When Peter Sholl headed off to Mexico more than a decade ago as a missionary, he learnt his first word of Spanish on the plane. Now Mexico is home, not only to Peter and his wife Sarah and their family, but to the extensive teaching ministry Peter conducts throughout Latin America using the Moore College “MOCLAM” course.
Peter recently dropped in to our studio to talk about the profound lessons he has learned in Mexico as a Christian and as a trainer of pastors. He also has some wise observations about Australian Christianity (as most returning missionaries do).
Links referred to:
- The video of Paul Williamson’s talk on “A hell of a difference” at our 2018 October event.
- Information about the Diploma of Biblical Theology (DBT) and the Preliminary Theological Certiciate (PTC) at Moore College
Runtime: 31:51 min.
Karen Beilharz: Hi everyone! It’s Karen Beilharz from the Centre for Christian Living here, and I need to start with two apologies. First, unfortunately Tony can’t be here for this episode: his voice has packed it in, and so he’s ordered me, his faithful assistant, to step in and be your host for this episode.
Second, apologies for that appalling clichéd opening music, which is “Tijuana Taxi” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which was chosen by Tony as his personal favourite example of Mexican music.
Because today on the podcast, we’re off to Mexico—or, at least, Mexico is coming to us. Peter Sholl, a CMS missionary in Mexico, is here to talk not only about what he’s learned about the Christian life in Mexico, but what he’s noticed about Aussie Christian culture on his regular return visits.
So with those apologies out of the way, and with a little more “Tijuana Taxi”, let’s get into episode 21 of the Centre for Christian Living podcast.
KB: Hi, I’m Karen Beilharz and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast coming to you from Moore College—actually, not Moore College; it’s actually from my house in Sydney! Our goal is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and we do that in this podcast of course, but also in the regular public events we run throughout the year.
We’ve just had our final one for 2018—on the sober subject of hell and what the reality of hell means for our Christian lives. Excellent night! Please head to our website and watch the video at ccl.moore.edu.au.
The program for 2019 is just about finalised. There’ll be events on environmentalism and whether God is green; on how we can enjoy the great, but sometimes elusive joys of Christian community; and something new for 2019: a Saturday morning event called “A very short course in Christian ethics”, which aims to help you begin to understand how to bring biblical ethics to everything. For more details, head over to our website and scroll down to bottom and sign up for email updates. We’ll send you all the details for 2019 as soon as they are finalised.
But let’s get back to our guest for today’s episode.
Peter Sholl: I’m Peter Sholl. I am married to Sarah. We live in Mexico. We’ve been married for 25 years, have three girls who are in the upper stages of high school, and I’m the Director of MOCLAM.
Tony Payne: Doesn’t sound like a Spanish name, MOCLAM.
PS: “MOCLAM” used to stand for “Moore College in Latin America”. But now it’s just a—it’s just an acronym.
TP: I’ll ask you more about that in just a moment. But what took you to Mexico? Is that what took you to Mexico?
PS: Yes, that is what took us to Mexico. But before I was with MOCLAM, I was a parish minister here in Sydney—in the—the outer Inner West of Sydney—and having graduated from Moore College, it was just in those days that Moore College was starting to ask people to go overseas and teach the PTC—the correspondence course—in different countries—just for short periods of time—two—two weeks at a time. And they asked me to do that. So I—I spent five years—two weeks each five—each year for five years, going to Kenya and then to South Africa to teach the PTC subjects in English to groups of pastors there.
And that was—that was an important time, because it opened my eyes to some of the need for theological education beyond our neighbourhood here or our—our—our circumstances here. And also it was a good sort of reminder for me as to what great theological resources here—we have here in Sydney, and maybe—maybe we should be sharing some of those.
TP: I’d like to find out more about what it’s like doing that job in Mexico, or in—in Latin America. But first of all, just what was it like, landing in Mexico as an Aussie?
PS: It was—it was very different. We learnt our first word of Spanish on the plane to Mexico—
TP: Which was?
