Nigerian church leader Adeboye Godwin engaging in distance learning as part of OCRPL's programme

Building Christian Leadership Across the World

Educational oppurtunities with the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life

C hristianity continues to defy the expectations of secular Western commentators who predict the decline and fall of our faith. In the midst of suffering, opposition or persecution, the number of churches and believers across Africa, Asia and Latin America rises.

Church growth is so rapid that the development of Church leaders struggles to keep pace. Many pastors and evangelists in the Global South lack formal training. Some new converts find themselves in leadership positions just months after coming to faith. Barnabas has therefore made it a priority to train Church leaders who otherwise might have no opportunity to undertake the studies that would better equip them in their God-given calling.

“As Christianity grows in the Global South, we find ourselves at an unprecedented historic moment,” says Professor Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund and Executive Director at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life (OCRPL). “Especially in a context of growing anti-Christian pressure, equipping the Church and her leadership becomes crucial.”

OCRPL – also known as Barnabas Academia – is a research and training institution that provides opportunities for Christian leaders to undertake formal education and work towards higher degree qualifications. Three have already gained their doctorates. There are currently 43 masters level and 51 doctoral students from as many as 28 different countries studying with OCRPL. 

“Training the trainers”

The building up of Christian leadership is vital in any context, but Christians in different times and locations each face their own unique set of issues. Churches in the Global South, says Dr Prasad Phillips, Deputy Executive Director at OCRPL, “are facing several challenges and need training that is relevant in addressing issues of persecution, suffering, poverty, the resurgence of nationalism and religious fundamentalism, environmentalism, and ethical issues.” 

Dr Prasad also notes the challenge of Western secularism, which in a globalised world has an impact on Christian communities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Church leaders must therefore be equipped to provide appropriate teaching and guidance to those under their care. “We are training the trainers,” explains Dr Prasad, “developing scholars and academics who will train others, building strong and resilient Christian communities.”

One key aspect of OCRPL is that students are not uprooted from their local context. Online and part-time learning mean that Christians do not have to leave their countries or even their homes to study, neither do they have to pause their ministries. 

Educational opportunities that would not otherwise exist

Barnabas Academia is made up of several sections, including the OCRPL Ph.D. and Master of Theology (M.Th.) programmes. The Ph.D. programme allows researchers to make a significant contribution to the development of theology in their own contexts, as Canon Dr Chris Sugden, OCRPL’s Ph.D. Programme Leader, explains: “All our researchers have a passion to discover Biblically grounded knowledge to enable their churches to engage with their situations faithfully and with integrity.” 

Some of the topics currently being explored include political marginalisation of Christians, theological and physical conflict between Christians and other religious groups, the impact of the Gospel on low-caste and poor people, the ethics of work, Christian education, women in the Scriptures and domestic violence.

Basilius Kasera from Namibia recently completed his doctoral studies with OCRPL. Basilius – now Dr Basilius – explains that his research “seeks to provide the Church with a way of having dialogue in the public sphere on matters of social justice”. This is important in Namibia, where there is “an obvious resistance against the Church having a say in public issues of governance and justice”. Dr Basilius’ work aims to help the Church be an influence for good, as well as “a faithful and present witness of God’s Kingdom”

OCRPL students meet for a seminar at Barnabas Fund's international Headquarters in the UK

The M.Th. programme is geared mainly towards helping Church leaders develop a fuller understanding of Islamic theology and practice, in areas where the Church is under pressure from Islam. 

Adeboye Godwin, a recent graduate of OCRPL’s M.Th. programme from northern Nigeria, explains, “I have come to realise that any proper Christian response to Islamic mission in Africa must be predicated on sound knowledge of Islam and research, not on emotion and baseless arguments.” Islam, according to Adeboye’s research, has a better record of engaging the social context and making its message appear relevant to people in Nigeria and across Africa. This shows where the Church must improve. 

Adeboye’s knowledge of Islam is now being put to use with the development of a guide for African Christians on how to witness to Muslims and disciple Muslim-background believers. 

“At no point did I feel that I was doing this all by myself.” The structure of the programme “allowed for participating in society while I’m studying, and I didn’t have to leave my family behind.”

Neither Basilius nor Adeboye would have had the opportunity to undertake their studies without OCRPL. Basilius earlier had to drop out of a Ph.D. programme owing to lack of funds. OCRPL was able to offer him a two-year scholarship. 

As well as providing the means, OCRPL also provided the support. “The technical support from OCRPL is one thing I appreciated the most,” says Basilius. “At no point did I feel that I was doing this all by myself.” The structure of the programme “allowed for participating in society while I’m studying, and I didn’t have to leave my family behind”.

Adeboye adds, “I have not heard of any opportunity to undertake Islam with academic objectivity and contextual relevance apart from OCRPL.”

With OCRPL Dr Basilius Kasera, a Namibian church leader, did not have to leave his family behind

The Covid-19 pandemic in particular, explains Dr Prasad, “has meant that theological training is increasingly becoming a luxury. Many Church leaders have lost their incomes and are struggling to feed their families, let alone undertake theological training.”  The high death toll in some countries – for example India – means that believers are being thrust into positions of leadership long before they feel themselves properly prepared.

 TSA currently includes 70 students from seven different countries, each linked to one of five study centres in Cameroon, Nepal, Pakistan, South Sudan and Zambia. God willing the number of students will rise to 250 in June 2022, and to 500 in 2023, with expansion into Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Kenya. Additionally, course material has already been translated into Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Russian and Tamil.  

“Our vision is to train up 10,000 grassroots Christian leaders in the next five years,” says Dr Prasad. “Some will join our full bachelors (undergraduate) programme; others will take certificate or diploma courses, or standalone courses, that address the gaps in their ministry training.” 

Dr Sookhdeo concludes, “It is our sincere prayer that through The Shepherd’s Academy we would be able to address the leadership challenge faced by the Church before it becomes a crisis, and that the leadership of the Church will be properly trained in their role to be shepherds of their flocks.”