News from BBI

NanTeachingNineteen years after the launch of the first seminar in the Systematic Bible Training Program in Cotonou, things are still going strong. I (Nancy) just got back from teaching Homiletics (the Art of Preaching) to around 200 students in the 7th class since the program began in 1994. Every three years the Benin Bible Institute (BBI) enrolls new students for its three-year series of courses. BBI has graduated over 1,000 men and women who work as pastors, preachers, Sunday School teachers, choir members, and youth leaders. The demand for the program doesn’t seem to diminish.

I taught the class first on the weekend in French (Friday night, Saturday and Sunday: 15 hours) and then re-taught it during the week (Monday through Thursday: 20 hours) with translation into Goun, one of the local languages. The final task was to grade the exams, 184 of them; I was happy to leave the 30 exams written in Goun for someone else to grade!

Sometimes the students complain that BBI is too difficult; they suggest the standards are too high and the demands too rigorous. Yet in Benin anyone interested in serious study of Bible and Theology knows BBI is the place to go. This has become even more evident this year as BBI test scores were among the best of 7 theological institutions in West Africa that participated in the exam regime.

Full-body worship is also part of the BBI program!

Full-body worship is also part of the BBI program!

One of BBI’s programs in which we teach periodically is the Baccalaureate in Theology. The BAC is a diploma accorded at the end of secondary school in many Francophone countries and is the equivalent of a junior college level degree in North America. In order to attain the BAC, students must pass a series of exams which BBI students took in June. The exams, prepared by CITAF which coordinates the accreditation of institutions of theological education in Francophone Africa, covered a range of subjects including theology, philosophy, English, French, and Koine Greek.

Of BBI’s 9 candidates 7 passed, including 2 who passed with distinction. That is a success rate of 77% and compares favorably with the overall success rate which was 40% this year. So BBI has shown that it prepares its students well and that it has quality programs!

Mennonite Mission Theorists and Practitioners in Southeastern Nigeria: Changing Contexts and Strategy at the Dawn of the Postcolonial Era

In November of 1959 Edwin and Irene Weaver arrived in southeastern Nigeria, the first Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM, the predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network) missionaries assigned to the region. Their arrival was in response to a request for assistance and an invitation to establish a missionary presence from a group of “independent” congregations that desired to take on a Mennonite identity. In fact, when the Weavers arrived Mennonite Church Nigeria had already been established and congregations were in the process of affiliating with it. But the Weavers took action that seems, in many ways, strange for missionaries to take. They stopped the process of adding congregations to the new Mennonite church and, over the next eight years, focused much of their time and energy on resourcing African Independent Churches, those that had decided against affiliating with western denominations. In the following decades MBM as a mission agency also shifted much of its focus in West Africa in the same direction.

Why would missionaries or a mission agency make such a decision? In order to start answering that question, I’ve written an article that identifies missiological issues such as mass movements, the indigenous nature of the church, and ecumenism as being important considerations for the Weavers and others as they fashioned their missionary strategies. The article has now been published in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (IBMR)It’s likely more than should be include in a blog post, but if you’re inclined to read it, I’m providing links for you to do so.

There are two ways to access the article. You can go to the IBMR website and see it in the July 2013 issue. You will need to sign in, but registration is free. Or, to open a pdf file of the article directly, you can click here Mennonite Mission Theorists and Practitioners in Southeastern Nigeria, used by permission of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. R. Bruce Yoder, “Mennonite Mission Theorists and Practitioners in Southeastern Nigeria: Changing Contexts and Strategy at the Dawn of the Postcolonial Era, ” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37, no. 3 (2013): 138-144.

A Visit to the Benin Bible Institute

Bruce, Jeremiah, Deborah and I left our home in Benin on June 23, 2009, almost four years ago now. I was delighted to have the opportunity to return for a visit last week after the Benin Bible Institute (BBI) asked me to come and teach a class. I was in Benin from April 12 through April 21.

When we lived in Cotonou, Benin, Bruce and I taught regularly in the different programs of the Benin Bible Institute. BBI began as a systematic Bible training program in 1994. Since then, it has offered a three-year seminar program in Bible and Theology that attracts students from many different denominations. Most of the students are lay people who want to understand their faith better, or who feel ill-equipped for the ministries and services they offer to their local congregation. Many serve as Sunday School teachers, occasional preachers, choir members, worship leaders, Bible study leaders, or as leaders in the church in a variety of other capacities. Currently around 250 students are studying in the seminar program that offers nine monthly seminars each year.

