Training Disciples for Outreach Ministries
Church, school, mission—what is most important in the kingdom of God? To me this is not a “chicken and egg” debate to find out what presupposes what. I trust the following is our shared conviction: God is all in all, bigger than the universe. His primary agent on earth is the church, the visible community of God, the bride of Christ, the revelation of God’s power and wisdom to the visible and invisible world, the recipient of every promise and blessing, heir of the kingdom.
School is a place of interaction and innovation, a place to field questions and embark on an individual and collective quest for truth.
The school is an instrument of the church. So are outreach ministries. But we are not talking about a linear projection, beginning from the church as center, when we list church, school, and missions in this particular order. The truth is, we deal with a circle! Please allow me to illustrate.
In Ephesians 4:11 we read that “it was he (Jesus) who gave some to be apostles.” In the words of our theme, it was Jesus who gave some to be involved in outreach ministries. The apostolic ministry is one rooted in the church but operating outside of it, beyond it. An apostle is someone who is a groundbreaker, who sees opportunities where the church has never gone before. In our own organizational values we at MB Mission also talk about risk-taking obedience as a mark of missions.
Peter Kuzmich, a theologian and seminary president from Croatia, once said (and I translate from the German), “Hope is the ability to hear the melody of the future. Faith is the capacity to dance to that music.” In line with this claim, mission is when you pack your family and travel across countries and cultures to a party no one is organizing and to which you have received no invitation.
The question arises: Can any of the capabilities above be taught? In church? In school? Can we plant churches, grow disciples, have them bear fruit, fruit that will last?
In 1 Cor. 3:7 (NIV) we read a sobering observation: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” During my studies in the Fresno Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (MBBS) I invited an Iranian friend from a charismatic church to be part of my ministry discernment committee. At first he did not understand the purpose of the exercise: “If the Holy Spirit sends you to Asia, who are these people to say no?” As Anabaptists, hard-working and enduring as we are, we continue to read until we are assured in verse 9: “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” God has a huge role for us in forming disciples at all levels.
When my family moved from the Soviet Union into the promised land of Germany, three of my siblings skipped a year in school. In my very first exam in German I was best in the class. These unexpected successes came about in a rural northern Caucasus region through teaching Sunday school in German. Besides memorizing scriptures, memorizing grammar gave me a better outlook on life.
Youth work in the Frankenthal Mennonite Brethren Church was something of a Bible school: we actually had regular exams, often about some encyclopedic knowledge. Combined with the three-year, part-time Bible school, my church upbringing taught me Bible knowledge, trained me in formulating my faith and in public speaking. We had to read the Bible in a year. Since I had a life outside of my vocational training, I read the Bible during lunch breaks. Within that year my lunch companion and trainee from a broken family gave his life to Jesus.
Fresno Pacific College (FPC) surprised me with true hospitality, appreciation, and respect. They halved my tuition to bring me to their campus. Of course they did it so I could come. But they also did it so that the educational experience of their local student population would be enhanced by me, as an international student, bringing my values and experiences to the table. When they went so far as to buy a flag of Germany and put it up for me in front of the Special Events center, they gave more value to my life than I ever expected to discover. Here I was introduced to the concept of a community of learning.
The seminary confronted me with the complexities of life. Hans Kasdorf knew about my upbringing and my inner tensions and became an invaluable mentor. Since the 1990s we were busy crossing borders, and I started longing for a peaceful territory. The seminary also provided me with a peer group I still bank on wherever my global ministries take me.
After I checked with Paul Hiebert about doing a PhD at Trinity in Chicago, I resolved to let education go for at least ten years. After five years of formal education in California I had to be honest enough to admit that academia had answered all questions I have ever had, but that I had in the process lost sight of real life.
