Missiological formation in seminary education in South Africa

St. Paul was probably the missionary par excellence. Winfred Boniface did quite a magnificent job of missionizing the Germans. Hudson Taylor in China could be quite relevant as a missionary to the Far East too. However all three did not go through a Seminary training like we know it today. Paul learnt the trade at the feet of a Jewish rabbi. Boniface was a Roman Catholic priest and Hudson Taylor trained as a physician before striking out East. Yet all three were doubtless suitable missionaries. How does Seminary education in South Africa include missiological formation?

Missionaries are different. There is not a standard mould formatting all subsequent witnesses of Christ. Therefore their formation is also risky business. Optimum outcomes are not guaranteed. A number of those, who were trained by best practices during the last century and who by human standards would have past every test with flying colours still got the disqualifying message from their hosts: “Missionary – go home!” That moratorium cameafter the century had kicked off with such exuberant optimism: “World Evangelisation in this generation”. Things in mission seemed so doable, practical and manageable that relatively sensible, sober and sophisticated missionaries and their societies and institutions felt it’s the time to just get on with it and finish the job. The anniversary Edinburgh 2010 will remind us of this unrealistic confidence. That and the unfinished business of Christian missions especially cross-culturally to the still mind boggling number of literally billions of so-called “unreached” people, who yet have had no contact with the gospel of Jesus Christ in Muslim countries, India and China should leave no doubt in us about the urgency of missions today. That adds to the relevance of the given topic, how to incorporate missiological formation into Seminary education?

In hindsight it seems to have been a lot easier years ago to give a definite answer to this question, but the experience in Missions over the past decades warn us that our attempts today might be just as utopian as those proposed in Edinburgh. Successful missiological formation remains an open question perhaps even more so than before. The Lord of the Church and all the world opens and closes doors as he desires. There are times conducive to missions and others in which evangelisation seems impossible. Our Lord prophesied that there would be times coming, which would be night preventing any work. The Holy Spirit calls, saves and keeps people by faith in Jesus Christ as he wishes by deploying his effective instruments of grace, wherever it pleases him. God’s timing and placement in history determine missionary outcomes. We are not masters of our destiny never mind that of Seminarians, Churches or the universe. The Church and its evangelistic mission remain part of the triune God’s mission and thus subject to the clause of St. James: If the Lord wills, we will do this or that, here or there. The triune God alone determines growth, success, failure or retreat – even in missions. However it is he, who has all authority in heaven and on earth, who said: “Fear not, but rather go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.” Under his guidance and motivated by his promise the Church faithfully continues with calling, training, installing, ordaining and sending men to do the work Christ has mandated it to keep on doing until he comes. Like the Father sent him, he sent us. In his authority we do his work and put all our faith and hope in him. Knowing Him and his pledge, we are assured that this endeavour in missions is not in vain, but rather accomplish all he wants to have done and accomplished when- and wherever he stipulates.

The words of our Lord: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you… Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld,”  which are part of the confessional services of Christian congregations throughout the world, demonstrate how the very inner workings of the Church are determined by its mission to all people. Therefore even when the Church seems so busy with itself as in a confessional service, it is being missionary. The universality of this good news is the reason for its global reach crossing all borders of language, culture, tradition, race, politics, ideology and economics be that in New York or in Timbuktu or Hong Kong. The missionary dimension of the gospel pushes the Church continually outward and beyond its own limitations and borders. In Löhe’s words: “For mission is nothing but the one church of God in its movement, the actualization of the one universal, catholic church.” This is because Church and mission are two sides of the same coin.  Even St. Paul the missionary cannot be understood without him being a theologian and today we realize that Martin Luther the reformer was also very missiological and a influential missionary – even though he did not get far beyond Wittenberg, Germany.

So foundation and goal of missions are not in question, but how to do this best is. The strategy varies, because times and places, people and situations vary and in this it is also opportune to look at how missiological formation is optimally carried out during Seminary education.

