In a small neighbourhood church in one of India’s largest cities, the pastor was teaching how faith restores you.
As a demonstration, he called his wife up to the front. He pulled out his knife and cut off her hand, declaring that, with faith, God would restore her. She fainted. The police were called and the pastor taken to jail. His wife was rushed to the hospital.
Pastor Devender was shocked when he read the story in the morning newspaper and realised that the church was just five kilometres away from his own.
“Here we are sitting in our church with teaching and training while this is going on. How can we do that?” he reflected.
Devender went on to join the School of Biblical Teaching, which had been started seven years previously and is now director of the network that trains rural pastors across north India and Nepal.
In the past 18 years, Devender has seen numbers swell to more than 1,200 trainers at varying levels of teaching and mentoring local house church pastors. Approximately 10,000 pastors have gone through the SBT training since 2001.
Currently, about 1,000 house-church leaders attend SBT-ETC trainings. Those who come would otherwise be unable to access training in biblical interpretation and teaching. Nearly all the attendees at an SBT training are educated only to a 5th or 8th grade level. Some, like Mango, are illiterate.
Mango is a sturdy 55-year-old woman. She comes from a highly resistant area in north India. However, when she was sick someone told her about Jesus. She prayed to him and experienced immediate healing. Based on this experience, she and her husband became believers.
People from their village and ones nearby rose up in protest. Mango refused to bow to their pressure to leave Jesus. Even when they brought weapons and threatened to kill her, Mango declared: “I will follow Christ”.
Because she stood firm in her new faith, others began coming to her for prayer, healing, and teaching. Soon Mango was the leader of a small group of believers that eventually grew to over 150.
A leader like Mango can’t go to Bible college, she can’t be required to learn Hebrew and Greek – she’s illiterate in her own language! However, as part of the SBT program, Mango can listen to other brothers and sisters teach, learn the word, and return to tell it to her church members.
Devender met her at an SBT meeting where she led the worship one morning. “She prays so powerfully,” he remembers.
Lack of a complete educational background isn’t the only reason church leaders like Mango can’t access formal theological training institutions. Others, like Valsingh, can’t go to seminary because of their family commitments.
Valsingh became the leader of his village’s church because he was also the first believer. He owns farmland and keeps livestock. He built a meeting hall on his property for the believers to use. If Valsingh left home to attend years of seminary, no one would be working to support his family. Before he found SBT, he had only been able to attend a few seminars.
As part of SBT, Valsingh, Mango, and other pastors receive teaching and training in how to read, apply, and teach Scripture to others. They’re also given input into their spiritual development and trainers discuss issues of character.
SBT meetings are held for three or six days (depending on the level) several times a year. These short modules allow working leaders to attend. Information is presented in a way that illiterate or semi-literate leaders can still access. And since the trainers all have experience in rural ministries, the training house church leaders receive suits their context perfectly.
SBT attendees in the three-day meetings who show capacity to grow and receive more responsibility are invited to the week-long meetings. As they prove faithful at that level, they may be invited into further training to become a teacher/trainer themselves.
One pastor, Binod, started at the three-day training with SBT and slowly learned and grew through the investment of the trainers. Eventually, he became a trainer and organiser and then, encouraged by his experience with SBT, Binod got more education and his MDiv. He now oversees the entire SBT program in his home country of Nepal.
Other pastors who show capacity are invited to attend the Ezra Theological Course. ETC is a three-year program which offers a more complete program of training and includes topics like missiology and pastoral counselling.
SBT is much more than the opportunity to receive academic training, however. Those who attend SBT become a family to each other. One recent graduate invited all of his fellow SBT members to his son’s wedding!
In a recent training, a young new pastor was coming to attend from quite far away. During his days-long journey, his suitcase was stolen. He lost all his clothes and money. While he was still on the way, his sponsoring pastor called Devender and told him what had happened.
“Please, take care of him when he arrives,” he requested.
Devender assured the sponsoring pastor they would take care of the young man. When he finally arrived, however, Devender didn’t jump in to help right away. He waited to see what the group of assembled house church leaders – themselves from poor backgrounds – would do. Upon learning of the young man’s trouble, they promptly took up a collection and went to the market to replace his lost items.
“These are the things that aren’t on paper reports and the reading and completed assignments,” says Devender.
The attendees are often from remote, isolated, and difficult areas. Many have not had the chance to interact with believers from other areas in their country. In the evenings, after sessions finish, the rooms are full of people discussing, laughing, joking, and sharing with each other. “It’s the SBT community,” Devender says.
For new trainers to join the staff and those already training to have wisdom, generosity, and gentleness as they teach and lead.
For the leaders who are in the program to learn and grow in their understanding and application of Scripture and their ability to lead others towards the same.
Would you consider donating to the School of Biblical Training? Please go to sim.co.uk/donate and quote project number IN98751