RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–A newly identified team of missionaries from the International Mission Board will focus on helping leaders of overseas church plants build solid theological foundations.
Four missionaries will serve as full-time area theological education consultants for the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe. They will build relationships with overseas seminaries and Bible schools, developing programs for leadership training. They also intend to work with Southern Baptist seminaries to encourage and facilitate partnerships with national Baptist seminaries.
The team will be headed by Chuck Lawless, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The mission board hired Lawless as its global consultant for theological education in 2008 to assess the status of theological education overseas and to identify areas where Southern Baptists can help ensure the development of theologically sound churches.
“We’ve been planting churches but not always doing the best job of discipling,” Lawless said. “My prayer is that these new consultants will be another step in helping ground national pastors and lay leaders in the Gospel.”
Other team members include Calvin Morris of Georgia, who has served in the Americas since 1988 and will be the theological education consultant for the Americas; Louisiana native and 16-year missionary Preston Pearce for Europe; and Missouri native Randy Arnett for Africa. IMB leadership is still working to identify the fourth consultant who will serve Asia.
Arnett, a former IMB regional leader for West Africa, has been heavily involved with theological education during his 20-plus years on the field, teaching in situations ranging from formal, brick-and-mortar seminaries to oral, lay-leader training sessions in African villages. Comparing the need for solid theological education to Jesus’ story in Luke 6 of the man who built his house upon the rock, Arnett said it must be part of the spiritual DNA of every believer and church.
“We talk a lot about the right DNA in a church or the right DNA in a believer, and a lot of the time we’re thinking about obedience-based discipleship,” Arnett said. “We also have to look at the theological components. What are those components of that healthy church or that healthy believer that we need to instill in that DNA?
“What happens all too often is that we come in and we blow the Gospel out there … and pop the question really quickly, ‘Will you trust Jesus?’ And the person may respond, but that DNA from the beginning is unhealthy…. We don’t want to see that believer or church fall away.”
Arnett has witnessed firsthand how dangerous a lack of theological training can be. While teaching at a seminary in Togo, West Africa, he started a church with a national Baptist partner. But Arnett didn’t realize this man, who was leading the new church, was mixing the Gospel with elements of African traditional religion — the worship of spirits in nature and of ancestors.
“When it came to dealing with people’s spiritual problems, he resorted to what he knew from his African traditional religion — beating people with brooms, hitting them on the heads with handkerchiefs — doing all sorts of strange stuff that was simply way out of line,” Arnett said. “We ended up shutting down that entire church start because it had already fallen into heresy.”
The four-person consultant team’s efforts will be combined with more than 140 IMB missionaries already engaged in both residential and nonresidential theological education.
Evangelism and church planting efforts must be grounded in solid theological foundations and leaders trained in those foundations to sustain growth, said Gordon Fort, vice president for global strategy for the International Mission Board. “So the question is, ‘How do we best deliver the theological education in a way that helps us sustain our objective but also meets the needs of our Baptist partners?’
“This is where I think there’s been some misunderstanding on behalf of those who feel that because we focus on evangelism and church planting we don’t care about the seminaries, about theological education, which is not true…. What we’re trying to do is have a balance between those two where we don’t divert our energy and resources from that frontline growth.”
Fort added that he’s particularly excited about seminary-to-seminary partnerships.
“I believe our seminaries in the States have much more capacity and capability to do theological education than the IMB,” Fort said. “They have the faculty, the resources, the experience and the history.”
Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.