The Role of Theological Education in Social Engagement
The vision of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) is to see God glorified, people reconciled, and communities restored through the church in the Arab world.
One avenue is by fulfilling our main mission to serve the church through equipping faithful men and women for effective service. Our view is that social and community engagement and transformation are central to our very existence.
How the seminary understands the role of the church will determine, to a large extent, the way it teaches (or does not teach) social engagement within its curriculum.
If we believe our churches should be focused only on the spiritual welfare of their existing membership, perhaps with some focus on evangelism from time to time, then we will prepare our students for this type of ministry.
If, however, we envisage our churches as being vital participants in their local community, places of hope, welcome and compassion, where values of prophetic justice and peace-building are practiced, we will need to prepare our students in a different way.
The reality is that we need both.
ABTS exists to serve the church. If we are not equipping our graduates to be effective leaders, both within and beyond their church settings, I would suggest we are failing in our mandate, and failing the church as it seeks to live out the kingdom values in the location God has placed it.
We equip our graduates in a number of ways through our curriculum. Each course uses a range of lenses through which students reflect on the content.
As well as biblical, historical-theological, personal-ministerial lenses, we use the lens of sociological-cultural analysis in each course that is taught.
We also have modules that pay particular attention to the role of the church in the world, such as Reading Church and Society, The Restored Community, The Missional Church, not to mention the annual Middle East Conference (MEC), which typically engages significant social issues within a discussion of Christian-Muslim relations.
Next year's MEC (June 17-21), for example, will explore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the kingdom of God and an Islamic perspective.
The new Institute of Middle East Studies-led master's program in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MENA) also adds significantly to ABTS' role to bring about social transformation.
For example, the first module – MENA History, Politics and Economics – led by Rupen Das, will explore these issues with a focus on poverty, justice and development and the role of the church.
Practical assignments will better prepare students to lead transformative actions in communities.
Another new way we are fulfilling our mandate is inspired by the words of Karl Barth, who suggests to theologians that they should "take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible."
We have developed a process whereby students learn to reflect theologically on current affairs, and develop ideas on ways to practically engage with them as a result.
Each student is given a number of reflection workbooks that they will complete for credit. They will be required to briefly reflect on a wide range of news, current affairs or social issues, and reflect in-depth on one of these.
We provide a detailed process whereby they describe the event, identify the issues involved, make connections with theology, the Bible, and social sciences (politics, economics, cultural and religious studies, and so on), identify newly acquired learning and then suggest practical actions that they, their church community or both could participate in.
Seminaries that are not able and willing to engage in the social issues of the day and respond, both within their curriculum and their methodologies will, I fear, become increasingly irrelevant and obsolete.
I am privileged to be part of a seminary that takes this issue very seriously, and is always looking at ways in which it can play its part in building the Kingdom, here in Lebanon, the MENA region and beyond.
Arthur Brown is assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies, based in Mansourieh, Lebanon, at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. This column first appeared on the IMES blog. Visit Arab Baptist Theological Seminary on Facebook.