Two or Three and God

by Richard W. Sales

For many years a missionary in southern Africa, Dr. Sales serves there under the auspices of the United Church Board for World Ministries.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 2-9, 1977, p. 110. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Education, like physical growth itself, is the product of two dissimilar aspects: 1. Experience — in the form of words, actions, sights and sounds — to be collected and funneled into an individual. 2. Time — in which to sort out and reject and organize the information, to select and integrate what is significant and relate it to the previous integrations in one’s life.

Some years ago, when I was teaching at a theological seminary in South Africa, I had a very peculiar experience; as with the bear in James Thurber’s “bear that could take it or leave it alone,” the experience was somewhat more frightening to my colleagues than is my normal, somewhat cynical self. To put it briefly, I sat up one night and furiously scribbled a new, completely unrealized but very fascinating scheme for educating people for ministry -- one in which they turned to each other and God as primary sources, with books and the paraphernalia of scholastic method as tertiary kinds of helps. The part that frightened everybody was that I felt impelled, by the same authority that set me to work writing at 1 AM., to present the results to some of my staff brothers at an hour considered by even the high-church fathers of the Community of the Resurrection to be ungodly.


Let this personal reminiscence serve as a short introduction to the matter at hand: presenting something of the values I have found in a new theological education method. For in some rather remarkable ways, that experience has come true in the present. It might not be too far off the mark to say that what happened that night was a prophetic statement of what God intended for his servant after his removal from the scene where he had labored for a dozen or more years as a result of speaking out his piece of dissent before the South African government.

Or, it might simply be said that my activities and dissent did earn for me the status of undesirable alien in South Africa almost immediately afterward. And when I returned to Africa a year and a half later, it was to Botswana as a parish pastor. Then, in 1973, I became involved in setting up the first theological course leading to ordination in Botswana’s history. In the extension theological program I helped pioneer here, I have witnessed the remarkable fulfillment of the ideas and words given to me during those late-night hours so long ago.

As in other such training, extension theology involves setting up centers where the students come once a week to discuss with a tutor the work they have done and the study they have undertaken individually at home. Much has been said both for and against this kind of training as preparation for adequate parish ministry. I shall not enter into the arguments here, but instead suggest that anyone who has not experienced it should be very slow to deride it. Now to the reasons why I have become so in love with what I am doing, as a result of the method, rather than the content, of the educational process.

The standard method of theological education -- a method practiced in the public schools and on through the university -- is one of attending a certain number of classes, drafting some papers and, at the end of the term or course, writing the answers to some questions in order to indicate comprehension of the materials covered. Students are advised to read broadly in the subject and to reflect on their reading. But that task is largely one of individual initiative and individual attainment.

Over the past two decades it has been my privilege to participate in various educational experiences; the conclusion they have pointed to is that education, like physical growth itself, is the product of two dissimilar processes which are very like ingestion and digestion. The first requires experience -- in the form of words, actions, sights and sounds -- to be collected and funneled into an individual. The second process takes time -- time in which to sort out and reject and organize the information, to select and integrate what is significant and relate it to the previous integrations in one’s life. In some cases -- fairly frequently with regard to the study of theology -- this latter phase involves the removal or destruction of previously held ideas, and of integrations and orderings of those ideas as well.


What I have called the standard approach excels in the first process, providing fine lecturers and large libraries: a truly incredible input of new information. But it is quite weak in helping students to undertake the second process, that of integration, largely leaving its accomplishment up to each individual student. Extension theology, on the other hand, deals in bite-sized bits of information and excels at the second process. Its strength is in students’ sitting down with one another and digesting the information together, it, this way seeing where and how it fits, and why.

Where extension theology can exceed the standard approach in experience-gathering lies in the whole person approach; since students remain in their usual life context and work in their church during the week, the things that happen to them can be continually built upon in the study time and brought into the discussions. Each thing learned can be investigated jointly, tested for significance, and then discarded or molded into the individual’s ongoing life. Does the extension theological student thereby “learn” as much as a residential student? That question is really very difficult to answer, and any attempt to test for it would be open to bias in the testing. The extension student learns in a different way, in and through the context of his or her living.

Another major discovery about this method concerns motivation. Group study may seem tame to energetic, competitive persons, but it does generate a remarkable motivation. My African colleagues have reported instances in which an individual has, with the sympathetic and concerted concern of others in his group, come from a position of extreme weakness (and even a serious language problem) to full sharing and flowering. The motivation to belong fully to the group is extraordinary, and the results have surprised us all. Twice during the two years of our program’s operation, a group has come down to one person; in both cases that person has continued, developing a strong dependence relationship to his tutor very reminiscent of the feelings I once had about seminary professors.

Otherwise, after an initial period the tutor almost invariably becomes one of the group, and the group itself generates and carries out the responsibility to study and learn what the members find important to learn. Students express deep concern for absent members and give help to one another. In Botswana’s context, this procedure has enabled people who live in the same area but who come from different churches to find and value one another in the course of their study. The program has thus influenced interchurch relations in many local areas.


Finally, students make use of what they are learning as they work in their churches during the week. Ministerial training over a five-year period enables people to attain skills as they study, and to preach and teach even as they learn. An invaluable aid to retaining material (when we teach something, we remember it), this procedure is a means for making genuine contributions to church life from the start -- a fact that has made a deep impression on many people; our program has received about twice as many applicants for the third year as there were for the second. Learning to teach and preach grows out of the integration process for the subject matter studied. And it works.

Recently I got out that little pad on which I had scribbled so long ago. Today I can see in what I wrote things that eluded me at the time. Two or three motivated people, committed to each other and working in the presence of God, can bring the whole world into their weekly discussion, and comprehend it in part. As to who actually taught them, it was not I, nor did they teach each other. The instructor of the things of God is God. This, I believe, is theological education taking place in the presence of God.