by Bishop Emeritus Hwa Yung
On the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of Seminari Theologi Malaysia on 6 Jan. 2019
In our recent trip to Malaysia in August 2019, we came across a significant article written by the former Bishop of the Malaysian Methodist church, Hwa Yung. It is a clear analysis of the Christian community as he wrote from the bird’s eye view of the many growing Methodist churches in East and West Malaysia. The description is also applicable to many other churches. We are particularly encouraged by his sincere suggestion for the God-loving Christians to heed Jesus Christ’s call long ago to Simon Peter the fisherman on the shore of the Lake of Galilee: “Launch out into the deep, let the shoreline go.” We have his permission to reprint his message to all our dear friends who are in leadership in the Christian community.
Bishops and Presidents, Honoured guests, STM Council, faculty members and students, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, HAPPY 40TH ANNIVERSARY!
I am deeply honoured to be invited to speak on this very special occasion. Thank you for this kind invitation.
Text: Joshua 5:13-15
The World Since 1979
In 1979, the Cold War was still very hot, with the Western powers and the Soviet bloc in open confrontation. The threat of Communism overrunning Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore were; also very real then!
The Western Church Appeared Strong and Influential.
The 1960s and 70s were the heydays of the World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement which exercised much influence worldwide.
Western evangelicalism was experiencing a new birth of life after the Lausanne Conference of 1974, under the leadership of Billy Graham and also John Stott.
In terms of relative numbers, the western missionary movement was at its peak.
The Soviet bloc has disintegrated and Communism as a political ideology discredited.
Furthermore, the political dominance of the Western powers is increasingly being challenged by others, especially Russia, China, and the Islamic bloc.
The churches in the west which seem so strong 40 years ago have drastically declined.
The Decline Of Western Christianity
First, at the beginning of the 20th century, more than 83% of all Christians lived in the western world, i.e. Europe, North America and Australia/NZ. Less than 17% lived in the non-western world of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Today, the figures have been completely reversed with two-thirds of all Christians living in the non-western world. (Atlas of Global Christianity, 2009:352)
Around 1980, the centre of gravity of the church has moved out of the western into the non-western world.
Second, the churches in the west has long been under attack by secularism and modernity which severely undermined the Christian faith.
The result is that in Europe church attendance has long been in serious decline.
America, on the other hand, is supposedly a much more religious society. However, Christianity there has similarly been undermined by secularism and modernity, though in a different way.
Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, describes the problem of American Christianity in his book as “Bad Religion.” This is rooted in the “collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York: Free Press, 2012:3).
His conclusion? America is “not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics!” (:6)
Most of us are aware that liberal Christianity in the west has been gradually dying! But we would be deeply mistaken if we think that only the liberals that are in trouble! It is a crisis facing much of western Christianity.
Take evangelicalism for example. In April last year, a private conference for some key American evangelical leaders was held at Wheaton College on the future of American evangelicalism. The problem was Donald Trump. Evangelicals like Billy Graham have always stood for not just right doctrine, but also holy living, integrity in public life, proper behaviour in sexual matters, etc. Sure, at the last election, evangelicals largely rejected Hilary Clinton because of her extreme liberal values. But having voted for Trump, evangelicals continue to support him uncritically even when it is known that he is twice divorced, sleeps around with a porn actress and others, gloats about groping women, openly supports white racism, and speaks truths and fake news at the same time without knowing the difference!
Fuller Seminary President, Mark Labberton, summed up the crisis of American evangelicalism as follows:
“The central crisis facing us is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been betrayed and shamed by an evangelicalism that has violated its own moral and spiritual integrity … [T]he crisis is caused by the way a toxic evangelicalism has …turned the gospel into Good News that is fake”!SEE URL: https://www.fuller.edu/posts/political-dealing-the-crisis-of-evangelicalism/
Similarly, the Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches In America are in serious trouble. By and large, they have sold out to the Gospel of Prosperity and the Idolatry Of Worldly Success.
Yet Old Paradigms Persist
Yes, All The Facts Point To A Western Christianity In Crisis.
But here is our problem, by and large, we still do things the way that we have learnt from the western church—even though the churches there are in deep trouble and running out of answers!
I do not mean by this that they did not teach us good things! Far from it. Indeed the western missionaries of the past taught us many things that are good and sound.
But much has changed in the last 100 years. The western church then and the church today are very different animals! Some things have gone very wrong over the years. But in many areas, we are still aping today’s western church uncritically.
For example, if you ask many pastors in Asia what is their ideal model of the church, they will tell you that it is the American megachurch. Yet, they don’t seem to have any idea of the problems faced by megachurches. In America, Korea, Indonesia or even Singapore, megachurches are now often seen as symbols of moral corruption and failing discipleship!
WE STAND ON HOLY GROUND
We celebrate our 40th anniversary today. We thank God for His grace that in spite of all our weaknesses and failures, He has blessed STM richly in many ways.
Nevertheless, in today’s computer language, is it not “Time to Reboot”?
Yes, we started with the model borrowed largely from western Christianity. But given the continuing crisis of the western church, is it not time for us to do a major rethink about how we move forward, not just in our training methods but in the way we do church as well?
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not in any way wanting to run down western Christianity. No, we in non-western churches owe our western brothers and sisters too much for me even to think of doing this. But things have gone wrong. So whilst we can still learn much from the western church, especially from their history, it is time for us to be much more discerning!
Furthermore, I also wish to make clear that my purpose here is not to criticise theological education as practised in STM. The issues that I am highlighting here are found throughout the Asian church.
