SBC Life Articles

An Interview with Mark Coppenger

SBC LIFE Please tell us about your pilgrimage into Southern Baptist higher education, and specifically, to Midwestern.

Coppenger I’ve been around Southern Baptist higher education in one way or another for a long time, in that I’m a teacher’s kid. My dad taught at three Baptist colleges, so I grew up running around on Baptist campuses. And I’ve also been habituated to the Midwest. My mom was from Michigan. On vacation as a youth, we would always visit relatives in the Midwest. So, I have a long-term connection with Southern Baptist higher education and with the Midwest.

I got my bachelor’s degree from Ouachita, and my Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt. After teaching a year at Vanderbilt, I applied to twenty Southern Baptist colleges, but there were no openings at all. A friend of mine at Vanderbilt suggested that I apply to Wheaton. So I applied, and was accepted, and taught philosophy there six years. While there, I came to identify very firmly with biblical inerrancy. After working those years in the midst of top-flight evangelical scholars I came to realize that commitment to inerrancy was not only compatible with strong scholarship, but it undergirded the best scholarship.

In 1981, God called me to go to seminary. We sold our house and went to Southwestern where I got my Master of Divinity. When I graduated, I pastored five years at First Baptist Church, El Dorado, Ark.

From there, I was called to be the state executive director for (the State Convention of Baptists in) Indiana. I was there in the Midwest for two years, which was a big part of my preparation to come to Midwestern.

After that, I came to work at the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention for five years as vice president for Convention Relations which brought me to a full understanding of the denominational family. It was wonderful preparation for seminary work.

When the position opened at Midwestern, the search committee contacted me and asked me what my vision and concept of for the seminary would be. I responded in January 1995 that I saw Midwestern, with its focus on the Midwest/Great Plains region, as a missionary seminary — the dream being that the entire region would become the next “Bible Belt” in America.

That connected with the search committee, and after multiple meetings and extensive conversations, we realized that we shared the same vision, and it happened.

I just think that my background, my commitment to biblical inerrancy, and my love for the Midwest were major factors.

SBC LIFE What unique contribution do you see Midwestern making to the Southern Baptist Convention in the next five years?

Coppenger Midwestern was put here back in 1957 to reach the Midwest/Great Plains region. It was an intentional seminary and that is our distinct role. Now our students from this year’s graduating class are missionaries all over the world. They go to every place from Ghana to Alabama, from Bosnia to the West Coast. But our particular focus is on the Midwest/Great Plains region.

Southern Baptists commissioned us to focus on the Dakotas, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, and the rest of the Midwestern states, and we are doing that with all our heart. Who loves Fargo (N.D.)? Well, we do! That’s why we’re here. We’re a home missionary seminary.

But, while we’re preparing people for Fargo, we’re also preparing them for Mobile, and Dallas. Even though we’re focused on the Midwest, it’s a great place to come if you’re not going to the Midwest.

We talk about the “prairie fire of awakening,” and we certainly focus on these prairies, but we’re also focusing on the prairies of the world — upon the steppes of Central Asia, the pampas of Argentina, the savannahs of Africa, the veldt of South Africa — we have a prairie missionary heart.

We also have a Midwest Center for Biblical Revival. I think that gives us a particular focus on “awakening.”

In another vein, I was speaking to D.Min. students recently and they asked about a Ph.D. program. I told them we’re not in any hurry to do that because we don’t see our role as that of turning out teachers for seminaries or colleges, but as that of preparing heroic pastors for new work areas. We do not have a lot of ancillary programs, it’s just right up the middle — Greek, Hebrew, theology. We’re turning out the M.Div. or Diploma student who’s going to pastor.

Also, I think we have the only vice president for academic affairs who is an evangelism Ph.D. Not that the others aren’t evangelistic, but Jim Cogdill is a Ph.D. in evangelism from Southern Seminary, and that puts evangelism right at the heart of who we are.

Another thing, I would say the seminary has “edge” to it. We have taken the lead in putting in our purpose statement reference to biblical inerrancy, the Peace Committee findings, and we’ve even drawn the line saying that the biblical pastorate is male. That’s not an afterthought. It’s right at the heart of what we do.

SBC LIFE On the broader scale, what trends do you see in theological education in the next ten years, especially among Southern Baptists?

Coppenger I think that the notion of seminary as ivory tower is dead. All the seminaries will have to work hand in glove with the mission enterprises of the Southern Baptist Convention and the work of the other agencies. We are team players with the other agencies and with each other in a way that we’ve never been.

