This past June on a visit to St. Petersburg Christian University, which in fact is a seminary, I observed staff sifting through literally tons of books donated from the West, ferreting out the occasional title relevant for a theological library. On the one hand, the task required time-consuming sorting through mountains of boxes for the relatively rare gems in the rough. On the other hand, the shipping had been donated, several thousand useful titles were being gleaned from the heap, and seminarians would make use of a fair portion of the rest that the school would pass over. And so it is with Western assistance to theological education in the East, writ large: a mixed blessing.
How Western help is managed--or mismanaged--will make a major difference in the ability--or inability--of new schools to strengthen the church in the East and to assist the church as it seeks to witness to an enormous number of nonbelievers in its midst.
"We do not want ready-made Western Christianity to be dumped on us," a Russian theological educator reported in 1992. "We would love to have the tools, and then we will work it out for ourselves." While such sentiments abound among post-Soviet bloc seminary administrators, paradoxically, Ralph Alexander of Biblical Education by Extension rightly characterizes the present fixation of these same leaders on Western accreditation as an "obsession."
Western standards may be desirable in terms of required instructional facilities, faculty with earned doctorates, libraries of sufficient size and quality, and a broad curriculum. But for the foreseeable future such criteria are prohibitively expensive and would unquestionably doom theological education in former East-bloc countries to abject economic dependence upon the West, and with it, de facto foreign control.
The Danger of Theological Brain Drain
The lure of the West already is spelling more and more post-Soviet seminarians opting for golden opportunities abroad. Borrowing from an American folk song, we might ask, "Will they ever return?" Past performance suggests another brain drain could be in the making. According to Jack Graves of Overseas Council for Theological Education, 75 percent of Colombian theological students who have studied abroad never have gone home, the same for 85 percent of seminarians from the Caribbean, and 90 percent of seminarians from India. Is there any reason to believe it will be otherwise with former East-bloc seminarians?
Wilson Chow, president of Hong Kong's China Graduate School of Theology, just returned from former Yugoslavia, already reports a "brain drain of the theologically trained because of internal ethnic conflicts, the unstable political situation, [and] the attraction from seminaries in the West." The present priority of North America's Association of Theological Schools upon globalization provides a perfect example of a Western academic standard being unhealthy, even counterproductive, for theological education elsewhere. In the name of diversity and globalization, too many Western seminaries, as we meet, are luring to their campuses rare, theologically trained seminary educators from abroad, often draining the life blood of struggling institutions. How ironic that Western seminaries could be so insensitive to the damage they may inflict upon schools outside the North Atlantic community--all in the name of a better understanding of the rest of the world!
More Reasons To Be Wary
Even if every theological student in the West did return home, unhealthy side effects still might cause the church in the East to question the advisability of study abroad. As Ralph Alexander points out, when seminarians study in another country, "training is removed from the normal ministry context." In addition, seminarians' introduction to Western living standards and Western cultural values make going home a difficult adjustment. The negative influences of narcissistic materialism and individualism are self-evident. But even defensible Western mores, such as the high premium placed on efficiency, productivity, and punctuality, pose problems for graduates attempting to reenter societies that frequently value the building of relationships more highly than the completion of tasks by a set date. Also, modern higher criticism of the Scriptures, a staple of Western theological education--even in evangelical institutions reacting to it--will not be a welcome import in the eyes of a great many church leaders east of the old Iron Curtain.
A final reason indiscriminate emulation of Western theological education would be unwise is that the West itself is increasingly unsure of the validity of its own approach, which one detractor has described as the "trained incapacity to deal with the real problems of actual living persons in their daily lives."
From a distance few can detect the disarray to be found in many Western churches and seminaries, especially through the rich camouflage of institutional endowments, bricks and mortar, and the flood of Christian books, videos, conferences, and the like. On the other hand, the global commitment and material prosperity of many Western evangelical churches, missions, and seminaries have translated into an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, outpouring of assistance for fledgling seminaries and Bible institutes all across East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. In most institutions Western assistance is welcome. The question is what kind of assistance is beneficial and who should make that decision.
Western Help That Will Work
If the case has been made that the Western connection to Christian leadership development in the East is a mixed blessing, what recommendations might contribute to more enlightened Western assistance?
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1995 East-West Church and Ministry Report