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Seminarians gear up for role as international missionaries

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The Founders Café on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is grinding out a bit more coffee as students flip through Hebrew flash cards and mumble church history dates to themselves in high-octane anticipation of the spring semester’s final examinations.
For Chris Hortin and Mark Stevens, however, the adrenaline has only begun to flow as they look past the looming test schedule to packing their bags for the Philippines as the first students to cross the ocean as part of the seminary’s Billy Graham School for Evangelism, Missions and Church Growth’s master of divinity in church planting degree program.
The M.Div. in church planting is a cooperative effort between Southern Seminary and the SBC International Mission Board, akin to a program already under way at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.
Students in Southern’s program complete 66 credit hours on the Louisville, Ky., campus before spending two years overseas as church-planter apprentices under the supervision of a seasoned IMB missionary. The program, sponsored by the IMB’s International Service Corps, will provide the students with a stipend as well as housing and transportation on the field while they complete their seminary studies on-site and immerse themselves in the culture and language of the people group with whom they are assigned. At the end of the two years on the field, the students will receive their seminary degree and will have met the experience and language requirements for appointment as career missionaries.
The Stevenses will be serving with career missionary Jeff Palmer in the IMB’s Rural Life Center in Davao Del Sur, while the Hortins will be church planting with missionary Jess Jennings outside Butuan City on the Agusan River.
Stevens, a native of Nixa, Mo., traces his call to missions to his trip to the 1990 Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans, a high school graduation present from his father. Although he remembers the spirited debate in the Superdome over the presidential nominations, Stevens was most profoundly impressed by the then-Foreign Mission Board’s world missions presentation.
During that report, the board’s leadership announced that, because of the cataclysmic changes which would later lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian believers were pleading for 100 new Southern Baptist missionaries.
When Stevens heard that only four people at the time had qualified to go, he was cut to the heart with conviction about his own role in world evangelization.
While in college, Stevens pursued his call by making short-term mission trips to Florida and Russia. Living among the Russian Christians for several months at a time confirmed for Stevens that God had indeed called him to carry the name of Christ to the nations. Coming to Southern Seminary, he found the newly formulated M.Div. in church planting an ideal fit for his calling.
“In the past, the only option someone with a call to missions had was to finish seminary, maybe serve as pastor for awhile and then go right out onto the mission field,” he said. “There have been so many missionaries who were just overwhelmed trying to prepare themselves for serving in a completely different culture, learning the language and ministering to the people.”
Hortin, a native of Olney, Ill., recalls being reluctant to come to Southern Seminary because of the seminary’s academically rigorous reputation. He said he decided to come, however, after watching unprecedented changes taking place at the seminary after the 1993 election of R. Albert Mohler Jr. as president. Rather than simply sounding an “Amen” from afar, Hortin voted with his feet and enrolled as a student.
Hortin heard of the developing M.Div. in church planting program in a pre-enrollment telephone conversation with Stevens’ wife, Barbara, who was then serving in the seminary’s office of admissions. Hortin is also no stranger to missions. He currently ministers to soldiers in basic training at nearby Fort Knox through Operation Appreciation, an evangelistic outreach organization.
Bonita Wilson, IMB personnel consultant, hailed the M.Div. in church planting as an excellent program which could revolutionize the way ministerial students refine their gifts and are equipped to become global missionaries.
“This will provide training that is related more to the actual work of a missionary than pastoring a church in America due to its cross-cultural nature,” she said. “It also gives them a broader knowledge of this type of ministry and living situation, which assists them in choosing a career position. Many students are open to the idea of missions but are unsure about their ability to minister and live in another culture. This can help them answer those questions without making a long-term commitment.”
Wilson said she is excited about the launch of the new degree program at a time when she believes, based upon her interviews with students on the Louisville campus, God is stirring record numbers of Southern Seminary students toward the global missions challenge.
“A few years ago, a consultant from our office visiting the campus would have many open interview times within a day,” she related. But these days, the interview times are booked full.
“As well as the interview times being filled, I am often stopped in the halls by students with questions concerning involvement in international missions,” Wilson said. “Many students speak about being challenged in their classes to consider the call to go to the unreached of the world. They are open and seeking to discover their role in world evangelization.”
Wilson attributed much of the budding excitement among Southern students for international missions to the Seminary’s Billy Graham School, led by dean Thom Rainer.
“I believe that the Billy Graham School has made a great impact in the increased awareness of and interest in missions,” she noted. “As this school’s ministry and enrollment grows, I believe we will see even more SBTS students answering the call to serve God overseas.”
Stevens and Hortin are convinced the new degree is helping them answer the call.
“I’m so excited about this degree program because it gives me the tools I need in both the classroom and on the field,” Hortin said. “I need the discipline of the classroom and I need the hands-on on the field.”
Both Stevens and Hortin express gratitude for the high academic standards which once seemed so nerve-wracking to Hortin. They feel well-prepared for the mission field after having studied under missions scholars such as J. Mark Terry, George Martin and Robert Don Hughes. They also sense a firm grasp of the gospel which they will be taking to the Filipino people thanks to the evangelism instruction of Timothy Beougher and the theology classes of Mohler and Daniel Akin, vice president for academic administration and dean of the school of theology.
“Dr. Mohler has shown me how it is that I can go onto the mission field and trust that the Bible I am teaching from is true for me and true for them,” Stevens said. “Dr. Akin really emphasizes Christology. I feel like I can now much better communicate who Jesus is and what he did.”
Stevens and his wife have a newborn child while Hortin and his wife, Sue, just discovered they are expecting their first child. That makes the move to the Philippines even more anxiety-producing as new grandparents, close friends and church families are left behind in the United States. Nonetheless, Hortin and Stevens express full confidence that going to the Philippines for two years is their niche in Jesus’ Great Commission mandate.
“What did Jesus say about leaving father and mother and houses and lands for the gospel?” Stevens remarked. “What a privilege to be able to leave home to share the gospel with people who have never heard it!”
Stevens and Hortin joke about being the “guinea pigs” as the first two Southern students to go abroad with the IMB under this degree program, but they confess they are humbled to be sent out from the school which bears the name of one of the most extraordinary evangelists in the history of Christendom. They also see their appointment as a historic inauguration of a long line of Southern seminarians studying and serving on the field.
J. Mark Terry, associate dean of the Graham School and A.P. and Faye Stone associate professor of Christian missions and evangelism, will be traveling to the Philippines in January to lead short-term teaching modules for which Hortin and Stevens will complete assignments both before and after the seminars. They will have assignments to complete on the field and will receive instruction from the missionaries with whom they will be serving. The seminary has plans to send the second group of students to West Africa in 1999.
Terry is as enthusiastic as Hortin and Stevens about the possibilities the degree program holds for the advance of the gospel around the globe.
“The great thing about this is that it is specific, focused training for missionary church planters,” Terry said. “Our master of divinity degree in the past was designed to train pastors for county-seat First Baptist churches with tall steeples, white columns, red brick and, naturally so, because that’s where most of our graduates went.
“But God called some of those graduates to missions and they went out to be church planters to countries around the world and they discovered they really didn’t know what to do,” he explained.
“These students will have the opportunity to observe a veteran missionary, to work with him and then to do it for themselves under his guidance,” Terry said. “It’s very much like carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, are trained: ‘I do. You watch. You do. I watch. You do. I check up.’ This is a very practical means of equipping people for what the International Mission Board needs the most, which is church planters.”

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  • Russell D. Moore