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Prairie and its Place in the Mission of God – Part 2

This is Part 2 of the story of Prairie’s place in the missions of God.  Read Part 1 here.  

 In the book of Acts it seems that any intentional missionary travel is the work of individuals such as Philip or Peter encountering individuals in their travels with whom they share the good news of Jesus. However, near the end of ch. 11 we see something new taking place. It begins not in Jerusalem, but in Antioch. In this city Paul and Barnabas are teaching a new church of Christians – likely a mixed bag of Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles by now. During this time they receive a group of visitors from the Jerusalem church, people with prophetic gifts. One of these prophets, Agabus, predicts a severe famine would spread throughout the whole of the Roman empire. The Antioch church responds collectively to this news by considering three questions: 1) where is there going to be great need? Believers in Judea; 2) what resources do we have to help meet that need? We will raise up necessary resources according to our ability;  3) who will we send? Paul and Barnabas, trusted leaders in the church.

 

This is so simple and practical that at first it doesn’t look theologically sophisticated enough.

This is so simple and practical that at first it doesn’t look theologically sophisticated enough. But two things are worth noting here: 1) it is the church at worship that discerns need, mobilizes support and commissions people to go and serve. 2) God is going to build his kingdom, and get his work in the world accomplished through human agents – his image bearers. 

New Testament scholar Bishop N. T. Wright points out one additional observation which makes this process truly revolutionary. Never in the known history of the world had a multicultural group in one city/region felt under any fraternal obligation to help a monocultural group in a city hundreds of kilometres away from them. Family helped family, tribe helped tribal members – like helped like. Romans and Jews both understood that. But here was something totally different that broke all the boundaries of kinship and loyalty. Here was a new way of practicing family brought about by the transforming love of Jesus in the lives of his followers. They had a new way of seeing the world and its inhabitants. Eventually this vision was going to expand to include all those in any kind of need as being the sheep of God’s pasture, even if they were lost sheep (NT Wright, God and the Pandemic). 

 Over the centuries the mission of God through his people has simply been variations on this theme, up to and including the founding of Prairie Bible Institute. When Fergus Kirk and L. E. Maxwell began the school back in 1922 they were motivated by these same three questions: Where is there great need? What resources do we have? Who can we send? To help focus all the study and discipling of students that took place during the school year, Prairie concluded each school year with a conference dedicated to identifying the great needs of the world and helping those who attended discern the call of God in their lives – not just students but staff as well.

What is not as well-known is the significant amount of money Prairie channeled into mission work as well.

  • By the beginning of its 5th year of operation the school had raised $4000 in a single missionary offering taken at the conclusion of the previous year.
  • By 1935 Prairie’s handbook stated that since its founding it had raised and disbursed $52,000 to interdenominational mission agencies and sent 10 of its graduates into overseas mission work.
  • By 1945 those numbers were at $89 K and over 85 graduates. A growing list of visiting missionaries also was included in each year’s college hand book. This list stretched to 135 people who were working all over the world.
  • By 1955 the school catalog stopped publishing alumni lists as the total number had grown to over 800. Instead they published a breakdown of missionaries who were or had served in different regions of the world. The list did not include other graduates who entered pastoral work or market place ministries in their home countries. 

There is another dimension of the mission story, also true of Prairie’s role that is not evident in the numbers. First of all, the location of the school. 

No one in his right mind, thinking strategically about starting a training center to equip disciples to be missionaries, would have chosen Three Hills.

No one in his right mind, thinking strategically about starting a training center to equip disciples to be missionaries, would have chosen Three Hills. It makes no sense. Furthermore very few strategic planners would have seen many of the student body as prime missionary material. There were lots of farm boys and girls; many had only rudimentary education up to only grade 9. Many were second generation kids of immigrant families who were still on the margins of mainstream society in Canada and the US. This is where Prairie’s story became my story. 

My dad, Cornie Enns, was a farm boy of Mennonite Brethren background. His parents and he came out of the USSR just as Stalin was coming to power in the late 1920s. The family settled in the hamlet of Herbert, Saskatchewan to farm. He only finished school through grade 9 but Prairie would accept such students in the 1940s so off he went.

There he met a beautiful young woman who sang in the school’s radio choir, and there my dad along with three brothers from another Mennonite family, the Janz brothers, formed a gospel quartet and ended up joining the staff of Prairie as a traveling evangelistic team for the school. Because they knew rudimentary German in 1951, Youth For Christ recruited them to go to post War Germany to hold evangelistic meetings in response to an invitation of a group of German pastors in the city of Solingen. 

So, leaving their families behind, the Janz Quartet, consisting of Leo, Hildor and Adolph Janz, Cornie Enns and Jack Simons crossed the Atlantic.  Even with their meager, hackneyed German (a dialect known as Plattdeutch), crowds flocked to their meetings, drawn as much by the music as the preaching. The warm reception given them during their three-month sojourn set the stage for the eventual return of the quartet to Germany. This happened by stages, with Hildor, Leo and pianist Harding Braaten moving there in 1956, with Adolph and Cornie joining them in 1961.

For the next twenty-five years they worked alongside German churches in a multi-faceted ministry. It began with evangelistic rallies and radio broadcasts, but soon branched out to include music recordings (vinyl records), a monthly magazine, and short term Bible school and summer camp retreats.

It wasn’t all success and it wasn’t easy. The financial challenges of living as voluntarily supported missionaries, often under supported – but God was clearly at work. To me the lives of my parents and others involved in the Janz Team Gospel Association during those years showed Jesus’ sermon the mount in Matthew 5 in action. The beatitudes are not ethical instructions but missional promises. God chooses the pure in heart, those who mourn, the merciful – people such as these obscure, overlooked people who came to an obscure overlooked town in the middle of the Canadian prairies –  to bring his blessing on them. And through them to continue his promise to bless all the people of the world, through the faithful descendants of Abraham.

Times change, circumstances change, but our 21st century world still has many of the same needs as the first century world, and even the 20th century world: people full of fear and uncertainty, besieged by crisis, calamity, upheaval, suffering and need. Amidst the challenges that so easily can seem like a giant roadblock of despair and defeat, God’s mission will continue to permeate the world with his life transforming presence through the most unlikely people from the most unlikely places – places like Prairie. All God asks us to do is keep doing what the church in Antioch did. Worship, teach the scriptures, make disciples and then ask the three questions: 

Where is there great need? What resources do we have? Who will we send?

Rev. Dr. James Enns,
Humanities Program Coordinator

James Enns is a native ‘Three Hillsean’, born here in 1959. However just eighteen months later he was a resident of West Germany, where he and his three older siblings grew up. James’ parents moved the family to Germany to work for Janz Team Ministries (now TeachBeyond) in evangelistic outreach to German-speaking Europe. As a Third Culture Kid, he graduated from Black Forest Academy in 1977 and went on to earn a B.Ed from the University of Calgary in 1983. That same year he found himself back in Three Hills, teaching in the High School division of Prairie Bible Institute. Here he met his wife Anne, also a high school teacher. In 2000 James earned an M.A in History and moved across campus to begin teaching History in the Bible College. He has taught at Prairie College since then, taking an extended leave from 2005 to 2008 for PhD studies at the University of Cambridge.

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