Our family has prayed together through the remarkable book Operation World over the last several years. When you engage seriously with that book, you see that the training of indigenous Christian leaders in the nations of the world is one of the crying needs of modern missions. Page after page, country after country, theological education emerges as a critical need.
Without the work of theological education, there won’t be a lasting, effective Christian witness. Thankfully, many fantastic ministries are devoted to this task, including newer ones like Training Leaders International, whose website says for every 450,000 people outside the United States there is only one formally trained church leader.
I’ve never heard a more powerful expression of the importance of international theological education than the one recently shared with me by Jerry Bingham, a passionate, energetic, 72-year-old missionary who serves with Action International in Uganda. Jerry’s story comes from his decade-plus of missionary work in Mexico many years ago. He was involved in film evangelism in southern Mexico and had traveled with two Mayan pastors to a new area so they could show the Jesus film. As was their custom, upon coming to a new village they requested permission to show the film from the village chief.
The chief agreed to let Jerry show the film but commented that there was already a church in the village. Jerry and his companions were surprised and looked around to see the church. They couldn’t see one. The chief ducked into his hut, brought out four machetes, handed them around, and said, “Follow me.” With a number of other tribesmen now following along, Jerry and his team walked about 100 yards into the dense jungle and arrived in an area where they saw a huge mountain of vines growing over something. The reason for the machetes became clear.
After 40 minutes of hacking at the vines, the group uncovered a small building (about 8 feet by 8 feet) with a washed-out white cross on the roof line. Above the chapel door was an inscription: “Iglesia Presbiteriana—1847.” Jerry began to weep aloud. His immediate thoughts were (in his own words): “Do you mean to tell me that the Presbyterians were here in the 1800s with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and these people are now steeped into animism and witchcraft practices?” The work hadn’t borne any lasting fruit.
That day became pivotal for Jerry’s life and ministry. He realized that the crucial piece missing from his ministry was training leaders and so began working in pastoral leadership development, with 2 Timothy 2:2 as an encouragement and guide. His commitment to the long-term health of the church through training leaders continues today through his work in northern Uganda with the largest East African tribe, the Acholi. Jerry explains:
The real need is to train leadership for the church of Jesus Christ. Pastors, youth leaders, children workers. This is what we do in Africa. May we all catch the vision of the need to train our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we follow the teachings in the New Testament of training leadership [who] will in turn train others, who will in turn train others, we will see a great advancement for the gospel of our Lord.
Stephen Witmer is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts. He serves on the editorial board of Themelios and is author of the forthcoming Good Book Guide to Jonah.