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Winter 2008, Vol. 5

Convocation Lecture: Mission in a Rapidly Changing World

Stephen Lim, D.Min.
Academic Dean; Professor of Leadership and Ministry, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary

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Two Realities

Today’s spiritual leaders confront two realities. First, we live in a world that refuses to stand still. Everything around us appears to be rapidly changing. Consider some of the huge changes during the past generation:

  • One generation ago, in the United States, Caucasians were clearly in the majority. Now in California, Texas, Florida, and several other states, this is no longer the case. By 2042 an ethnic majority in this country will be nonexistent in the United States. So start getting used to it; we’ll all be minorities!

  • A generation ago, Americans were largely Protestants. Today this is no longer true. We live in a pluralistic religious environment with the fastest growing demographic segment being those with no religious preference.

  • A generation ago, China and India struggled with poverty and under-development. Today they are economic powerhouses. China is also an athletic superpower, winning the medal count at the recent Olympics. Who would have imagined?
  • A generation ago who would have guessed that gay marriage would ever become legal in any state?
  • Just a generation ago, few people owned personal computers. Jan Maempa, Coordinator of Academic Services, tells me that professors used to have secretaries do their typing for them. Now thanks to modern technology, we have to do our own typing. Maybe the old days weren’t so bad after all!

Many of you are familiar with a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Alice finds herself playing in an unusual croquet game in which everything keeps changing. The croquet mallets are actually flamingos with a mind of their own. Alice picks one up and attempts to hit the ball, but the flamingo she holds turns its head, making her miss. Even when the flamingo cooperates by holding still, the balls move on their own because they are actually hedgehogs rolled up into the shape of a ball. Whenever they wish, they unroll themselves and walk over to another place on the court and roll back into a ball. Alice is frustrated: How can you play a game, when everything in the game keeps changing? In frustration, spiritual leaders ask: How can we minister effectively, when the culture around us keeps changing?

I know that some of the esteemed scholars at AGTS would question the appropriateness of Alice in Wonderland as an academic reference. If so, they will recognize Peter Drucker, a Christian, widely known as the father of modern management theory. He states, “Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. … Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself—its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. … We are currently living through just such a transformation.”1

The Western Church confronts a second reality: a Church that is largely stalled. For many centuries Europe served as the center of Christendom. However, the European Church has been in decline for decades while the Muslim population continues to escalate. If present trends continue, more Muslims than Christians will live in Europe before the end of this century. In the United States during 2007, the Assemblies of God (AG) reported the fewest people baptized in water of any year in the past twelve. In the past decade, outside of the growth in ethnic churches, AG church attendance has largely plateaued. Most denominations are doing even worse.

Mission and Strategy

In the light of these two realities, a rapidly changing world on the one hand and a stalled Western Church on the other, the mission of AGTS is more urgent and relevant than ever: to help revitalize the Church and to evangelize the world. The mission statement of AGTS never ceases to inspire me. It is something to which I can wholeheartedly devote my life. It contains many important scriptural truths, which come from Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8.

How will we at AGTS accomplish our mission? Our strategy is the same as Jesus’ strategy, when He created the Church to reach the world. That is to shape servant leaders. Jesus spent over three years shaping His disciples, and then after His resurrection provided forty more days of continuing education. Just like Jesus, our strategy is to shape servant leaders. We don’t need more CEOs who command and control; nor do we need those who seek power, privilege, and personal profit. We don’t need spiritual big-shots, but we do need servant leaders. Servant leaders specialize in meeting needs in the Church and the world. They concern themselves with the spiritual needs of others. At the same time, they minister to their practical needs as Jesus did. Servant leaders enable believers to become the best they can be for God. They help others fulfill their potential as servants of God and ambassadors of Christ.

At AGTS, not only do we seek to shape leaders who are servants, but also those leaders who possess knowledge and skill. Jesus taught His disciples how to interpret the Scriptures. He shared with them spiritual truths and the meaning of holistic discipleship. He showed them how to minister effectively, and this education would continue after His departure, as the Holy Spirit would teach them and lead them into all truth.

As faculty and leaders, we must seek wisdom and knowledge from God’s Spirit. To teach our students, we need to discover the biblical paradigms for effective ministry in our changing world. For a stalled Church, it is not enough to tweak existing paradigms based on human traditions. Seeking the next great program won’t produce transformed churches. We cannot repackage the same tired strategies and methods and somehow expect a different outcome. Instead, we must learn what Australian leader, Alan Hirsch, calls the DNA of a missional church. The biblical paradigms for discipleship, evangelism, and leadership present in the Early Church made it effective. They are also embedded in every great Christian movement throughout history and today.

