We’re Out to Be Transformed: Missions in the 21st Century


By Rob Nash
The seminary I attended in the 1980s had a powerful slogan that most of us bought into without much reflection. “We're Out to Change the World!” it screamed. I'll confess that I drank the Kool-Aid.

The world was a bit different at the time. We had so much confidence in ourselves. Denominational engines were steaming. Thousands of missionaries from the United States were engaged in mission and ministry all over the world, many of them from my school. We believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that God had blessed us as a nation and as denominations and that God was determined to work through us to accomplish this grand vision. In fact, my particular denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, had determined in the year 1976 that it would share the gospel with the entire world by the year 2000 and that it really didn't need any help to make it happen—not even from the Methodists.

That we failed in this endeavor probably goes without saying. In fact, I think the framers of this strategy must have misunderstood God. I think what God tried to tell us was, “I'm going to share the entire world with you by the year 2000,” because that is exactly what happened.

Few among us could have predicted the future that now exists. Millions of immigrants streamed into the United States, radically changing our perspectives on God and faith. The Cold War ended. Powerful revolutions in technology, transportation and communication occurred. In the process, the Christian faith became a global faith, fueled by a vital church in Asia, Africa and Latin America that completely changed . . . us.

Thank God that we failed in living out that slogan. As it turns out, we were the ones who needed changing. Desperately. We needed to be reminded of our own limitations and of the need to work together with and alongside God's people. We needed to quit talking so much and to start listening. Some confession was in order. We had gotten at least as much wrong in the process of sharing the gospel with the world as we had gotten right.

Now don't misunderstand me. I'm grateful for those missionaries who served around the world through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was their sacrifice and ministry that made the Christian faith a global faith. But the challenge for the church has always come at the point of recognizing that it has gotten its wheels in a rut and that God is doing a new thing to which it should begin to pay attention.

I have just returned from the Philippines where I delivered the Lide-Walker Lectures at the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary on the theme, “Pausing2Listen: The Bible and Mission in the Twenty-First Century.” In many ways, this was a visit home for me, a return to the country where my missionary parents raised me. The journey provided ample opportunity for reflection upon the mission of God in the twenty-first century and upon what we at the McAfee School of Theology ought to consider as we prepare ourselves for mission and ministry today. Perhaps two thoughts will help us to get started:

1. We have more to learn right now than we have to teach.

We're probably more likely to be transformed by our engagement in the world than we are to transform. It's just the way it is. The gospel has taken root in various cultures. In the process it has become a powerful and unique gospel that is spoken by the people in a particular place and to the people in that particular place. What transforms us is the radically new perspective on the gospel that emerges for us as we have the privilege of working alongside our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and even in our own context.

2. Our engagement in the world must emerge out of the conviction that partnership and not control is an essential element of mission.

I enjoyed the opportunity one evening at the Philippine seminary to look at the pictures of the faculty members who had served the school since its founding in 1952. Until the mid-1980s most all of the faces in the pictures were of Anglo-Americans, former missionaries, who had served the school as administrators and faculty. Today, almost the entire faculty is from the Philippines and other Asian countries. Notable exceptions are Cindy and Ryan Clark, graduates of McAfee School of Theology, who teach music and pastoral care respectively. What impressed me about Ryan and Cindy was their quiet presence among that capable group of teachers. They serve the seminary as partners with Filipinos and Koreans and other nationalities who, together, train the future leaders of the churches of Asia. In addition, two McAfee students, namely Meg Olive and Neil Boggan, have studied at PBTS. I am sure both of them would attest to the powerful influence of their Filipino brothers and sisters upon their understanding of God and church.

For this reason, I've got a new slogan that I'd like to offer as a calling for all of us at McAfee and as the US church in the twenty-first century: “We're Out to Be Transformed.” We're open to what God would say to us in such a day. We're open to listening. We're open to ministry together in partnership with a global church that, quite honestly, has far more to teach us than it has to learn from us. And my true hope is that the churches of Asia, Africa and Latin America might share the gospel with us . . . say, by the year 2050.
Dr. Rob Nash is the Associate Dean for the D.Min. Program and the Arnall-Mann-Thomasson Professor of Missions and World Religions at McAfee. This article was previously published for Tableaux: McAfee's Global Footprints.