Several years ago, once the Beninese trained faculty returned from study abroad, BBI began another program that was designed specifically for pastors and people involved in full-time ministry. This program is also offered in seminar format, but the program is more academically challenging and involves more hours. It is in this program that I taught the “History of Missions” class: thirty hours in five days to fourteen students!

Alongside teaching, I was delighted to see how things have progressed at BBI, especially in technology. I observed a Saturday seminar taught with the assistance of power point. I was astonished to find that BBI now has Wi-Fi. While my students were writing the final exam, I was able to follow events in Boston via the CBC News website. It was a firsthand experience of the strange new global world we live in.

BBI has continued to offer a viable and practical program to many Christians in Benin. Now BBI is launching an agricultural training program as well. A number of years ago, BBI purchased a farm and hoped to offer practical training to pastors and others who might live outside of urban settings. A candidate was hired to set up the program and after receiving special training has begun with crop production and livestock. Soon students will be welcomed to the site to learn about effective methods of crop production along with non-traditional livestock such as snails and rabbits (which are fairly new to the Beninese diet.)

I am grateful to God for BBI’s many years of faithful assistance to the people of Benin.

Another Trip Through the History of the Church in West Africa

Yesterday I finished teaching a course on the History of the Church in West Africa.  This is the first time I taught it for this particular program, the Baccalaureate in Theology track at IBB.  In North America I think it  would correspond roughly to a junior college level program.   The students meet  for two, six-week, intensive sessions twice a year.  I met with them three hours a day for the past two weeks to get through the 30 hour course.  Besides the 3 hours with me the students had 6 additional hours between two other courses they were taking at the same time.  Needless to say having 9 hours of class a day for the entire session makes  it a challenge for them to keep their energy level up!  Yet they managed to be attentive throughout and seemed especially taken with one  aspect of the course, the important role played by Africans in the establishment of Christianity in this region.  

The contribution of foreign missionaries is well know among Christians in Benin,  but African pastors and evangelists were perhaps the most significant force for the establishment of West African churches during the 19th and 20th centuries.  Thousands of freed slaves settled in Sierra Leone where they became a thriving Christian community that provided resources, economic and personnel, for the propagation of the faith to other regions.  One of those first initiatives was the establishment of churches at Badagri and Abeokuta, just across the Nigerian border about 70 kilometers east of Cotonou.  Invitations from those churches to the Methodist mission eventually resulted in the establishment of their work here in the 1850s.  That example was repeated in other places and with different groups.   From their base in Sierra Leone  Africans returned to their home areas with their new faith,  and the Gospel spread farther and farther into the interior and grew deep roots in African soil.  The many vibrant faith communities whose leaders make up the student body at IBB are the result of that African contribution to the missionary task in West Africa.  The story is a good reminder and encouragement to Christians here and in North America as we continue to work together at the missionary task of the church.

School, BBI and Getting Back on the Road

The first couple weeks of September have gotten us into the regular routine of the fall schedule.  Deborah is in her second week of CE1 (2nd grade more or less I think in North America) at the local French school and Jeremiah’s first day of year four at the English International School was today.  Deborah was a bit nervous about which teacher she would have but is quite pleased now with how things turned out.  She is liking school and glad to be back.  Jeremiah was pleased this morning to find out that his teacher is the same one he had last year, so he seems to be off to a good start too.

Nancy is busy again as classes are back in session at BBI with the seminar that started this past weekend and which continues until Thursday.  Pastor Codjo is teaching that one, Biblical Theology.  Pastor François spent the weekend in Parakou teaching Church and Culture to the new group of students there.  Other activities include the evaluation of the full-time students’ mini thesis projects which needs to be done before the upcoming fall graduation and the preparations for the new “module” format for the full-time program.  That is to start in mid October, and we hope the six-week intensive courses will be more manageable than the other semester-long format for the students.  Many couldn’t participate because of time constraints but have said that shorter, more intensive courses would be easier to commit to.  So we are hoping that this will be a positive change.

Fall means the start of my travel schedule again.  Friday I leave for Abuja, Nigeria where the Mennonite Church NIgeria will have a youth convention (“youth” in that context includes those whom we in North America would label “young adults”).  They haven’t had one for a few years and are hoping for a good turnout.  The last time the youth got together for a convention they planted a church, so I’m kind of wondering what might come out of this gathering.  After the weekend in Abuja I’ll head to Accra, Ghana for the annual conference of the Ghana Mennonite Church.  So there will be a lot of travel during the next 12 days.

