Melbourne School of Theology has always thought outside the square

For the past 100 years, two key pillars have undergirded Melbourne School of Theology (MST) and secured its place as one of Australia’s most influential Bible colleges: prayer and progress.

This September, as MST celebrates its centenary, executive principal Tim Meyers reflects on how these pillars guided the college from its unconventional beginnings to its distinct present form.

“It’s actually difficult to imagine that we would have lasted a single year, let alone a hundred of them, without – at the very centre, and as a foundational commitment by faculty, staff, students and particularly supporters – a deep and perpetual seeking of God’s grace, providence, and direction, through prayer,” says Meyers, who joined MST in 2011 after years with mission agency Pioneers, and serving as a Baptist pastor.

“On countless occasions, through the history of the school, circumstances have been such that the entire future of the college appeared to be at risk of collapse; often on account of financial needs, but also through times of social upheaval, spiritual attack, moral or ethical dilemmas, or simply the challenge of maintaining a deep commitment to biblical truth in the face of an increasingly challenging, and occasionally even hostile regulatory environment. Each time there has been a call to prayer and, well, here we are, still going.”

When MST began in 1920 – on the back of what Meyers describes as “a huge thrust into global mission” – it was among a handful of Australian theological colleges established to equip lay people for mission rather than full-time ministry.

“Back then, denominations had their own Bible colleges, but they were very strongly nuanced towards clergy training. And so they were pretty much exclusively available to men,” explains Meyers.

This is where MST first found a niche: it was non-denominational, focussed on training for mission and had “a deep passion for equipping women in ministry, in ways that aligned with their gifting and their own sense of calling”.

The college – then called Melbourne Bible Institute (MBI) – was the brainchild of C.H. Nash, an Anglican clergyman and a Cambridge scholar who “had a passion for evangelism and for mission.”

“He was invited to set up a school to train people … with a focus on biblical theology, spiritual formation and evangelism,” says Meyers.

“For many, many years – decades, actually – MBI was the most significant of Australia’s Bible colleges in that sense.”

Meyers points out that well-known church historians Stuart Piggin (co-author of award-winning The Fountain of Public Prosperity) and Will Renshaw (author of Marvellous Melbourne and Spiritual Power) both describe MBI as “unprecedented in its impact on the church and mission in Australia in those first 50 years.”

He also notes that the Institute’s success was also thanks to local business people “who had a heart and the passion for it and gave a lot of money and support to it – which is still the case today, actually”.

“So, clearly [the founders] were led into a space that God was wanting to incubate in bringing equipped people into mission and ministry.”

Redefining ‘mission’

While the name of MBI has changed several times – to Bible College Victoria in 1978 and, finally, Melbourne School of Theology in 2010, when it also relocated to a new campus – the college’s commitment to mission has remained. Just with an expanded focus.

“The definition and expression of mission has certainly changed,” says Meyers.

“In the last 10 or 15 years, there has probably been a more overt focus on holistic ministry and not defining mission necessarily as crosscultural mission, although that’s still a very strong part of what we’re doing. But [our students are] also people who might be single dads or single mums or blue-collar workers or professional people who want to integrate into their life and vocation a deeper understanding of God’s word and his calling over their life.

“So rather than a departure [from MST’s original vision], it’s a recognition that given the nature of the Church being so globalised, there is as much legitimacy and need to be effective in your witness to the neighbour over the fence as there is to the unreached peoples of the world.”

From a personal perspective, Meyers adds: “It’s sort of always troubled me that missionaries were seen as this elite class of people with a degree of craziness that they would want to go and live in a jungle somewhere – as opposed to all of us seeing ourselves as called by God, being transformed by God and being used to transform others.”

Recent developments

Today MST has around 300 students – most of whom are studying part-time while working in other vocations. Of those, Meyers estimates around one-quarter are training for full-time crosscultural mission, while others are “thinking about [mission] just in terms of their own life values”.

In light of this broader definition of mission, and in keeping with its progressive focus, MST has spent the past few decades doing two things: Developing strategic partnerships to expand the variety of study options available; and, creating specialist centres for missional training in areas particularly relevant to our changing culture.

The first area of specialisation was MST’s Chinese department, developed in the 1990s to train Chinese pastors and mission workers, both locally and abroad. Then came the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam (formerly the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths), established in 2008. “The centre is the only one of its kind in Australia,” Meyers comments, “and is globally recognised as a centre of excellence in Islamic studies.”

In 2018, MST acquired Eastern College (formerly Tabor Victoria), which added degrees in teaching and education to its offerings, among others.

This opened the door to a wider student base by encouraging the “cross-pollination” of courses among students at both colleges.

Just this year – amid transferring all courses online, due to COVID-19 – MST has been establishing two new, innovative specialist centres. The Centre for Theology and Psychology will teach a “biblical theology to speak into the space of wellbeing and mental health” in response to what Meyers describes as “unprecedented levels of anxiety in society”.

“It’s already attracted a surprising amount of interest – not just locally and nationally, but even internationally. We’ve also had a lot of interest from regular mums and dads, school teachers and professional people,” he says.

Also this year, MST will launch the Centre for Missional Engagement, which will build on the Master of Missional Leadership introduced last year (as part of MST’s Master’s program).

“We’re really excited because we’ve got Kirk Franklin joining our faculty, who has just stepped down as executive director of Wycliffe Global Alliance … The centre will straddle both Eastern and MST, and hopefully incubate some new thinking about missional leadership, for example,” says Meyers.

Regarding the Master of Missional Leadership, he adds: “[The mix of lecturers is] really eclectic, which is exciting to us because it means we’re scratching where people are itching: how do they lead in a way that develops more efficacy and fruitfulness in their own context through a missional lens. A lot of that’s about organisational culture, diversity, ethics and missional spirituality.”

Onward to the next century …

When asked what’s next for MST, Meyers replies: “There’s lots of ideas, but I think our broad trajectory is to stay true to what’s in the rear-vision mirror – in our essential reason for being – [and] to find contemporary and strategic expressions of that as we look forward.”

“And to bring our supporters with us in that journey. So far, thankfully we have …

“We still rely very heavily on the prayer support and the financial support of our donors. We’re very thankful that we’ve got a strong group of people that have bought into what we’re doing.

“We’re still very much a faith ministry and that’s something that was true from the beginning.”

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