Dr Professor Eric Trozzo visited Australian Lutheran College (ALC) in October to discuss the ongoing relationship between ALC and the Sabah Theological Seminary (STS), where he is a lecturer and director of the Lutheran Studies Centre.
Since 1988, STS has been training pastors and lay workers for service in the Protestant churches of Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost state, on the island of Borneo.
The Lutheran Church of Australia has worked in partnership with STS, supporting the Lutheran Studies Centre since its formation in 2012. This support generally takes the form of ALC supplying STS with occasional guest lecturers in Lutheran theology.
Last year the centre produced a Bahasa Malaysia translation of Luther’s Small Catechism, printing 30,000 copies for every church family in Malaysia. The instructions accompanying the books were basic: ‘Teach this to every family’.
‘[The catechism] is a tool for making the church vibrant again, and as a basis for developing a culture of grace’, Dr Trozzo said. In village churches, especially, the importance of rediscovering Luther’s theology of the Holy Spirit was central. Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed was key, he said.
Dr Trozzo gave a public lecture at ALC on 14 October, on the topic ‘Lutheran identity formation in Southeast Asia’. This is a sensitive topic among the Protestant churches in Sabah. The Basel Christian Church in Malaysia (BCCM) grew out of a largely immigrant 19th century Chinese population and is largely Reformed in its theology (though influenced by Chinese-speaking Lutheran missionaries). The smaller Protestant Church of Sabah (PCS), formed in the 1950s, is largely an indigenous church, primarily from the Rungus people of northern Borneo, but with a theological identity closer to the post-war Lutheran missionaries.
There is also the challenge of promoting Christianity within an Islamic country. While at least a third of Sabah’s population is Christian, in Malaysia overall just 10 per cent are Christian. In urban areas, that falls to 1 per cent.
The Pentecostal churches active in Sabah add another challenge, particularly in relation to aspects of baptismal theology and the role of the Spirit.
The Lutheran Studies Centre is focused on developing local Lutheran leadership in theology, providing resources to congregations, and giving targeted theological training to pastors and lay leaders.
‘These are not dead churches; they are vibrant and seeking to be faithful’, Dr Trozzo said.
PCS today has 300 congregations with 30,000 members, though it lacks trained clergy. BCCM is growing too, establishing on average one congregation per year.
‘They are vibrant, but needing new resources. Very simple congregations— basic, but full of life’, Dr Trozzo said.