November 18, 2015

Traveling stories

Written by  Linda Moffett
A small demonstration plot on Mai's farm. A small demonstration plot on Mai's farm. Photo provided by Gerry Keener.

This article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.

"No, don’t cut off all those branches! You’re crazy, you’ll kill it!”

The pastor looked on in dismay as Mai* started to heavily prune a fruit tree. The tree had been bearing only a few scrawny pieces of fruit. But Mai knew that pruning the tree would result in not only bigger fruit but more fruit.

Pastors and church leaders who are students at the Vietnam Mennonite Institute in Theology and Renewal arrive at Mai’s small farm for classes on Natural Farming techniques. For half of each day, the students work on the small demonstration farm and learn about organic farming practices. Mai teaches students techniques that make pesticides and chemical fertilizers unnecessary, such as using decaying plant matter as fertilizer or using certain plants to ward off bugs.

Typically, rural villagers in Vietnam use a lot of chemical sprays and don’t see a very large yield.

And just one year later? That pastor who had been worried about the pruning was amazed to see the abundant harvest from that fruit tree.

“Natural farming technology is a good will livelihood project that impacts local communities and improves relationships among Christians, the authorities, and the community,” Mai said.

“Churches have a tool to reach their community, both spiritually and practically. Leaders are more respected when they are able to provide a stable organic food supply for their families and to sell it for profit. They are able to contribute to ministry, which means others are more likely to listen to what they have to say,” Mai said.

The students also spend a half-day learning “storying” or “orality,” basically an oral-style inductive Bible study. “It’s Bible storytelling that encourages non-literates and literates to discover spiritual truths,” Mai said. The storyteller uses purposeful questions so listeners can dig deeply into a Bible story and learn applications for themselves.

“Storying has high impact,” Gerry Keener said. Keener is a part-time missionary to Vietnam as well as Chief Operating Officer at Eastern Mennonite Missions. “There is a lack of printed materials in the native, tribal, minority languages and perhaps only ten percent of many village populations are literate.”

“It is absolutely amazing how this works,” Keener said. “Mai teaches students how to turn a Bible passage into an acted-out monologue. She tells the story, and then a student in the class tells the story back. She tells the story again, perhaps leaving portions blank or getting some of the details wrong. The class must correct the story or fill in the blanks.”

“Stories are a powerful way to learn about God’s actions and His character. Through questions, listeners learn about God and people. It brings the Scriptures to life and embeds principles in our memory. The principles are remembered because they are now ‘hooked’ to the stories (which are easy to remember), and not just abstract concepts.”

Keener worked with Mai to create 52 stories that tell the mega-narrative of God; to highlight the big story of the Bible. In turn, Mai has taught a beginning “storying” class to pastors in the Training of Trainers program at the institute. “It is a very popular class,” Keener said. “The students find it extremely effective. Some go on to take the more extensive course at her farm.”

“Mai and I have been able to increase and extend what each other is doing,” Keener said. “It’s an excellent example of how EMM works with a variety of people and shares a variety of resources.”

“Right now Mai is working with Ho* and Y-Yu*, two on-fire believers and leaders who desire to serve the Lord in their communities, but they have some serious challenges,” Keener said. “There are many factors impeding their access, including persecution, lack of funds, and a language barrier. Most of their people group live in remote parts of Vietnam where trainers are not allowed to trespass.”

“The course on farming and storying would provide not only a livelihood for them in their villages but also a good framework for sharing the gospel in hard-to-reach places,” Keener said. Currently he and Mai are trying to devise a way to make such training accessible to Ho, Y-Yu, and others like them.

The two-year Training of Trainers track has courses on leadership, conflict transformation, and pastoral care and counseling, to name a few. This class began in 2014.

“The class includes leaders from all the regions where Mennonite churches currently exist, as well as leaders of the three largest minority language groups in the church,” Keener said. “This is very important, as the majority of the members are not first-language Vietnamese.” Pastor Tuyen Nguyen of the Philadelphia Vietnamese Mennonite Church and Keener planned and taught the classes.

Two other tracks are offered at the Vietnam Mennonite Institute in Theology and Renewal in Ho Chi Minh City: a four-year bachelor’s degree in theology and a three-year certificate in ministry program. Both of these programs include studies in conflict mediation.

The first training program of the Vietnam Mennonite Church began in 2006 with the three-year certificate in ministry program. The first cohort included the pastors and primary leaders of the denomination. Some of these pastors now teach in the institute.

The idea for the theological institute originated in 2009 when Pastor Nguyen Quang Trung, president of the Vietnam Mennonite Church, presented a vision for launching a training program comparable to a bachelor’s degree in theology. This was to be sponsored by the Vietnam Mennonite Church with the support of Pastor Lim, a Presbyterian pastor from Korea, and Eastern Mennonite Missions. The purpose was to train pastors for the Mennonite Church and other denominations.

On March 22, 2010, the first class of 14 students opened with Salvation History: Old Testament taught by Professor Palmer Becker, formerly director of Pastoral Studies at Hesston (Kans.) College. In 2014, the first class earning a bachelor’s of theology graduated. “Those students showed such tenacity,” Keener said. “All the graduates are in ministry today.”

“These kinds of programs multiply exponentially,” Keener said. “Pastors take home what they learn to their local congregations. Trainers train more trainers. Leaders return to their villages and retell stories in their tribal languages.”

“Multiplication is a simple concept that means to increase in numbers, and it’s one of EMM’s core values,” Keener said. “It’s what happens in agriculture when a single seed produces multiple fruits. And it’s what happens when a disciple of Jesus makes more disciples." mm

Linda Moffett serves as a staff writer and editor at EMM.

*Names have been changed for security reasons.

This article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of Missionary Messenger; sign up to read more articles like this one.