On a sweltering afternoon in Accra, Ghana, 50 people file into the seaside Church of Melchizedek to learn about the Old Testament from a seminary professor. But these aren’t seminary students training to be pastors. These are lay members of African Initiated Churches who are so enthusiastic about their faith that they will sit for hours to hear about Jesus, some while nursing and entertaining infants.
The students are the first in a new certificate program offered by Good News Theological College and Seminary, a Ghanaian theological school and Mennonite Mission Network partner since its founding in 1971. The new initiative brings theological education efforts in Ghana full circle—from the pew to the campus and now back to the pew.
In the late 1960s, Mennonite mission workers, including Ed and Irene Weaver and Erma Grove, approached African Initiated Churches (churches from African denominations that were not planted by foreign missionaries) to ask if they could do Bible studies with their parishioners. The Bible studies were popular, but church leaders eventually said they wanted a seminary where future pastors could take up residence for full-time study.
Good News Theological College and Seminary was born and has trained African Initiated Church pastors ever since. But recently, the call from congregations has been to provide theological training for lay members who don’t have the means to uproot their lives and move to Oyibi, about 33 kilometers from Accra, the capital city.
The result is the current certificate program that Humphrey Akogyeram, a Good News professor and graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., says is strengthening the African Initiated Churches.
“This shows that the African Initiated Churches are now becoming more open to theological education to improve their ministries, and they are also making effort to get more of their constituency trained for effective discipleship and ministry,” he says.
African Initiated Churches have historically been held in low esteem by leaders from mainline denominations. Part of the reason for this, according to Steve Wiebe-Johnson, Mission Network director for Africa, is that the leaders of African Initiated Churches themselves don’t always know their own denomination’s history. Good News seeks to remedy the gap in knowledge by requiring pastors in training to research and write their own history to better understand how they fit into the larger Christian story.
“One of the key things that Good News has contributed for many, many churches is finding their identity within the broader Christian conversation,” Wiebe-Johnson says. “Instead of seeing themselves as marginalized groups, they’ve found their place within the Christian witness in the Ghanaian context.”
With the certificate program, Good News continues strengthening the identity and theology of African Initiated Churches through the training of lay leaders, while also continuing to train professional pastors—an important balance, says Wiebe-Johnson.
“In a sense, Good News has a very holistic approach to theological education,” he says. “They don’t simply concentrate on training pastors; they don’t simply concentrate on lay people; they don’t simply concentrate teaching a particular doctrine.”
While there is a national Mennonite conference in Ghana, Good News and Mennonite mission workers have focused on walking alongside African Initiated Churches.
Akogyeram says this has paved the way for Anabaptist peace theology to seep into the training that pastors of many denominations receive.
“We expect the new knowledge and understanding of the gospel to transform their churches so that they become agents of peace in the midst of social unrest, injustices and broken relationships” he says.