Africa – like everywhere else – is part of the global village. You have Africans from all over the continent living in a rural village like Hermannsburg never mind the rest of Europe. Training missionaries at any Seminary today does not have the luxury of aiming all its strategies at just one homogenous people. Only a few decades ago Seminarians were more or less uniform in their worldview, whereas today’s are as pluralistic as the fellow-citizens of the world. Pluralistic backgrounds, traditions, languages, cultures, qualifications, skills, values and frames of reference characterise the setup of every Seminary class.  Just consider that South Africa has eleven official languages, Uganda has 43 living languages and Nigeria even 514. Compared with that China has “only” 292. Although Mission is a global affair on six continents it is also true that most countries today are a world in one country. For a long time mission no longer is a one-way traffic [if it ever was!], but rather a dialogue, networking and intricate merging of horizons of giving and taking, sharing one world, living together in one world, flexible, on the move and sharing constantly changing paradigms with ever changing citizens of the earth. At a Seminary like ours the teachers don’t know the context of their pupils back home. We staff members are not the experts about the mission field the students are coming from and going to. The students have far more first-hand experience, know-how and expertise about this. So also in this process of Seminary education the teachers are not the have’s, and the students the have-nots. Rather they are partners in an ongoing educational and learning process deliberating about how best to carry out our Christian calling into God’s mission wherever he sends us and in whatever service and ministry he wants us. Obviously Seminary is not only a one-to-one situation between teacher and student [or even worse computer and student], but rather a network of relations between dozens of students from very different walks of life, countries, tribes, age groups plus a wide range of teachers from various continents. Future pastors and missionaries in a global village need this exposure and what a blessing is it not, that again more than twenty teachers challenged our students to grow in their perspective of God’s works, miracles and wonders throughout the world and through many ages. Living together at close quarters in Seminary helps Seminarians to understand other Christians, traditions and cultures first-hand – and everything in the light of God’s word which dominates the Seminary atmosphere and permits optimal spiritual growth and missional formation, because they are thereby encouraged to look at foreign ways, words and worlds and learn to understand them from a theological perspective. 

This is vital Seminary education and students are thereby already formed missiologically. Luther writes that Christians know where they are coming from and where they are going and that they therefore have all reason to not give up, but rather keep the faith and be joyful, because their Lord is coming for sure! This is another witness Christians – and especially Seminarians on the way out into the world – need to internalize and which they owe to the world in a confident message of hope and comfort. Even if we Christians suffer like the rest of the world or even worse, we have a sure hope in God’s future and a peace, that passes all understanding – and everybody is welcome to share this hope and to receive it as a free gift from Christ our Saviour. Missiological formation at Seminary reckons with this migratory character of Christians under the cross and in the suffering of this world and especially of missionaries consciously crossing the borders of disbelief. However it also has to take into account the uncertainty exerted by constant changes on humanity and the compensation traditional religions, rational ideologies and  other human schemes offer without giving real and sustainable outcomes. This necessitates that Seminarians seriously take into consideration the ways of this world in thought, word and deed. They need to sympathize with the people in this world without getting lost to the world. The diversity and complexity of our existence in this world should prevent any reader from expecting to many straightforward, simple recipes for missiological formation’s inclusion into the Seminary education even in a small Seminary like ours in Tshwane [Pretoria, South Africa]. We don’t have a list of thirty “Do-Missions-yourself” steps with a give-back guarantee if this methodology doesn’t work out. We are not a technical college, which teaches missionary engineering (cf. Elert). Rather we are a Lutheran Seminary, which tries to give a good account of what Lutherans teach about God and the world and to live accordingly every day of our lives. It is an explicit aim of our Seminary to have the Seminarians get to know this over a period of four years before they are deployed again into many different countries on this continent in the hope that they will then demonstrate this Lutheran way of godly life and teaching to people, who are not familiar with it yet inviting them also to be part of this new life with Christ.

Churches have used their Seminaries to equip pastors optimally for the challenges facing the church in its context. The current slogan from theologians at the University of South Africa to have their students grow strong roots into the foundations of the Christian faith and to have them simultaneously grow strong wings to fly into the promised future of the triune God illustrates the idea. Seminaries teach what the Church has been teaching on account of Christ’s commission [Mt.28, 20a] all along in the traditional disciplines of biblical, historic, dogmatic and practical theology. These areas belong to Seminaries core business whether they taught in Enhlanhleni [Umsinga], which is the poorest part of South Africa or in its capital Pretoria. The direction from rural areas into urban centres dominates in Lutheran Churches in Southern Africa as well as their tendency to raise the academic standard consistently – starting off with rudimentary schooling, tertiary education and finally homing in on university level graduation and accreditation. Another common denominator is the change from the vernacular to English as medium of instruction. That brings a number of other changes with it too: Literature, books, library, World-wide-web; international studies and teacher/student exchange come to mind. I am confident that these changes will help Seminarians to not only be “bush-wise” in rural areas like Umsinga, Marang or even Matongo or but rather street-wise in metropolitan areas like Tshwane, Lagos, Nairobi and/or Khartoum. This enables the students to join University [Sport, Culture, Academics and Politics], to be at home in the public forum [Movies, Restaurants, Banks, Museums, Parks, Zoo, Medical Centres, Media, Embassies, Libraries and State Theatre] and comfortable moving around on the modern highways on the ground, in the air and across the world-wide-web.  As theologians the contact with other churches [Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Dutch Reformed and all sorts of independent sects and groupings] grants exposure to the wide range of denominations out there. Added to that are other religions and ideologies [Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian Science, Traditional African Religion], who are all occupying space in the modern metropolitan areas. Although this is not so much part of the formalized training it does prepare them for the world we are living in. Experiencing this first-hand with fellow-Seminarians gives the opportunity for critical reflection, discussion and a responsible integration into an accountable frame of reference.

During their Seminary education the students are encouraged to do some advanced studies in missiological and pastoral theology accompanied by practicals and internships in various congregations and institutions of the Church. The aim is to expose our students to parts of the Lutheran Church, which they are not familiar with. For example our Seminarians have visited the following congregations and institutions during their studies.

  1. St. Peters in Fairlands [German/English congregation of the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa, which serves a modern suburb of Johannesburg]
  2. St. Thomas in Phoenix [A English congregation of the Lutheran Church in Southern Africa serving predominantly people from an Indian township in Durban on the Indian Ocean]
  3. Ohlangeni Lutheran Church [A congregation with seven different parishes served by a team of a German missionary and a Zulu pastor in a rural area of KwaZulu having a unique men’s ministry including a cattle improvement project and a debating forum]
  4. Themba High School [A high school serving Zulu children in Mpumalanga]
  5. Mafeking Lutheran Church [A village/rural congregation serving SeTswana people]
  6. Serowe Lutheran Church [A village congregation serving SeTswana and Basarwa people and having an orphanage, HIV/Aid’s ministry and also active outreach ministry to people living on the border of the Kalahari desert]
  7. Francistown Lutheran Church [A urban congregation with a ministry in a traditional Tswana village and also a growing refugee ministry]

These missionary experiences broaden the perspective of our students. They hear Professors from abroad, missionaries from the continent and local experts teach history, theology and practice of missions. They are exposed to conferences of the Africa Institute for missions [Hammanskraal]; courses of the Inner City Mission [Tshwane] and post-graduate studies in Missions at the University of Pretoria. However “missiological formation” is also included in regular Seminary education. Let me explain: Wherever the Christian faith is professed there this confession airs its intrinsic missionary perspective, which is given by the universality of the gospel of the triune God, who is the only true God over all. Therefore all members of the Christian faith baptized into the holy, Christian and apostolic Church are thereby integrated into the apostolic mission of the Church.  Just as all other aspects of Christian nature and character need to be explained, elaborated and taught to the Christian congregation and especially the catechumens and new converts, so also this missiological and/or apostolic dimension of the Church, congregations and Christians needs to be communicated, practiced and filled with everyday life. This happens and most of our students are aware of this when they arrive at Seminary. They now want to deepen their insights and broaden their perspectives and hone their expertise.

In the threefold setup of reading, meditation and temptation Seminarians are to get to know the origin and foundation of the Church and the Christian faith, its life and teaching throughout history and how it lives and teaches in the present age and world.

