Abstract

The process of developing a new educational program requires a survey of local conditions and global realities, discussion with different stakeholders, development of a curriculum, implementation, and a continuous test of the program’s impact on the lives of the students and their ministries. The curriculum should be designed in a way that serves the mission of the institution. This article explores how the new MA in Christian-Muslim relations at Evangelical Theological College was designed, implemented, and assessed.

Introduction

In 1983, the Evangelical Theological College (ETC) was established in Addis Ababa as an underground theological college while Ethiopia was still a communist country. Since then, ETC has offered programs mainly at the undergraduate level. In 2011-2012, to consider how to meet the needs of Ethiopian churches and the entire community, ETC conducted a comprehensive strategic review. The area that the strategic review presented as a key issue for ETC was program revision. Thus, ETC set a strategic goal of opening graduate-level programs. To fulfill this goal, and as part of its commitment to grow and address the needs of Ethiopian churches by producing servant leaders at the graduate level, the institution launched the Master of Arts program in Christian-Muslim Relations in September 2020.

To examine the experience of creating the new MA in Christian-Muslim Relations at ETC, I reviewed institutional documents, interviewed current students and graduates, and reflected on my personal experiences as a team leader in the program. This article will explore in more detail the process of developing this program, including the underlying factors that led the institution to create this program, the experience of developing the curriculum, the challenges that the college encountered during operation, and the tools set for evaluation and follow-up.

The Rationale

What were the underlying factors for the development of this program? ETC considered several factors. First, by the launch of the program in 2020, over 542 million Muslims were living on the African continent (Houssain, 2010, 140). Specifically, the Horn of Africa nations have a total population of 57 million Muslims, and Ethiopia has over 37 million Muslims. In total, this constitutes about 33.88 % of the total population (Houssain, 2010, 136, 140). These demographic realities, in tandem with Ethiopia’s geographical location, give Ethiopian churches broad opportunities for missions among Muslim communities – and create challenges related to Islamic extremism coming from the Middle East, neighboring nations, and within the country itself. Furthermore, Ethiopia is Africa’s political hub. Addis Ababa is a top diplomatic city, as it is the seat of the African Union, the African Economic Commission, and other regional and international organizations. This fact provides opportunities for Ethiopian churches to create ministry networks with other African churches and to spread the gospel to neighboring nations and the Middle East. Ethiopia’s demographics and geography invite ETC to equip Christian workers at the highest educational levels.

Second, despite this enormous Muslim population in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, we noticed a lack of trained Christian practitioners and academics in the area of ministry to Muslims. Though we are surrounded by so many Muslims, few Christians know well how to engage with them and disciple Muslim-background believers effectively. Therefore, the MA in Christian-Muslim Relations aims to address this need by training Christian missionaries, disciple-makers, and ministry leaders for healthy interreligious engagements, for sharing the Good News about Jesus with Muslims, and for equipping new converts from Islam with the word of God.

The third important factor for creating this new program was that African churches in general and Ethiopian churches in particular are facing tremendous theological, relational, social, and spiritual challenges from Islam. As Walter Eric stated,

Islam does not only present a challenge through the Da‛wah activities, actively trying to convince non-Muslims to convert to Islam, there is also a spiritual challenge. The spiritual side of this challenge is twofold. First there are the rhetoric attacks against the content of the Gospel, particularly about the person, nature and work of Jesus Christ . . . This approach of Muslims presents a serious spiritual challenge for the Christian faith, because it questions our core beliefs. It is absolutely necessary that the Church in Africa addresses these allegations and sometimes serious questions which Muslims have. If no answers are given, more Christians will eventually be convinced to become Muslims and many Muslims who are seriously seeking for a spiritual answer will not find the truth in Jesus Christ. The other side of this spiritual challenge is the fact that there are still so many Muslim people groups in Africa without a Christian witness and without their own indigenous church. As Christians we need to see each individual Muslim as a person that is deeply loved by God and not as a representative of an Islamic organization. And this leads us to the important question of how we respond to all these challenges. (Walter, 2008, 6)

