Bearing Fruit in
the Arab World
The Ministry of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary
by Elie Haddad
Meet Elissar: She is a young woman who faced significant challenges growing up in Lebanon. Although she was not raised in a Christian home, Elissar encountered the gospel at a critical time in her life.
“Christ came to me while I was at the bottom of a deep pit. I was caught in drug addiction and immoral sin, but I refused to view myself as a sinner. I was better than the rest, I thought. It wasn’t my fault. It was the result of what others had done to me,” she says. “Despite my stubbornness, the God of the impossible came into my heart right after I heard the gospel. I asked him to reign over my heart, and he changed me.”
Today, Elissar is one of the many students who attend Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), which is a small seminary located in Beirut. “My vision is to deliver the gospel to every woman in my community who is oblivious to God’s love and her value in him,” Elissar says. “I also long to see the children of my community being transformed into the image of Christ, becoming a light within their homes.”
Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the Arab world, yet it continues to be a strategic gateway for ministry in the region. Although the vast majority of other Arab countries are predominately Muslim, Lebanon maintains a balance between various religions. Lebanon operates within a complex sectarian system that provides a balance of power between the different religious communities and where religious freedom is protected by its constitution.
The freedom that Lebanon enjoys provides a platform for ministry that is unique within the Arab world. ABTS is legally allowed to enrol students from all over the Arab world – the Middle East, North Africa and the diaspora – regardless of their religious background. ABTS is a small seminary within a small evangelical community in a small country, yet it has a big vision for training church leaders in the entire region.
ABTS is not responsible for building the Church – Jesus is building his Church. But ABTS has the privilege of coming alongside the Church by equipping faithful men and women for effective service and by providing key educational and ministry resources.
Jesus is building his Church in the Arab world at a very unlikely time, and in a very unlikely place. The region is marked today by political and economic instability, war, conflict, violence and extremism. However, new opportunities to proclaim the gospel are emerging every day. The harsh realities of the region are proving to be fruitful soil for the gospel. People are disillusioned with the existing political and religious systems as a solution to their socio-political problems. As a result, many are now open to considering something new, something different.
The gospel is suddenly becoming more appealing to new people groups. As the people of the region experience conflict, the gospel is offering reconciliation and peace; as they experience hopelessness, the gospel is offering hope, eternal hope; as they experience brokenness and pain, the gospel is offering restoration and healing. The prevailing conditions in the region are opening up minds and hearts to hear the message of the gospel, and the mixing of peoples and forced migration are providing the means for the gospel message to be shared with these new people groups.
When this shift started happening in the Arab world, the Church was not adequately prepared for what the Holy Spirit was about to do. Churches within a mainly non-Christian context – which can be unfriendly and sometimes hostile – tend to develop a survival-mode mentality. Ministry becomes concerned with caring for “their own,” and not as concerned with reaching the “other.” Survival-mode ministry looks for safety inside its walls, since going outside one’s community can be risky.
Against this backdrop, the Holy Spirit seems to be doing two things. First, the region is witnessing historic divine intervention. People are seeing visions and dreams. They are also experiencing miracles, healings and dramatic answers to prayers. Second, God is shaking the Church to its core, transforming hearts, minds, attitudes and behaviours. Many churches that were operating in survival mode are discovering their role as agents of the kingdom of God and are finding their prophetic voices. Now, ministry is becoming more concerned with the “other.”
It takes a different kind of church to serve this region at a time like this: a church that has a deep understanding of the multi-faceted gospel, a gospel of word and deed; a church that is deeply in love with God, with his mission, with his people and with the peoples of the region; a church that is equipped to reach the “other” and love them regardless of whether they love us back or not; a church that boldly proclaims the redemptive love of Christ; a church that is transformed and that can act as a transformative agent to its host community; a church that exists for the sake of the world and not for its own sake.
This kind of church requires a different kind of leader. It requires an apostle and prophet, not just a pastor. It needs leaders who are able to read and understand the signs of the times and who are able to educate and mobilize their congregations to respond accordingly. It needs equippers who are skilled in raising other leaders. It needs thoughtful and reflective leaders who are able to connect the Bible with the needs of their communities.
The role of ABTS is to equip such leaders. This is why a lot of time and effort was spent in redesigning the curriculum to be effective in training leaders for the needs of the church in the Arab world today. This is ABTS’s contribution to building the Church in the region. There are several factors that make this new curriculum effective in equipping leaders for the Arab world.
First, the ABTS curriculum is concerned with more than merely theological knowledge. It is concerned with three dimensions of educational outcomes: affective, behavioural and cognitive (in other words, head, heart and hands). The Arab church today needs thoughtful thinkers, with highly developed spiritual character, having competent skills. This is the leader’s disposition that ABTS aims to develop in each student.
Second, the ABTS curriculum is integrated in nature. This helps the leaders think holistically. They are taught how to exegete the Bible; they are taught how to exegete their culture, so they can know how to make the Bible relevant to their culture; they are taught how to exegete themselves, allowing what they learn to shape them and their ministry; and they are taught how to engage with theological thought throughout the rich history of the Church.
Third, the ABTS curriculum is concerned with raising critical thinkers. Students at ABTS are not given packaged answers. Rather, they are given more questions and are taught how to process these questions in order to draw the right conclusions and make the right decisions. Students are not taught what to think but how to think. They are given tools so that they become life-long learners. The ABTS classroom was transformed from a teaching environment to a learning environment, where the teachers are not the absolute authority on the topics but are facilitators of training. This is even more important because of the diverse contexts that the students come from. Whatever is taught in the classroom in Beirut may not be relevant or applicable in other areas in the region. Students are expected to bring their own contexts to the classroom, usually through case studies that they develop themselves. By the end of their time at ABTS, students become skilled in contextualizing their learning to fit their own situation and answer their challenges.
Fourth, a main component of the ABTS curriculum is the hidden curriculum, the implicit curriculum. Students tend to learn a lot more from what they see and experience in seminary life than what they hear in the classroom. Students learn more about leadership and ethics and relationships from what they see practised at the seminary than from what their textbooks tell them.
Finally, for the curriculum to be effective in the Arab Muslim world it has to distinguish between religion and the gospel. Leaders are challenged to move from proclaiming Christianity to proclaiming Christ. The purpose of the church in the Arab world is not to preserve the presence of cultural Christianity. Rather, its purpose is to preach the kingdom of God, by being faithful witnesses to the redemptive work of Christ.
God has been using ABTS and its Institute of Middle East Studies in a significant way to challenge the Church’s thinking, behaviour and practice in proclaiming the gospel. In the process, God has been transforming the ministry of ABTS to become an effective catalyst for the ministry of the Church in the Arab world.
serves as CBM’s Team Leader for the
Middle East and North Africa region
and as President of ABTS.