Building Bridges Not Walls
An Interview with Dr. Hans Bayer
Professor of New Testament
Professor Hans Bayer, a native German, shares his thoughts about the church’s changing perspective on “missional involvement” and the concept that all believers are called to be missional disciples. For him, this includes short-term training sessions overseas to expose groups of theology students, pastors, and ministry workers to deeper biblical education. Many never had the opportunity for much formal training—especially during Soviet Times.
What are some of the ministries you are involved with overseas, and how did those come about?
My involvement in Eastern Europe—mostly along the former Iron Curtain—is really an irony of the Lord. There was a divine call to leave our home in Germany to come to the US At the same time, doors were opening for me to teach in Europe: places such as Latvia, Ukraine, Hungary, and, more recently, Austria, Scotland, and Germany. It has been a growing joy for me to be involved in this work alongside my work at Covenant Seminary.
Tell us about the impact overseas teaching has had on you personally.
Initially I didn’t want to go. I felt that short-term teaching trips were not really meaningful. I thought that if someone wanted to work in Ukraine, that person needed to move there and learn Russian and possibly Ukrainian. That person needed to live with the stark realities that these wonderful people face and discover what life in Christ looks like for them. I felt it was a bit artificial to go just for one week, to dispense “some wisdom and knowledge,” have some interaction, and then leave. Initially I thus went skeptically into that work. Upon repeat visits, I saw that they were very encouraged that someone would take time to notice and to be involved with them. I found that through multiple visits, relationships developed with translators, administrators, and students, and as those grew, I discovered the world of reciprocal discipleship—or mutual learning in Christ. I actually had the privilege of looking into the world of what God was doing there. Once I discovered that and saw God’s work and our growth in Christ together, I was hooked.
I have come to realize that the lives some these Ukrainian friends and brothers and sisters in Christ live, are very hard, difficult, and challenging. And their walk in Christ, their hope, their joy in having some friendships and some relationships in Christ—and not much more—has been a real encouragement to me as well as a challenge. I came back feeling as if I were a prince with a huge privilege. I have access to books. I have some financial means to be able to help and do something. Comparatively speaking, I have immense resources.
I suddenly realized the potential and the great opportunity I have here and need to use. In a way, I was sitting on a pile of salt that needed to be dispensed much more liberally. This mobilized and motivated me to be much more aware of stewardship—theologically, biblically, in resources and opportunities—and to use that. I saw in contrast how resources were much more limited there.
And yet I also felt encouraged and challenged to live a more simple life and to see that, fundamentally, life in Christ really isn’t dependent on resources or opportunities.
The US is no longer viewed as the center of world missions. How do you see the face of missions changing?
Many followers of Christ leave their “Jerusalem” and go to their “Antioch.” This new “Antioch” becomes the focus of life. When we travel or reach out, there’s more reciprocity and interconnection with those with whom we interact; it’s a partnership rather than an “I’m doing something for you” approach.
In some ways, I left my home turf, my cultural comfort zone by moving to the US and having a cross-cultural marriage with my American wife, Susan. My own biography is one of displacement. I’m not in “Jerusalem.” I’m somewhere in “Ephesus” or “Corinth,” away from my center. Maybe it’s been God’s way to shape my view of missions that [professor] Nelson Jennings and others are reinforcing so effectively.
When we analyze Peter’s personal growth in the book of Acts, we see that he is sent to Cornelius’s house. The amount of learning he goes through as a trained disciple of Jesus is huge. We can see in the biblical account how being sent out includes reciprocal learning; Peter had much to learn, and he learned it by leaving his “Jerusalem.” I’m very thankful that I can see this truth not just academically and in terms of a “missional theology,” but also in action. I’m convinced that there’s not only giving but always also receiving and learning.
I’ve had to convince students and friends in Ukraine that they were actually teaching me. They didn’t believe me. They thought it was a sweet gesture until they realized and could trust that I really meant it. Their lives encourage and challenge me.
It’s wonderful that there’s a changing understanding of mission as not merely going out and doing something. It’s not bringing the “know how,” the theology, but rather it is saying, “We have something that’s been entrusted to us, and they have something that has been entrusted to them; let us see prayerfully how God would put us into various partnerships under the headship of Christ, growing together into the one body written about in Ephesians for instance.
How have you seen God use Covenant students and alumni missionally that encourages you personally?