In addition to the right kinds of knowledge, spiritual leaders need the right skills, including exegetical skills to rightly divide the Word of truth, effective communication, and cross-cultural skills to proclaim God’s Word in diverse cultures. The Church desperately needs skills in making disciples. Most researchers and spiritual leaders address that the Church is failing to fulfill this aspect of the Great Commission. Organizational leadership skills are also necessary to effect positive change and accomplish God’s purposes.

We also need less obvious skills—in recent years called competencies of emotional intelligence. We teach these at AGTS in the courses Personal Dynamics of Leadership and Interpersonal Dynamics of Leadership. This process begins with self-awareness and self-leadership. If we don’t understand ourselves and know how to manage ourselves, how can we understand others? And if we don’t understand others, how can we relate positively to them and effectively lead them? After decades in ministry, I’ve concluded that spiritual leaders need strong relational skills for effective ministry. I share with my students, “When you boil it down, evangelism is relationship. Disciple-making is relationship. Leadership is relationship.”

Jesus was passionate about God’s Kingdom and His mission to a fallen world. He modeled this passion and communicated it to His disciples. Earlier this year, I shared in chapel: Spiritual leadership is not about finding a comfortable position; it is about passion for mission. Many seminary students have the same dream I had as a student: I dreamt of a good position with a comfortable salary. I was not greedy. I did not need to be rich. I just needed enough income for a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Of course, I would need benefits, an office, enough financial resources to implement my vision, and a congregation full of willing volunteers to carry it out.

We may or may not see our dream for this kind of position fulfilled. Regardless, all of us are called to mission. Our call from God is a call to position sometimes, to mission always. Frankly, not everyone who graduates from AGTS will have opportunity for a comfortable position, but in a fallen world, you will always have opportunity for mission. Spiritual leaders passionate about their God-given mission will not sit around waiting for a good position to come their way, but they will find a way or make a way to accomplish their mission. 

After graduating from seminary, my first ministry was exactly the opposite of what I had dreamed. I was asked to lead a home missions church with no building, no salary, and only one program—Sunday school in a borrowed church on Sunday afternoons. This church did not have a worship service, so they did not even need a preacher. The congregation had a total of two adults, along with several dozen children and youth. The two adults interviewed me. The only question they asked me was: “Our Sunday School van has a stick shift; can you drive it?” After graduating from university and seminary, I had absolutely no intention of becoming a volunteer van driver! In my heart I firmly believed, “This is the first and last time I will ever set foot in this church!”

However, several weeks passed, and no other church indicated interest in my ministerial abilities. God’s Spirit convicted me. If I am truly called to mission, I need to be willing do whatever I can for God’s Kingdom, no matter how humble, I thought. Reluctantly, I called one of the adults and said, “If you still want me, I am available.” Note that I did not say, “I would like to come.” That would have been a blatant lie! In five years, however, that church grew to an average attendance of 200. Virtually all of them were young people saved from non-Christian families and full of passion for God. I came to realize that God calls us to position sometimes, to mission always.

Along with passion, spiritual leaders must gain knowledge and skill. As a young minister, I had plenty of passion, but lacked the knowledge and skills. Often this resulted in my not being very efficient, wasting time and energy, and being less productive and fruitful. As I look back on my ministry, I think that if I had known then what I know now, I would be dangerous! How much more effective I would have been for God?

That is precisely what we attempt to do at AGTS—shape servant leaders who are dangerous to the forces of darkness, because they are effective in God’s mission. We need spiritual leaders equipped with knowledge and skills, and a passion for God’s mission that just will not quit.

Means

Our mission is to revitalize the Church and evangelize the world. Our strategy is to shape servant leaders in knowledge, skill, and passion. The power of the Holy Spirit provides the means. What did Jesus advocate when He said that believers would “receive power after the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1.8)? One aspect of this power is supernatural power—the ability to pray for healing, cast out demons, and receive answers to prayer, all of which draw nonbelievers to Christ. Millions around the world have come to Christ because of these manifestations of supernatural power. However, I believe the power of the Holy Spirit means even more.