God saw it differently. There was no other way for me to become a worker in Kabardino-Balkaria except by enrolling in a doctoral program at the state university in Nalchik. This opened more doors for ministry than anything I could think of. Not by chance I saw my dean become the head of the Republic’s government. In this school I found the editors for our Bible translation project, the Jesus film, the hymnal. Here I was introduced to the arts, history, and culture of the people group I came to reach with the Good News. Here I started publishing in local journals and book series. Here I learned Russian so well that for many years I was able to work on the editorial team of Russia’s largest Christian magazine. In this university I understood something I began to appreciate at FPC: schools themselves are close to ideal places of outreach. They beg to be a platform.
Schools do teach. Schools do equip. While church too frequently becomes a weekend activity where people are talked at, school is a place of interaction and innovation, a place to field questions and embark on an individual and collective quest for truth.
Jesus was also a teacher. He taught with authority, like no one else. But at the same time he was a discipler. He talked with his disciples, but he also walked with them. Jesus took his friends to the mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:27–36). And the disciples fooled themselves by thinking they could stay in the ivory tower and have offices next to Moses (JD) and Elijah (ThD). But Jesus did not spare them the encounter with evil at the foot of the hill. Significant as the Sunday experience was, the experience with the Monday crowds was just as important.
Looking at Jesus I realize how many lectures of discipleship I still cannot teach. We can only pass on what we have received ourselves. And sometimes character formation happens when no one can work from experience. My MB Mission co-worker, Trever Godard, recently shared a story from his time when he was a missionary in Colombia. Trever and some of his students decided to participate in some outreach ministries in Peru. When they came close to the border they were told that the only highway in the area was under control of some guerilla group. There was no way they could proceed. During Trever’s morning prayer time, God gave him a text from Exodus. To provide an escape for the people of Israel, God parted the Red Sea. In faith Trever took his students on the road and crossed over into Peru. He later found out the road was only open for a couple hours. Neither Trever nor his disciples will ever forget that day and the God who revealed himself to the people of Israel. Only when we observe ourselves act do we see what we really believe. Character formation does not happen when our faith and convictions are not tested. Church and school need to be places in which a disciple is allowed to fail, get up, and keep going.
Apostles have a vision beyond the existing church. On one hand they are vehicles carrying God’s grace just like anyone else in the church. On the other hand you can tell sometimes from your first encounter that they are designed for off-road use. If they will work in accordance with their call, the church will in time reap dividends by becoming a more apostolic community. One will also be able to observe how they are investing themselves in people, just as Paul did in Silas and Timothy. Discipleship takes place when we use our spiritual gifts to grow the capacity of others to use their spiritual gifts.
How can the church help these messengers? By calling them out, nurturing them, supporting them. How can schools assist outreach ministries? By teaching languages, human geography, world religions, appreciation for cultures, by providing marketable skills, and by requiring international, intercultural experiences.
Today a plethora of intercultural emersion options is available. An excellent one is spending a semester of study abroad, for example at Lithuania Christian College in Klaipeda, Lithuania, or St. Petersburg Christian University in Russia. I am sure there are also great possibilities for intercultural involvement in our schools in Asuncion, Bogota, Bonn, Curitiba, Fresno, Kinshasa, Osaka, Shamshabad, and Winnipeg, just to name a few. Back in 1989 I ended up going with YWAM (Youth With a Mission) for a summer semester in Hong Kong. All my team members seemed to come from Mennonite schools in Goshen, Bethel, Hillsboro, and Fresno. What a gift that was to me! During that summer I joined the staff of Lausanne II in Manila, the most representative gathering of Christians in world history. Four times I had an opportunity to bring Bibles to the underground church in China. Outreach ministries will grow if all of you will mandate that your students leave the nest and learn to fly.
I close with these fitting words from John Stott’s Your Mind Matters:
I pray earnestly that God will raise up today a new generation of Christian apologists or Christian communicators who will combine an absolute loyalty to the biblical gospel with an unwavering confidence in the power of the Spirit, with a deep and sensitive understanding of the contemporary alternatives to the gospel; who will relate the one to the other with freshness, pungency, authority, and relevance; and who will use their minds to reach other minds for Christ.