That’s a huge question. It is wonderful that we have a colorful array of students—including those called to pastor small churches, plant or lead in churches, minister to students on college campuses, counsel, teach, write, or serve internationally. I think the common denominator to many of our students is an increasing missional awareness and passion.
Being missional doesn’t mean you need to go abroad, but it does mean you need to be aware of what God is doing in other people. For instance, in St. Louis, there are a great number of immigrants from Bosnia and West Africa. They are right here. We also have thousands of international students studying at various universities in St. Louis.
The principle of missional reciprocity not only pertains to “going somewhere” but also is about being open to God’s work wherever we are, to learn from people we consider different from us. I am encouraged to see many of our students catching that vision and living it out in their respective settings. I have even had the joy, as have some of my colleagues, of taking various students with me on teaching trips overseas.
That’s the hope I have for students and myself, that we would grow in awareness of giving and receiving, depending on Christ wherever we are. I would want to engender that in students who very much feel called to work in St. Louis or in the US.
I believe God is on a mission with or without you, and if you want to be part of it, pray that you would find your part in his mission rather than thinking, “I need to do ‘missionary work.’ ” I don’t think that’s the right place to begin the process. So it’s liberating, and it’s also wonderful to see the largeness of what God is doing.
What do you envision the future of missions looking like in the church?
I’d say a good starting place is humility. I’m so impressed with the sacrificial willingness of so many US Americans and some Europeans to serve God internationally. There is something wonderful to be preserved here. But, for the sake of people from other nations, what I would like to engender—particularly in the northwestern world of Christianity—is an increasing sense of humility to learn from others, to learn what God has done among Christians in Ghana, China, Australia, and Iran. What are the gifts and experiences in places such as Brazil? How can these people’s lives influence and shape us?
For the next generation, what I’d like to encourage is a sense of humility and teachability, and for our eyes to be opened to the larger work of God. I’d want to encourage this teachability right here at Covenant. What I’d hope for is more connection between US Americans and international students on campus because there is an opportunity right here to begin the process of reciprocal teachability. That’s a microcosm of what I would hope to see in the next generation.
The whole fire behind this is not some new strategy; new terms such as “missional,” “reciprocity,” “teachability,” and “partnership” can all become empty phrases. I’d say the heart of it is finding God in his mission—rediscovering that. Once that’s accessed, it will mobilize a new generation, maybe of more teachable, more humble, more missional-minded students than me during my student years to go out from here and many other institutions around the world. That’s my hope. In its very essence it is rediscovering God’s heartbeat.
What is it that you want students get from your teaching?
At the very heart of it, though it may sound a bit trite and simplistic, is the reality of God, the presence of God, and the passion and mission of God. As those become growing realities in hearts and minds of our students, I want them to see the beauty of the counsel of God in prophecy and fulfillment, in redemptive history in Scripture, and the work of God calling us back to himself. To see churches as an outgrowth of the mission of God rather than as mere institutions is my heart’s desire. I want that to grow in my own life and in the lives of our students because that holds and drives the particular calling to pastor, plant a church, get into counseling, education, Christian writing, overseas work, youth work, music, etc. I think if that heart pulsation and fire is kindled, a lot of things grow from there.
I long to see the rigors and discipline of biblical exegesis, biblical theology, etc., applied to that search and openness to find the God who is speaking to us through his revealed and reliable Word and to grow in that relationship. I want to engender that kind of conviction and hope. The more I study discipleship, the more I see how Jesus exemplifies, teaches, and enables. I feel I have a lot to learn in the area of exemplifying and living that out relationally and personally. I have been very challenged because I come from a Western-European world where just conveying thought may be considered sufficient, but there is so much more to maturity in Christ in all areas of individual and corporate life.
As we close, what do you want people to take away with them?
That’s hard to bring to one point. Perhaps it’s that our readers might increasingly realize that God is at work in the entirety of our individual and corporate lives here in the US and among people all over the world. I can point to myself as a broken example of a redemptive work in process. God is universally at work to redeem. I would encourage our readers to gain a lifelong perspective on God’s work—individually and corporately—and be inspired by that. I would say: Do not allow the challenges and overwhelming problems in this world—philosophically, culturally, environmentally, economically, and politically—to determine the core reality of what is going on. God is capable of transforming and redeeming even in the most tragic individual and corporate circumstances imaginable. He is on a mission.