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Missions in the 21st Century: Is It a Time to Rethink Our Strategy?

In the Nick of Time

Jeff Straub

Throughout my 12-year tenure here at Central Seminary, I have been using part of my time to teach overseas. When I was hired, I told the administration that it was my intention to be a participant in world missions even if I had to do it on a part-time basis and use my own money. My heart is often on the mission field, even though the rest of me can’t always be there.

Obviously, I cannot be involved in the aspects of missions that require full-time field presence. Language learning, culture acquisition, church planting, and even field replacement all require extensive time on the field to carry out the responsibilities of ministry adequately. So what could I do as a part-timer that would meet a legitimate ministry need and at the same time scratch my world missions itch? I could travel to teach.

My first teaching junket (1997) came while I was still in the pastorate. I had finished my M.Div. and done much work toward a Th.M. when a former classmate working in Romania gave me my first opportunity at overseas teaching. I taught the Gospel of John. The syllabus had come from an extensive sermon series I had done a few years earlier, translated into Romanian. What an opportunity! As I recall, there were about 20 students in the class. It was a thrill to be with a group of men and women eager to learn the Scriptures, less than ten years after the fall of Communism. There was a deep hunger for the Word of God in those days.

Upon my return to the United States, I began to consider upgrading my education so that I could do more teaching and at a deeper level. By 1999, I had resigned my pastorate in Windsor and was working toward a Ph.D. Even before coming to Central, I taught in Russia and in the Ukraine.  Each time, I was met with a group of students that knew the rudiments of Christianity but wanted to go deeper into the Scriptures. I was hooked.

Since my first trip, I have made twenty-six trips to Asia, Europe, Africa, and Canada, offering courses to Bible colleges, seminaries, and Bible institutes. On a trip several years ago, my first to a large Asian country, one of the students, a pastor of two churches, said to me bluntly, “Do not come to our country to evangelize! You can’t do that! Come and teach us!” He was right. It would have taken me years to acquire sufficient language skills and to learn enough of the culture to even begin to evangelize, much less to plant churches. But as a professor, I could make “lightning raids” into the Devil’s turf, teaching a class to men and women who spoke English, advancing the gospel through teaching.

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It occurred to me that this is part of the Great Commission. The Great Commission is not simply evangelism and church planting. Didn’t Jesus tell the disciples to teach the converts “to observe all things” that He had taught them (Matt 28:20)? In the dozen-and-a-half countries I have since visited, I have found that there is often an indigenous Christian population that is pursuing church planting. They have the burden to do church planting. What they lack are the theological tools to do it well. This is what my Asian brother was telling me: “As a Westerner, you are not equipped to evangelize here, and as a large white American, you stick out like a sore thumb. But as a Christian teacher with theological education, you have much to offer, even on a short-term basis, that would strengthen our local churches in these places.”

So now, nearly twenty years after my first foreign trip, I am planning for three trips to four countries in the next 18 months. I will teach in Zambia and Kenya in July, Romania in October, Asia in January, and then back to Africa next summer! I am grateful for the Central Seminary administration that supports these efforts. On some of these trips, I am taking students with me so that they may see first hand the needs of the world. I now have friends all over the globe and I am a ministry partner with schools on four continents.

So what does all this have to do with rethinking our mission strategy? Well, I think that globally-minded Christians need to loosen the restrictions on kinds of missionaries we will support. There was a day when I would have said that churches should only support church planters, by which I meant men committed to evangelizing and starting new churches. I think that old approach needs to be amended. Certainly there are places where new churches are needed. But I think that a teaching ministry is an equally biblical and urgently needed ministry to consider pursuing—and supporting.

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We need well-trained men (and women) to teach overseas to help educate nationals enrich their ministries with greater understanding of the Scriptures. In Asia, in Africa, and in South America (so far, a place I have not visited!), teaching can be as important as church planting; without such teaching, churches struggle to get prepared pastors and new converts never really get discipled. Therefore, national churches never get fully indigenized. The goal with this kind of teaching ministry is to get men and women in these countries to assume the training programs themselves—which, I am pleased to report, Central’s Romanian graduates have succeeded in doing there. Central had to pull out of Romania several years ago due to increased costs, but the Romanian men we had trained have now assumed the burden and the training work continues. My fall trip will be to see what help we may offer to support the work they are continuing to do.

Some may push back, suggesting I am overstating my case or by arguing that church planting proper must be the priority, but I disagree. In addition to Romania, I have made two trips to India in recent years, teaching D.Min. classes in a seminary in south India. About three weeks ago, several of my students earned their doctorates. Because I (and several other men) went and taught, there is now a batch of men who can offer a high level of training within their own country. They are adequately qualified to pass this training to others. Does this mean they no longer need me? Perhaps! But I don’t mind working myself out of a job. There are plenty of other places begging for professors! The needs are legion! Do you want to make a difference in the world today? Consider a good seminary education that you can export overseas with a ministry of teaching. If you do this right, you will be a Great Commission Christian.

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Analogy and God Talk

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This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Yes, the Redeemer Rose
Philip Doddridge (1702–1751)

Yes, the Redeemer rose;
The Savior left the dead,
And o’er our hellish foes
High raised His conquering head.
In wild dismay the guards around,
Fall to the ground and sank away.

Lo! the angelic bands
In full assembly meet,
To wait His high commands
And worship at His feet.
Joyful they come and wing their way
From realms of day to such a tomb.

Then back to Heav’n they fly
And the glad tidings bear:
Hark! as they soar on high
What music fills the air!
Their anthems say, Jesus, who bled,
Hath left the dead, He rose today.

Ye mortals, catch the sound,
Redeemed by Him from hell;
And send the echo round
The globe on which you dwell:
Transported, cry, Jesus, who bled,
Hath left the dead, no more to die.

All hail! triumphant Lord,
Who sav’st us with Thy blood;
Wide be Thy name adored,
Thou rising, reigning God!
With Thee we rise, with Thee we reign,
And empires gain beyond the skies.

About Guest Author

This guest article has been published because an editor has determined its contents to be supportive of the values of Religious Affections Ministries. Its publication does not imply full agreement between its author and RAM on other matters.

3 Responses to Missions in the 21st Century: Is It a Time to Rethink Our Strategy?

  1. Recently, our church has voted into policy a document regarding missions, which includes three aspects that we desire to focus on in missions: 1) church planting (evangelism/discipleship), 2) teaching/training, and 3) Scripture propagation/translation. I find these three emphasized in the NT. Dr. Straub highlights what we have determined in our church as well.

  2. BTW, I firmly believe that we need to focus on the teaching ministry as a vital church ministry, because I believe it is a core responsibility for every believer at the grass roots level. An ‘every-believer-teaching’ ministry model is a model that multiplies. http://bit.ly/21Xelud

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