[Note: this article by professor George Robinson is the fourth in a semester-long series on Mondays describing various ways we at SEBTS seek to equip pastors for local churches. Dr. Robinson serves as Richard and Gina Headrick Chair of World Missions and
Assistant Professor of Missions and Evangelism at SEBTS. This article is in two parts, part two coming on Wednesday]
“Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!” said Dorothy in that famous line from the classic movie Wizard of Oz. Those words of exclamation came when she looked around her and everything had changed. The filmmakers eventually highlighted the stark change in her surroundings by changing from black and white to color, creating for the viewer a magical world filled with intrigue. But this Technicolor world was not without its challenges . . . and opportunities.
I have the distinct privilege of equipping students here at SEBTS who are preparing for all sorts of ministerial callings. I have been teaching missions, evangelism, and intentional disciple-making for over 5 years now. Traditionally pastors have only been equipped to exegete the text of Scripture in their seminary studies. At SEBTS we believe that pastors need to be able to exegete the context of their ministry with equal precision. We desire to serve pastors by equipping them not only as expositors, but also as missionaries. One of my greatest joys is equipping current and future pastors to do just that. I’ve been both vocationally – that is I have served as an international missionary and as a local church pastor. And the lessons learned in the former have served me well in the latter. “Why?” you ask. Because we’re not in Kansas anymore! Take a look around you and you are likely to see that the world around you is now ethnically diverse. Pastors must realize that even though you may never leave Kansas to go to Oz, that Oz has come to Kansas, and Kansas will never be the same. Pastors will have to learn how to think and live like missionaries if they are to impact their communities and the world. Are you ready for it? You’d better be or else you’ll find yourself increasingly frustrated and possibly even irrelevant as time passes.
Recently the Brookings Institute noted that, “Due to immigration, a combination of more deaths and fewer births among whites and an explosion of minority births, the U.S. is poised to be a majority-minority country sooner than predicted.” While ethnicity is not the only factor in understanding context, it certainly does need to be in our consideration. The bottom line is that the rapidly changing context that many SBC pastors call their “Kansas” demands that we take into consideration the practices that international missionaries know to be indispensible. Some people refer to these as “missional church practices”. The word “missional” draws from the concept of missionary activity and strategy changing a noun/verb into an adjective/adverb. In other words, it entails that a pastor and their church is taking on the characteristics of a missionary. What are those activities that will help a pastor to engage their community like a missionary? Following is a list of just a few followed by some personal narrative that hopefully will take the mystery out of a biblical practice that unfortunately some have dubbed as a trendy.
1. Know the place.
When I first moved to South Asia as an IMB missionary back in the late 1990s, I wanted to know everything I could about the area to which I had been called. I read everything I could get my hands on about the place. I knew the geography before I ever hit the ground. That was important because it was going to be our home and our place of ministry. I wanted to be as familiar as possible so that I would never miss out on opportunities to minister. After we got there our supervisor set us free to explore and even pushed us to get lost – just so we would become dependent upon the locals to find our way back. Life was an adventure as we used trains, planes, and automobiles to explore our new home – meeting and engaging in gospel conversations with people all along the way. Fast forward several years to a time when I was serving as an associate pastor in a rural SBC church. I will never forget my first day when a deacon in the church was showing me around the community. He drove us by all of the local places familiar to him. After all, he was an expert having lived there his entire life. And then I asked him what was down one particular road. His reply, “I don’t know. Never turned down that way.” I was shocked that he had lived in the community for 50+ years and had never turned off the beaten path to explore. A pastor with a missionary mindset will study and explore the community – all of it. And they will do so with fresh eyes looking for gospel opportunities.
2. Know the worldview.
Prior to moving to South Asia I also studied the people group with whom we would be working. They were considered to be an “unreached people group” made up of about 140, 000 Muslims. I had studied Islam in seminary and knew that all Muslims are not the same. So I started reading their history and found that they had only converted to Islam several centuries ago, prior to which they had a history of both Buddhism and ultimately animism. I learned that their worldview was much more complicated that what was just on the surface. And when I got there my search to understand why they think the way they do continued as I interviewed hundreds of people asking questions that would help me to articulate the gospel in a way that’s understandable to them. Fast forward to my role in a local church and I found out very quickly that though this area was filled with people who called themselves “Christian”, there were other conflicting worldviews underneath that complicated ministry. So I had to study their history, ask lots of questions, and really seek to get beneath the surface to understand why they think the way they do. Gaining a better grasp of the local worldview was crucial to ministering the gospel in my community.
3. Know the people.
Merely knowing about people never substitutes for knowing people when it comes to ministry. When I served as a missionary I was very intentional about forming relationships with lost people around me. With the information that I had gathered on the geography and worldview of my target area, I set out to establish an understanding of real people. I was blessed to have an influential national friend who honored me by introducing me to his network. We would often spend days traveling to villages up and down the valley where we lived just talking to people and more importantly, listening to them. If you want to really know people, I learned you have to ask more questions and allow what you learn from their answers to prompt additional questions. People love to talk about themselves – and that serves a missionary well. Most of those relationship that were established had the gospel brought to bear on them in one way or another. I formed genuine friendships with the lost around me, and in so doing I gained not only respect, but a hearing. Back in the US I had to overcome the tendency of being a pastor who does all the talking. Think about it: one of the central roles of pastors in the US has become preaching to people in a monologue. Everywhere we go we are asked to speak. But I recalled the art of listening that I had cultivated in my time overseas and it served me well as a pastor. I made it a point to go into people’s workplaces and homes and ask questions about them, their interests, and then listen. Those relationships I formed as a pastor provided countless opportunities to speak at appropriate times. And I found that when I did speak, having listened, that I was being listened to in a much deeper manner than I would have otherwise. Pastor, know the lost in your community! Paul lists it as a qualification for your position in 1 Timothy 3:7 as having “a good reputation with outsiders”. Most pastors don’t meet that simple qualification because they have long since cut themselves off from the broader community thinking their only role lay within the church.
[The conclusion to this article will be posted on Wednesday]