Eric notes two problems: First, the questions Muslims raise about Christianity; second, the lack of Christian witness among Muslims that can lead Christians to see Muslims as an undifferentiated (even threatening) group. ETC’s program is an integral part of the work to address these two problems, as it will train Christians to respond wisely to Muslims’ theological questions and as it will help Christians recognize “each individual Muslim as a person that is deeply loved by God” (Walter, 2008, 6). Through this program, ETC seeks to present a comprehensive Christian education focusing on equipping Christian workers with the skills and knowledge on how they can effectively respond to the challenges of Islam and lead Muslims to Christ. Responses may include research projects, publications, and personal, one-on-one engagement with Muslims.

Fourth, several Ethiopian undergraduate theological institutions include Islamics and missions courses in their curricula, and some of them offer undergraduate degree programs in Christian-Muslim relations or mission studies. Even so, not enough educators teach in these subjects, so the MA in Christian-Muslim Relations will produce more educators who can teach on Islam at the diploma and bachelor levels.

Finally, in recent years, many Ethiopian domestic and professional workers have been seeking jobs in the Middle Eastern countries. Fassil Demissie notes that “in the last two decades, the migration (both legal and clandestine) of Ethiopian female domestic workers to globalizing cities of the Middle East and the Gulf States particularly, to Dubai, Beirut, Riyadh, Aman, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Sana’a, and Cairo has increased dramatically because of the dynamics of globalization and neoliberal economic policies” (Demissie, 2018, 1). This human movement will only keep growing. Offering these workers short-term missiological training will prepare them for service among Muslims abroad and enable them to engage with Muslim communities in the Middle East. Thus, launching the MA in Christian-Muslim Relations became a vital part of how ETC trains missionaries and educators who in turn can teach domestic workers how to engage with their employers and witness for Christ.

These factors led ETC to consider developing a curriculum that addresses the theological, spiritual, social, and relational needs of Ethiopian churches as they engage with Muslims. What does the curriculum aim to achieve? What steps did ETC take to develop the curriculum for this program? Now we turn to these questions.

Curriculum Development Process

As Fritz Deininger states, “The task of designing a curriculum is not just choosing a few courses that should be included in a study program. It is an effort that requires much thought, research, and discussions” (Deininger, 2017, 18). ETC certainly experienced Deininger’s reality of “thought, research, and discussions,” as ETC took several steps to develop the curriculum in a way that might be both relevant to the local context and connected to global realities.

The first step was that, in June 2019, a team of academic leaders from ETC drafted a curriculum that would address the needs of Ethiopian churches and serve the institution’s mission. In this process, ETC’s faculty assessed contextual and global realities (mentioned in the previous section) and students’ situations (where they come from and where they go after graduation). We found that students come from different geographical locations, vocations, Christian traditions, academic preparations, and ministry experience. They also go to different ministry locations after graduation, such as being missionaries in Muslim communities, educators in other theological institutions, or leaders in the churches. Moreover, the faculty examined the topics that would serve students’ needs and fulfill the programs’ goals. Then the team prepared a draft course description for each course.

After the full list of courses and the curriculum had been drafted, ETC invited Christian experts who teach Islamic studies in different global regions to comment on the curriculum and give recommendations. In September and October 2019, six people at theological seminaries and universities in Europe, Australia, and Africa sent their feedback on the draft curriculum. These international experts recommended that the curriculum should better balance depth and breadth, rename some courses to allow us to cover enough content, and include some new courses, such as “Communicating the Gospel with Muslims” and “Folk Phenomena in Islam” to deal with the lives of ordinary Muslims and their spirituality. One of the experts noted that the inclusion of these courses would provide students with ministry skills and help to “establish a good balance in our curriculum between the ideology issues and the ‘people’ thing.” Following this feedback, the committee revised the curriculum. Among other changes, we added “Folk Phenomena in Islam” as a core required course and “Communicating the Gospel with Muslims” as an elective.

