DIRECTalk: Khoo Ho Peng: Seminary is not a cake factory

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When former Principal Rev Tie King Tai was elected as the President of the Sarawak Chinese Annual Conference (SCAC) 2017-2020, Rev Khoo Ho Peng from Kuching was appointed as Principal of Methodist Theological School, Sibu (MTS).

Rev Khoo points out that theology is the study of God. Everyone needs to learn about God, every day. “Theological education, to me, is a building up of an entire person, not just intellectually, but also in spiritual matters, in character, evangelism, and zeal for missions. So I insist on a comprehensive theological education.” Khoo also says that theological students need to focus on building a personal relationship with God and to grow actively, not just from the requirements of the theological school.

Small in size, well read, soft-spoken – that is the first impression one has of the new Principal of MTS, Rev Khoo Ho Peng. Church members probably see him most often in the pulpit as the translator for the bishop or a foreign speaker, since he is fluent in both English and Chinese.

Even though Rev Khoo has been teaching in MTS for 18 years, being the Principal is a completely different task. What are his plans for the future of the school?

Chief Editor of the Chinese Methodist Message, Wong Meng Lei, had a face to face with Rev Khoo. (Q: Wong Meng Lei, A: Rev Khoo).

Q: Rev Khoo you are from Kuching. Are you Hakka?
A: I am considered one. I was born in 1964 in Kuching, and my old home is near Trinity Methodist Church. My father was originally from Fu Jian Xiamen, coming as a young man to Kuching. He was originally a businessman; but later he became a teacher. My mother was a born and bred Kuching Hakka, also a teacher. After marrying my father they had 8 children, I am number 4.

Q: Were you from a Christian family?
A: My father was not a believer initially, but my grandmother was a Catholic. Since my father taught in a village school and only came home once a fortnight, I was raised by my grandmother.

My father was not a believer in his younger days, but because he was an alcoholic, the education department ordered him to stop drinking. So he joined a sobriety class led by a missionary. Later, he met Rev Deng Bing Xin, and so started to join worship services regularly in Ching Kwong Methodist Church. My mother followed him to the services.

Q: How about your own journey of faith?
A: When I was in primary 4 or 5, Ching Kwong Methodist Church held Sunday School classes in Kenyalang Kindergarten. I was taught and molded in that Sunday School. In 1977 Rev Stephen Tong held an evangelistic rally in Ching Fu Methodist Church. My sister and I joined and decided to trust in Christ. But only my sister went on stage. I was afraid of being scolded by Rev Tong, so I did not go forward.

But in my heart, I was confident of the evangelist’s words ‘there is only one real God’. After I went home, I felt very guilty, and kept telling God, “Jesus, I really believe in you.” Later I started serving actively in church and the youth fellowship.

Bringing grandmother’s pillow to seminary

Q: When did you confirm God’s calling?
A: The earliest point was probably during secondary school. In form 5 or 6, I heard a pastor say, the harvest is plentiful but pastors are few. I silently vowed to God, “Please use me if you want!”

At around the same time, Rev Wong Tiu Bang was also encouraging young people to dedicate themselves to God. But at that time, most of those who responded to the call were not highly educated. I thought this was disrespectful towards God, since dedication should be done after graduating from college. So at the time, I was also very afraid of bumping into Rev Wong, because without fail, whenever he saw me he would tell me to dedicate myself to God and not wait! Hahaha…

Later, during my Sixth Form exams, I somehow failed the General education paper, which I had been most confident of. I had to retake the exam. During this time, God taught me to be humble and to submit, and not to wait any longer.

It was in 1986 and my father had passed away. I was then a substitute teacher at Kuching Batu Kawa Min Lit Secondary School. When I decided to commit myself to God and full time ministry, I was afraid that my mother would not approve, so behind her back I wrote my testimony for the pastor. Later when my mother found out, she did not disapprove, and only said to me that if this was my choice, I should serve faithfully. At that time my mother had only begun to serve God more actively.

My grandmother who had raised me and who loved me most, only asked me two questions: One, can a pastor marry? Two, how much does a pastor earn in a month? I remember I brought the two questions to my pastor. He only told me, God will provide everything! Hahaha…

So then I entered MTS. My grandmother even made me a pillow to bring along. Unfortunately later when I came back from Singapore, I did not bring it along with me. Now when I think about it, I should have kept it, it was a gift from my grandmother.

Q: Can you talk a little about studying in the seminary?
A: In 1986, I came to MTS, bringing the pillow my grandmother made and a few items of clothing. I remember at that time, it was Rev Tiong Chiw Ing who met me at the airport. She welcomed me with a smile, saying, “You are the only student this year.” Later I understood that dedication to God is walking with God alone.

Rev Tiong also taught me a dialect I had never heard before – Foochow. In July of 1986, I was transferred to Trinity Theological College (TTC) in Singapore.

Language training in
different environments

Q: When did you graduate? What did you do after graduation?
A: I graduated in June of 1990. After graduation, I was appointed as the Director of the Board of Education in SCAC, and also pastor of Wan Fu Methodist Church in Sarikei. I even had to use Foochow to preach. So I had to finish preparing my sermon by Tuesday, then I had my SCAC co-worker Mei Rong to help me with pronunciation. At that time Rev Wong Kiu Nguok was the District Superintendent of Sarikei. She had me preach the sermon to her on Saturday night, after which she would correct me. When I think back about those days, it was really a time of extreme education!

