A Short History of Mission Training at Abilene Christian University, 1968 - 2004

by Ed Mathews - 9/14/2005

At the heart of Abilene Christian University is her mission statement: “To train students for Christian leadership and service around the world.”  The mission training program is obviously central to that concern.

I.  Beginnings:  1968 – 1980

The earliest classroom instruction in mission occurred in the 1940’s and 1950’s in the form of a course offered now-and-then by J. W. Treat and Howard L. Schug called “The Harvest Field.”  The 1960’s are the official beginning of mission education at Abilene Christian College as a formal, structured, degree-offering, academic program.

     A. Mission Seminar.  George Gurganus moved from Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas to Abilene Christian College in Abilene, Texas in 1968.  He had conducted a Summer Seminar in Missions at Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee in 1963 and 1964.  He held the seminar at Harding College in 1965, 1966, and 1967.  Hence, when he brought the seminar to Abilene in 1968, it was already in its 6th year of operation as a five and a half week “boot camp” in cross cultural ministry preparation.

     B.  Mission Faculty.  After teaching in most of the seminars since its inception and earning a masters degree in missions at Fuller Theological Seminary, Wendell Broom became the second missions faculty member at Abilene Christian College in 1969.  Ed Mathews joined them in 1971 in an unofficial capacity.

     C.  Mission Degrees.  During these early beginnings, two undergraduate degrees and two graduate degrees were offered.  The BA and BS degrees required the same number of hours.  The difference between them was the required biblical language in the former.  The MA and MS degrees required 30 and 36 hours respectively.  The MA was a thesis degree while the MS was a non-thesis degree—a common distinction in the halls of academe during that time.

     D.  Mission Strategy.  As an effort to inform field missionaries and supporting churches,  the Mission Strategy Bulletin was published from 1973–1986.  It was sent to 1200 readers in a four page, letter sized format.  Strategy was unique in the churches of Christ during the 1970’s as a wholly-dedicated-to-foreign-missions journal.  Its effects went far beyond its simple appearance.

     E.  Mission Outreach.  The vehicle for raising and nurturing campus interest in world evangelism was Mission Study in the 1950’s.  When Abilene Christian had an enrollment of 2200 students, it was not uncommon for 1200 young men and women to gather in Sewell Auditorium at 6:00 PM on Wednesday to hear a visiting missionary tell of his exploits overseas.  Mission Study became Mission Outreach in the 1970’s.  Between 200 and 300 students met in Roberson Chapel at 6:21 PM on Thursday to sing, pray, and hear about the mission of God.  The number of young people who met their spouse and committed themselves to mission is known only by the One to whom they gave their lives in foreign service.

II. Developments:  1980 – 1992

The mission program at Abilene Christian was originally housed in the basement of McKenzie Hall.  The old president’s home (which had been moved from where the Brown library now stands to the corner of EN 18th and Campus Court) became the new address of the Center for Mission Education in 1972.  The mission program was located there until it moved into the College of Biblical Studies building in 1989.

     A.  Departmental Status.  The move to the College of Biblical Studies building brought several changes to the mission program.  The most notable difference was departmental status.  George Gurganus stepped down from the directorship of the Center of Mission Education in the summer of 1980.  Ed Mathews had just finished the D.Miss degree at Fuller Theological Seminary.  Immediately upon his appointment as director of the Center of Mission Education in 1980, Ed Mathews began petitioning for both a departmental status and the missionary in residence program.  In 1984, Ed Mathews became the first chairman of the Department of Missions.

       1. Faculty members.  In 1982, George Gurganus retired.  The faculty from 1982–1988 was Wendell Broom and Ed Mathews.  Upon the retirement of Wendell Broom, Gailyn Van Rheenen became a faculty member.  Gailyn had a D.Miss degree from Trinity Evangelical Seminary.  He served as a faculty member until 2004.

       2.   Missionaries-in-residence.  In order to augment the possibilities of recruiting and training missionaries, Abilene Christian formally inaugurated the missionary-in-residence program in 1984 (the same year department status was granted).  While supported by the church, these field-seasoned personnel worked in the department.  The school provided them an office, hospitalization insurance, and tuition scholarships for their children.  The list of missionaries-in-residence represents a group of talented and committed people who served with distinction:  Russ Albright,  Les Bennett, Janice Bingham, Bob Buchanan, Dan Coker, Richard Chowning, Gwynneth Curtis, Lori Earles, Wil Goodheer, Sonny Guild, Dan Hardin, Ellis Long, Robert Reid, Glover Shipp, Ken Sinclair, Kent Smith, Joel Solliday, Gary Sorrells, Gaston Tarbet, Bruce Terry, Bob Waldron, Jack Walker, and Flavil Yeakley.  Their tenure at Abilene Christian varied from 2 to 18 years.  They left behind an indelible mark on the landscape of domestic and foreign evangelism that continues to this day.

