At the core of the mission of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is to train men and women to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth — to one's neighbors and the nations.
"The task of fulfilling the Great Commission, from the onset of Southwestern Seminary's pilgrimage in 1908, has been the working hypothesis of the seminary," says President Paige Patterson.
"Theological training is not merely for the purpose of producing astutely trained minds but rather for the purpose of training men and women to become effective missionaries and evangelists in whatever God's calling may be."
Founding president B.H. Carroll's passion for evangelism compelled him to create the first-ever chair of evangelism in a seminary, and that same evangelistic zeal has carried Southwestern over the past one hundred years and can be seen in the more than forty thousand graduates who have gone out into the world as servants of the Gospel.
The faithful giving of Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program makes it possible for students to receive the training they need in order to play their part in fulfilling the Great Commission. The following stories reveal the evangelistic zeal burning in the hearts of students on the campus of Southwestern Seminary and the alumni who have gone out from there.
Taking the Hill: Southwestern Rallies Troops for Evangelism
Dressed in camouflage and using a military illustration similar to Paul's in Ephesians 6, seminary president Paige Patterson introduced a unique evangelism initiative during a Fall 2009 chapel service.
"We are taking the Hill," Patterson announced.
"Taking the Hill" is Southwestern's effort to reach the nearly 6,700 households within a one-mile radius of Southwestern Seminary — commonly referred to as "seminary hill" — with the Gospel. The initiative involves door-to-door, personal evangelism by teams of seminary students, faculty, and staff members.
In the early hours of that same morning, student Brandon Graham felt convicted that God wanted him to preach the Gospel in some way, and he prayed for opportunities to share the Gospel courageously.
After hearing Patterson's appeal in chapel, Graham immediately knew this was the opportunity he had asked for. He approached Rusty Thomas, a fellow bachelor's student and church planter from central Missouri with a heart for evangelism. Thomas had also been looking for opportunities to share the Gospel, and he was excited about the potential of operation "Taking the Hill."
Shortly after "Taking the Hill" was initiated, these two students, along with others, began knocking on doors in the communities around the seminary. Using their lunch period to do so, they witnessed at least two days out of each week during the semester.
"We can't share the Gospel by sitting in our dorm rooms or sitting at our houses," Graham said. "We have to go. We have to get out there and get in the community.
"God laid on my heart in a prayer time, 'If you can't share the Gospel in Fort Worth, Texas, to some strangers by knocking on their doors, how in the world are you going to share with the rest of the world? How in the world can you share with other people if you can't be obedient in your own community right around the school?'"
Since the commencement of "Taking the Hill," many other students, faculty, staff and alumni have joined in Southwestern's attempt to reach the neighboring communities for Christ. Nearly 1,500 households were visited in the fall, with more than fifty professions of faith reported. Southwesterners continue to share the Gospel door-to-door during the spring semester as well, with reports of progress coming in daily.
Seminary staff and professors have organized times for groups to go out together, and students have taken the initiative to pick up packets and visit homes on their own. The vision for "Taking the Hill" has even expanded beyond Southwestern as students and faculty members have involved their churches in evangelism in the one-mile radius around the school or around their churches.
Southwestern is taking Paul's charge in Romans 10:14-15 seriously: But how can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How welcome are the feet of those who announce the gospel of good things!
Taking Gospel strides, the seminary hopes to accomplish the evangelism initiative by the end of the year.
International Church Planting in Your Backyard
Brent Sorrels knew he was called to serve cross-culturally, but he found God's plan for his degree and experience was much different than he had ever expected. Originally thinking he would serve overseas, he found an international mission field waiting for him in the States.
Sorrels earned his Master of Divinity in International Church Planting in 2004 through Southwestern's '2+2' program, equipping him with two years of on-campus study and two years of international church planting experience. He served the International Mission Board (IMB) in Costa Rica, helped plant three house churches and benefitted from the mentorship of a seasoned IMB church planter.
"The 2+2 program was the reason I came to Southwestern. I loved the idea of serving as a missionary while getting my M.Div.," says Sorrels. "I think it's a great plan for people who feel called to missions."
Sorrels naturally expected to serve full time in Central America. IMB offered him and his wife, Savannah, a position in Mexico, but Sorrels eventually declined the offer, not sensing the Lord's leading.
Though it was a difficult choice to make, Sorrels soon found that God's plan to use them in church planting did not necessitate them going farther than the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, it involved starting a growing Vietnamese ministry in one of the most rapidly changing cities in Texas.
"The nations are here," says Sorrels. "We had that door open to us to serve in Mexico, but God led us here."
Sorrels serves as a church planter and strategy coordinator in Port Arthur, Texas. Port Arthur is a blue-collar city on the Southeast Texas coast known more for its oil refineries than for its landscape. The most valuable resource in Port Arthur, however, is its ethnic diversity, an asset to the local churches who recognize the biblical mandate to make disciples of "all nations."
