ABTS Pilots Course for Master's Degree in Phnom Penh
After much preparation and anticipation, Asia Biblical Theological Seminary will conduct Systematic Theology from Oct. 21 to Nov. 2 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Offering a firm foundation for any keen learner of the Bible, the course will be the pilot for hopefully more to come in a land thirsting for truth and understanding. With the vision to offer theological degrees in partnership with Phnom Penh Bible School (PPBS), ABTS aims to help strengthen the country's fast-growing church.
A Vision for Graduate Theological Training in Cambodia
ABTS has always had Cambodian students. However, they needed to travel out of the country for classes. Envisioning the benefit of an ABTS site in their land, these former students invited Dean James Blumenstock and Professor Greg Vruggink for an initial visit in September 2017. The vision moved toward reality with another visit in March 2019, finalizing details with PPBS.
Partnering with PPBS, ABTS hopes to provide affordable and high-quality theological training in Cambodia, leading up to a Master of Religious Education degree accredited through Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich. As a first step, the Systematic Theology course will be conducted as a pilot to further ascertain student response and theological training needs in the country.
Offering courses in a modular format for students to continue working while pursuing the degree, ABTS' curriculum may fit squarely in Cambodia. Due to financial demands, working adults are familiar with the concept of furthering their education after leaving school. Additionally, the format encourages pastors and lay leaders to continue being equipped, despite competing demands such as having to take on other jobs to support their ministry.
Theological Training Needs in Cambodia
Tragically, Khmer Rouge's genocide from 1975 to 1979 wiped out a generation of church leaders. Killing mainly intellectuals and shutting down schools, the dictatorial regime scarred Cambodia with illiteracy and distrust. Many current church leaders in their late 40s and 50s have only received an elementary-level education. Some cannot read the Bible.
Not only was the church persecuted under the Khmer Rouge, spying was so prevalent in daily life that Cambodian society continues to struggle with trust issues. Anger, bitterness and a survival mentality exists—people tend to focus on personal security rather than the welfare of others. Such issues can be seen spilling into church leadership.
Despite myriad challenges, the church grew from a few hundred in 1979 to 470,000 in 2010—3% of the population.
Today, Christians worship and evangelize without fear of persecution. Moving forward, there is hope that younger, more educated Christians can grow in their ability to teach God's truth and lead the church. As they grew up in relative peace, the younger generation does not carry battle wounds of older generations.
Nonetheless, obstacles abound, including a lack of theological training among pastors; the need for churches to be financially self-sustaining, without foreign funds; and competition for prospective pastors from higher-paying jobs in nonprofit organizations.
PPBS Principal, Vuthy Son, is a key partner of ABTS. As a child, he grew up in a refugee camp, hearing the Gospel from missionaries, before professing faith in Christ. After he returned to Battambang, a pastor from the refugee camp asked to use his house for Sunday worship. One day, the pastor left and never returned. Though only 16 at the time, Vuthy Son was pushed into church leadership because he was literate.
This experience caused him to question whether some earlier Cambodian pastors were only in ministry for personal gain. As the principal of PPBS, he now stresses the importance of biblical understanding and spends extra time encouraging graduating students to build strong churches.