Bassem Ragy did not need a master’s degree in divinity to do math.
Seven years ago, when his church’s preschoolers offered their meager Sunday school offering of 7 Egyptian pounds (then equivalent to $ 2), he remembered the comparison of five loaves plus two fish.
Now one of 69 members of the 2022 graduate class of Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC), the newly minted MDiv can proclaim Jesus’ miracle 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 his many alumni. “We have to maintain our momentum.”
The fishermen multiply.
In 1995, there were about 50 students at the Presbyterian institution. By 2005, seminary research had identified 311 affiliated churches, 127 of which did not have a full-time pastor.
By 2019, enrollments had grown to 300 students. Three years later, it reached 509. And now affiliated churches number 450, of which only 70 do not have pastoral leadership.
ETSC’s floating campus, founded in 1863 aboard a felucca, a traditional Egyptian boat, in the Nile River, served mission stations and young churches associated with the then American Presbyterian movement. The seminary has since provided continuous pulpit pulpits.
Wahba linked the explosive growth to a low point in modern Egyptian history.
While most Coptic Christians were wary of the Arab Spring in 2011, many evangelicals seized the opportunity to minister revolutionary in Tahrir Square, hoping for the success of the democratic moment. But Islamic politicians quickly dominated parliament, and in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency.
Many of the Egyptian church felt under siege.
But the following year, ETSC – which created a mission department in 2002 – made church planting and evangelism a required course for MDiv students. And in the summer of 2013, when a popular-backed coup removed Islamists from power, Egyptian evangelists 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 facilitate the building of churches and license existing houses of worship – long a sore spot for Christians of all denominations.
Most church plants reflect migration patterns, Wahba said, while Egyptians flocked from towns to cities. But as Egypt addresses overpopulation by expanding its existing urban areas, land in each is zoned for new church building.
Taking advantage of Egypt’s stability and official public favor toward Christians, evangelical parakeetic ministries flourished. Wahba estimates there are now at least 2,500 employees across 105 organizations affiliated with the government-recognized Protestant Community of Egypt.
Their training has to come from somewhere.
ETSC, accredited at the master’s level by the European Council for Theological Education (ECTE), has expanded its programs to include master’s degrees in leadership and management, media ministry and four different emphases of theology.
Before COVID-19, 70 percent of students were already online. But offices in Alexandria and the Upper Egyptian cities 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 outreach, and a movement began to grow.”
It takes place at a low moment in American nursery school education.
Image: Courtesy of JETS
Evangelical stalwarts have separated students over the past two decades. Fuller Theological Seminary — starting a partnership with ETSC this fall for a doctorate in ministry — has dropped 48 percent full-time equivalent enrollments since 2002. Meanwhile, enrollment decreased 44 percent at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) and 34 percent at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Part of the reason is demographic. Generation Z has 4 million fewer members than the millennial generation, and of those born after 1996, 44 percent do not identify with a religious tradition.
Meanwhile, 60 percent of Egypt’s population of 100 million is under the age of 24.
Christians represent about 10 percent of Egyptians, with evangelists less than 2 percent. But while the Arab Spring has soured many Muslims over political Islam, it has caused a surge in ecumenical respect around a unified Christian identity. Wahba estimates about 7 percent of ETSC students now come from Orthodox and Catholic backgrounds.
“America was already in a post-Christian culture, and now they talk 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 is 127 out of 139 countries studied, 70 percent less than New York’s base rate. While TEDS costs $ 14,525 a year for tuition and fees, an MDiv training at ETSC costs only $ 8,000. All his other programs: $ 2,000.
By taking advantage of generous local and international support, ETSC students pay very little. This has’ made the growth in enrollment since 2019 ‘an act of faith’, Wahba said. All students receive an 80 percent scholarship; MDiv students receive 98 percent.
Similar generosity is received in Palestine, where the $ 9,000 tuition at Bethlehem Bible College (BBC) is reduced to 70 percent for the approximately 150 theology and ministry students. An additional 40 students obtained degrees through Nazareth Evangelical College, a sister institution in Israel.
Image: Courtesy of BBC
BBC President Jack Sara estimates his graduates fill 60 percent of the Holy Land pulpits. But while the school’s community-based courses have increased in popularity – now with 100 students – overall enrollment has stabilized over the past few years.
Even that is a “breakthrough,” said Sara, a PhD graduate from Gordon-Conwell. Life in the West Bank is difficult, he said, and Christians are emigrating. The BBC was founded in 1979 when Christians made up 5 per cent of the population; today they consist of 2 percent. Bethlehem’s Christians now number only 11,000.
The Christian community is also small in Jordan, but overall national stability has led to a growth in nursery school education. Yet the comparison to Egypt is “apples and oranges,” said Imad Shehadeh, president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS).
With an estimated population of 200,000 Christians, of whom 1 percent are evangelicals, the institution’s 100 to 120 students represent a steady increase from a low of 65 in 2001. JETS’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees, registered by the Ministry of Culture, is also accredited by ECTE, with its doctoral program currently being reviewed.
Students pay an average of $ 75 per month, subsidized from $ 775, with an additional $ 500 monthly for life assistance. The investment has yielded results, as Shehadeh said that across Jordan’s 60 evangelical churches, 70 percent of pastors of the seminary have graduated.
However, the Jordanian government restricts campus study to students of Christian backgrounds. Online courses — now 25 percent of enrollments — extend its gospel-centered teaching to those raised in other faiths, but on average only 60 percent of accepted students outside the country receive visas.
From 2002, Iraqis, Syrians and Sudanese began to disappear from the ranks of JETS student body.
Shehadeh, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, said his campus and teaching capacity could accommodate up to 500 students – should restrictions be lifted and funds raised. But to fill the gaps, JETS increasingly took its model cell phone and provided courses directly in Jordan’s evangelical churches.
“Graduates who equip future graduates,” he said. “These qualified people can now come with the pastor to support his teaching ministry.”
ETSC has another challenge to overcome.
Despite the gradual narrowing of the gap between churches and clergy, the Egyptian seminary may soon see a turnaround. Until 2011, it averaged a cohort of 50 MDiv students. In 2022, there were 28, and of the 70 graduates, only 4 obtained the pastoral degree.
Parachurch ministries pay more, Wahba said, pulling away the best lay volunteers. The nearly total scholarship is intended to encourage potential pastors, who are sent out each summer to serve in struggling towns and urban centers. Many of them remain and accept the call to a disadvantaged congregation.
Including Ragy. His community serves in the labyrinthine alleys of Cairo’s Nozha slums and receives 100 people every week for worship.
Initially, he joined children who kicked the soccer ball in the streets. While telling them about Jesus, he invited them to a home group in his apartment when he met their parents. Eventually he offered practical service and opened a nursery above his temporary church, now in third place. His professionally painted murals are an oasis in a sea of concrete.
And the families are coming. Breads and fish, multiply.
“God has opened a door for evangelism and church planting, and we do not know how long that will last,” Wahba said. “But we ask for your prayers during this golden age of harvest, to walk through it.”
Additional post by Jeremy Weber