PS: “Hielo”, which means “ice”, because they offer you a drink and ask if you’ve got—if you would like ice with it. And that was good. And then you learn “exit” and things like that and, yeah.
It was—it’s very different, because it’s such a different culture in so many ways. For example, we—when I was in ministry, I was the rector of the church. We lived around the corner from the church. Every single Sunday, we would have people back to our house for lunch. You know, it was kind of—you know, “You buy BBQ chicken, you and go get some bread, see you at our place in 20 minutes,” kind of thing. And that—that happened every Sunday.
We went from that to being in a circumstance where family is the key social unit and so, if you are not in a family unit like we are in Mexico, because our family’s not there, you—you—you don’t go to people’s place for lunch on Sunday; you go to grandma’s place with all your cousins and uncles and aunties and everyone every single Sunday. So sometimes we will—we will ask people to come for lunch after church, and they might say, “Oh no, I can’t, ’cause I’m—I go to auntie’s.” “Oh, okay, well, how about next Sunday?” “No, no, we go to auntie’s.” So there’s just a—the—that the key social network is their family. That’s where their loyalty is. And it’s—it can be difficult to—to break into that.
So there’s all sorts of different cultural and social norms that we are part of. But that’s just a good example of—of one of them.
TP: And what about as a Christian person—as a Christian disciple? What—what did you find as you landed in Mexico—as you and Sarah landed in Mexico—and started living as Christians there? What struck you as different? What struck you as the same? What did you learn as a Christian just by virtue of—of interacting with a different culture?
PS: Well, Mexico is—is 95 per cent Roman Catholic, and so the—the influence of the Roman Catholic church in Mexico is—is enormous—from just everyday sayings, so you—you might arrange to—to do something with somebody, and they will say, “If God wills it.” And it’s not just a throwaway line; they—they really mean that. Even people who are—who are going to church for their—their baptism, their first communion, their wedding, and their—their funeral, they will say that. And it’s—they—there is a deep understanding that God is in control of things—in a way I think we don’t have here in Australia.
Also, part of that legacy is there is a huge respect for the Bible. So—so Sarah, my wife, is a—is a great evangelist. She is regularly inviting people to our house for—for Bible Study; she runs a ladies Bible Study once a week. And very often, people will say to her the response, if she says, “Would you like to come to my house to read the Bible?”, very often their—their response is basically along the lines of, “Yes, well I know the Bible is the word of God, and I really should be meeting it—reading it more, so yeah, I’ll consider that.” Which is a totally different experience to our experience of that kind of invitation here in Sydney in the outer Inner West, where the—where the response is a bit more along the lines of “Why would I be reading a fairy tale?” or some—you know, that kind of—that kind of write off of the Bible. So—so we are living in a—in a society where the Bible is very well known, it is—it is viewed as the word of God, and it is held with—it is viewed with authority.
Now, most people would say, “I should read it and I don’t, and I”, you know, or “I should read it more and I don’t understand it” and that sort of thing. But in terms of evangelism and—and encouraging people, in some ways, we’re—we’re kind of beyond first base already. We don’t have to convince them that the Bible is a—is a good book to read.
TP: How has adjusting to the cultural differences between Mexico and Australia—between a Latin culture and an Anglosphere culture like Australia’s—how has that adjustment challenged you as a Christian in your Christian life—for you and your family?
PS: I think—I think the way in which our—our Mexican brothers and sisters have challenged us and been a model to us, in a sense, is that they have a much clearer dependence on God. I think we here in Sydney—we can do stuff ourselves. We can—we can pay for it or train for it or whatever it is. We can—if there’s a problem, we can solve it ourselves.
In Mexico—in Latin America—that’s not so much the case. You might find yourself in fairly difficult circumstances that are way out of your control and that you can’t do anything about, and I think there is a reliance on God at that point: people are much quicker to—to pray, they’re quicker to—to speak about their reliance on God—that has been a real challenge for us—a challenge for us that we should be like that, rather than thinking, “Oh, no, no: we can—here, if we—we do this program, we’ll do that, we will solve that problem.” So I’ve appreciated that. And it’s something I notice when I come back here: I think, “Hmm, I think if we were having this conversation in—in Mexico, the language of this being in God’s hands would be much more in this conversation.”