The final stage of curriculum development was collecting evaluations from local academics and practitioners, as well as ETC’s own staff and faculty. In December 2019, ETC organized a half-day discussion to collect reactions to be used to revise the curriculum. In this forum, some local practitioners raised important ideas related to the challenges they see in the mission field, such as that they often hear Muslims accuse Christians about certain doctrines, and Christians are not able to effectively respond to them. In addition, Christians face cross-cultural communication challenges whenever they want to share the gospel with Muslims due to religious and cultural differences. Others asked that certain courses be included and others removed so that the program could better fulfill its purpose. They asked us to include “Apologetics to Islam,” “Cultural Anthropology,” and “Cross-cultural Communication.” On the other hand, they recommended removing the “Power Encounter” course because its content could be addressed by other courses. The academic team collected these recommendations and again revised the curriculum.

Finally, after receiving approval from the board of trustees in January 2020, ETC officially launched the program in September 2020.

As a result of this process, the MA in Christian-Muslim Relations at ETC is designed to prepare students for ministry in Islamic contexts and to provide professional development for those who are already practicing missionaries, educators, disciple-makers, and researchers in Muslim settings. It is also designed to prepare graduates to pursue doctoral degrees in Islamic studies and intercultural studies and to teach at theological institutions.

Of course, this program sits within ETC’s broader institutional context. In fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), ETC seeks to prepare servant leaders for the church in Ethiopia and beyond. To fulfill this purpose specifically in the area of ministry to Muslims, this program aims to give students a deep understanding of Islam: Islam’s history and theology; Qur’anic Arabic; the contemporary issues that face Muslim communities, including current trends in Islamic theology; and the proper handling of Islamic sources. It helps students understand missiological principles and the concepts of interfaith engagement so that students will be able to identify, analyze, and tackle the multi-faceted problems that inevitably arise in Christian-Muslim relations and in cross-cultural ministry. In addition to these topics, the program gives students practical ideas for planting churches, for conducting apologetics, and for offering discipleship in Islamic contexts. Overall, the program helps students develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for interfaith engagement.

The program is designed to be delivered in a non-residential, hybrid format. Class sessions happen both in person and via Zoom. Intensive modules that fulfill program requirements happen either during the day or in evening sessions throughout the year. The program can be completed within two to three years. Full-time students can complete the program in two years; those who come part-time can complete the program in three.

Challenges during Operation

What problems did ETC face during the program’s actual operation? How were these problems addressed?

When the program began in September 2020, Covid-19 was still spreading. As a result, many countries had closed public services, and travel from country to country was banned. ETC had counted on adjunct faculty traveling into Ethiopia from abroad to teach in this program, but Covid-19 created huge challenges to international travel. In addition, ETC faced financial hardships; students and faculty encountered problems accessing library resources; and some students and faculty caught Covid-19 and had to take breaks from academic endeavors.

ETC took several measures to cope with the challenges created by the pandemic. One strategy was to change the mode of delivery from face-to-face to Zoom. In the beginning, students struggled to familiarize themselves with the new technology, and ETC staff had to help students learn how to log into Zoom. However, as of Fall 2022, the situation has changed, so adjunct lecturers can teach either face-to-face or via Zoom. We are so thankful for the commitment and sacrificial service of local full-time and part-time lecturers and of international adjuncts who teach in the program (40% of the courses are taught by global adjunct faculty from the USA, UK, Germany, South Korea, Australia, and Africa), as this team learned together how to deliver content to students both during and after the pandemic.

Another problem that seriously negatively impacted the teaching-learning process was weak internet connection. ETC resolved this problem by conducting one-to-one discussions with individual students to advise them on how to find stronger internet connections in their areas.

The college resolved financial constraints by working with like-minded partners and donor organizations. In the beginning, the school had some financial hardships, but these were resolved. Yet this particular program faced serious financial challenges, as we wished to provide scholarships to students. Most of the MA in CMR students came from Muslim-majority areas; their churches are needy and unable to pay their study expenses. As a result, some of them decided to terminate their studies. Thanks to generous donors, though, they were able to resume.

Finally, ETC has addressed the problem of accessing library resources by collecting soft copy materials and e-books for each course and by providing these materials to each student during class sessions. However, ETC made available hard copy journals and books in the library.

