Egypt Trip Blog: For the Sake of the Church

by Nancy Fox

Jesus said to Peter, “...I will build my church” (Mt 16). The Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo (ETSC) exists for the sake of the church, in order to serve in the Lord’s work of building up his body of called out ones. Our five days in which we visited fourteen diverse churches in the heart of Egypt was the best possible introduction to the work of ETSC because we saw and heard daily of the life-giving impact especially of ETSC’s mission program, which The Outreach Foundation (Outreach) was privileged to support and the seminary President Atef Gendy to start in 2001.

Dr. Atef’s first step was to bring Dr. Swailem Hennein, Egypt’s first missionary who had served in Sudan and Kenya, back from teaching in the U.S. to start the mission program. Dr. Swailem’s initial vision of holistic evangelism and of preparing pastors with missional hearts, expanded, refined and carried out by Dr. Tharwat Wahba (Mission Department head and current Synod Chair of the Pastoral and Outreach Ministries Commission - POMC) and Dr. Sherif Salah, has transformed the church - and the culture of the church - in Egypt. Forty percent of the Synod of the Nile’s pastors have been shaped in this ethos. The vitality, stories, statistics and rate of new church buildings all attest to a new missional culture from which the churches of the U.S. need to learn. Roughly, of the 400 Presbyterian churches in Egypt, 100 have been new church plants within the last ten years. Now even when we visit older established churches, what they are most excited to share with us is about the new church(es) they are sponsoring or starting. This has been during a time of revolution, economic crisis and increased persecution! Jesus is building his church.

After the church visits, we returned to Cairo for a full day visit at ETSC. Though I have visited the seminary now more than fifteen times, I am always surprised at the new things they are doing! A few years ago, it was a curriculum review process during which the seminary listened to the church for whose sake it exists. As a result of this listening, the programs, especially for training pastors, became more holistic and integrated, focused on sending leaders to the churches who are themselves healthy in all aspects of life - spiritually, socially, physically and psychologically. Most recently, a new program to impact society through media leadership is taking shape. In 2017, ETSC also started a certificate program in Coptic (Egyptian) Christianity through the Center for Middle Eastern Christianity that brought not only Christians from diverse backgrounds but also ETSC’s first registered Muslim students. The cohort prepared and brought food from home to share in a common meal each time they gathered, thus building a kind of fellowship that according to the Center’s Director Dr. Wageeh Mikhael is unique in Egypt.

ETSC has sought to make its courses available ever more broadly. Earlier in the week, we visited ETSC’s extension in Minya, the source of the greatest numbers of pastors. The seminary is finally able to move ahead with an expansion into a floor of a building next to the Cairo campus. Part of this new area will house the distance learning and interactive online programs they have already started to serve students who for varied reasons - religious background, country of residence, work and family commitments - could not attend courses at the physical campus. Such creative programming allows ETSC to train leaders for the Arabic-speaking church around the world, including in places where it is “underground.”

A highlight of any visit to ETSC is getting to know some of the current students and hearing their sense of call, their experiences as students and in various ministries before coming as well as during summer internships...and their dreams. This visit, we heard from Peter about how powerful it was for him in an Old Testament class to not just study the Psalm in the original Hebrew, to analyze its literary genre, and to understand it in its original context, but also to discuss together how they as pastors might use the Psalm during a pastoral visit with a suffering member. We heard from Ayoub, who has already served for twenty years as a lay evangelist, church planter and pastor near the Suez Canal, about his original compulsion to go work in that area. He heard from a friend of his who had visited a Muslim family there and learned that they had previously been Christian but had converted as a family because there was no Christian church and so they didn’t even understand what it meant to be Christian. Ayoub shared about how he and his wife in the early years would weep in frustration because they couldn’t get others to come out to Ismailia to help them. Now, he said, he has helpers in great abundance - the grown children of those they had originally reached with the gospel and discipled over two decades. For his first summer internship, he is going to Turkey to work with Syrian refugees. Another Peter was also eager to share his story, practice English, and engage with us in a lively discussion over lunch about world politics.

Jesus is building his church. And ETSC, which exists for the sake of the church, is a wonderful tool for this work. We give thanks for the faithful servants who serve in its mission.

Rev. Dr. Nancy Fox
Chairman of the Board of Trustees, The Outreach Foundation
National Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC