There’s something beautiful about experiencing diverse cultures. It helps you rethink assumptions, reconsider norms, and reset expectations on everything from food and conversation to driving and healthcare. The same goes for ministry and church life overseas. While biblical principles remain the same, particulars vary according to context.
In this article, I hope to highlight the beauty and diversity of theological education around the world. I lecture at Munster Bible College (MBC) in Cork, Ireland. The seminary I attended in North America had picturesque grounds, large lecture halls, weekly classes, quiet study rooms, elaborate ceremonies, and impressive libraries. Precisely none of these things characterize theological education in MBC. These differences have helped me recognize the difference between essentials and negotiables when it comes to theological education.
Lord willing, Munster Bible College will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year. My hope is that this reflection will offer an encouraging testimony to the Lord’s work in this corner of the globe, and provide a window into the joys and challenges of bringing theological education to less-reached, less-resourced contexts.
A Brief History of MBC
By God’s grace, the gospel has been proclaimed here in Cork (the largest city in our province of Munster) for at least 400 years. Cork Baptist Church, which was established in 1640, continues to declare the gospel today, making it one of the oldest Baptist congregations in the world.
In the 1980s, there were only a handful of gospel-preaching churches in Munster. Around that time, Cork Baptist felt a burden to plant churches among the surrounding communities (see this article to learn more about the need for church planting here in Ireland). One generation later, we rejoice in the establishment of six new churches in the Cork area.
The seeds of Munster Bible College were first sown around the turn of the millennium. At that time, several of those ministering in Cork began organizing “Summer Bible Week.” It is exactly like it sounds: a week each summer in which churches provided biblical instruction for local churches in the area.
Summer Bible Week began as a partnership with Irish Baptist College (in Belfast, Northern Ireland). A lecturer would travel down each year to teach. After teaching at a Summer Bible Week, church history professor Dr. Michael Haykin proposed developing the program into a more regular opportunity for formal theological education. He suggested that as few as 5 students could justify providing a lecturer for each course.
The first official MBC course (a class on apologetics) was taught in January 2014. To everyone’s surprise, 34 students took the course—far more than any could have imagined! In the decade since, we’ve run a total of 38 courses. More than 200 individuals have engaged with our course.
A Snapshot of the College Today
MBC has neither the demand, the venue, the manpower, or the budget to offer normal, semester-long courses. Instead, we offer four courses per year, all of them in a modular format. The courses involve 24 hours of lectures packed into one week; assignments and papers are then completed over the following three months.
Each year, we rotate through various required courses (e.g., OT, NT, systematic theology, church history) and electives (e.g., biblical counseling, apologetics, biblical spirituality). In order to graduate, students must complete nine required courses and three electives. So far, 14 students have graduated.
We have no paid staff or faculty. We rely heavily on churches who are generous with their time and gifts. We also rely on them for space. Our seven-bookshelf theological library is generously hosted by Cork Baptist, one of the only Baptist churches in the area with their own building. In the middle of our course weeks, we often have to break everything down and set it up the next day to make space for a moms-and-tots play group!
Every course feels like a new step of faith, as we wonder how many students will register. And yet, the Lord continues to connect us to interested people. Over the course of our 38 modules, the average class has had 22 students (either auditing or for credit). Clearly, there’s a need and an appetite for theological training.
When MBC was first organized, its vision was to train elder-qualified men for the sake of planting more churches in Munster. We continue to pray that the Lord will enable the college to accomplish this goal. And yet, as we’ve seen students take our courses, we’ve come to appreciate how MBC supports and strengthens a vast array of people—from college students to retirees, busy parents to missionaries, working professionals to church leaders. Of our 214 total students, over a third have been female, which has benefitted our churches.
Finding Our Lane
As we lead MBC into its second decade, we find ourselves regularly caught in the tension between a desire to offer more and a desire to improve and sustain the work that is already happening.
Sustainability is one of our greatest challenges. Our six board members are busy with ministry in their local churches. We still have to fly in most of our lecturers from overseas, so we are dependent on their schedules and availability. We never really know if we’ll have enough students to run each module. And yet, our Father continues to provide for all our needs.
As we make decisions, it’s been very helpful for us to clarify our “lane” and stay in it. Our goal is to serve and equip the churches of the Munster region for the work of the Great Commission. Local churches will always be the primary location for disciples of Christ to grow in their character and competency for ministry. The training we provide complements the teaching these saints already receive.
Of course, we could encourage our church members to study in larger seminaries elsewhere. Or to get their degree online. But neither of these options would be able to train Christians as effectively into the nuances of ministry, culture, and theology in this specific context.
Clarifying our “lane” has helped us to realize that the main thing we offer churches in Munster, which they could never receive online, is a community of learning. Learning is always done best in community—with laughs, hugs, and meals punctuating the hours of teaching. Joyful camaraderie develops from studying together, and from the chats that unfold over coffee, tea, and biscuits. (Sure, we’re in Ireland, after all. We are known for our gift of the gab, our never-ending need for tea, and our craic.)
Because of this, we’ve focused our recent efforts toward ongoing training through the college, even for those who have already completed all the courses. It’s wonderful to see people coming along to learn more even after they’ve completed our diploma. Once that spark of learning has been lit, it doesn’t go out easily!
There’s nothing better than noticing the pure joy on someone’s face when they begin to learn how the pieces of Scripture all fit together and culminate in the revelation of Jesus Christ. The disciples on the Emmaus road captured the feeling: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)
I’ve seen theological education up close, on both sides of the Atlantic. There are lots of differences. But that burning binds us together. The common thread that should unite all theological education is training saints to grow in the knowledge of Christ and his Word, which fuels their love and devotion to Christ and his church.
Please pray for us as we seek to partner with local churches in Munster to bring the glorious light of Christ to this corner of the world.
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