SPRING HILL — Equipping Christians throughout the Tampa Bay area to accurately share the teachings of the Bible is the goal of the Sunshine State Bible Institute, a nonprofit ministry established in February by Spring Hill Baptist Church.
Under the leadership of its president, Jeff Edwards, the institute will offer college-level evening courses in Bible subjects to students 18 or older who have a high school diploma or a GED. Tuition is $60 per credit hour. Discounts are available to students who attended a Christian school, were home-schooled or have a parent currently serving as a ministry professional.
"It's affordable Christian education that will allow students to graduate with a diploma but not be tens of thousands of dollars in debt," said the Rev. Ray Rouse, pastor of the church.
Classes will run from 6:45 to 9:30 p.m. each weeknight except Wednesday beginning Aug. 26. All the institute's instructors have at least a master's degree and experience running successful ministries.
"The quality of education is going to be that which you would expect at any Bible college anywhere in the country, but at a price lower than what you would get at a community college," Edwards said.
Courses offered the first semester include Theology I, Bible Study Methods, Introduction to Old Testament Literature and Introduction to Apologetics.
"Every course is practical in nature and obtains a specific goal, so students can quickly apply their education to their ministry," Edwards said. "Each course will improve a student's ministry abilities, benefitting his or her own local church."
The courses are also designed to give Christians a biblical foundation for their careers and for all of their pursuits in life. With that in mind, students can take individual courses or enroll in preparation for full-time local church or missions ministries.
The school's catalogue includes a Statement of Mission that affirms its "solid commitment to the authority of the Scriptures."
"Sunshine State Bible Institute students can expect to be challenged to pursue biblical truth, to become committed to a Christian world view and to develop professional competence," says the statement, noting that students, staff and faculty "are encouraged to be lifelong learners of God's Word, so that as Christ's servants they serve God with their whole being while impacting their neighbors worldwide."
Rouse anticipates that students from the church's other educational ministry, Spring Hill Christian Academy, who are interested in Christian service will continue their education at the institute. He also hopes students will come from other area churches, including from other counties.
"We'll see how the Lord leads and see who he sends us," Rouse said. "Our academy started in '96 with 75 students and this year we went over 300 students. So you step out on faith and start a ministry and you see how the Lord works."
Edwards, 48, who lives in Hudson and began attending the Spring Hill church last September with his wife, Sonia, has served in the ministry for over three decades, including the last 12 years as a senior pastor in New York and Pennsylvania.
He is currently the teaching assistant for Hebrew and Old Testament for Baptist Bible Seminary of Clarks Summit, Pa., from which he has earned a master's degree in divinity and is currently working on a doctorate in Systematic Theology. He served for three years as the president of Crossroads Bible School in Rome, New York, and has an M.A. in Christian Education from Dallas Theological Seminary.
"Jeff has a lot of drive," Rouse said. "He's highly organized. He's really putting things together well. So it has the potential of a tremendous ministry."
Edwards hopes to have at least six students per class for each of the four classes the first semester.
"Obviously we're hoping to have far more people than that, but that's our minimum goal that we want to reach," he said. "It's not just about us building a school or us benefiting our church. We really want to help [area churches] have better Sunday school teachers, perhaps even train up pastors for future churches in the area."
Initially, students will receive a diploma for their completed studies. As the institute grows, the ministry will seek accreditation and grant degrees.
"Baptist Bible College [where both Edwards and Rouse graduated] started in 1932 with three professors in a church about our size and now it's degree-granting, plus they have a seminary all the way up to" the doctorate level, Rouse said. "Today it has 1,000 students. So we'll start small and if the Lord keeps blessing and the need is there and the other churches and people in the area catch on and want to come, we'll take it as far as it goes."