Seeking to equip these churches, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) needed a catalytic church planter who would reach multiple ethnic groups in order to plant indigenous churches. Sorrels was appointed by the SBTC to work in this context, leading Outreach Port Arthur since 2005.
Sorrels encountered Port Arthur's large Vietnamese population as he was laying groundwork for church planting among Spanish-speakers by mapping off the city into quadrants and visiting each house in specific neighborhoods.
"We kept running into different churches that were doing a good job of reaching our Hispanics here, ... (but) we kept running into five thousand Vietnamese who had little-to-no evangelical witness," he says.
Sorrels' energies are spent reaching this people group. With the help of his small team, he leads four Vietnamese Bible studies throughout the week, two of which are with Buddhist families who are exploring the claims of Christianity. He also leads a Bible study of college-aged students on Sunday evenings.
Significant strides have been made this past year. In August, two Vietnamese believers were baptized during the ministry's first baptism service. One of these was Khanh, a friend of one of the volunteers. Khanh was initially antagonistic; however, he kept coming to the Sunday night Bible study and after a couple months accepted Christ. He now brings four or more of his friends to the study each week.
The baptism service united the separate Bible studies, foreshadowing a reality that this ministry is working toward: a Vietnamese church with indigenous Vietnamese believers.
Sorrels uses his degree and experience from Southwestern to provide mission training for these and other local churches. "The whole missiological program at Southwestern has been helpful to me both in Costa Rica and here in Southeast Texas," he says. "Good teaching and training are good teaching and training, regardless of where the Lord calls us to serve."
Additionally, partner churches provide help for Sorrels' ministry by sending short-term missionary teams. PowerPlant, a ministry through the North American Mission Board, has made Port Arthur one of its regular project locations and is essential for Outreach Port Arthur's continued ministry.
"They give us a huge energy force boost," says Sorrels.
Sorrels has encouraging words for these and other ministers who have a heart for missions but are stateside: "Do ministry where you are, and be a missionary wherever God has called you," encourages Sorrels. "God's not surprised at where you are right now — it's not like that's not part of His plan."
Education Meets Missions in Thailand
Joshua Brown, a bachelor's student in the College at Southwestern, traveled to Southeast Asia last summer, where his learning was put to the test. Brown sat in a gazebo near one of the temples at a Buddhist university in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He and another student met in the area to disciple three monks who had recently become Christians.
"It was causing a big stir," Brown said. "All the monks could see us."
These monks, dressed in their typical orange garb, formed a line along the gazebo where Brown sat. For six hours he responded to the questions that, one by one, they asked him: How can you know that God exists? After all, you can't see Him. What is Christian morality, and how does it differ from Buddhist morality? How can people rid themselves of sin?
"I was exhausted by the end of it," Brown said, "but I was amazed."
Through such experiences, Brown realized the significance of the bachelor's program in the College at Southwestern, which emphasizes the history of Western philosophy, apologetics, and biblical studies. At the college, students learn about the Christian worldview and read the works of such influential Western thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, and Darwin, but they also study world religions and read the key writings of Buddhism and Islam.
Brown traveled to Chiang Mai with thirteen other students from Southwestern Seminary and the College at Southwestern, along with twelve students from Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Georgia. The team spent the month of June in Chiang Mai, learning about Buddhism and Islam and interacting with the Buddhists and Muslims who populate this diverse city. As the team worked in Chiang Mai, seven people professed faith in Christ, including a transgendered man and three Buddhist monks.
Brown first realized the value of his training during "Monk Chat," a program sponsored by the Buddhist University to help students improve their English. Early in conversation, he and the monks realized that they all were working on bachelor's degrees in the humanities, with emphases in philosophy. The monks asked Brown to explain the difference between Western and Eastern philosophies.
"That's the perfect bridge," Brown said. "It allowed me to share the Gospel with them, to explain the entire Christian worldview.
"A lot of people don't see the use of what we're studying at the college," Brown said, "but they couldn't be more wrong. I would say that you'll have a better pastor, a better missionary, a better teacher out of our college program than any standard Bible college out there." He explained that the program trains students "how to think, how to critique other people's thinking and writing," and it helps them compare the streams of thought that fill the world to the Christian worldview.
"There is a real need for pastors like we had back in the first century," Brown said. "These guys were apologists. They knew Greek philosophy. They understood how to argue, but they also knew the Scriptures. They understood the Christian worldview."
In the United States, he added, "We're moving away from the Christian underpinnings, and we need pastors who are willing to understand the culture ... so that they can communicate the Christian worldview."
Keith Collier is a member of NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, and is director of news and information for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.