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Theological Education among Baptists in Ukraine

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EXPECTATION AND REALITY THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION AMONG BAPTISTS IN UKRAINE by Mary Raber Mary Raber has been teaching Church History and Christian Education at Donetsk Christian University in the Ukraaine since its founding. She is sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee and makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri. About halfway through any given academic year, it is not unusual for students at Donetsk Christian University (DCU) in eastern Ukraine to reflect on their theological education with a sense of mild surprise. They are not disappointed; they merely recognize that their studies are turning out to be something other than what they had expected. What were those expectations and how are they different from students' experience? Most students begin the program expecting it to be a fairly straightforward enterprise: a year of formal study will answer all their most pressing questions and sharpen the most necessary skills. Instead, it turns out that the process of education tends to raise as many questions as it answers and even, in some sense, can never really be called complete. "I know less now than when I started," is a common observation at mid-year. In addition, students come to Donetsk prepared to do their learning in the classroom, but actually end up learning more critical lessons when classes are over. The academic program, though excellent, does not have the same immediate impact on a student's life as the necessity of swabbing three flights of stairs every evening, the ethics of borrowing groceries from the communal refrigerator, or the pain of preaching at the funeral of a fellow student's infant son. In other words, the intensity of community life quickly moves theology from the abstract to the practical. On top of that, students begin to apply their learning to specific situations in their own ministries or their own churches. Of course, there is nothing remarkable in realizing that education can complicate one's life or that some of the most profound learning experiences happen informally. Perhaps students' expectations are a little naive, which is no surprise, given their relative youth (average age is about 22). Nevertheless, the movement from expectation to reality has engendered a good deal of discussion and even anxiety, leading to adaptation and change among theological students, professors, and administrators and the church leaders and lay people who surround them. What did people anticipate when the adventure of theological education in the former Soviet Union began a few years ago, and how have their expectations been modifed? Donetsk Christian University was founded in 1991 as a missionary training school, an institution that concentrates on the practical preparation necessary to equip men and women to present the gospel where it has either been neglected or never heard. DCU has been highly successful in fulfilling that mandate, as most of nearly 200 graduates are presently scattered across the republics of the former Soviet Union and are actively involved in some form of Christian service. The school had its beginnings in the first tentative meetings of younger Baptist leaders in Ukraine with Denver Seminary professors from the United States during the summers of 1989 and 1990. Most of them were from believing families, drilled from childhood in Bible knowledge and church practice. The seminar participants were members of a new missionary society (then registered as a charity) called "Light of the Gospel." They had already begun innovative and effective ministry projects, from street preaching to Bible lending libraries to art exhibits, but felt that they needed to systematize their understanding of the missionary task, and asked for help from Western educators. The response of the first students was most enthusiastic. Their initial encounter with theological education had the quality of a long-desired dream turned into reality. The mere discovery that missiology was an academicdiscipline and that intelligent and cultivated people had devoted themselves to studying the problems they were beginning to encounter was a revelation. It was a logical next step to start a permanent educational program to prepare new missionaries. Right away, the dynamics of education changed, as a residential school replaced the seminar format. Formerly, students attended sessions and left, now they would still study, but also deal with all the issues that go into living in community, both at the university itself and in the wider church community. In addition, although many of the students came from the same well-schooled Christian background as the original seminar participants, others did not. Therefore, besides being an academic institution, DCU carried out what might be called a discipleship ministry. At one level, discipleship took the form of doing such things as reinforcing the basics of regular Bible study and prayer by incorporating time for those activities into the daily schedule. At another level, discipleship meant orienting students to the particular "givens" of Baptist life in that part of the world: issues of dress, custom, and lines of authority. These assumptions were hotly challenged from time to time. "Must we be Baptists before we can be Christians?" demanded one student at an evening meeting. Meanwhile the college administration found itself examining issues of Christian freedom that had never surfaced before. They had to answer students' questions, develop some sort of well-reasoned policy that would be fair to everyone, and also defend the school against rumors circulating in the local churches: What were they teaching those kids over there anyway? "This is a college! I thought I would have time to read and sit in on classes," exclaimed an administrator, "Instead, I'm fussing over a dress code!" Certainly no one had anticipated that starting a missionary training school would also mean rethinking the way Baptists were accustomed to dress or behave. Thus, at least at that early stage, contrary to expectation, the problems of establishing acceptable standards of Christian decorum were as urgent as the academic program. Another factor with unexpected results has been the presence of Western educators and visitors, both in theological schools and in the Baptist churches. A few years of exposure have helped local Christians and foreign visitors get used to one another, but the relationship is still ambivalent. New York Times


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