Dr. Stanley Horton wrote about a concept that deeply influenced my thinking—the baptism in the Holy Spirit as immersion into a relationship with a divine Person. As such, the fullness of the Spirit is the maximum relationship that we can have with God at any given time. Of course, we can grow in this relationship—and should. When we have this maximum relationship with God, He is able to work in a maximum way in and through our lives.

Note that the Greek word for power, dunamis, also means capacity or ability. Applying this broader meaning, power means the abilities necessary to communicate the gospel effectively. Besides works of power, what makes for effective communication and witness? First, these abilities include the capacity to sense and follow the leading of God’s Spirit to opportunities of which, humanly, we would not be aware: Peter followed the Spirit’s leading to the household of Cornelius and opened the gospel beyond the Jews to the Gentile world. Paul followed the Spirit’s leading to Macedonia and opened the continent of Europe to the gospel. Fifty years ago, David Wilkerson followed the leading of God’s Spirit to the gangs of New York City and launched the powerful worldwide ministry of Teen Challenge. Stepping out in faith is scary, but when you follow the leading of the Spirit, scary is good. It means you are not depending on yourself but on God.

Second, the ability for effective witness also incorporates the aptitude to connect with people and establish meaningful relationships, sensitively discern their needs, serve them wholeheartedly, and become like Jesus in character—producing the fruit of the Spirit—so that others are drawn to Him by the quality of our lives. Sociologist Rodney Clapp studied the rapid growth of the Early Church. From the year 100 to 350, the Church grew at the rate of forty percent per decade. In seeking the causes for this explosive growth, he concluded that the Early Christians simply out-loved and out-served others.

In a pluralistic world there are so many competing truth claims. Most people have heard too many claims to truth. People are daily bombarded with commercial hype, inundated with political hype—especially during this past election year, and barraged with religious hype on top of everything else. People do not want to hear one more claim to truth. They want to see and experience truth—truth demonstrated in our lives, because of the power of God’s Spirit in us. Works of power, the ability to sense the leading of the Spirit, and transformed lives—these are some of the abilities we need to be effective witnesses. And these abilities only come from God’s Spirit.

One of our friends had been a missionary to Pakistan and Bangladesh, where he met my wife’s family. He saw people riding rickshaws, and rode in one occasionally. He thought how nice it would be to own one. Later he served as Area Director for hundreds of missionaries in that region of the world. When he retired last year, his friends from Pakistan gave him a rickshaw as a retirement gift.

A rickshaw may be fun to ride occasionally, but it is not the most efficient means of transportation. First, it does not go very fast—probably about two or three miles per hour. Second, it can not go very far—rarely more than a few miles at a time. Third, it doesn’t carry a lot of passengers or cargo. Why? A rickshaw depends on the power of a human being to make it work. In Chinese, rickshaw literally means “human-powered vehicle.” It can only go as fast as the person can run. It goes only as far as that person can go without getting fatigued. Put a heavy load in the rickshaw, and the person may not have the strength to move it at all.

Compare a rickshaw with a car. A car can travel more than sixty or seventy miles per hour. It can cover hundreds of miles at a time. Once a year, my wife, Yen, and I drive from our home in Springfield to Toronto, Canada, where Yen’s family lives. The distance is over 1000 miles, and we can drive the whole way in one day. A car can carry four to six passengers and cargo in the trunk. Why can it do so much more than a rickshaw? A car does not depend on the strength of a human being to make it run. It depends on the power of the engine.

In the same way, we cannot effectively live the Christian life and accomplish our God-given mission by depending on our own human power. Being the persons God wants us to be is simply too hard to do in our own strength. Doing what God wants us to do is impossible in ourselves. It is like trying to use a rickshaw to do what we need a car to do. God does not want us to try to function merely in our own strength. We are bound to fail.

Instead God wants us to live and minister in the power of His Spirit. We will be much more effective for God and produce so much more spiritual fruit. We will make a real difference for God in this world. When we are full of God’s Spirit, we will have maximum power to become more like Jesus and to serve and help others to receive Him into their lives.

This is my message to students at AGTS: Your primary goal is not to graduate with the highest honors. It is not to equip yourself to get a good position in ministry. Praise God if He provides these. Your primary goal, however, is to become a servant leader with knowledge, skills, and passion, so that you can help revitalize the Church, and through a revitalized Church evangelize the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Endnotes

1. Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society (New York: Collins Business, 1994), 1.

Updated: Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM