By Carl Stagner
Earlier this year, we brought you the story of “Facebook Seminary”—an innovative, online approach to providing quality education to pastors-in-training in Pakistan. Every Saturday evening during their semester, they gather around a screen to learn under the teaching of Anderson University adjunct professor, Dr. Sarah Blake LaRose. The George Theological College in Karachi, Pakistan, originally hoped that a theological professor from the United States could actually come and teach for at least a year, but the costs were prohibitive. Thus, the Facebook idea was born. Sarah has now taught the Pakistani students for three semesters using the free video option of Facebook Messenger.
Reflecting on how well-received Sarah has been with the Pakistani students, Don Armstrong, Global Strategy regional coordinator for Asia and the Pacific, began talking to Samuel George, the national leader for the Church of God in Pakistan, and Dr. Chris Cottrell (from Ohio) about putting together a week-long intensive course for these students. Don felt that Chris, whose expertise is on the Biblical principles of conflict resolution and peacemaking, could provide some valuable tools to these emerging leaders in Pakistan. Plans began to form for a trip to Karachi, where Chris would teach on peace and reconciliation, and Don would teach on Church of God history, teachings, and doctrine.
As the planning progressed, Samuel mentioned there was also a need for quality teaching about women in ministry. Don asked Dr. Mary Ann Hawkins, dean of the Anderson University School of Theology, if she would be willing to join the teaching team for this intensive course and speak on the subject of women in ministry in the cross-cultural setting of Pakistan. She agreed, and the team of two became three. Then Samuel asked if there was any chance Sarah could also join the team. He said the students would be thrilled to meet her in person. She agreed, and with financial assistance from the BridgeWater Church in Hamilton, Ohio, the team gained another member.
By the second week of November 2019, everything came together. This distinguished teaching team of three traveled to Karachi, Pakistan, where Don and Samuel met the team members as they arrived. For the next several days they held not an intensive course for students, but a full-blown conference for pastors and lay leaders, with the students included. It was a jam-packed schedule with workshop-style classes during the day and preaching services long into the evenings, with dinner served after midnight each night! The school had even moved the date of their graduation to this week so Sarah and the other guests could participate in the ceremony.
Chris taught on the principles of reconciliation and peacemaking, further illustrating the kind of fellowship the Church of God strives to be. He also preached three services, but these moments in the spotlight were not what touched him the most. “What will live on most vividly for me is the eagerness and passion of the people to worship and hear the Word of God in their lives,” Chris explains. “I was blessed by the hearts, the hospitality, and the spirituality of the people. It was a good team effort with the power of the Holy Spirit working through everyone.”
MaryAnn taught on the biblical foundation for women in ministry and church leadership. She also helped with the preaching load. She was amazed at the degree to which the church celebrates, and how hospitable they are. “The Pakistani people—including Christians, Muslims, and Hindus—are a very gracious and hospitable people. They worked at including without creating a hierarchy—which, for me, is delightful. I was allowed—encouraged, actually—to interact with women and men, old and young, without regard to their wealth or poverty (there were areas of abject poverty).”
Sarah taught on the history of the Church of God and Pentecostalism, explaining the differences and similarities of the two theologies represented. But more than the teaching, it was the personal interaction with her online students that she will remember most vividly. “I spent some time meeting with my students informally,” she recalls. “They asked me to share my testimony with them. While this was not part of my teaching, it created a connection with the students that was very meaningful. It helped them to see that personal things in the lives of people both in America and Pakistan can lead to acceptance of Christ as Savior. It also allowed us to make a connection through emotion that is difficult to do through video connection alone.”
At the end of the training sessions, the team distributed certificates of completion, printed by Ohio Ministries. Representing Ohio Ministries, Chris also presented certificates of honor to Samuel George for his leadership of the Church of God in Pakistan, and to Don Armstrong, for his continued vital involvement in the region and beyond.
The climax of the week was the final service on Friday evening. Don Armstrong, as regional coordinator, introduced the team and framed the week by painting a picture of how the Church of God in Pakistan is part of a larger, global movement of the Church of God. He then preached a pivotal and powerful message from Hosea 6:6 on God’s mercy, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
Looking back over the week, Don Armstrong observed that, “Having the dean of the Church of God seminary, MaryAnn Hawkins, on the team gave great encouragement to the Pakistanis. It raised the profile of the Church of God and sent a powerful message of affirmation and worth to the people in Pakistan.”
Sarah Blake LaRose never imagined that a visit to Pakistan would be possible, or that it would become so much more than a visit. But as the pieces of the puzzle came together, an unforgettable, cross-cultural experience was the result, cementing several beautiful friendships that had started on Facebook.
“One person asked me, ‘Why do you love us so much,’” she recounts. “In my heart, I wonder the same thing—why do they love me so much? But I think what we witnessed together was the love of Christ dwelling in us. We all love each other because of that love.”
Learn more about Anderson University School of Theology and Christian Ministry at www.anderson.edu/sot. Learn more about Ohio Ministries at www.ohchog.org. Learn more about Global Strategy and opportunities to support the mission of the Movement in the Asia-Pacific region, including Pakistan, at www.chogglobal.org.