Pray for a good start to the school year for Deborah and Jeremiah, for lots of student interest in the new full-time program format at BBI and for safe travels for me as well as for successful gatherings in Abuja and Accra.

Partnership

Partnership is the current paradigm for our mission involvement in West Africa. That means that whether it is community health, theological training, or any number of other ministry initiatives, we collaborate with partners who are working in those areas instead of working unilaterally. The vision of what should happen and how is shared between the different partners who work together to implement that vision. In a very practical sense partnership makes for more efficient ministry. Partners with a long history in a specific context are inevitably better equipped to carry out objectives than those of us who are foreigners. Working together also builds relationships, an important benefit of the partnership paradigm.

North American congregations are also participating in this way of doing missions. For the last number of years Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, In. has been developing a partnership with the Benin Bible Institute. They share topics of prayer and praise with each other, host each other in yearly visits back and forth, learn from each other’s different cultural and religious perspectives and occasionally share resources in the form of teaching personnel or funding.

St. Jacobs Mennonite Church in St. Jacobs, ON is also partnering with the Benin Bible Institute. In 2003 they sent a group to train Beninese church leaders in the skills necessary to implement what in the North American church tradition is Vacation Bible School. Many of the Christians in Benin are first generation believers and perhaps haven’t yet thought through what it means to cultivate belief in those generations that follow. So a group of church leaders who are responsible for, or who work with, children’s ministry spent a week at the Bible Institute leaning the hows and whys behind Vacation Bible School. It is of course impossible, and would be ill advised, for them to simply copy North American models for their context here in Benin. Yet they were exposed to methods and educational philosophy that impact positively their continuing work with Beninese youngsters in their respective churches. In addition, the involvement by St. Jacobs Mennonite has developed into an ongoing partnership that is building relationships between the congregation and the Bible Institute through reciprocal visits and exchanges.

This past week representatives from University Mennonite Church in State College, Pa. and Maple Grove Mennonite Church in Belleville, Pa. made the first steps toward partnership with Good News Theological College and Seminary and the Ghana Mennonite Church. A group representing both congregations spent 10 days in Ghana at Good News getting to know the staff, the students and the ministry that happens there. They developed new relationships by accepting and offering hospitality in a new place among a new people. And they started to ask, “What does it mean to be the church together, we from the heartland of Pennsylvania and our Ghanaian brothers and sisters from the coastal plains of West Africa?” That, it seems to me, will be a fruitful question to keep asking, not only among ourselves but also with our African partners.

How might God be calling you and/or your congregation toward partnership? Let us hear from you about how partnering with brothers and sisters in West Africa might fit into your faith journey!

David Miller from Univeristy Mennonite presents a peace flag to the Ghana Mennonite Church

David Miller from University Mennonite presents a peace flag to the Ghana Mennonite Church.

Nancy Kauffman from Maple Grove Mennonite sharing resources for children with Ghana Mennonite Church leaders.

Nancy Kauffman from Maple Grove Mennonite sharing resources for children with Ghana Mennonite Church leaders.

The Bible and Development, Among Other Things

These past couple weeks have been quite busy with the visit of Steve Wiebe-Johnson, Mennonite Mission Network Director for Africa, our supervisor.  We’ve had extended time to meet with him and discuss the different ministries that we participate in and to think about what the future holds for us and for the work in West Africa. 

Steve also taught the seminar Bible and Development, a course that attempts to bring a faith perspective to development issues.  Steve showed that, in contrast to the secular world’s understanding of development based on the advancement of self interest, the Bible presents development as centered on people living in communities that reflect God’s shalom, peace with justice.  The course also provides several tools for organizing and planning actions in community based development. Steve teaching at BBI

Steve teaching with translator Robert Hounkpebi

Bible and Development student

Students during the Bible and Development course

After the teaching part of the visit was over we did a quick trip to Ghana for meetings with folks at the Ghana Mennonite Church and at Good News Theological College and Seminary.  Taking advantage of being in Ghana we also visited the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture; a Ganaian institution of higher learning that trains church leaders in the areas of African Christianity; Bible Translation and Interpretation; Theology and Mission; and Cross-Cultural Ministry.  It is quite an impressive program that focuses on Christianity in the African context.  Check out the school at http://www.acmcghana.org/newsite/.