The rise of Arabic seminary studies…… | News and reports
Bassem Ragy didn’t need a master’s degree in theology to do math.
Seven years ago, when the preschoolers at his church presented their meager Sunday school offering of 7 Egyptian pounds (then the equivalent of $2), he recalled the equation of five loaves plus two fish.
Now one of 69 members of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC) class of 2022, the new MDiv can preach the miracle of Jesus from the original Greek.
“When I see the work of our graduates, it gives me hope for the future of the church,” said Tharwat Wahba, ETSC vice president for church and society and one of its many elders. “We have to maintain our momentum.
In 1995, there were about 50 students at the Presbyterian institution. In 2005, seminary research identified 311 affiliated churches, 127 of which did not have a full-time pastor.
By 2019, enrollment had grown to 300 students. Three years later, it has reached 509. And now, affiliated churches number 450, of which only 70 lack pastoral leadership.
Founded in 1863 aboard a felucca, a traditional Egyptian boat, on the Nile, ETSC’s floating campus served mission stations and fledgling churches associated with the American Presbyterian movement of the time. Since then, the seminary has regularly provided synod chairs.
Wahba linked the explosive growth to a low point in modern Egyptian history.
While most Coptic Christians were cautious about the 2011 Arab Spring, many evangelicals seized the opportunity to serve the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, hoping for success in the democratic moment. But Islamist politicians soon dominated parliament, and in 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency.
Much of the Egyptian church felt beleaguered.
But the following year, ETSC — which had created a missions department in 2002 — made church planting and evangelism a required course for MDiv students. And in the summer of 2013, when a popularly backed coup ousted the Islamists from power, Egyptian evangelicals were already ready to serve society.
In 2015, newly elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the Coptic Cathedral for Christmas. In 2016 parliament passed a law to make it easier to build churches and license existing places of worship, long a sore spot for Christians of all faiths.
Most church plants reflect migration patterns, Wahba said, as Egyptians flocked from villages to cities. But as Egypt tackles overcrowding by expanding its existing urban areas, land in each has been zoned for the building of new churches.
Taking advantage of Egypt’s stability and official public favor for Christians, evangelical para-ecclesiastical ministries exploded. Wahba estimates that there are now at least 2,500 employees in 105 organizations affiliated with Egypt’s government-recognized Protestant community.
Their training has to come from somewhere.
ETSC, accredited at Masters level by the European Council for Theological Education (ECTE), has expanded its programs to include Masters degrees in Leadership and Management, Media Ministry, and four different Theological Emphasis.
Before COVID-19, 70% of students were already online. But offices in Alexandria and the Upper Egyptian towns of Minya, Asyut, and Sohag facilitate localized education and ministry with computers, a library, and secretarial assistance.
“Students started thinking outside the box,” Wahba said. “Honor was attached to awareness and a movement began to grow.”
This is happening at a low point in teaching in American seminaries.
Image: Courtesy of JETS
Evangelical worshipers have lost students over the past two decades. Fuller Theological Seminary, which is launching a partnership with ETSC this fall for a Doctor of Ministry degree, has seen full-time equivalent enrollment drop 48% since 2002. Meanwhile, enrollment is down 44% at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) and 34% at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Part of the reason is demographics. Generation Z has 4 million fewer members than Millennials, and of those born after 1996, 44% do not identify with a religious tradition.
Meanwhile, 60% of Egypt’s population of 100 million is under the age of 24.
Christians make up about 10% of Egyptians, Evangelicals less than 2%. But while the Arab Spring has embittered many Muslims over political Islam, it has generated a surge of ecumenical respect around a united Christian identity. Wahba estimates that around 7% of ETSC students now come from Orthodox and Catholic backgrounds.
“America was already in a post-Christian culture, and now they’re talking post-church,” he said. “But in Egypt we have a huge market for theological education.”
It is also cost effective. Egypt’s cost of living index ranks 127th out of 139 countries surveyed, 70% lower than New York City’s base rate. While TEDS costs $14,525 per year for tuition and fees, an MDiv training at ETSC costs only $8,000. All his other programs: $2,000.
Benefiting from generous local and international support, ETSC students pay very little. That made enrollment growth since 2019 “a leap of faith,” Wahba said. All students receive an 80% scholarship; MDiv students receive 98 percent.
A similar generosity is being received in Palestine, where the $9,000 tuition at Bethlehem Bible College (BBC) is reduced by up to 70% for the approximately 150 theology and ministry students. An additional 40 students are graduating from Nazareth Evangelical College, a sister institution in Israel.
Image: Courtesy of the BBC
BBC President Jack Sara estimates that its graduates fill 60% of the chairs in the Holy Land. But while the school’s community classes have grown in popularity – now with 100 students – overall enrollment has leveled off in recent years.
Even this is a “breakthrough,” said Sara, who holds a PhD from Gordon-Conwell. Life in the West Bank is difficult, he says, and Christians are migrating. The BBC was founded in 1979 when Christians made up 5% of the population; today they represent 2 percent. The Christians of Bethlehem now number only 11,000.
The Christian community is also small in Jordan, but overall national stability has led to a growth in seminary teaching. Still, the comparison with Egypt is “apples and oranges,” said Imad Shehadeh, president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS).
Tapping into an estimated population of 200,000 Christians, 1% of whom are Evangelicals, the institution’s 100-120 students represent a steady increase from a low of 65 in 2001. Recorded by the Ministry of Culture, JETS’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees are also accredited by ECTE, with its doctoral program currently under review.
Students pay an average of $75 per month, subsidized from $775, with an additional $500 per month for living assistance. The investment has yielded results, as Shehadeh said that in Jordan’s 60 evangelical churches, 70 percent of pastors are seminary graduates.
The Jordanian government, however, restricts on-campus studies to students of Christian background. Online courses – which now account for 25% of enrollment – extend their gospel-centered teaching to those raised in other faiths, but on average only 60% of students accepted from outside the country get visas.
Beginning in 2002, Iraqis, Syrians, and Sudanese began to disappear from the ranks of the JETS student body.
Shehadeh, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, said his campus and teaching capacity can accommodate up to 500 students — if restrictions are lifted and funding secured. But to fill the gaps, JETS has increasingly taken its mobile model, delivering classes directly to evangelical churches in Jordan.
“Graduates equip future graduates,” he said. “Qualified individuals can now come alongside the pastor to support his teaching ministry.”
ETSC has another challenge ahead.
Despite a steady narrowing of the gap between churches and clergy, the Egyptian seminary may soon experience a reversal. Until 2011, it had an average cohort of 50 MDiv students. In 2022, there were 28, and of the 70 graduate students, only 4 obtained the pastoral diploma.
Parachurch ministries pay more, Wahba said, and attract the best lay volunteers. The near-total scholarship is intended to encourage prospective pastors, who each summer are sent to serve in struggling villages and urban centers. Many of them stay, accepting the call of a disadvantaged parish.
Including Ragy. Serving in the labyrinthine alleys of Cairo’s Nozha slums, his community receives 100 people every week for worship.
At first, he joined children kicking the soccer ball in the streets. Telling them about Jesus as he met their parents, he invited them to a home group at his apartment. Eventually he offered hands-on service, opening a nursery above his makeshift church, now in its third location. His professionally painted murals are an oasis in a sea of concrete.
And families are coming. Loaves and fishes, multiplied.
“God has opened a door for evangelism and church planting, and we don’t know how long that will remain,” Wahba said. “But we ask for your prayers during this golden time of harvest, to get through it.”
Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber