In the mountains of western Kenya, there’s a small valley dotted with brown huts. Next to one of those huts is an old wooden table where I got my first taste of international theological education. I was living in Nairobi for five months, and we had taken a team from the United States to West Pokot County for a week to share the gospel in the small villages throughout the region.
During our first couple of days, we recognized that some of our time might be best spent sitting around that table discussing biblical hermeneutics and concerns related to the prosperity gospel. This time of conversation turned out to be really fruitful for all of us, and most of us visiting for the week found ourselves learning alongside these church leaders. Even though we only spent a couple of hours, it felt like our discussions during those hours would outlast our short trip to Pokot country.
Theological education is essential to the health of the global church. That’s precisely why trained theologians, church historians, and biblical scholars—and not just pastors and missionaries—should consider moving overseas to take part in providing international theological education to those who live in areas with little access to it. While there are many obstacles for scholars in getting overseas (more on that in a minute), there are many more benefits. Let’s start with the benefits.
1. You can be a part of the long-term health of the global church.
The future of the global church lies outside the Western world. While some students are able to travel to North American and European institutions, most students aren’t. If those who are theologically trained are willing to move to theological education “deserts,” then we can offer more pastors, ministers, and missionaries quality theological education in order to plant and lead healthy churches all around the world.
2. You can find a wealth of opportunities to use your skills to teach and train pastors around the world.
The simple reality is that the number of theology/biblical studies/church history PhD graduates is growing even as the sad reality tells us that academic jobs in the Western world are shrinking quickly. The academic job prospects for your typical PhD graduate from a confessional institution are not bright—at least in the Western world.
When we expand our circle to the rest of the world, we find many opportunities—both formally at seminaries and informally through mission agencies—to use our skills and training to prepare eager students for lifelong ministry in difficult places. The job market for PhDs in the West may be dismal. But if your calling is to teach and train pastors and leaders, then you need to recognize that there are plenty of opportunities to do so all around the world!
3. You can broaden your own scholarship to reflect sensitivity to and influence from other cultures.
Biblical scholars, theologians, and church historians are training to understand Scripture, doctrine, and theology so that they can communicate it effectively to others. We are often siloed in Western confessional institutions. To be sure, every school will have some international students, but the most influential biblical scholars tend to live, work, worship, and teach in the Western world, even if they’re not necessarily native to it.
Teaching overseas with students from diverse backgrounds will only broaden and strengthen a professor’s scholarship and teaching. Research and writing is always refined in the classroom. What a blessing it would be to have students from other cultures dialoging with us and improving our own thoughts. I suspect we may even learn more about our field from international students and colleagues than we ever could have back home. Why not take the incredible opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture—not only for the benefit of the global church but also for the benefit of your own scholarship?
It’s worth asking the question: With so many clear benefits, why aren’t more scholars seeking out these overseas opportunities?
Across the board, American institutions are producing more PhDs than ever. That fact is equally true for confessional theological institutions. Students are graduating with PhDs, fighting for a shrinking number of faculty posts, and then resigning themselves either to full-time pastoral ministry in the United States—obviously a wonderful calling, but for many it’s still not what they originally set out to do—or to a secular career path in order to feed their families.
So why aren’t more academics moving overseas for the sake of the gospel?
1. There are many incentives to stay.
Of course, there are the obvious incentives to stay in your own culture versus going to a new one—not having to learn a new language, maintaining your standard of living, proximity to family and friends, etc. But for those working on their PhD, there’s often the added incentive of money. You’ve just spent at least four years working the hardest you’ve ever worked and, if you’re at a confessional institution, you probably paid a lot of money to do it. The prospect of raising support to go overseas after that level of investment is, to put it politely, less-than-attractive, even if it is your only opportunity to actually use those skills you’ve developed in an academic setting.
2. There are clear misconceptions of what a missionary actually is.
For many in the pews and even some mission agencies, missionaries are those who share the gospel and plant churches. That’s just what missionaries do, and if that isn’t your primary objective and daily work, then you are at best a lesser kind of missionary or maybe not a missionary at all.
So, can a theological educator overseas be thought of as a “missionary”? After all, much of your time will be spent teaching, reading, writing, developing curriculum, and doing administrative work. You may not be able to fill your newsletters with stories of how many people trusted Christ or the new church you planted in the region. You may even feel like if you told people what you spend most of your time doing, they might be less likely to continue to support you financially. And, well, you might be right.
3. A key part of the job itself is to make yourself obsolete.
Your goal is to train up pastors, ministers, and missionaries. But among those students, you also want to train up those who will eventually take your place. That work could take 10 years or it could take 30 years. But at the end of the day, you have to acknowledge that, generally speaking, a native can teach more effectively and consistently than an outsider, especially over the long-term. And it’s your responsibility and privilege to help raise such people up. This may be a scary career prospect, but it’s very possible that one of your Bachelors or MDiv students from China, Cameroon, or Turkey might turn out to be the next globally impactful Old Testament scholar.
These obstacles may be significant hang-ups for scholars considering going overseas. But the opportunity to directly impact the global church with international theological education far outweighs any worries we might have about money, misperceptions about what we do, or long-term career security. Even if you don’t make as much money as you would in the US. Even if you have to raise support. Even if people don’t think your work lecturing in a classroom in the Philippines is as glamorous as the church planter who has planted 10 churches in 10 years. And even if the prospect of working yourself out of a job by mentoring and training up the next professor to replace you is scary. These obstacles pale in comparison to the beauty of a life absolutely poured out for the glory of God by training up Christian leaders and strengthening churches around the world. Whether it’s in the mountains of western Kenya or the busy streets of Istanbul, eager students are waiting to be trained to fulfill the Great Commission and lead healthy churches in their own cultures and countries. The opportunities to learn from them and their own cultures abound. Let’s answer that call—to go and to learn and to teach—all for the glory of God.