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Laos is a sparsely populated (6.5 million) ethnically diverse (over 100 different ethnolinguistic groups) landlocked nation with giant neighbors. Its culture and religion have been shaped largely by the lowland ethnic Lao from as early as the 14th century. Catholicism came to Laos in the 17th century and Protestantism in the late 19th century. Neither has established a large following. The ethnic Lao who make up about 60 percent of the nation are almost exclusively Buddhist. The rest of the many different minority groups tend to venerate ancestors and nature spirits of all sorts. Christianity of all varieties represents only about 2 percent of the population, but especially among Protestants, has been growing rapidly since 1990.

In 1975 the Lao People's Revolutionary Party came into power and established the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). No degree awarding college or university operated in the Lao PDR until the National University of Laos (NUL) was created in 1996. Rather than a typical university, this is actually a network of post-high school technical schools funded by the Asian Development Bank. The average Lao has fewer than ten years of formal education. Literacy has improved significantly since 1975 (now at 73 percent) but there is little to read and not many Lao have developed a habit of reading. As a result functional illiteracy is far higher than 27 percent.

Christian Beginnings in Laos

Southern Laos: Swiss Brethren and Overseas Missionary Fellowship

The early days of the Swiss Mission training in southern Laos involved evangelism. The Brethren missionaries from Switzerland gave their first annual "cours biblique" (Bible course) for Christians in Song Khone, Savannakhet Province, from 31 December 1910 to 9 January 1911. These Bible courses of one to two weeks duration continued annually. In 1939 the eight-day Bible course had 300 students.

In 1955 Armand and Heidi Heiniger started a three-year Bible school in Savannakhet to train pastors and church leaders. In its 20 years of existence the Bible school in Savannakhet trained 150 students. John Kuhn commented, "Returning to their homes, [the students] are able to join in local witness, and some are fitted for wider ministry.... The Bible school is not only developing young Christians, but is also cultivating a sense of assurance in the Word of Truth that will be armor against the onslaughts of the enemy in the days ahead." (1)

Northern Laos: Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA)

In early July 1939 the C&MA opened a Bible school in Vientiane with nine students. Although closed in 1940 because of World War II, in 1948 it reopened in Luang Prabang. From 1948 through 1950, missionaries Ed and Thelma Roffe and Lao Pastor Saly Khounthapanya provided instruction. Total student enrolment was 17. The 1950 academic year was cut short to release the students for urgent ministry in Xieng Khouang Province to respond to the conversion of large numbers of Hmong tribal people. At the end of 1951 the Luang Prabang Central Bible School was dosed and moved to Xieng Khouang, where most of the Hmong converts were from.

In January 1951 Ted and Ruth Andrianoff started the Central Bible School in Xieng Khouang with 20 students. In 1958 the first four men received diplomas completing four years of study. Due to warfare the Xieng Khouang Bible School closed at the end of 1960. "All the Bible School equipment, printed notes for various courses, as well as Bible School records and statistics were lost when the rebels took over the city of Xieng Khouang so unexpectedly last year." (2) In 1961 the Bible school moved to temporary facilities in Vientiane, and in 1963, the C&MA purchased property in Vientiane to relocate the Bible school there permanently.

The C&MA Laos Mission publication The Challenge of Laos (February 1954) reported that "in his teaching Ted encouraged the students to raise the problems which were troubling them and their people. Much of the time was spent studying God's word in relation to their immediate situation, and in explaining the truth in answer to their theological and practical difficulties." (3) The instructors adapted the curriculum to the local situation, centered on the Scriptures. Short-term Bible schools, elders' institutes, and full-term Bible schools provided systematic instruction to give the church in Laos trained and dedicated men and women for God's service. In 1966 Ted Andrianoff reported that "the need for training national pastors is urgent. There are over 80 Church groups in North Laos with only 12 full-time pastors. The eleven part-time preachers are entering their third year of training. They will go on week-end ministries to help fill some of the vacant pulpits." (4)

Catholic mission in Laos

The Catholic mission in Laos began and then stopped in the late 19th century, when missionaries from the northeast province of Nakhon Phanom in Thailand began crossing over more regularly to establish ministries in the area around Thakaek. There are four Apostolic Vicariates in Laos that govern the areas around Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Pakse. From the mid-1960s until 1975 a minor seminary operated in the centrally located town of Thakaek and a major seminary in the nearby town of Paksan. The professors were from Vietnam, Laos, Italy and France. It produced many catechists but very few priests. In the early 1970s there were only ten national priests in the whole country. (5)

Protestant theological education

In the 1970s the mission organizations in both the North and the South sent promising young men to study the Bible and theology outside the country. For example, Joshua Suvang of the Lao Evangelical Church in the North was sent to Bible school in New Zealand, and the Swiss Brethren sent Mike Phrasavath to study at the Institut Emmaus in Switzerland from 1970 to 1974.

Theological education for northern Laos reflected the doctrine and ecclesiology of the former mission to northern Laos--the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) which began working in Laos in 1930. Theological education for southern Laos reflected the doctrine and ecclesiology of the mission to southern Laos--Brethren missionaries from Switzerland (from 1902). In the 1950s Overseas Missionary Fellowship missionaries from the USA joined the Brethren missionaries in southern Laos.

Today Laos does not have a government-recognized Bible school or seminary even though theological education continues. Political tensions related to the Christian faith remain an obstacle to theological education. Protestants are suspected of being connected to western mission organizations and Catholics are criticized for being under the authority of the Vatican. Through veiled and unveiled threats the Lao government regularly makes it difficult for Protestant pastors and Catholic priests to receive theological education. Neither church has had the courage to request official permission to open a theological school.

The Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) is one of two Protestant churches in Laos that is officially recognized by the government of the Lao PDR. The other recognized Protestant church is the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Over the last twenty years, however, an increasing number of Christian organizations and churches from all over the world have provided evangelistic and theological training for Lao people in and outside of Laos.

The LEC is by far the larger of the two Protestant churches. It conducts theological education for its leaders in a cohort program based in the capital Vientiane. Leaders come for two weeks or more to study under a pastor with a M.Div. degree from Bangkok Bible College in Thailand. The curriculum is rather eclectic in nature and changes frequently. The program offers a certificate for two years of completed study, a B.A. degree for an additional three years of study and an M.A. degree for several more additional years of study. The Lao Conference of Churches (LCC) in the United States awards the degrees. (6) In the late 1990s the LCC gave an honorary doctorate to the President of the LEC. As of 2011 there are about twenty students studying to earn B.A. degrees and about ten students working towards M.A. degrees. In some cases the teaching pastors travel to the provinces to teach. Provincial leadership pastors in some cases pass this teaching on to village pastors through a provincial cohort system.

There are considerable ethnic variations in theological education in Laos. Since the early 1990s there have been two theological education by extension (TEE) programs. One program was available in Lao and implemented in the countryside from the early 1990s until the director left the country. The second program was a Hmong language version translated for Hmong in the US. Most of the students were living in Northern Laos and were Hmong or Kammu although a few Lao in Vientiane and the southern Lao towns of Savannakhet and Pakse participated. The Hmong language program was organized and implemented with help from the C&MA Hmong District in the US and continues to train Hmong pastors and elders. The Kammu leaders have been receiving informal theological education organized from Thailand for nearly twenty years. Teaching occurs in Thailand and in Laos in small groups. The director of this effort is a Kammu believer who left Laos as a refugee and now resides outside of Laos.

Since the Lao PDR opened up the country to foreign investment and travel abroad in the early 1990s, a number of Lao Christians have gone abroad to study theology. At any particular time there are ten to twenty Hmong from Laos studying in Khon Kaen, Thailand, at the Northeast Thailand Bible School run by the Gospel Church of Thailand (associated with the C&MA). This school requires a high school diploma, or the equivalent, to be admitted and awards a certificate. A handful of Lao church leaders have earned M.A. and M.Div. degrees from Bangkok Bible College (sponsored by several evangelical mission organizations) and the Bangkok Institute of Theology. About fifty Lao have received B.A. degrees in theology from Payap University and Phayao Bible School. A number of young people have studied the Bible and theology in Korea and a handful have studied in the west. Recently the Philippines has provided theological and holistic community development training for church leaders in Laos. Two students graduated in 2006 from the Lutheran Theological School in Hong Kong with a B.Th. and two more Lao graduated in 2008. (7)

In addition, the LEC is host to a number of visiting international teachers who teach a wide range of biblical and theological subjects in a seminar format. These seminars have represented a wide array of theological positions which all feed into the theology of the LEC, making it a challenge to maintain a coherent theology for the Lao Protestant Church. While the leadership of the LEC tries to shape theological thinking, even the leadership tends to be swayed by the constant assortment of short-term educational opportunities provided by foreign organizations.

