Note: Excerpt from Attempt Great Things for God (Eerdmans 2020) as part of the book series Theological Education between the Times. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Citations have been omitted.
Our era is one of rapid and widespread dispersion of people. Numerous people groups are migrating, relocating or being displaced from their countries of origin to other parts of the world. It is a time of globalization, of diaspora. But more importantly for Christians, it is a time for the propagation of the gospel. As a Chinese evangelical Christian woman who for over sixteen years has taught in the United States at a Chinese evangelical seminary accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), I inhabit a peculiar social location. On the one hand, I am a newcomer to the long history of theological education in North America, dwelling at the periphery of the main narratives in the West. On the other hand, I am also at the center of a new wave of energy in theological education in the diaspora.
A New Narrative for the Next Future of Theological Education
As the number of immigrants in the United States has increased, and as the number of Christians in Africa, Asia and Latin America has grown, a new wave is flooding the contemporary landscape of theological education – a wave of students from historically minoritized ethnic groups as well as from current multicultural contexts in various diasporic communities. While Christianity in the West shows signs of general decline, with churches closing and enrollment in many theological schools falling, in the Chinese, Korean and Hispanic diasporas the numbers of churches, believers and theological schools are all soaring. Consequently, it is logical to anticipate a future of theological education marked by its global nature, with increasing diversity of cultural demographics within schools, more students from diasporic communities, an expanding number of educational models, and a growing pluralism of theological practices. Christianity’s center of gravity has shifted from the minority world to the majority world. Thanks to this shift, I have become both an insider and an outsider of the main narratives. My school and I are participants in and shapers of what Daniel Aleshire, the former ATS executive director, has called the “next future” of theological education.
Three narratives dominate the current and future landscape of theological schools in North America: (1) the decline of the MDiv degree; (2) tensions around slavery and its afterlives that define race in terms of black and white; and (3) struggles around the marginalization of women in ministry and leadership. While each of these narratives is important, even together they are not the whole story. This book tells a previously untold story. It moves to the center a new narrative told by neglected voices that forces both dominant groups and minoritized groups to rethink and reframe the meaning and purpose of theological education between the times. It suggests an alternative future of theological education in the diaspora. Using Logos Evangelical Seminary as a case study, the book argues that the aforementioned three dominant narratives do not resonate fully in this institution – or in many others – and that there is more afoot in the world of theological education than our eyes can see. Finding the future is not just about looking back to the past; it is also about looking at the present moment of diaspora and understanding how that affects how we do theological education in the global village.
To make sense of this past, present and future, I begin by sharing my own hybrid narrative of how I became involved in theological education. Then I introduce the chapters of this book. My audience is those interested in theological education in a pluralistic context, especially those who work in institutions that already have large and diverse student bodies or anticipate increasing numbers of students from various diasporas. This book is also for those in an institution that is planning to launch a program aimed at one racial or ethnic group, especially the Chinese. My audience includes theological educators, trustees and board members, those who invest in theological education through financial means or prayers, as well as administrators and strategists who are rethinking and reimagining the future of theological education in North America. Last but not least, my audience includes missiologists and mission-minded theological educators who are invested in what God is doing among diasporas around the world to fulfill the Great Commission of making disciples of all nations…
Diasporic Identity and Theological Education
Because of the many “worlds” within me, to this day I wrestle with the question of how this kind of identity – a diasporic identity – fits with the mainstream theological landscapes in North America. Is there an educational model that embraces different “worlds” among students who are like me? I know I am not alone in this journey of searching for meaning while living in an other-dominated culture. Many Chinese were born outside of China, in Europe, South America or Australia, for example, and speak French, German, Italian or Spanish alongside Mandarin. There are also Korean-Russian, Chinese-Chilean and Cantonese-Spanish dwelling among us and engaging in theological education. The ethnic identifier “Chinese” actually embraces a wide range of diversity and hybridity in itself. Such hybridity invites questions. Does language unite or divide different worlds? Is there room for other ways of thinking and doing theological education, ways that could honor both particularity and universality in a student body and in the larger ecclesial communities? I invite you to join me in wrestling with these questions in this book.
