by Roger Shapiro
It’s hard to be a Christian in a country where Christianity was illegal until 1990. The threats of persecution, imprisonment, and the loss of jobs and homes are even more real when your father is one of those leading people to Christ.
“My father was arrested and imprisoned because of his faith. It was a big chance he took, being a civil servant and a Christian in Nepal,” said Manoj Shrestha (Th.M., 2001; current Ph.D. candidate), who was in seventh grade when his father converted.
Manoj followed his father into Christianity—a particularly difficult decision for a boy in a country where eighty-two percent of the people are Hindu. Reluctant at first, he became a true believer in high school, then a minister, and then a teacher of ministers. Eventually, he became principal of Nepal Ebenezer Bible College, one of the main seminaries in Nepal, a country the size of New York, situated between India and China. Today, he is on study leave to complete his Ph.D. at Princeton Seminary.
“I came to Princeton because God gave me the desire to do ministry work. I need to know about systematic preaching. I need to learn how to help Nepalese pastors so they can serve churches better,” he said.
That need will influence pastors beyond Nepal, according to John Stewart, PTS’s Ralph B. and Helen S. Ashenfelter Associate Professor of Ministry and Evangelism Emeritus, and one of Shrestha’s former professors and now friends. “Having him on campus is a unique opportunity for Princeton Seminary because we have the chance to train a person who will become a worldwide leader. He will help shape the next half century as to how Christian missions take place in Asia,” said Stewart.
On a per-capita basis, Nepal represents Asia’s fastest-growing Christian community. To serve those Christians, Manoj’s college graduates about seventeen students a year. “His strategy is to train hundreds of pastors. They, in turn, will go out to change the world based on how Manoj trains them,” said Stewart.
To educate future ministers—and give current ministers ongoing training—Manoj will expand his school by adding a masters program. Opened in 1992 and the first seminary in Nepal to be accredited by the Asia Theological Association, the school currently offers a three-year Bachelor of Theology degree. Watch a video tour of the school.
“There is a lot I can bring back from Princeton to help ministers elevate their skills. We’ll also have to add faculty. To provide a masters level of study, we need one or two Ph.D. professors and three or four Th.M.-level teachers,” Manoj said.
He also invites visiting professors; Stewart taught there for five weeks in 2007. Cleo LaRue, the Seminary’s Francis Landey Patton Professor of Homiletics, will be a guest lecturer in 2011 when he takes PTS students to study in neighboring India.
Now that Christianity is legal—two percent of the twenty-nine million people are Christian—it’s more important than ever to educate pastors.
“Most pastors don’t have any theological degree,” said Manoj. “In many villages, the only skills you need to be a pastor are to be able to write and to read the Bible. I will bring back programs that will help pastors elevate their skills without enrolling in a seminary. I can start a program for continuous learning similar to PTS’s School of Christian Vocation and Mission.”
Education of any sort is hard to get in Nepal. “The topography alone is a challenge. With seventy percent of the land on mountains and hills—eight of the world’s ten largest mountains are in Nepal—it’s just plain difficult to build schools,” he said. Beyond that, until the 1950s, only the most privileged people were allowed to learn.
By the 1990s, the country was building schools and Manoj graduated from high school in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. From there, he earned his M.Div. in 1996 at the Asian Center for Theological Studies and Mission in South Korea; he also gained experience in South Korea, preaching every week to Nepalese attending churches in Seoul. With that education, he returned to Nepal to teach at the Bible college until 2001 when he first came to PTS to earn his Th.M. He then returned to Nepal for seven years before coming back to Princeton.
Stewart said, “Manoj is looking for organizational models as well as academic knowledge. He wants to find everything that works because not only is he training people in a formal school, but he’s also supporting them as they go out on their own as pastors.”
Manoj also manages financial challenges. He runs his entire college on a $30,000 U.S. budget. Teachers earn between $150 and $200 per month and the average book costs $30. “I have never seen such extraordinary work going on with such meager resources,” said Stewart. “The library I have is twice the size of what they have in the school. It’s a very limited, and limiting, library.”
This modest collection reflects one reason seminaries and scholars around the world are interested in Princeton’s new library. “I’m really excited about the campaign to make our library available digitally. That will be an enormous advantage and opportunity to people in places like Nepal,” said Stewart.
With that digital library, students in Nepal will have access to many of the Seminary’s vast resources. Manoj said, “The goal of Princeton’s new library is to make a library for the world. If we can get access to the books online, that would be a big help. One of the biggest challenges schools face in Nepal is getting books. There’s no way we can buy everything we need.”
With or without the PTS library access, Nepal Ebenezer Bible College graduates new pastors every year. As they move on to churches across the country, they are building the future of Christianity in Nepal. And Manoj is committed to helping the formation of their vocations as he imports the Seminary’s knowledge and operating models.
A Capsule View of Christianity in Nepal
• Population: 29.3 million people
o 82% are Hindu
o 7% are Buddhist
o 7% are Muslims
o 2% are Christians
o 2% follow another religion or no religion
• 1769: The king thought Christian missionaries would lead to a British takeover of his country, so he closed the nation and expelled all missionaries and 58 Nepali Christians, who settled in Bettiah, India.
• Until 1950: Nepal was a closed country. No foreigners were allowed in. There was no Christian presence. There was no provision for education unless you were from a privileged family living in the capital.
• 1951: The king re-opened the country to foreigners who were development workers to start schools, hospitals and other infrastructure requirements. Religious conversion was illegal and missionaries were not allowed into the country.
• 1951–1990: It was illegal for a Nepali citizen to be Christian. Hinduism was the official religion.
• 1990: The country became a multi-party democracy and the king became a figurehead. Christians were given some freedom to practice, but Nepal was still a Hindu kingdom. It was illegal to convert to another religion.
• 2008: The kingship was abolished and what was the only Hindu kingdom in the world became a secular state. A new constitution is being written, which will determine Christianity’s new status within the country; however, that constitution is not yet complete as of 2010.