TP: We’d be praying already in this conversation.
PS: We’d—we’d be praying or we’d be speaking about, you know, “If God wills it”—not in a fatalistic kind of way, but in a “God really is in control of this and—and we are not”. And that’s—that’s—in a sense, that’s okay; there’s a—there’s a contentment with—with that.
We have a friend whose—whose son, two years ago, when he was five, was diagnosed with a very serious brain tumour. In fact, he just died sadly last week. But he—he had been given three to six months to live for the last two years. Her—his mum’s—confidence in God, her—her confidence in God’s care of her and her son—has just been oozing through every—every moment of her last two years. And—and it’s interesting, those around her and those who are walking that very difficult road with her, have all been encouraged by her in her—her—her reliance on God, her kind of—her satisfaction that—that God is with her, God has a plan for her, God has a plan for her son, and that may—may—may or may not involve his healing—his earthly healing. So that’s been a great encouragement for us.
TP: Tell us more about what you actually do with MOCLAM and with the material. What is your ministry look like in Mexico and beyond?
PS: So—so the MOCLAM material—the core material that we use—is the distance edu—education program from here at Moore College. Some people might know it as the PTC. It’s been around for—for several decades. In the 90s, that material was translated into Spanish for use—originally in Chile, in the Anglican church. Part of my job has been to come and make that material more available in more countries in the Spanish-speaking world, and in more denominations. So I am—I am giving people—I’m—the aim of it—the aim of MOCLAM is to give people some of the basic foundational blocks of a—a theological education to enable them to be doing their pastoral work better.
Most of the people we are teaching are pastors, they’re youth leaders, evangelists in their church, university staffworkers—people like that. Many of the people are already very heavily involved in ministry, and maybe have been doing it for a long time. And yet, none of them have—well, most of them have had no formal theological education. And that’s—that’s the case in Latin America: most pastors have never had formal theological education. Most of them are bivocational, so they work during the day—work as a school teacher or whatever—and then pastor during the night and on the weekends. And so the—the opportunity to say, “Well, I’ll just drop that and go to a college for two or three or four years full-time” is—is just not—non-existent. And in many places, the colleges aren’t there for them to go to anyway. So we’re trying to take some basic theological courses to them to enable them to—to know the Bible better—to know God better through his word—and to be able to teach it to others.
TP: What sort of countries do you do this in?
PS: Pretty much if you can think of a country that speaks Spanish, we’re—we’re teaching there—anywhere from—we have students—Spanish-speaking students in the United States—all—all down through Mexico through Central America and into South America. We rec—well, a couple of years ago, we had a Spanish-speaking student in Finland studying with us. It’s all by distance. So we have people all over the place. Just next week, I’m starting a new class—an online class—and I will have students from Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Spain, and one from Uruguay, I think. So there’s—it’s a good mix.
TP: So you’ve been teaching lots of people who themselves are already pastors—many of them; what have you learned about pastoral ministry—about gospel ministry—by doing that in all these different contexts?
PS: I think I’ve learnt that—so I’m just thinking of a group of pastors that I work with in Peru. And I’ve learnt that their commitment to the gospel—their commitment to ministry—is almost without bound. I remember talking one of these guys and, I said, “How long did it take you to get to this little course that we’re doing?” He goes, “Oh, yeah, 36 hours on the bus.” And I’m sort of, “What! 36 hours?!” And he goes, “Oh, no, no, no; it’s really good. It used to be 68!” Used to be 68 hours on the bus for him to—and this is, you know, up and down the mountains and over cliff edges and all that kind of stuff. I think there is a—you know, I think, in my reaction, I was just thinking, “Man, we’re soft! Sometimes. These guys, they know when there’s a good opportunity and they will go out of their way to do it.”
I think they’re also much more personal. So they will spend much much more time with people than we do. You will—you—someone, if there’s—there’s—there’s a death in your fam—death in a family in the church, many people will go there and visit that family for many hours. It’s not just a pop in, “Sorry”, maybe bring some flowers, pray, whatever it is. No, it’s—it’s a several hour exercise. And so I think people just have a bit more time. There—they see the need for—for time and investing time in relationships. And I think I’ve learnt that.
Coming back to Australia sometimes, when we—when we have meetings with people or visit people, like I find myself sometimes thinking, “Oh! Is it finished already?” Because I’m used to—I’m now used to things for going—going—going much longer.
TP: You’re—you’re engaged in—in training, really, and working out how to bring pastors along—how to help them grow in their understanding. What have you learned or what have you reflected about the nature of training pastors, because you’re working with people, in one sense, are already pastors—are already doing their job; at another sense, in our terms, are quite underdeveloped as a pastor—very little theological grounding. What have you learned about—and how have you gone about thinking about—training and forming and—and seeing people grow?
PS: In Spanish, there is a concern—in the Spanish church, there is a concern for the raising up of a new generation of pastors. And that’s—that’s something that I’m involved in. So I—I talk to people a lot about that. And one of the things which has been rolling around in my head is the vocabulary we use in Spanish for that sort of thing, and how that reflects what people are thinking about. So the—the word we use when we’re talking about the equipping of the next generation of pastors is the word that is “capacitación”. That is the word that you use to train a particular skill. If you need to train someone to change the clutch in their car or take out an appendix, the—the—the word you use to describe that process of training is “capacitación”. Here’s a packet of information. I’ve passed it on to you. Now that I’ve passed it on to you, you now have something that you didn’t have before and therefore you are able to perform that task.
TP: You have a capacity.
PS: You have a capacity to perform that task. In—in my observation of pastoral training in Latin America and theological training in Latin America, and perhaps this is a function of lots of people being bivocational and lots of kind of bits and pieces training—“capacitación” is the word which dominates training. So here is the piece of information—the skill you need to be able to lead people in a pastoral prayer. Here is the thing you need to be able to visit someone in hospital. Here is the—the packet of skill that you need to preach a sermon—to reach your neighbourhood. Whatever it is. So—
TP: Yeah. It’s skill acquisition.
PS: It’s skill acquisition. I think as I read the New Testament, especially, as we—as we observe Paul and others raising up a new generation of pastors, there is an element of skill acquisition, but it’s in the context of a different word and that is the word “formación”. So “formation” of the person. “Formation” is much more the whole rounded person. It’s not just their—their—their list of skills that they need, but it’s about their character. It’s about their—their conviction. It’s about who they are as a person. You know, you look at the lists in—in Titus and Timothy and things like that: so many of them are character issues, not just skill issues.
And so, I’ve been thinking about, well, how do we—how do we form people? How do we—how do we move this vocabulary from capacitación to formación? And the three elements that I’ve come up with—and there’s probably more—but what I’ve come up with so far is, the first one, it has to—you have to have Bible. And kind of sounds obvious. But if you were training up someone in your church, you know, he’s kind of a part-time lay assistant minister sort of guy, it is very easy for Bible to fall off the agenda, because, “Oh, we’ve got to organise the youth camp for next week, and we’ve got to organise that baptism and we’ve got to organise this and we’ve got to—” and it can fill up with administration. So you got to have Bible—just got to spend time in the Bible, reading through the Word, being soaked in the Word and allowing the Word to form your person.
The second thing is you need to have relationship. Formación happens in relationship. You—you—you think Paul and Timothy: the words that they use about each other, it’s—they’re relational words. So that’s—it’s in that context that the formación happens.
And the third element is time: this is—this is a long-term project, when we’re—when we’re thinking of shaping people, raising up a new generation—this is—this is a process that might take five, 10, 15, 20 years. So—so people ask me, “How—how long did it take you to learn Spanish?” Well, I’m still learning and, in a sense, I’m being formed as a Spanish per—as a Spanish speaker. It’s not just my ability to know the language and use the language, but it’s my ability to—to think culturally. There’s a whole formation of me that is going on there, and I think in terms of raising up a new generation of—of leaders and—and pastors, it’s that kind of same process. It just takes a lot of time.