Beyond the LEC's theological education efforts many foreign mission organizations and churches provide programs. These include Campus Crusade for Christ, Church of Christ in Thailand churches, Mekong Evangelical Fellowship and Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), the Mennonite Brethren, the German Lutheran Mission and a wide variety of Asian organizations, many from Korea.

The LEC has not yet articulated its own theology for the Lao PDR context. While much of the face of the theological training for the Lao is Asian, the preeminent theology in the training is that of the west. In practice, however, a vernacular theology unique to Laos is being developed. It is increasingly oriented towards manifestations of spiritual power, ecclesiastical authority and a zealous evangelistic sense of mission. But the most characteristic aspect of the emerging vernacular theology is that it is practical. It is a theology of prayer for the many needs of the people such as for good rice harvests, healing, jobs and deliverance from evil spirits.

Recent Catholic theological education

Since about 1990 Catholic theological education has been carried out at St. John Vianney Seminary in Thakhek. This year (2011) four students are studying in a two-year theological program (in the minor seminary) and about twenty students are studying in a seven-year program that includes three years of philosophy and four years of theological study (major seminary). Two or three graduates have gone on to receive Masters level theological training from Jesuit institutions in Australia and the Philippines and then returned to serve the church in Laos. While a handful of graduates from St. John Vianney Seminary have been ordained, the Lao government has been slow in granting permission for ordinations.

There are far fewer Catholic priests (about 16 priests and four bishops) than Protestant pastors in Laos; Catholic priests, however, have a distinct educational advantage over Protestants in that their theological education programs appear to have a more comprehensive and coherent curriculum. Protestant training depends on an ad hoc curriculum, part-time faculty and shorter courses of study, but produces more zealous leaders who preach, teach and evangelize even in the face of government persecution. In both churches theological education relies heavily on curriculum designed outside the context of Laos, and in some cases from foreign theological education institutions. The good news is that each year more opportunities and structure are provided for theological education in Laos. A handful of pastors and priests have now graduated from Masters level theological education programmes outside Laos. The looser and more diverse structure of the Protestant theological curriculum opens the door for the development of a more distinctly Lao theology. Ideally we would like to see more theological dialogue and contact between Protestant and Catholic theologians and the development of a Christian theology uniquely suited for the people and context of the Lao PDR.

Since both Catholic and Protestant churches are eager to move forward in theological education, the future will depend on the willingness of the Lao government to allow religious communities to expand their academic studies institutionally. The current direction of the Lao government suggests that increased freedom will allow both to develop their theological education programs but as the Lao say, "one step at a time." Nothing changes quickly in Laos. One could expect the Catholic Church to invest more in their seminary institutions and the LEC expects to formally request permission to start a seminary in the near future. Outside Christian organizations will be wise to assist these efforts at a pace that is in step with the comfort zone of the Lao government and at a pace that allows the limited capacity of the Lao church to absorb and adapt theological education in its own context.

(1) J. John B. Kuhn, "This is Laos," East Asia Millions, 72:3 (March 1964), p. 37.

(2) Helen Sawyer, "Bible School Opens in Vientiane," The Challenge of Laos (January 1962).

(3) "294 Baptisms in Xieng Khouang, Four-Week Bible School also Held in Threatened Area," The Challenge of Laos (February 1954).

(4) T.J. Andrianoff, "Plans for the Future," The Challenge of Laos (November 1966).

(5) G. Edward Roffe, "Laos," The Church in Asia. ed. Donald E. Hoke. Moody Press. (1975). pp. 390-409.

(6) The Lao Conference of Churches is a Fellowship of forty-two Lao-speaking Churches from a variety of denominational backgrounds. It is not an educational accrediting body but provides a form of official recognition for the study accomplished by students in Laos.

(7) Hanns Ferdinand Hoerschelmann, Continuing Education Program for Alumni (CEPA): An Approach to a Supportive Model of Theological Education in Cambodia. The Lutheran Theological Seminary, Hong Kong. April 2011, p. 24.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-6623.2012.00154.x
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Title Annotation:Select Surveys on Theological Education in Emerging Asian Churches
Author:Bailey, Stephen; Andrianoff, David
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:9LAOS
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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