Evaluation and Follow-up

Once the program began, how did ETC evaluate it to ensure that its purpose was being achieved? How does ETC follow up with students during class sessions and after graduation?

At this point in the program’s history, I can best answer these questions by summarizing ETC’s institutional evaluation practices, which are common across ETC courses, including the Christian-Muslim Relations program.

ETC conducts both undergraduate and graduate courses in different modes of delivery. Across the whole institution, classes may be offered during the day or in the evenings; semester-based courses may require four months, or intensive courses may require only two to three weeks. Some courses happen during online; others, in person; others, during Christmas or summer holidays.

At the beginning of each course, the instructor explains the course’s objectives. The instructor shares evaluation checklists to track how students achieve these objectives. The instructor then assesses students’ knowledge and skills by dividing grades between continuous assessment tools (60%) and final assessment tools (40%). Continuous assessment tools include class attendance, participation in cohort discussion threads, quizzes, coaching with a facilitator, and short written assignments. Formal evaluation methods include long and short essays, reflection papers, book reviews, quizzes, mid-term and final exams, presentations, or research projects. In these evaluations, students must demonstrate their overall knowledge of the subject and their ability to integrate that new knowledge with other knowledge they already have. Each course requires a final reflective paper that prompts students to apply their knowledge to their life and work.

The field ministry course is another means by which ETC evaluates students’ growth. During field ministry, students can practice in real life what they learned in class. Each student works closely with their academic advisor and their church ministry advisor during fieldwork. At the end of fieldwork, both advisors evaluate the student’s ministry and whether they truly did practice their classroom knowledge.

In addition to these formal assessments, ETC evaluates students’ personal transformation informally. The institution wants to learn how students are living out their new learning in their lives and ministries. To this end, ETC develops students’ spiritual lives by bringing all MA students together for eight, 40-minute sessions every semester via Zoom. These sessions focus on prayer and spiritual formation. Although these sessions are not graded, each student must participate by reflecting on the material provided for discussion. These informal sessions give students the chance to be connected and grow together, as students and faculty speak about their experiences. Through these gatherings, students can connect with faculty for support, and faculty can learn about the impact of courses on students’ daily lives.

Furthermore, many faculty seek to build relationships with students during coffee breaks, meal times, or by phone throughout the semester. These conversations let faculty learn how students are benefiting from courses.

After students graduate and begin ministry, ETC seeks to maintain its understanding of their development. Academic leaders talk to alumni by phone, email, or during personal visits to assess the long-term academic and ministry impact of ETC’s education. Within the Christian-Muslim Relations program, students and alumni often gather for fellowship and knowledge-sharing. During these events, faculty, graduates, and current students reflect on their academic and ministry journeys.

As I prepared this article, I asked graduates of the Christian-Muslim Relations program about the program’s impact on their ministries. One graduate said:

I was a self-taught minister before God gave me the opportunity to study at the CMR program at ETC, which transformed my ministry to a completely new dimension. I realized that it is very important to attend formal learning classes to engage in a systematic study of Islam and to learn from the expertise and experiences of lecturers and fellow students. During my time at ETC, I gained a deep understanding of both Christian and Islamic theology, which has aided me to be successful in my ministry. I have also understood how to develop friendships with Muslims. As a result, I can speak to many of them in a friendly manner on various platforms and lead them to Christ. I have learned how to help Muslim Background Believers grow in their faith, and I managed to help some of them begin worshiping the Lord in house churches because of fear of persecution. Before joining ETC, I thought that telling Muslims about Christ and responding to their questions would be sufficient to lead them to Christ. But now, I have realized that the best way to serve Muslims is to get to know them, approach them in a friendly manner, walk with them in their spiritual journey, and help them to come to the lord and grow to the likeness of Christ. (Aderie)

Another said:

My study at ETC enabled me to improve my relationship with Muslims and to present the gospel to them in culturally relevant ways. Although I served the Lord among Muslim communities for many years, my attitude towards Muslims was confrontational, and I considered them as enemies of Christians. However, after two years of my studies, I developed a sense of compassion and love for them, my understanding of Islam and Muslims has grown, and my communication and ministry skills have improved. Now, I am so passionate to continue planting churches among Muslim communities and equipping more Christian workers for Muslim ministry. (Besha)

This section shows the importance of implementing formal and informal assessment tools to evaluate the impact of the MA on students’ lives and ministries, both during classroom sessions and after graduation. Continuous assessment should be in place to improve the teaching-learning process and to ensure the fulfillment of the program’s goals. In particular, graduates’ personal stories can help academic leaders to improve the MA’s content, mode of delivery, and curriculum.

Conclusion

The process of developing an academic program requires identifying and analyzing the factors that need to be addressed by the program’s curriculum and operation. ETC identified several problems that needed to be addressed by a Masters in Christian-Muslim Relations. These factors included the challenges and opportunities of Ethiopia’s geographic and demographic context, a lack of trained individuals in the area of Christian ministry among Muslim communities, the theological, relational, social, and spiritual challenges that African churches are facing from Islam, and the necessity of teaching trainers who can prepare Ethiopian domestic workers when they pursue jobs in the Middle Eastern countries.

ETC developed a program to address these factors and to equip Christian workers with the knowledge, skills, and passion to serve Muslim communities in Ethiopia and beyond. To design the curriculum, ETC considered local and global realities and consulted with international and local leaders. ETC has also put continuous assessment mechanisms in place that enabled it to understand to what degree the curriculum is serving the program’s ultimate purpose. These evaluations continue to enable ETC to measure students’ growth and ministerial impact.

I see the transformation of students’ lives as the greatest success of the program. The program enhanced the students’ understanding of Islam and Muslims. It also positively changed their attitude towards Muslims, as they began to see Muslims as humans who need Jesus instead of as enemies. Furthermore, it improved their cross-cultural communication skills and enabled them to lead many Muslims to Christ. More and more Christian workers express interest in entering the program and serveing in the Muslim communities.

ETC’s experience of creating a new MA in Christian-Muslim relations may be helpful for other schools endeavoring to launch similar programs. Of course, the demographic, cultural, and religious landscape of Ethiopia is unique, so this program was designed for that unique landscape. Even so, certain principles can be transferred to other global contexts. For instance, academic leaders in other institutions can learn from our experience of curriculum development to design programs that addresses the interfaith issues of their contexts. In addition, other institutions might learn from our evaluation tools and develop their own for their context. Moreover, although ETC’s administration faced various challenges, it addressed them by working with like-minded partners. This fact may encourage other institutions to pursue local and international collaborations to address their own challenges. Overall, our experience may shed light on others’ situations in ways that encourage and inspire. 


References

Aderie, Christian. Lecturer, Evangelical Theological College. Interview with Author. February    27, 2023.

Besha, Alembirhan. Missionary, Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church. Interview with Author.  February 25, 2023.

Deininger, Fritz. “Foundations for Curriculum Design in Theological Education.” In Curriculum Design Process: Leadership in Theological Education, ed. Fritz Deininger & Orbelina    Eguizabal, Vol. 4. Carlisle: Langham Global Library, 2017. 18.

Demissie, Fasil. “Ethiopian Female Domestic Workers in the Middle East and Gulf States: An     Introduction.” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal 11.1 (2018): 1.

Eric, Walter. “The Challenge of Islam in Africa.” Life Challenge Assistance: A Ministry of SIM   Research Paper 1 (2008): 6.

Kettani, Houssain. “Muslim Population in Africa: 1950-2020.” International Journal of   Environmental Science and Development 1.2 (June 2010): 136 & 140.

Anwar Mehammed Berhe

Anwar Mehammed Berhe (PhD) is the academic dean for undergraduate studies and the head of the MA in Christian-Muslim Relations at Evangelical Theological College (ETC), Ethiopia. After serving as the director of the Muslim outreach ministry at the Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church for ten years, he pursued his doctoral degree in Islamic studies at the Melbourne School of Theology, Australia. He joined ETC as full-time faculty in 2019 after the completion of his doctoral studies.