Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Theological Education in Yangon and Auckland
At one level God’s call was quite specific; to be involved in theological education, but at another level, we had no idea how that calling would be worked out. God’s call is never a one-off thing, God calls us and continues to call us (all Christians, not just “missionaries”), and I ended up teaching Old Testament and Hebrew at the Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (MEGST). We were in Yangon for twelve years before we felt it was time to return to New Zealand. While we were at peace with this decision, apart from the sadness of leaving what had been our home for so long, leaving my job as an Old Testament lecturer was particularly daunting, as there were few positions available in New Zealand. We had asked our prayer supporters to pray for me to find a job that would involve teaching Old Testament and Hebrew, but I must admit my faith was weak for this prayer request. Once again, we discerned God’s calling. On the day we finally flew out of Yangon, take-off was delayed so I checked my emails as we waited, and there was one from Laidlaw College, with a tentative job offer. Fast forward one year and I have nearly finished two semesters at Laidlaw, teaching Old Testament and Hebrew, with some Missions teaching thrown in to boot. O ye of little faith!
So how does theological education at MEGST, Myanmar, compare with Laidlaw College, New Zealand? There are two major contextual issues that factor into this comparison: poverty versus plenty and growth versus decline.
Poverty versus plenty
Many students at Laidlaw probably wouldn’t see themselves as financially well-off. Being a student by definition means sitting in a classroom instead of earning money and paying for the privilege. But New Zealand is a wealthy country, part of the “first world,” the “developed world,” a member of the OECD. Myanmar is starkly different, part of the “third world,” the “developing world,” the eleventh poorest country in the world in 2018. The quality public healthcare and school education in New Zealand that we often either take for granted or complain about would only be available to the social elite in a place like Myanmar. Some Myanmar people have heard, but can scarcely believe, that if someone is unemployed in NZ the government will support them. And not only is Myanmar a poor country, but most Christians in Myanmar come from ethnic minorities, many of them in underdeveloped rural areas. How does this affect theological education?
A significant factor is educational background. New Zealand theological students have had access to a much richer education than is available to most Myanmar theological students. Literacy rates are high in Myanmar, but the education system was neglected under the military dictatorship which ruled the country from 1962 to 2010. Focus was on rote learning rather than critical thinking. The university system was similarly neglected under the military government. As a result, students in Myanmar often begin their theological study with a lot of ground to make up. Theological students at Laidlaw College, by contrast, have usually had the benefit of a high-quality education. Furthermore, as a NZQA accredited college, Laidlaw’s courses continue the trajectory of NZ students’ previous education.
Another effect of poverty on theological education is that impoverished people simply do not have options. In NZ, a person who wants to study theology has a number of options available; the three main ones being Laidlaw College, Carey Baptist College, and Otago University. Their choice will depend on a number of factors, but whichever they choose, student allowance and student loans are available. The student will face a certain measure of financial hardship compared with working, but it is nothing like the situation of the Myanmar Christian who wants to study theology. Often this person will have limited or no financial options available and they will be entirely dependent on sponsorship. MEGST is generously supported by western Christians, including NZ Christians, and this provides wonderful opportunities for access to theological education. But ultimately, the decision to study is not one the person cannot make themselves. Someone else, with control of the money, will decide on their application. Such is the reality of poverty.
A knock-on effect from this is the great hunger that Myanmar theological students have for their study and the extraordinary steps they will go to. It is not unusual for students to spend years away from their spouses and children as they take opportunities to study. It is not something they want to do; they just do not have another option. This is a sacrifice that most Laidlaw students won’t have to make. The global Church, although one Body, is divided like the rest of the world into the haves and have nots.
Growth versus decline
A second contextual factor that makes a difference in theological education in Myanmar and New Zealand is the growth versus decline of the church in both places, respectively. Although Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country, the church is young, vibrant, and growing. The churches are active in evangelism and mission within the country, and Christians expect to see miracles happening regularly and people coming to faith in Christ. The students at MEGST come from all over the country, from many different ethnic groups, and a number of denominations. Often they are sent by their church or Bible college and return to them after they graduate. A growing church means there are more full-time ministry positions available to MEGST students, such as Bible college lecturers, pastors, missionaries, evangelists, bible translators, and children’s ministry. Some also go into the market place where the English and analytical skills they have gained through their study makes them valuable employees. Although Christians are a minority religion in Myanmar, it is a nation where having faith is normal. The momentum of a growing and traditional church is like a wind in sail of MEGST students as they move through their studies towards a variety of ministries.
The situation is quite different in New Zealand, a post-modern secular society in which the church is declining, and faith is the exception rather than the norm. My perception is that many Laidlaw students do not have the same momentum as MEGST students in terms of where their studies are taking them. In comparison to Myanmar, there are not as many full time ministry positions to go into at the completion of their study. The fact that they are studying at Laidlaw nevertheless is testament to their faith and love of Jesus. But, and here I am generalising, their faith seems more questioning, perhaps reflecting a post-modern context in which organised religion is not esteemed, and many traditional values no longer command public assent.
It would be fair to say that not many Laidlaw theology students are motivated by the promise of a fat salary upon graduation. Theological study is a passion and a calling, for Laidlaw students as much as MEGST students. Likewise, there is a similar mix of ability in both groups, from normal to brilliant. The quality of student’s work would on average be higher at Laidlaw because of educational advantages, the access to resources, and also the fact they are studying in their first language, English. MEGST students have to become proficient in English to study theology in order to access the scholarly resources.
One area where MEGST students have the advantage over Laidlaw students is in the biblical languages. All first year MEGST students have to study at least one semester of Greek and Hebrew, and a number carry on in the biblical major, doing both OT and NT exegesis in the original languages every semester in the second and third years of their study. Perhaps Myanmar’s multilingual society, and the fact that most MEGST students speak at least three languages, makes the prospect of learning a new language less daunting.
In comparing teaching at MEGST and Laidlaw I have focused on two contextual factors: poverty and a growing church in Myanmar; affluence and a declining church in New Zealand. They are correlations, but is there a measure of causation as well? In NZ there is a choice of theological education providers and we pay for it. In a nutshell, quality theological education in NZ is a consumer item and we can take for granted that it is available. In Myanmar, it is unavailable for many, a thing to be sought after and treasured.
It was a privilege to teach at MEGST for twelve years, and it gives me great pride to hear of the ministry and work of many of the graduates I taught. It is equally a privilege to be teaching at Laidlaw, whose graduates have populated the landscape of Christian ministry in NZ and beyond for many decades. I look forward to joining in God’s work through the students here as well.
John de Jong is from West Auckland, he spent twelve years in Myanmar working with the local church and teaching OT and Hebrew at MEGST. He is now teaching OT, Hebrew and Intercultural Studies at Laidlaw College.
 https://www.focus-economics.com/blog/the-poorest-countries-in-the-world. NZ is listed as the 22nd richest country in the world.
 The national curriculum in Myanmar is now being revised.
 For a challenging study of this issue see Jon Bonk, Missions and money: affluence as a missionary problem... revisited (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006).