TP: It always really strikes me in the pastorals, especially, how—but not just in the pastorals—how Paul keeps pointing to his own example and his own completely formed—the—the fully formed package of apostolic life and ministry—and saying, “You’ve seen what I’m like. You’ve seen my life, my doctrine, my sufferings, my persecutions, my purity, my—my way of life—you’ve seen all of that. Now you do that. You imitate and carry on what I’m doing.” And in—in that sense, the—the formation of the whole person in conviction, in character, in competency—I just used the three C’s; there you go—is a total package that—that requires relationship and time, and you see that in the way Paul relates to his congregations and in the way he relates to his protégés.
PS: So one of the great challenges for me is I’m providing this—this resource by distance. Most of my students, if I’m lucky, I might see them for a week a year. Now, it’s a great challenge for me: how do I put formación into process by distance? I—I haven’t got the answer for that. I—I think in the long-run, the answer is having lots of people on the ground who are—who are mentors who are providing that modelling. I—it’s very difficult to provide that modelling by Skype or by—by email—in fact, I would argue, almost impossible. But yeah, that’s a—but we do have this great resource that we can be sharing with people. How do we move it beyond just being a packet of information? That’s the sort of thing I’m working on at the moment. It’s—it’s a great challenge.
KB: Hi, it’s me again. We’ll get back to Peter in just a moment. I thought I should interrupt their conversation and tell you where you can find out more about Moore College’s distance education program—because the MOCLAM material that Peter is using in Latin America is available for you too. You can study individually or in a group at your church wherever you happen to be listening. Go to moore.edu.au/study to find out about two courses that Moore College offers for everyday Christians to grow in their knowledge of God through his Word.
The first is the PTC, or Preliminary Theological Certificate, which can be done online or by correspondence with printed notes. This is the course that the MOCLAM material was based on. And the second is the new DBT, or Diploma of Biblical Theology—a completely online fully accredited course for laypeople and teachers with ministry responsibility.
For more details about these, visit moore.edu.au/study and scroll down until you see Diploma of Biblical Theology or Preliminary Theological Certificate (PTC).
But back to Tony and Peter.
TP: So we’re talking because you’re back here in Australia, and I do really enjoy talking to missionaries when they lob back into—to the country. Every three years or so seems to be the—the approximate pattern, because you’re the insider who became the outsider and then is back. And—and very often chatting to men—to missionaries, they just notice things about life in Australia—just general cultural life, or church life, in particular, that we—you—you become blind to or you don’t notice. But then you return as the insider outsider, and you see, “Well, that’s weird. How come you guys are doing that?” So let me ask you that question as someone who lobs back into Australia regularly: what do you notice about Christian culture in particular in Australia each time you return?
PS: The—the positive think—thing I want to say is that we come back and we look at all the opportunities there are to be encouraging new leaders—building up Christian leaders—and that starts with 10-year-olds. So some of the churches that we visit have an unbelievably good sort of structure—culture of “When you’re 12 years old—when you’re 13 years old—you need to think about how you’re going to be serving, whether you go and assist in the crèche—or—or whatever it is.” There’s infa—the training infrastructure like, you know, I’m going to use Sydney terms, but translate it to your local context: LIT, Next Gen, beach mission—all of those sort of things, they build up, and part of the result of those things—there’s people sitting here in second year at Moore College doing their—their lectures—it’s interesting—as I talk to my friends in—in Latin America, and they kind of bemoan the fact that there’s—there’s no one in the seminaries, well, part of the reason for that is there’s—there’s not that infrastructure of training in ministry encouragement, starting with 10-year-olds that has gone on for—for 10, 15 years before the students get to seminary.
