The mention of Oklahoma might cause those of a certain vintage to break out in rapturous renditions of, “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” and other hits from the epic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. But what is going on now in 21st century Oklahoma – in its communities and churches?

The city of Tulsa in northeast Oklahoma is the state’s second largest city. Let’s meet Justin Schell who can introduce the city’s gospel ministry to us. Watch his video intro and read our interview with him below.

Interview with Justin

Hello, Justin! Tell us a little about yourself.

Sure thing. Megan and I just celebrated 15 years of marriage. We have two kiddos: Henry and Evie. We are members at Mercyview Church in Tulsa, where I serve as a deacon. We’ve been in ministry, primarily mission, for 20 years – first with a mission mobilization organization, then after seminary at Gordon-Conwell we were overseas for four years church planting in the Muslim world. I now serve as Director of Executive Projects for the Lausanne Movement. I work closely with our CEO Michael Oh on initiatives to help the global church partner together for the great commission.” 

Awesome. Now, help us understand the state of the church in Tulsa.

Tulsa is in need of reformation. We often say that as a city it is over-churched, but under-gospeled. Being in the Bible Belt, it’s common to see men and women looking for salvation in all sorts of places – usually drastic departures from the living, good, triune God and the faith we find in scripture. Some confuse Christianity with being American – a cultural Christianity. So, you get a politicized, ethnocentric faith. Others have been taught that Jesus wants to make them healthy and wealthy: Christ the cosmic piggy bank will (or has to) provide their wants if they pray the right prayers, think positively, or conjure up enough faith. It’s a heavy burden to them and defames the name of Christ. Still a third group labors under the weight of seeing God as a cosmic tyrant who demands performance or perfection before he will accept them. Many are withering under the pressure of pleasing what seems to be an unloving God.” 

That’s helpful. What is your prayer for Tulsa? 

We want to see churches strengthened and revitalized, and new churches planted. We want to see pastors, church planters, and missionaries raised up and equipped for gospel ministry – ready to powerfully and winsomely bring the word of God to bear on the lives of men and women. We want to see the gospel powerfully proclaimed and for the Kingdom of God to advance in our city and around the world.”

Those are great things to pray! How can Union serve you in this?

“It’s my privilege to announce that we will begin hosting a Union Learning Community in Tulsa, OK in September of 2018. 

As you think about theological education, what’s important for you there in the US?

I find that theological education tends to go wrong in one of three ways. First, an institution may separate education from the heart, so it deteriorates into merely an exchange of information as if the gospel was simply about knowing facts instead of knowing God. Or perhaps it separates education from the local church, so that coursework is no longer churchmen and women studying for the good of God’s people, but slips into individuals flexing their intellectual muscles trying to unearth some new obscure interpretation. Or, it separates education from the mission of God. When that happens, when God’s people forget that we belong to a missionary God, we become insular, parochial, or perhaps even xenophobic.”

And you believe that Union avoids those traps, if you will?

We believe Union represents the best in evangelicalism. I’m always struck by how well they bring together the head, the heart, and the hands. Or to say it another way, studying with Union is encountering theology on fire! Yes, it’s academically rigorous and intellectually stimulating, but it’s also warm and beautifully attractive. It’s extraordinary, this Christ-centered, trinitarian, affective theology. It wins the heart. And nothing could be a better antidote for this part of the US. Think of the freedom and joy flowing out as men and women understand their happy adoption in Christ by the good and loving Father, and their union with Christ their brother and husband! Think of the transformation we will see when Christians understand that the great benefit of Christianity is NOT health and wealth, but God Himself! And not because we’ve got it all together, but because he has set his tender affections on us.

I got a little carried away there, but yes, we love Union’s commitment to the local church, wanting to bring the raising up of leaders for the church back into the church.  And we highly resonate with Union’s commitment to the mission of God and church planting. We believe Union strives towards keeping theological education rightly situated within these three commitments.”

Now, Union is UK based. Obviously, there are lots of great theological institutions in the US. What’s the thought there?

Tulsa is a city of almost one million people in the wider metro area. Even so, local options for good, evangelical theological education and pastoral training are limited. Typically, a potential student would need to either go it alone – online – one man or woman and their laptop, in their bedroom. Or, perhaps they would have to uproot their lives, their families, leave their work or ministry to move to another city. Neither of those options is desirable in our minds. One compromises the learning experience and the other compromises the real needs of the local ministry or the needs of the family of the student. We’re excited that now we have the best of both worlds. Learning IN community and in OUR community. We love it: while it’s UK based, it’s in Tulsa!   

I was talking with some really sharp educators in Australia the other day and one point they made quite firmly was that studies are showing, and it’s very clear, that those who are able to stay in their contexts while studying (regardless of topic), actually have the best learning experience. So, not only our churches, families and ministries benefit, but students actually learn better. 

In all, we believe that with Union we will get a better product, a better learning experience, and a better education – and that it will be more accessible and drastically more affordable – than any other option.”    

That’s great to hear. Justin, thank you for taking some time to talk with us. We’re excited to see what the Lord will do in and through the new Union Learning Community in Tulsa, OK.

Me too!”

Click here to visit the Union School of Theology Learning Community page for Tulsa