we are struck by the extent to which Jesus was tuned in to his context. Little wonder then, that Jesus was able to address his hearers in ways they could relate to.

Second, and this is somewhat linked to the first point, we are not referring to a cursory knowledge of the context of those we are training and equipping. Trainers must gain an in-depth understanding of the inner workings of the group’s culture, lifestyle, beliefs, worship, language and all that goes into giving the community or individual their identity. This calls for significant work in “exegeting culture,” just the way we exegete scripture for better understanding. This is no easy task, but the idea is to make sense of the culture of the people we are equipping. The more the facilitator identifies with his/her participants and their experience, the more readily training becomes relevant and contextualized. 

Third, contextualizing training effectively is a collaborative effort. It takes both the facilitator and the participants in the training to make useful learning happen. From a pedagogical, or in this case, “andragogical” perspective, it is important to pay attention and listen to what the learners bring to the learning experience. When learning takes place in this manner, two things happen simultaneously. On the one hand, the facilitator rids himself/herself of assumptions related to learning or any cultural bias that exists, and on the other, the learner is able to meaningfully reflect on and interact with new information and knowledge and begin to make connections in ways that are easily understandable in his/her context.  

Bishop Nehemiah Goreh, 1908
Bishop Nehemiah Goreh, 1908

Fourth, we must discuss the issue of categories. Gaining of, and if possible, becoming immersed into, another culture – its thought patterns, beliefs, language and the like – provides opportunities for the facilitator to employ categories that are familiar to the learners. John employs this approach in his gospel as he refers to logos (the word), a category his Greek readers would have clearly understood. Interestingly, his Hebrew readers too would have connected that term to “the word” as referenced in their own scriptures.

I am reminded of a classic example of the great Indian Christian thinker and theologian, Bishop Nehemiah Goreh, who described his transforming and regenerating experience in classical Indian terminology, and without compromising the truth of the gospel. In his coming to faith in Christ, what appealed to him was not the typical fire and brimstone presentation of the gospel. The crucial aspect in his experience was understanding and accepting Christ as the jnana (wisdom) of God who moved him from ajnana (ignorance) to the point of enlightenment, from darkness to light. Similarly, training in contextually relevant ways may require the trainer to appropriate language and categories that are familiar to the learner. 

Traditionally, Christianity and theological education in India, as much as it tried to take on a life of its own, continued to remain a victim of the “Latinizing” process of the 16th century. By that I mean it could not break free from the shackles of being shaped by western influences. We continue to struggle with this today, not only in India and South Asia, but in other parts of Southeast Asia. Formal theological educational institutions, in most cases, perpetuate this legacy. 

Non-formal trainings, however, have sought to allow more of the context to determine the content and nature of the training. This, I believe, is a step in the right direction. What we are beginning to witness, and this is something that must increasingly be our approach, is ministry training which allows scripture, without the trappings of Western theology, to speak into each and every context. That is what will bring about genuine and authentic transformation!


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