     B. Mission Training.  The preparation and support of missionaries took on several different shapes and contours over the years.  The mission program at Abilene Christian authored and promoted a host of initiatives.
  • As early as 1973, the faculty (and, later, the missionaries-in-residence) conducted Weekend Mission Workshops in congregations across the country.  The venue included classes on a variety of topics relevant to the sponsoring and supporting of missionaries by the local church.  Over 400 of these weekend workshops have been facilitated through the years.
  • The first Medical Missions Seminar was held on the campus of Abilene Christian in 1973.  The Center for Missions Education created and convened the meeting.  Two days of speeches and classes were attended by over 100 physicians, nurses, and medical students.  The Medical Missions Seminar continues to meet in Dallas in early January under the planning and direction of the International Health Care Foundation, Search, Arkansas.
  • In order to stimulate and enhance the teaching of mission in our brotherhood schools, the Teachers of Missions Workshop was organized.  The first meeting was held in February of 1974 at Camp Butman, Merkel, Texas.  Eight teachers of missions, missionaries, and elders of supporting churches were present.  The number in attendance has fluctuated between 40 and 200 in the ensuing years.  The agenda has included creating mission interest, recruiting mission personnel, organizing mission committees, teaching mission courses, forming mission strategy, and supporting field missionaries.  When the workshop began, only three schools regularly offered mission courses.  Today all brotherhood institutions have included mission training to one degree or another in their curriculum.  The annual Teachers of Missions Workshop played a significant role in expanding the frontier of mission training.
  • While still in the old president’s home off campus, a ham radio station was built in 1974.  WB5 DPP was regularly on the air until the late 90’s when the internet replaced it as the primary mode of communication between supporting constituencies and field personnel. “Whiskey Bravo 5 Dill Pickle Peppers” was a lighthouse for mission activity during two decades of calm and crisis.
  • From 1976 to 1994, under the direction of Gaston Tarbet, the MARK program sent 142 apprentices overseas on a two year assignment.  Of that number, 60 returned to the field as full time missionaries.
  • Global Campaigns sent 2100 campaigners to Africa, Asia, and Latin America (mostly the latter) to assist resident missionaries for 2 to 6 weeks in evangelistic efforts.  Les Bennett started the program in 1980 and guided its operation until 1994.
  • The most fruitful recruiting tool during the 1980’s and 90’s was the Continental Interest Meetings held at missionary-in-residence homes weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly for food, worship, and mission discussion.
  • For 12 years, the mission program kept an up-to-date list of all missionaries.  A five page, letter size Status Report was published every two years starting in the mid-80’s to informed interested parties of the numerical status of missions in the churches of Christ around the world.
  • In the commons area of the College of Biblical Studies building, the Department of Missions faculty and missionary-in-residence wives held Ladies Mission Luncheons three or four times each semester.  As many as 200 young women from across the campus enjoyed fellowship and heard mission reports.  This was a popular and effective method of influencing ladies to get involved in mission work.
  • A mentoring program which focused on pre-field preparation for campaigners and apprentices was begun in the 1990’s.  Eventually mentoring became a spiritual, mental, social, and psychological maturation program for all mission majors (which continues to the present).
  • The 8 mission courses taught in 1968 were redesigned and expanded to 21 courses in 1974 to 33 courses in 1986..  A new 45 hour MMiss degree was added in 1974 (and quickly became the most popular choice among students).
  • The number of majors steadily grew from 18 in 1974 to 26 in 1980 to 84 by 1992.  A certificate program (requiring 21 hours of course work) was added.  In 1992, 40 students were involved in this option—mostly wives of mission majors and students from other academic disciplines.

      C.  Applied Missiology.  Between 1980–1992, mission preparation at Abilene Christian used many avenues for recruiting and training students for leadership and service around the world:  Chapel Around The Globe in the rotunda, Movie Night in the strategy room, and Mission Sundays at local congregations.  To inform others of all this opportunity and activity, the Journal of Applied Missiology was published between 1990–1995.  As a twice-a-year, 30 page publication, it represented the most sophisticated piece of journalism on mission among the churches of Christ up to that time.  Semi-technical, 8 page articles, research reports, and book reviews were the standard fare.  Until printing and postage costs skyrocketed, it was sent free-of-charge to 1350 readers. Ed Mathews was the editor, Richard Chowning the managing editor, Dan Coker the review editor, and Bettye Blay the supervisor of circulation.

      D.  Strategic Planning.  As a regular part of the weekly “brown bag” meetings, the faculty and missionaries-in-residence established measurable goals in January and evaluated their progress toward these goals in December.  This annual exercise became a barometer for the program—a means of weighing successes and failures, an incentive to move ahead with a “map in hand” to guide the journey.  Often these goals and evaluations were discussed during the twice-annual, overnight, weekend Departmental Staff Retreats.

      E.  Student Committee.  Starting in the late 1980’s, a Student Mission Committee met monthly during the spring and fall semesters.  This group of six students volunteered their time and energy to initiate and complete projects that were of interest to them and of benefit to the department:  securing student travel funds to the annual World Mission Workshop, buying furniture for the student lounge in the department, leading the Chapel Around The Globe, planning the Mission Emphasis Week in the fall, and such like.  The Department of Missions was a virtual beehive of activity in recruiting and training missionaries for the praise and glory of God.

III. Transitions:  1992 – 2004

In the years following these developments, the Department of Missions at Abilene Christian University experienced many changes.  The school administration changed leadership in the department. Phillip Slate became the new chairman in 1993.  He stayed in that position until his retirement in 1998.  His tenure was the bridge toward several significant transitions that have shaped mission training at Abilene Christian University.

      A.  New Accreditation. The graduate program in the College of Biblical Studies sought and secured membership in the Association of Theological Schools.  Along with 243 other schools and seminaries in the United States and Canada, Abilene Christian University adheres to the governance of this organization for the improvement and enhancement of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox graduate schools of theology.  One of the requirements of this accrediting body was the physical, academic, and financial separation of the graduate and undergraduate programs.  Hence, the Department of Missions personnel were scattered throughout the College of Biblical Studies building in order for the newly formed Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry (undergraduate programs) to be housed together in the space once occupied by the Department of Missions.  The Graduate School of Theology (graduate programs) now functions on the other side of the atrium.  This physical, academic, and financial separation substantially changed the face of the curriculum and faculty in the mission program.

       1.  Curriculum. In anticipation of and preparation for ATS accreditation, all courses had to be designed exclusively for undergraduate or graduate students.  Classes that heretofore blended the two kinds of students in one classroom were offered to one or the other academic level of learner beginning in 1996.  As a result, the graduate mission program was completely reconfigured so that the three masters degrees (MA, MS, and MMiss) were combined into one, 54 hour degree (Master of Arts in Missions).  In both the undergraduate and graduate degrees, more mission courses were required for completion of the degree.

       2.  Faculty. Two additional faculty members were hired.  Sonny Guild and Wimon Walker taught the undergraduate courses.  Ed Mathews and Gailyn Van Rheenen taught the graduate offerings.  Gailyn left Abilene Christian University in 2004.  Chris Flanders joined the graduate mission faculty in 2005.

     B.  Academic Integration. Considerable effort was made to integrate mission throughout the curriculum.  In the beginning of the 21st century, a new and challenging situation presented itself unlike any circumstance in the past, creating a need to rethink mission training.  Every student in the College of Biblical Studies must be thoroughly exposed to the principles and practices of mission.  To this end, thought and discussion continues on how the ministry of proclaiming the Good News here and abroad may become the DNA of the entire ministry training program.

     C.  Program Reorganization.  In lieu of the Department of Missions, the Institute of Mission and Evangelism was formed in 2000.  Sonny Guild became the director of the institute which took up residence in the Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry.  The emphasis on training students for service in domestic or foreign evangelism and church planting remains.  In 2004, a generous donation was given to the institute which endowed its development and operation.  The institute was renamed the Halbert Institute for Missions.  The mission training program moves ahead with its curricular and co-curricular training, research, and mentoring activities.

      D.  Personnel Realignment.  Part of the vision for the Halbert Institute of Missions was to assemble a team of five Mission Coordinators (previously known as missionaries-in-residence).  They are now hired and paid by Abilene Christian University.  The first coordinators represent various continents of interest and expertise:  Gary Green (Latin America), Larry Henderson (Asia), Dan McVey (Africa), Yann Opsitch (Europe), and Kent Smith (North America).  Their assignment is to recruit and train men and women for long-term ministry in missions.

      E.  Different Nomenclature.  Like so much of the mission program at Abilene Christian University, the forms change but the substance remains.  Whereas Mission Study and Mission Outreach were once the labels for student gatherings, in 2003 (with an obvious intent to reflect the contemporary emphasis on internet technology) these student mission meetings were renamed World Wide Witness.  Though different in name, the purpose is still rooted in the missio Dei.  Courses have changed, faculty has changed, students have changed but the foundation of the mission program is solidly based on the unchanging words of the Lord:  “Make disciples of all nations, baptize them…, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you,” Matthew 28:19, 20.