Joshua 5:13-15 (ESV)
The Commander of the Lord’s Army
vs.13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” vs.14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshipped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” vs.15 And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
It is against this background that I have chosen Jos 5:13-15 as the text for today.
They were now getting ready to advance into the Promised Land. As Joshua faced Jericho, God appeared to him. Joshua asked: “Are you for us or for our enemies?” (v.13)
The Lord replied: “Neither, but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come… Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy” (v.14f).
What was God saying? “Joshua, you are standing on holy ground!”
Like the Israelites, we have been on a 40-year journey.
Thankfully, unlike the Israelites, I don’t think we have been wandering around in circles for 40 years!
Yet, again like the Israelites, I believe we are at the beginning of a new stage in our journey with God.
Will we like Joshua be able to discern God’s presence and listen to His instructions? Do we recognise that “We stand on holy ground”?
PRESENT PROBLEMS IN THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION, BASED ON THE WESTERN MODEL
Because our approach to theological education has largely been based on present-day western models, serious problems exist. What are some of these?
I would like to suggest five areas which need serious reassessment. No doubt there will be others.
First, pastoral training needs to be academically rigorous. But is it not true that, like many universities and seminaries in the west, academics have become so important that the life of worship and prayer has often ended up neglected or underdeveloped?
Second, how well do our pastors know our Bible, the heart of God’s revelation to his people over 3000 years? I am told that to get admitted into Al-Azhar, the premier Sunni Islamic university in the world, one has to memorise 1/3 of the Quran! But when I was studying theology in Britain, the exams were often not about the Bible itself but more about scholars’ theories about the Bible! We try to rectify this in STM by introducing the Bible knowledge test for all students. But I believe we need to go much further so that our pastors really know and master the Bible and teach it systematically!
Third, we need to rethink the subject matter of our curriculum. Much of western theology seeks to address the challenges posed by the worldviews of the western Enlightenment, of modernity and postmodernity. But the dominant worldviews found in Malaysia and Asia as a whole are not primarily those of modernity and postmodernity. Rather they are the worldviews of Islam, of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, and of Chinese thought! Yet I know of no seminary in Asia which structures its curriculum around these challenges.
Fourth, if you carefully look at the methods we teach to do ministry and mission, you will find a tendency to place great emphasis on human methods and resources, like much of the western church today. We tend to think that if we have enough personnel, money, training and good management, we can get the whole world converted and the church built in no time! However, history demonstrates again and again that the church does not grow that way. Rather the gospel advances through holy living, faithful and costly witness, persistent prayer and the Spirit’s power. But do our students understand this when they graduate from STM?
Fifthly, Christianity is a supernatural religion. You take away the incarnation and the supernatural you don’t have Christianity but some heretical version of it. Much of western theology has seriously neglected the supernatural because of the influence of Enlightenment philosophies and modern science. Yet, the explosive growth of churches throughout the non-western world in the last 100 years has been largely driven by the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit: exorcisms, healing, prophecies, miracles and the like. If the Malaysian church is going to be vibrant and strong enough to face the challenges before us, we must rediscover the power of the Holy Spirit and know what it means to operate in the supernatural realm.
Where do we go from here?
To reshape theological education and pastoral training in light of these problems will demand a major restructuring of our curriculum and training approaches.
Will STM be bold and innovative enough to take the challenge?
Will the Malaysian church dare take leadership in this?
WE STAND ON HOLY GROUND
Coming back to our text for today, Joshua and his people stood facing Jericho. They knew that they were at the pivotal moment of Israel’s history.
Into that situation, God came and reminded Joshua: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.”
Do we realise that we too stand on; Holy Ground Today?
Why do I say so?
Yes, like Joshua and the Israelites we started our journey 40 years ago. But more importantly, I believe we are at a pivotal moment of history for the church worldwide.
In the global context, the western church is increasingly on the decline. Many there are crying for answers and calling us from the non-western churches to go and help them!
Almost 40 years ago, when I was still studying in London, John Stott invited me to his home. As I stepped into his flat, the first thing he said to me was something which I will never forget.
He said: “As the western church continues to decline, we are looking to Christians from the non-western world for leadership!”
Way back then, he could see clearly what was happening worldwide. Already then on behalf of the western church, he was calling on us in Africa, Asia & Latin America to go and help revitalise western Christianity.
But we will be of no help if all we do is to copy the approaches and methods of the western church today uncritically. Western leaders who understand already know that many of these are dead ends! They are desperate for answers that come from a fresh rediscovery of true biblical Christianity. They do not want something stale and worn!
How Will We Respond To Their Cry?
But there is one thing more.
The church in Malaysia is also facing a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.
Despite GE14, we continue to face intense pressures from certain quarters. At the same time, God is opening up fresh opportunities for the Gospel in our nation in totally unexpected ways. This is not the place to say more on such matters. But we need to do whatever is needed to help the church cope with the growing pressures on the one hand and make full use of the open doors on the other. This includes doing all that is necessary to make our training of pastors and church workers more effective and fruitful.
We in the Malaysian church stands at a critical point in history, both with respect to our nation and also to the church worldwide.
Our “Journeying with God,” if we are serious, will not be easy. The challenges before us are huge and demanding! Will the church have what it takes?
But like Joshua of old, the Lord comes to us and says, “As the commander of the army of the Lord I have now come” (v.14).
Will the Malaysian church bow down in worship and walk-in obedience with God into the Promised Land?
Or will we fail to discern His presence and hear His voice?
May God give us the grace to know that “We stand on holy ground”!