"I thank God each day for the opportunity to be able to study with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life,” says Selby Lyembele, a pastor in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. Selby ministers to a congregation of around 100 believers in this impoverished, Christian-majority, southern African nation. He is just one of the pastors and church leaders across the Global South to have benefitted from pastoral and theological training provided through Barnabas Academia.
Barnabas Academia incorporates The Shepherd’s Academy (TSA) and the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life (OCRPL, so named because it is registered in Oxford, UK). The TSA provides undergraduate-level opportunities for church leaders who would not otherwise have opportunity to undertake any formal training or theological education. OCRPL offers postgraduate opportunities for church leaders to enhance and improve their skills, as well as undertaking research that can benefit the Church as a whole.
There are currently OCRPL students in Angola, Antigua, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Burundi, Canada, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guyana, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, Uganda, the United States, the UK, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
There are several reasons why pastors and church ministers in the Global South may lack the opportunities to undertake theological and pastoral training. These under-shepherds of Christ’s flock often share in the overall poverty of their nations, and cannot afford tuition fees. Similarly, many are bi-vocational, with paid employment away from the church taking up much of their time. Some labour in Christian-minority lands, where there are few, if any, seminaries or theological colleges, or even suitable books or other resources. The churches themselves often lack the resources to provide this training to their pastors, elders and ministers.
Yet theological study serves to build up the Church – it is not a luxury but a necessity. The ability to understand the Bible, to pass its teaching on to the Lord’s people, and to make a defence of the Christian message to the world needs to be developed and refined.
OCRPL works to overcome these barriers and equip the leaders of the Church for their high calling. Students are guided by well-qualified teachers in developing skills and gaining understanding. They are given access to online theological resources, while the use of online teaching keeps tuition fees as low as possible. Part-time study allows learners to continue in their ministry and, where needed, their employment outside the church while undertaking their studies. Master’s degrees take between a year and three years to complete; Ph.D. study between three and five years.
“The materials we studied have been very helpful,” says Pastor Selby. “I can safely say I have been enriched in a great way both as an academic and a minister of the Gospel. The programme has a very rich course content, which I believe is second to none. I can safely say I am a better tool in the hands of the Master.”
The challenge of Islam
One of the more urgent needs of the Church in Africa, Asia and the Middle East is to counter the challenge of Islam. Christians are often ill-equipped to counter the arguments of Muslims in favour of Islam, for they lack knowledge of Islam and often of their own Christian beliefs. “The Muslims seemed to have a better grasp of both the Quran and the Bible!” says Lucas Nyaware, a Kenyan believer who ministers in Nairobi, the capital city.
"I noticed that the Muslims won the debates hands down”
As a teacher in the church – Lucas helps lead a discipleship group as well as teaching Sunday school – Lucas badly wanted to be able to better engage his Muslim neighbours, as they “would always show supposed ‘discrepancies’ and ‘incoherence’ within Christianity”, but he lacked the confidence to do so. “Now, with the knowledge gained from studying with OCRPL, I feel equipped to handle such situations and engage Muslims from a position of understanding.”
Lucas is able to share his knowledge with the church in Nairobi, helping his brothers and sisters to have confidence in the Christian faith and resist the arguments of Muslims who seek to draw believers away and persuade them to convert to Islam.
Training those who can train others
One of the long-term objectives of OCRPL is to train church leaders who can then train others – the principle outlined by the Apostle Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:2). Both Lucas and Pastor Selby are among the OCRPL students who have stepped up to support the work of The Shepherd’s Academy (TSA).
Lucas is working with Kenyan Christians who have signed up to TSA’s short course, “Unveiled: A Christian Study Guide to Islam”, which aims to help Christians understand the differences between Islam and Christianity, how Islam has spread and is spreading across the world, and how to share the Gospel effectively with Muslims.
For Pastor Selby, teaching with TSA is the fulfilment of a long-term desire to serve the Church. “My dream has always been to be able to impart knowledge to other Christian leaders and through TSA my dream has been fulfilled,” he says.
“My work at TSA has enabled me to pass on what I have learned to other Christian leaders who in turn are impacting members of their congregations on a day-to-day basis,” he adds. “In my opinion, this is simply what dreams are made of.”
Project references: PR1499 (The Shepherd’s Academy); 64-1118 (The Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life)