Upon earning a PhD in theology, I started teaching at Logos Evangelical Seminary in Los Angeles. Interestingly, my social location as someone with three cultures (Chinese, Hong Kongese and American) almost parallels the three cultures (Chinese, Taiwanese and American) of this institution, where I have been now for more than a decade. Although I share similar values with the Taiwanese Chinese, such as the proclivity for community and tradition, I have also inherited the Western ethos of individuality and openness. The hybridity of my growing up years is only compounded by the fact that I received my college and postgraduate education in the United States. But even here, I feel like a person who stands betwixt and between. This hybrid identity has become the norm for me. Culturally, I do not identify fully with Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, the United States or Taiwan, for I am a mixture of all of the above. I am a “product” of the Chinese diaspora. When I worship at a local Chinese American church where three different congregations speak three different languages, the space where I feel most at home is one where people from the different congregations mingle in and across their different languages. It is from this intricate, hybridized and diasporic vantage point that I write about theological education and the diasporic experiences that will shape the “next future” of theological education.
Traditionally, “diaspora” means “scattered” and “sowing.” The term juxtaposes “home” and “abroad.” Diaspora is a phenomenon that involves massive displacement of people from one country to another. However, for a person who lives and embraces multiple worlds, the ideas of “home” and “abroad” are fluid and ambivalent, as is that of “diaspora.” For this book, the word has at least three different meanings. First, it describes my social location as one in which many worlds come together. Second, it describes the social location of the institution I serve. Third, it describes the present “in between” time in theological education. In a highly globalized and hybridized world, theological education in North America is at an intersection of between-times – a time between an established approach to theological education (what Ted Smith has called “Model M”) and a variety of emerging approaches; between face-to-face classroom teaching and virtual, online teaching; between a predominantly white student body and one that is increasingly diverse racially, ethnically and culturally. Theological education now is between the times of past and present, between present and future, between now and when Christ returns. And as I hope you will discover in this book, this in-between time includes the persistent witness of the Chinese diaspora to the work of God among the nations. This diasporic state is a place where innovative ideas are generated, creative possibilities happen, and interconnectedness occurs.
A Case Study in Diasporic Theological Education
This book is about theological education at a time in which miracles, church planting, diasporic displacement and migration, and fulfilling of the Great Commission are all happening at once. I write with a particular focus on the story of a group of Taiwanese Christians led by one person, Felix Liu, who started a movement – the Evangelical Formosan Church movement (the EFC). This movement ignited a fire that transformed Taiwanese Christianity in the West, extended its influence to the East, and continues to spread that influence among the Chinese diaspora and beyond. The unleashing of this force is changing theological education both in the East and in the West. This book is also about what God is doing among the Chinese diaspora in the context of theological education. Awareness of this divine activity will, I think, prompt the production of new resources and ideas for how we can educate Christians of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds in the future.
Chapter 1 tells of what God did through the life of one man in the Chinese diaspora – Felix Liu, the founder of Logos Evangelical Seminary – and how he responded to the Great Commission by yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit. Through him, God birthed a religious movement of church planting and evangelism that continues to expand around the globe.
Chapter 2 places the story of Logos as a counternarrative to the stories that have tended to dominate conversations about theological education. It also identifies challenges that a school like Logos has encountered and continues to encounter.
From the vantage point of this one seminary, chapter 3 features theological reflections on diversity through the lenses of language, ethnicity and unity in the kingdom of God. It describes the Pentecost vision of the plurality of languages in theological education as a way of expressing the rich diversity of the kingdom of God.
Chapter 4 proposes a new narrative about theological education based on the previous three chapters. This chapter imagines what Logos Seminary would say to the wider communities of theological schools in North America and suggests how to continue such a dialogue.
The book concludes with a summary of the preceding chapters. As we will see, theological education between the times includes stories of multiple diasporic communities who desire to fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. The story of Logos Evangelical Seminary does not fit into any narrative of decline. Rather, it tells of a new wave of God’s continuing work among the nations, a new declaration of God’s glory among all peoples (Psalm 96:3). I invite you to join me in this journey of discovering what God is doing through the Chinese diaspora to fulfill that ultimate purpose.