In October 2012, the Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Lebanon, launched a new Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel).
How is this new “MRel” program distinctive? Specifically, how does it differ from ABTS’ core programs of Bachelor of Theology and Master of Divinity, designed for pastoral training or non-pastoral marketplace and workplace based training? MRel Director Rupen Das responds to these and other questions in the following interview.
Q: How would you describe the MRel’s objectives, structure and target audience?
A: The purpose of IMES’ MRel program is to foster the emergence of Evangelical leaders who are highly and holistically qualified to take on the challenges facing the global Church in an increasingly complex, multi-religious and multi-cultural world.
We seek to tap into students based both in the MENA region, and equally from outside the region but interested in this region. We’re not looking for purely academic students. We’re seeking to develop persons already involved in or moving into ministry. We may have students in the Northern countries interested in the region, or from North Africa and the Levant who are involved in ministry.
The objective is to bring Arab and non-Arab students into a single context so that they learn from each other. You cannot bring them in for one or two years. And in the latter scenario, it would be more expensive. That’s why we looked into both an online component and a residency component, such as it is implemented in international MBA programs. This is facilitated by online learning technology.
The first ten weeks tend to focus on reading and reflecting, leveling students academically, interacting online; a solid basis in content and theology is critical for interaction.
Face to face interaction in the two week residency aims to take the students, who would have acquired the foundation in the online course, to a deeper level. Part of the two week residency is visiting and learning from active ministries in the area and interacting with key leaders.
In the first module implemented last month, we visited 5 ministries and NGOs. During our class discussions, we assessed the various models and functionality of these ministries. The final ten weeks of the first module (ongoing now), is a reflection upon the two week residency.
Q: What was the feedback from students following the first residency?
A: We consistently heard that they liked the combination of theology with applied and technical skills. Some students appreciated the depth of the theological learning. Almost everybody appreciated the applied part. They particularly valued visiting the various ministries.
Q: When teaching is about inspiration and leadership development, is distance learning the right way to go? Will there be a missing dimension along the way?
A: To address the problem of leadership development using distant education, we’ve done several things. Each module has three faculty members; one faculty is specifically dedicated to holistic development. Right from the beginning of the module they interact with the students individually asking how they are using what they are learning in every aspect of their life. This is considered an integral part of leadership development.
Secondly, the two week residency is a very important element in role modeling and inspiring. We expose the student not only to the three faculty members but to community and ministry leaders as well.
Q: How much theology and technical ‘know-how’ is involved in the MRel?
A: During the residency, we had a strong theological component. Two of the most prominent problems today in the MENA region are poverty and conflict (from tribal to international). If these are two of the major problems, then what is the applied part of them? We need people who can address poverty and we need people who can address peace-building.
During every morning of the residency, we spent two hours looking at how scripture looks at peace, poverty and injustice. We have integrated theology into the course. The students would come out with an integrated theological world view, asking not only, ‘How do I address poverty?’, but ‘How do I look at poverty from a theological and biblical perspective?’ We ask how God views the poor and what the scriptures say about poverty.