In 1991, I was appointed to Trinity Methodist Church in Kuching, where I had to preach in English. Then there was a Malihah Preaching Center where I had to use Hakka. In Singapore during my internship, I also had to speak Hokkien. It seems like God is always challenging me with my language skills, hahaha….

Q: So when did you further your studies? What did you specialize in?
A: In 1994 I was appointed to Wesley Methodist Church in Sibu. After three and a half years, in July 1997 I went back to Singapore, to TTC, to study Master of Theology, with a concentration in pastoral theology, especially counseling.

This was because during my days of pastoring churches, church members often came to me for counseling. So I decided to concentrate on counseling. I am always facing challenges and learning to overcome them.

To this goal, I also had joined a short term Bible counseling class, and pushed the ministries of counseling laity and training pastors in counseling. When I was the director of the SCAC Board of Family Wellness and Counseling, I promoted each counseling center and set up volunteer counseling programs. In the future, I will likely also add to the counseling classes in the theological school.

Q: When did you join the MTS faculty?
A: In July 1999 I officially joined MTS. Except for the period between August 2003 and July 2007 when I was studying in the United States, it has been 18 years.

Q: Do you think the students you have taught reached your expectations?
A: I hope MTS is not a cake factory, making only one type of product. MTS is a place for shaping people, not a place to make ‘Ang Koo Kuih’, hahaha… and everyone is unique. The process of pastoring also brings out each person’s unique talent, to become good pastors; I have witnessed many. At the same time, except for those married with kids, most of them are still pastoring in churches.

Of course, I also hope that they can be the successors. As pastors, scholars, people of God’s word, and more than that, as prophetic pastors, they should respond prophetically to the needs of society at the earliest point.

From passive to active students

Q: What is your personal view of theological education?
A: Theological education, to me, is for the whole person, not just an intellectual study. We need to consider spirituality, character, evangelism, and zeal for missions, so I insist on a comprehensive theological education.

At the moment, the focus of MTS is on the growth from passive to active. Now it is still quite passive; hopefully, this will change.

Seminary students need to seek a personal relationship with God, and to keep growing. They need to improve their growth in life, not just from the requirements of the school, but autonomously.

However students of this age are quite different from those of the 80s. They need more guidance, to help them from passive to active growing.

Q: Will the 5 o’clock morning prayers at MTS continue?
A: Yes, it will continue. This prayer meeting started in 2009. In the beginning we took attendance but later changed it to have the students keep each other accountable, and also to have the family group parent to pay closer attention.

Lecturers need pastoring experience

Q: What is the plan for the future of MTS in terms of both facilities and internally?
A: With regard to facilities, the Board of Directors already has a comprehensive plan, especially for new buildings. As for student hostels, they are decent, but of course there is room for improvement, since we have to meet the requirements of this age.

As for lecturers, we have started a plan for reserve lecturers. The plan is in motion; however the Iban department needs improvement. We do require lecturers to have pastoral or missions experience, since it must be closely related to reality. We cannot afford to be out of touch.

In these times it is popular for theological education to focus on spiritual growth and training of leaders. Hopefully future pastors will not be merely pastors, but also scholars. For example pastors in the Hong Kong church are bold in expressing their opinions, thus they have become leaders in the worldwide church, as people who have truly combined real life and faith.

Q: MTS belongs to SCAC, Sarawak Iban Annual Conference, and Sabah Provisional Annual Conference. What is your view on this? Will MTS become an independent institution in the future?
A: It is actually a good thing that MTS belongs to 3 annual conferences, because every conference emphasizes theological education. Also, funding is not an issue, and as for administration, the Board of Directors does not have too many restrictions, but show a lot of concern for us. It is mostly for accountability.

However, if the annual conferences cannot provide lecturers, their involvement decreases. Hopefully in the future all the 3 annual conferences can be more involved.

Q: Where do the current theological students come from?
A: Currently, we have theological students from the Anglican church, the BEM Borneo Evangelistic church, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. In Short Term Missions School, we have students from West Malaysia and independent churches. Of course, most of the students are local and from our denomination.

Q: Have you ever considered cultural or contextualizing theology classes, for example classes about the Iban culture or the unique Sarawak culture?
A: In the past we have not, but thank you for your reminder, we can consider it. Now that I think about it, we are lacking in this area. We can start with the master’s program theses, to study the history of the local church, for example how the church influenced the local development of medicine, farming, education, and other areas.

In fact, every year MTS goes to different places in Sarawak for short term missions and evangelism. This is an element unique to MTS, which other seminaries do not have.

Q: Can you discuss what theology is? Church members often think of theology as something that is of a high level.
A: Theology is really just how to learn about God. Everyone needs to learn about God, every day. The church is the nurturing ground of theology, and the important thing is how to disciple people. Three to five years in seminary is not enough, hopefully they will continue to learn.

Q: Lastly, do you have any words for the church?
A: I am limited. I need to watch as I go, to listen to God’s voice, to see the needs of the church and society. Only then will our theological education better fit God’s will, and we will understand the purpose for our place in these times. MTS belongs to everyone, not just a person, so we need all the churches to unite in concern and cooperation.

We cannot go on wild goose chases, because otherwise whatever we do has no vitality. You have provided some suggestions today; I will investigate whether it is possible to carry them out.

I particularly like a story that Bishop Choa Heng Sze told about an old monk who was raising funds to build a temple. The old monk went around until he came to a rich man’s house. The rich man told the monk not to go around fundraising anymore, since he would provide all the money needed. But the old monk refused to accept the money, because the temple belonged to everyone. So it is with MTS. It belongs to all the churches!
Interviewed by Menglei
Recorded by April
Translated by Joy Tie

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