Therefore these theological studies are only the first aspect of the Seminary education even if it remains a substantial and vital one. Very important are also the other aspects running simultaneously in Seminary, which are not so readily formulated and a lot less examinable and controllable in their outcomes than these theoretical basics in theological theory. They are aptly summarized by the further steps of meditation and temptation or if you will, the pastoral and missiological formation of students. See by learning theology, the student is confronted with the ecclesial roots of the Christian faith, which is more or less his own too. This the student reads and hears and starts to comprehend as he begins to meditate, think, pray and chew on them. By not having to work for housing, clothing or food he is free to dedicate his time, energy and compassion to think on these higher, theological and eternal things of God’s reign and mission. Seminary provides the necessary space and time for this reading of the Christian matrix and also for its meditation. Again and again, day in day out the Seminarian is literally bombarded with God’s word and Luther’s teaching. From morning to evening he is subject to the flood of theology pouring over him – in class, in chapel and in his own office or residence. The Seminary is the hot-house of theology!

Because of this optimal environment Seminary easily becomes an ideal setting and Seminarians often have difficulty moving out and on. However it needs to be stressed again, that Seminary is just a thoroughfare even if is most times seems like quite a peaceful one. Just like Jesus admonished St. Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration to desist from building houses and settling down up there, but rather to descend once again, so also Seminarians have to learn that theirs is not to stay at Seminary, but rather to move out into the mission field – even if it is the more difficult and challenging route. It is only a fraction of graduates, who come to return to Seminary as teachers. The majority is utilized outside of Seminary in the world. Therefore Seminary does not specialize predominantly in training future professors, but focuses rather on the education and formation of future pastors, evangelists and missionaries. 

Obviously the temptation does not stay outside the Seminary gates either. This temptation of the theologian or student of theology is brought about by the confrontation with the world. Here on this cutting edge the theologian is tempted by disbelief, false belief, doubt, ignorance, despair and other great shame and vice. It’s not only the news from home, the media, the colleagues or the visitors who bring this along to the Seminary. No, these things come from inside the Seminary and its Seminarians. The theologian has no other way out than to fall back on to the study/reading of just the external Words taught in and by the Christian Church throughout the Ages. It is like the constant regression of any Christian to his initial baptism into the Christian life, which characterizes the daily life of every faithful necessitated by the abiding fallenness of even the most justified saints. Especially the theological learner, who is breathing excess of theology continues to chew on temptation simultaneously and therefore needs to regress persistently to the font of all wisdom, grace, peace and truth – the Word of God. Wherever a student is engaged in this truly existential hermeneutical circle and whenever this fusion of horizons takes place because he does not prematurely shy away or flee this divine mill, winepress and saintly formation, that’s where the theologians life and the practice of theology becomes the all encompassing reality of Christian existence. Here his own ideological and philosophical conceptions are transformed by the workings of the Holy Spirit into the realities of Christian faith. Obviously this can happen anytime and anywhere. It has been the conviction of the Church that Seminary is a conducive environment for just this theological experience, which forms the true theologian. Just like the old church fathers in the desert the Seminary does not offer distraction from this vital confrontation of God’s word and worldly temptation in our own soul, mind and heart, but rather allows and encourages Seminarians to face up this continual struggle under the cross head-on – depending not so much on our own strength or ability, but rather with the never-ending plea: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison and yet again Kyrie eleison! And it is a Seminary – like in the rest of the Church – where the Seminarians may hear again and again the brotherly encouragement of the father confessor: God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith!

The idea is that the gifted people, who come to Seminary have been recommended by their congregations/churches or do so due to an inner calling or persuasion. They do not come to Seminary because they want to become something for which they are not suited. On the contrary, they have the potential and want this aptitude to be developed, expanded and fine-tuned. Seminary – like primary and high school, like vicarage and other ecclesial courses and training programs – is a stepping stone on the way. It is neither the beginning or source nor the end or goal of the theological existence.

Seminary as suggested above is like the seminal hothouse, where seedlings are planted and grown under optimal circumstances for growth because it grants protection from adverse conditions outside and gives everything required for strong development and progress. However Seminary is not a cloister giving permanent shelter, but on grants a temporary condition for Seminarians before they necessarily return into the real world outside, where strong winds blow into your face and the heat is turned above or below far beyond moderate comfort levels.

In the time at Seminary Seminarians are encouraged to experience and practice so called “real life situations” in an experimental or controlled environment – like learning to walk with a walking aid. This does not only hold true for the worship situations like preaching, teaching and leading the liturgy, but also for Bible studies and discussions, interaction amongst brothers, friends, fellow students, teachers, guests, visitors and strangers. They witness, partake, suffer and thus experience these things besides learning-by-doing themselves. Living with fellow Seminarians on close quarters for at least four years makes for a very intensive experience – hopefully not too depressing. Just like nobody can fool his wife, so it is very difficult to fool a fellow-Seminarian over that course of time and at such short distance. That makes it more and more difficult to live in illusion about ourselves. It prevents self-righteousness, because we learn to accept the judgment of others over us – even if it only happens hard way. We get to know others too – the good, the bad and the ugly! You can take my word for that. That could prevent us from despairing about ourselves too, because brothers in the faith support us and accept us, because they forgive us as Christ has forgiven us – even though they know me and what I am, the worst of despicable sinners! Seminary thus becomes a school in the Christian creed in the justification of sinners by faith alone!

It is also a school to differentiate the two kingdoms and reigns of Christ. At Seminary dishes need to be washed, leaves need to be raked together and disposed of, dust needs to be vacuumed and blocked toilets need to be freed. Test have to be written, assignments need to be researched, papers need to be finished. All that does not happen by faith alone, but through dirty works. Blessed are those Seminarians, who learn in time to get their hands dirty and recognise that their calling into the office of the ministry is one of pastoral service. It does not come as a surprise then, that our Lord preferably used the example of shepherd, gardener and fisherman to describe his calling and that of his disciples. All of them get their hands pretty much fouled up – calloused, stained, cut, bruised and tarnished. However we all know how those very hands  – by they of our mother or our father – can be very soothing, comforting and healing for that matter. Another point is that these people shepherds, gardeners and fishermen often [not always] work in teams and our Lord sent out his disciples in twos. I believe that we should be very careful not to be too quick to leave any pastor, evangelist or missionary to his own devices, but rather support him with a team. This is good tradition in the Church universal and even in the local one too!

At the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane we try to train Lutheran pastors, missionaries and evangelists for Africa. No doubt, quite a mouthful, but that’s what this institution has been doing more or less adequately for the past century or so. How do we want to do justice to the expectations of people, Christians, congregations and Churches or institutions utilizing pastors in congregations, schools, military, prisons, hospitals, care-centres, orphanages across Africa? And even more radically, but most importantly, what does the triune God expect of a Seminary like ours?

David Bosch has pointed out, how important it is to read the Bible from a missiological perspective. In the mean-time even Church history is being looked at from this angle. At CS St. Louis they have at least one specialist for missions in every traditional discipline. I believe there is a lot in favour to take up this cue and to practice our entire theology along this line of thought in South Africa. Just as CTS Ft.Wayne offers a PhD in Missions I believe the Lutheran Church in Africa needs to pursue this too. We need serious missiological studies from a Lutheran perspective to research the history, practice and theology of missions in the African context. That will help to strategize the way forward until finally all planning and missionizing will come to an end, when the Lord comes again to make manifest, what he has fulfilled in glory.

At last the triune God is manifest as focal point of the universe. The Father has enthroned the lamb Jesus Christ amidst all the heavens and all the powers therein for everyone to behold. The cherubim and seraphim, the glorious company of the apostles plus the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs and that victorious multitude, which nobody can number from all nations, tribes, people and languages assembled to proclaim his praises: “He is the king of glory, the everlasting Son of the Father”, who has finally come to be our judge. He judges heaven and earth, the living and the dead without favour and bias solely on the grounds of his everlasting will revealed to us by the Holy Spirit active in and through faithful pastors and evangelists, teachers and preachers, congregations and churches throughout the ages in word and deed, through hymns, creeds and sermons of all kinds, but also through his most venerable sacraments as the “verbum visibile” to taste and to see, how friendly their gracious Lord is! It is they who taught us everything he entrusted to his disciples throughout the ages. Granting a safe haven to the Church as God’s people on their sojourn through time and space on their way home, while they are continuously calling, inviting and  welcoming all those others by the wayside with the good tiding: Christ came into this world to save sinners. So come, there is still room for you too!  

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus+

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Articles from South Africa, Gedankensplitter, Histories, biographies and other stories, Lutheran Church in Southern Africa, Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane, Lutheran World, Lutherische Mission, Saints of the church, St.Paul. Bookmark the permalink.

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