So—so I want to be really positive about that, and sometimes I hear they’re kind of, “Oh, there’s just so many conferences and there’s so many opportunities!” Well, yes there are, but be thankful for that. And particularly be using those opportunities to keep on encouraging the next generation of—of kids—of—of—of—of young people to be serving and to be active in their serving, rather than just receiving a service. I think that’s—that’s very significant.
In a sense, the flip side of that is we come back now—we’ve been out of Sydney for, well, 10 years, basically—we come back and we see that many things that used to be volunteer jobs—running the youth group, for example—are now professional. So there is no one who is just v—I won’t say “no one”, but less people just volunteering to run the youth group on Friday night; instead, the church employs a youth pastor. The—the ladies who used to run women’s Bible study on Wednesday morning, that is now run by an employed women’s worker.
Now, there’s a whole lot of reasons for that. But the—one of the consequences, I think, is there is a—an expectation that if we do—if we need—if we need a ministry run or anything like that, the professionals will do it. And that’s taking out that understanding that we have that, well, the ministry of the pew—the—the people sitting alongside me might invite me to Bible Study on Tuesday night, because they run it, rather than it’s run by the professional. So the professionalisation of ministry, I know there’s—there’s lots of questions around it, but one of the consequences, I think, I see is the—in a sense, the disempowerment of the ministry of the pew.
TP: Well, that reduces the need for it. If—and it’s so much easier: we just pay our money and employ the guy, and we don’t have to do it.
PS: But the problem is, if you keep on going down that line—
PS: —you say, “Oh, I don’t to—to share the gospel with my neighbour ’cause we pay a guy to do that. He’s called the Parish Evangelist.” That is not the model of ministry we see in the New Testament, with the model of ministry we see in the New Testament is members of the body using their gifts for the edification of the church, not just the members of the body who are the professional bits of the body.
TP: And that plays out into—I wish I could pronounce your Spanish word forma—
TP: Oh, it’s beautiful!
PS: Or if you’re in Spain, “formathión”.
TP: Oh, okay, cool, with the “th”!
TP: Okay, but whatever that word is, the formation of people, the professionalisation of ministry that the flipside of it—I don’t know if it’s the cause of it or the consequence; probably both—is a—a decline or a lack of formation in that sense of the Christian life as a serving, ministering, loving life focussed on other people.
PS: That’s right.
TP: It’s not a matter just of our ministry training structures are not up to what they should be to get this happening; it’s a more fundamental problem that seems to me with what we see the Christian life as. It’s a Christian life issue: is the Christian life a life of love and service of other people, or is it something I just live and receive certain inputs that help me live it—
TP: —and I just get on with living it in my own little—
PS: And—and the professional pastors—the guy—the people who are paid up the front—need to think about what’s their role in that. May—are they promoting it? Do they, in fact, like it that way? Are—are we as Christian leaders encouraging the people in the pew to be serving? Or are we kind of, yeah, giving them an easy pass and saying, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll do it as the paid staff”? That’s a—that’s a good question to ask.
TP: So when you come home to Sydney now, does it feel like home? Or is Mexico home?
PS: No. Mexico’s definitely home for us. So when we come home to Sydney, we don’t feel like we’re coming home. When I get on a—get on the plane in a couple of weeks to go back to Mexico, I’ll feel like I’m going home.
TP: Well it’s nice of you to visit us and—
PS: It’s always a pleasure.
TP: —I hope you—hope you enjoy it when you get home.
PS: The only—the—the main disadvantage about living in Mexico is there’s no good sausage rolls.
KB: Thanks for joining us today. It’s been nice to fill in, but let’s hope that Tony’s voice recovers and that his musical taste improves before our final episode for the year, which will go up in early December.
Special thanks to Peter Sholl for joining us for this episode, to Tony for conducting that interview and to me for being awesome. And extra special thanks to you, of course, for listening, sharing our episodes with others and supporting the work we do here at CCL.
If you have any questions or if there are topics you’d like us to cover in this podcast, you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, for articles, as well as audio and video from past events, and, of course, previous episodes of this podcast, please check out our website at ccl.moore.edu.au.
Thanks and, as Tony always says, ’bye for now.