For example, we’ve been talking with the North American Mission Board about the Nehemiah Project. Together we will jointly fund a professor who is in church planting. We will have on this campus a church planter professor and strategist.

Each seminary is moving toward a “two plus two” program where a student spends two years on campus getting the base of the M.Div. and then two years on the mission field being certified as a missionary.

So, the seminaries are not going to be islands or ivory towers. They’re going to be heavily involved with the entire work of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I would also say that when the conservative resurgence began, we thought in terms of the reclamation of our seminaries. In other words, it was strictly a Southern Baptist cause. Now, I’ve come to realize that this restoration of the seminaries is not just important to Southern Baptists, but that these seminaries are standing tall among American Evangelicals. Some of the other traditionally committed seminaries are being, I think, compromised by feminism and by an unbalanced emphasis on pragmatism. As a result, some are losing good professors to Southern Baptist seminaries.

The Southern Baptist seminaries with our unequivocal commitment to inerrancy, to male leadership in pastoral positions, and to expository preaching through the whole counsel of God are becoming more and more strategic in winning America. We are taking the lead in wedding conservative scholarship with bold evangelism. As a result, we are more and more becoming lighthouses.

I don’t think we envisioned this. Our seminaries, and actually the whole Convention is more influential in the evangelical realm than we thought we would be.

SBC LIFE Suppose someone said to you, “Our pastors don’t need theological training, they just need to get out into the fields and start evangelizing,” how would you respond?

Coppenger I thought that once. I thought that seminary was a hoop I had to jump through. But I went to Southwestern, and boy was I wrong. I needed every bit of it. I needed the biblical languages, I needed to learn how to preach, I needed to develop a devotional life, so I can sympathize with people who think that because I once thought it. But I was so wrong, and I have used every bit of seminary in my ministry.

I would also add that when students come to seminary, they do evangelize. We took thirty to Salt Lake City and they went door-to-door, and helped with block parties. We have mission trips. In the evangelism course they’re required to evangelize. So if they think that seminary is a place where you don’t evangelize and do missions, they don’t understand. The program at Midwestern is saturated with actual evangelism.

SBC LIFE As we approach the dawn of a new century, what excites you most about Midwestern?

Coppenger God has assembled a team here that is extraordinary. Our faculty acquisitions have been anointed and you get the sense that God has assembled a championship team that will take the field this fall. For the first time in the history of the seminary, we have biblical inerrantists in every department.

Another thing that excites me is that we’ve projected a $30 million building project for our campus, and it’s utterly hopeless from a human standpoint. We have no history of finding this much money and doing such a project. So we’re convinced that if anything happens here it’s going to be to God’s glory.

I’m also excited because of the enthusiasm of the people here. Southern Baptists have not put a lot of attention on the Midwest. We have found that as we have contacted folks in the state conventions, they’re praising God that we care about cities like Chicago and Des Moines.

Then, also, we’re working with Plains Indians who have never experienced God’s movement among them. The folks who minister to them tell us that the suicide rate among the young people is 20 percent in some places, and that the Sun Dance with the hooks in the skin is coming back. They sense demonic forces at work on those reservations as they do no where else.

Because of America’s fascination with Native Americans, I’m persuaded that a mighty movement of God among the Sioux would have a disproportionate impact upon the consciousness of America. We’re working with them, and it is our conviction that God is going to move in an unprecedented way among the Northern Plains Indians and that it will rock America.

SBC LIFE How can Southern Baptists most effectively pray for you and for the seminary?

Coppenger I would say that we need some “anti-gravity” prayers. Careerism, sin, and discouragement can pull us down. When you’re in a new work area, it’s a tougher way to go — not only in planting a church, but also in raising up a seminary. We are outside the Southern Baptist comfort zone, and discouragement can be a problem.

I think careerism is eating up the ministry today, people who want to move up the ladder of income and status. But also, it’s the mindset that puts limits on God’s leadership, like, “I’ve got to be close to Mom,” or, “I’ve got to have this kind of staff or physical plant.” This careerism is a form of gravity that just drags us down. But also, there’s just everyday sin to deal with. I think America is awash with seduction. So as we pray for the prairie fire of awakening, pray that God would burn the clutter out of the fields of our hearts.

Also, we don’t have a base of wealth to finance the new campus plan and building. So we ask folks to pray that God, Who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, will give us those key donors who will equip us with a campus to take us to the next level.

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