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There’s a ‘there’ out there, Rankin tells seminarians


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–“There’s a ‘there’ out there,” SBC International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin told students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary during a March 17 Global Missions Day chapel service. “Where’s ‘there’ for you?” the missions leader asked.
According to missions professors and students at Southern Seminary, indications are growing that “there” is somewhere on the mission field for an increasing number of students at Southern Baptists’ oldest seminary.
Rankin, preaching from the life of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 17 and 18, challenged seminarians to wonder if God is equipping them not for the church fellowship halls of the southern United States, but for the bombed-out town squares of war-torn Bosnia or the bustling marketplaces of Southeast Asia.
“What does your calling and place of ministry have to do with God’s plan and purpose that the nations would worship him?” Rankin asked students. “To seek to pastor a well-established church that can provide an affluent support and lifestyle? Or would it be like Israel, whom God chose to be a priestly nation?
“What is the focus of your ministry?” he continued. “Simply to continue on a tradition of church-related ministry in the midst of steeples and various religions and denominations where 95 percent of those called to the ministry serve with just 50 percent of the world’s population? Or does your calling … have anything at all to do with the (thousands of) people groups that do not yet have access to the gospel?”
Recalling his seminary preparation and training for the mission field, Rankin spoke of arriving as a new Southern Baptist missionary in east Java, Indonesia, and realizing that he and his family were “there,” the very arena of service for which God had been cultivating him all his life.
“Where is there for you?” he challenged, pointing to the account of God’s providing for the prophet Elijah by sustaining him with water from a brook, food from the mouths of ravens and nourishment from a foreign widow. “There in the place of God’s will is the place of his provision. God provided for Elijah only where he was obedient to go where God directed him to go and to do what he went to do.
“Our more than 4,000 missionaries would testify that being obedient to God’s will, a willingness to go where God directs them gives assurance of God’s provision,” Rankin said. “You won’t necessarily find Pizza Hut and Diet Coke on many of those mission fields, but God provides for the needs of each one and their families.”
Just as God providentially spared Elijah from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, Rankin asserted, those who find themselves “there” where God places them can trust him for protection.
Speaking of a missionary candidate who expressed the belief that God would not expect him to place his family at risk on the mission field of a politically unstable country, Rankin remembers thinking: “Did Jesus, as he took up the cross and died and told us to go and disciple the nations, put a disclaimer: only if there’s no risk involved, only to go to those places where there’s no danger, where the world is at peace, even as, in his providence, he is stirring up the world in violence and economic deterioration and social upheaval to create a responsiveness to the spiritual hope and receptiveness to the gospel as never before?”
Just as Elijah was emboldened to draw the prophets of Baal into a confrontation atop Mount Carmel which ended in an explosive display of God’s might, Rankin said those who are called to proclaim the gospel to the teeming population of China or to the perilous landscape of a faraway Islamic republic find themselves empowered to carry the gospel of a crucified and risen Christ to a world of strangers to his grace.
“When these years of education and preparation are behind you and you seek to discern God’s will,” Rankin said the seminarians will ask themselves, “Is this it? Is this there, the place for which years ago I responded to God’s call to ministry?”
Referring to the urgent pleas from across the globe for more Southern Baptist missionaries, Rankin urged students to consider whether “there” for them might be, not a comfortable parsonage in a demographically ideal community, but a village on the other side of the planet whose people have never heard the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
Rankin’s message resonated with students and faculty at Southern. Robert Don Hughes, M. Theron Rankin professor of cross-cultural communications and missions, said a faculty meeting following Rankin’s sermon began with a devotion by missions professor George Martin which reflected on the chapel service. After overhearing someone describe Rankin’s message as “heart-warming,” Martin concluded instead it was “heart-breaking” in its convicting depiction of a world so desperately in need of more gospel witnesses.
“It was a blessing to me to hear that message, to know of the direction Dr. Rankin is taking with the board,” Hughes said. “I just really appreciate him, as a leader and as a man.”
Mark Johnson, a doctor of missiology student from Benton, Ill., and a former missionary to south Brazil, assisted IMB representatives in manning student center information booths and counseling students who sense God may be calling them to international missions.
Johnson, who said he hopes to return to the Brazilian mission field, said he was inspired by Rankin’s assertion that God is preparing a specific place of kingdom service for each individual and that seminarians should not seek to limit geographically just where “there” might be for them.
Johnson said Rankin’s visit coincided with an extraordinary surge in missions fervor on the Southern Seminary campus.
“Especially now with the direction of the Billy Graham School, missions and evangelism have become the centerpiece of the overall emphasis of Southern Seminary,” he remarked. “That’s beginning to be seen by so many students who are beginning to ask questions about their own role in international missions. I believe we are developing a missions culture on this campus.”
After seeing multitudes of Mormon missionaries and other counter-Christian groups pouring into Brazil, Johnson said he is heartened to see Southern Seminary students exhibit the same dedication for world evangelism, but doing so armed with the truth of Scripture. He attributes much of the renewed interest in global missions among seminarians to the fact that Rankin and the Southern Seminary missions faculty have themselves served overseas as career missionaries and are able to communicate firsthand the need for a gospel witness in foreign lands.
Phillip Kesler, a third-year master of divinity student from Springfield, Va., agreed Southern Seminary seems to be swelling with students being drawn to the international mission field.
“There are a whole lot of people here at Southern who are probing, investigating,” said Kesler, who is in the preliminary process of being appointed by the IMB to work with unreached Arab groups in South America. “I think in the next year or two, it is going to be interesting to see many of those who have made discreet inquiries finding themselves on the mission field.”