Seeing the Bigger Picture: Oklahoma, Liberal Arts, and Cross-Cultural…

by Michael L. Copeland, Member Care Consultant – Asia, IMB

When I wrote this, every new email in my inbox was from a colleague from Oklahoma or one degree away from an Oklahoman. As a member care consultant and a missionary focusing on the mobilization of local Christians, I regularly interact with “workers” in four different IMB Affinities (East, Southeast, South, and Central Asia). I do not have as much email as some, but it is enough to significantly hint at the impact the state continues to have. Not only are they from Oklahoma, but a healthy dose comes from OBU. In this post, I hope to ask a few questions and posit a couple of insights from my own experience on why Oklahoma is well represented in the IMB around the world.

Why does this state have such a great legacy of sending missionaries? To take the gospel to the world, to even desire to (not just having a passive desire for someone else to do so), has a great deal to do with the personal depth of discipleship and ability to see into and through the vast amount complexity in the world to the broader view of God’s work and redemption. Seeing these things and connecting them to a bigger picture is not an easy thing. It takes the wisdom of a myriad of fields of knowledge, let alone the depth of biblical understanding. Oklahoma’s missionary legacy worldwide is significantly due to the interplay between its churches and their investment in Christian liberal arts education. I would also argue that the liberal arts component has played an integral part, not just a supplementary benefit.

I began to encounter these benefits when I came to OBU in the Fall of 1997. I arrived after my first trip overseas to the city of Hong Kong. For the summer, I was on a team doing street evangelism and, on the weekends, bringing Bibles into the CCP governed mainland to unregistered churches that were fearful of buying “official” versions published in the country. In returning, I had wanted to continue this kind of work and skip my first year of college. However, the Lord (and my parents) had wiser counsel. I ended up my freshman year thinking I might bide my time at OBU before heading back overseas again.

Thankfully, I was not so foolish to believe that I would have nothing to learn. So, I began plugging away at my common core classes and OBU quickly overturned my concerns about neglecting mission. Freshman course such as English Comp, Survey of the New Testament, and Intro to Cross-Cultural Ministry allied in discussion of the spread of Hellenistic culture and language in Western Civ gave understanding on the modern world and mission. The opportunities and tensions of globalized language, culture, and infrastructure on local transmission of the gospel informs my ministry and research today. The study of philosophy and contemporary mathematics, and their lessons on a priori and a posteriori reasoning, plays a part when I teach on World Christianity, Church History, and Muslim-Christian Relations. After more than twenty years traveling overseas, more than ten serving with the IMB sharing the gospel with atheists, Buddhists, and Muslims, and finishing a terminal degree while on the field, I have not once ceased receiving dividends from those liberal arts courses. This abundant investment was deposited in my faith and obedience in Christ due to Oklahoma Baptists, investing in a liberal arts college. It is not just a Bible school or a Perspectives course, but a place where one could read, study and learn from the development of Western civilization as one finds the Lord’s calling in His Word with experts in each arena of knowledge.

Moving on from my example, there are a plethora of other equipped missionary church planters and leaders that come from Oklahoma. Avery T. Willis, in his journals, reports being called overseas while at OBU. I could point to at least three Affinity leaders as Oklahomans. I could point to many of my colleagues, who graduated with me from Bison Hill and the Hobbs College, serving in challenging fields. We were mobilized not only later at seminary, but first by the churches and professors in this state and at OBU. Their maturity in character, in language ability and cultural understanding of these men and women always have humble and encourage me.

The missionaries that OBU has helped to propel overseas are some of the most well trained, flexible, understanding, biblically aware, historically sensible, culturally astute, and kind in any field. They have skills in finance, nursing, computer science, history, and counseling that were gained as they also heard the Lord’s calling to go. These skills are increasingly needed. On the field, they partner with local Christians and often have an immediate affinity. This easy camaraderie is because Christians from the Majority World are often in isolated communities, in difficult places to live, and they long for the Word, not just what they want, to lead them. Oklahoma Baptists easily relate to such heart, and OBU aids to train them up in that endeavor.

Michael L. Copeland, is a Member Care Consultant with the International Mission Board (IMB), focusing on pastoral care for missionaries in Asia and mobilizing local Christians to go cross-culturally. He received his doctorate from SWBTS in World Christian Studies, focusing on the transmission of the gospel between non-Western  groups, especially those with disparate and tense ethnic-religious backgrounds. He teaches Church History at Siloam Baptist Bible Institute in Chiang Mai, Thailand and supervises and mentors doctoral students through Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary and SWBTS.