Transitions: Now What?

One of the clearest, most patently obvious features of effective transitions is that (eventually) they must get somewhere. Transitions that do not land their participants in some new reality at some point along the way are not “transitions” at all. They become wheels spinning in the air. Eventually they must come to touch the ground.

As you will know by now, I anticipate retirement later in the year. One year ago, a Search Committee was formed to identify my successor. The Committee has whirred, and prayed, met often through the year – and evaluated more than twenty nominees for the position. Now at last, they feel that they have completed their work. By the time you read this, the World Mission Prayer League is likely to have identified its next General Director.

So now what?

Let me share with you a wonderful episode from the life of a twentieth century missionary pioneer, who stood just at the interface between one era of Christian mission and another. He was a master of transitions, as it turns out, and has become a personal hero.

His name was Robert Speer.

Robert Elliott Speer (1867-1947) was a native Pennsylvanian. He served as General Secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission for his entire long career. “As a key administrator and strategist for one of the largest denominational mission agencies in America, Speer established himself as a visible and respected leader of the Protestant missionary advance in the early twentieth century.” 1 David Howard estimates that Speer’s “influence in missions… [was] almost incalculable.” 2 Ralph Winter describes the dynamic tandem of Robert Speer and his contemporary John Mott: “Probably no two people in history are traceably more responsible for more missionaries going to the field….” 3

Both Speer and Mott were much involved in the great World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh in 1910. Speer played a prominent role throughout – including a major address just at the beginning, following a presentation by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There were many transitions afoot during those momentous days. There was a sense of heady optimism – yet clear-eyed appraisal of the difficult task that remained. There was grateful appreciation for the missionary structures of the century gone by – yet sober acknowledgement of their need for radical adaptation. There was appreciation for the particular contribution of western missionary efforts through a century of advance – yet growing consensus that the world itself must now come together, in ways previously unimaginable, to complete the task of global evangelization.

Robert Speer stood just at this transition. And if you are interested in tracing that sort of thing, in the decades following Edinburgh you will find no one more responsible for championing the cause of mission in Latin America than Robert Speer. It was a message that found its way into the classroom of one Clarence Granlund on the campus of the Lutheran Bible Institute of Minneapolis in 1932, then into the hearts of John Carlsen and Ernest Weinhardt – who went on to found the South American Mission Prayer League in 1937. We are ourselves its heir.

Transitions like these don’t happen accidently. A particular sort of faith unlocks them. Like few others in the history of Christian mission, Robert Speer modeled the attitude. In an address delivered in Philadelphia in 1908, anticipating the issues on the horizon at Edinburgh, Speer put the attitude in a nutshell:

“It is no enmity to our past to believe that it did not exhaust God. I do not see any disloyalty to the past in believing that God means the future to be better than it…. [We are] disloyal to the past, …[when we] believe that all great things are in a golden age gone by. The worst disloyalty to the past is to mistake it for the future.” 4

This gracious attitude fueled Robert Speer at every level. And not only Speer; the attitude anticipated the wonderful things that followed later in the century. It released the things that followed. In the same address in Philadelphia, Speer acknowledged that our past may have been “very great and glorious” – something that he appreciated deeply and sincerely. Yet “that past will have failed to fulfill its mission in the will of God… unless it has made [us] ready for larger and completer things” awaiting us in the future. 5

Speer could see in both directions: a glorious past, and “completer” things ahead. Greater effectiveness. Deeper ecumenicity. Truer partnerships and more authentic con­text­ualization among the great cultures of the world. Not without its fits and starts, mind you, and many detours along the way. A century later, we still have far to go!

Yet we might not have come as far as we have without the sort of confidence modeled by people like Robert Speer. I am unlike this man in almost every way that I can imagine. Yet this is a confidence that I will aspire to.

Theologically speaking, Speer is perhaps best known for his passionate emphasis on the centrality of Jesus Christ in all things. 6 This is something to emulate, too. If Jesus stands at the center of our life and mission in the world, we have good reason indeed to be confident.

And he does. Jesus has guided our hand until now. Jesus remains at the center. We may trust him to guide us on!

1 Gerald H. Anderson, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions (New York: Macmillan, 1998), p.633
2 David Howard, “Student Power in World Missions,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 4th ed. (Pasadena: William Carey, 2009), p.308
3 Ralph Winter, “Join the World Christian Movement,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 4th ed., op.cit., p.734
4 Elias B. Sanford, ed., Report of the First Meeting of the Federal Council – Philadelphia, 1908 (New York: Revell, 1909), p.363
5 ibid.
6 See for example The Finality of Jesus Christ (New York: Revell, 1933)

Other posts in this Transitions series:
Transitions: RememberingTransitions: Remembering Our Story…Transitions: Horizoning…Transitions: Horizoning our Story…Transitions: Provisioning…Transitions: Resting…Transitions: Now What?

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