I was recently involved in a group which illustrates how this model works, and why.
The academic year has just begun in Spain, and the local IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students) group (GBU) was gearing up for their program to begin. As part of their week long staff get together and start up for the year, they invited me to go and teach the MOCLAM Old Testament 1 course. So, for a week I'd teach the material, and in the afternoon they'd do other GBU stuff, study or get ready for the year ahead.
It was fantastic - here are some of the reasons why.
i. They got the chance to study.
For many of the people in groups like this, formal, full time theological education is not a possibility. Whether it be for reasons economic, geographical, educational or others - the possibility of going to a seminary to study for a few years is not on the horizon. Therefore, for them to be able to do a seminary level course in their own environment is a great advantage.
ii. They got the chance to study with others.
There is no substitute for learning in community, especially learning theology in community. Distance education is great and it means lots of people can be studying who may not have been able to in the past, but there is no substitute for community. Studying together in a group for a week means we get to discuss questions, chase ideas, swap experiences, think about personal applications and generally have a fun time - all of which is much harder if you are by yourself.
iii. The got to study in their own language.
One of the issues with theological education, particularly here in Latin America is that many of the good resources and colleges require English. The vast majority of my fly in - fly out teaching is done in Spanish, so is very much more accessible. (Due to the makeup of the group, the class in Spain was actually in English, which is the first time I have taught in English!)
iv. It is relatively cheap
I can get anywhere in Latin America or Europe for about US$1000. In the world of education that is cheap! Of course the students don't pay for that - the generous supporters of CMS who see this as a worthwhile thing to be doing do.
But of course there are some disadvantages as well.
i. It was only for a week.
Yes we got to study in community and we bonded quickly, and I will have some ongoing email contact with the members of the group - but the class only existed for a week. Theological education is a process of shaping. It is not about giving a long list of answers to an even longer list of questions. It is about shaping our minds so that we can read and understand the Bible so we can teach it to others and work out, using God's wisdom, the answers. You can't do that in a week. You can start, you can give a few building blocks, but the house can't be finished in a week!
ii. It takes time to understand local culture
As a teacher in a fly in, fly out role, I really need to be on my game when it comes to understanding and adapting to the local culture. There are all sorts of things that can be very off-putting for students if I don't understand what is going on. For example, what is my expectation of students asking questions? What do I do when a student gives a wrong answer to a question that I ask? Are the students able to work in small groups without direction? What is considered a reasonable starting time and what is the correct reaction when someone is late?
All these are cultural questions, and require careful thought. As much as possible, I try to have a local organiser who deals with a lot of the local logistical stuff, and I try and take my lead from them.
I think I am safe in saying that the greatest influence on a Christian's life is their day to day and week to week interaction with their church, their pastor, and their fellow local Christians. They will model their Bible reading habits, their methods of thinking, their devotional life and their attitude to others on the models they see around them every day. Therefore, if I come in for a week and say "here's a brand new way to think about the Bible" or "here's a new preaching model", it is hard to know what use that is - and that is assuming that the model I'm introducing is brilliant!
Just as there is no substitute for long term, community based theological education, there is no substitute for long term, relationship-based modelling of the Christian life.
But, just because it isn't the best, doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.
What we're trying to do now in MOCLAM is see how we can use the "fly in, fly out" model as a basis for forming ongoing study groups. Things like:
- trying where possible to make return visits to teach subsequent classes.
- having students continue in their studies as individuals and meet regularly in local groups.
- encourage students to participate "virtual classrooms" as they continue to study individually.
(By the way, you might be glad to know that we have passed 1,000 enrolments for 2012!)
(Photo: Boarding in Tarija, Bolivia - just before the Military Policeman grabbed my camera!)