The spiritual sojourn of Dr. Van Sanders

by Vicky Kaniaru

CLEVELAND, Ga. (TMCNews) — As he ushered cars in the quiet parking lot, Van Sanders found himself at an impasse. The high school senior had long-since abandoned church, and a life stressed with drug abuse and physical ailments continued to take its toll. However, through the fog a small voice beckoned him.

“I remember standing on the road, directing traffic, asking the Lord Jesus to save me,” said Sanders, associate professor of missions and evangelism at Truett-McConnell College.

No one in his family was a committed Christian, but when God saved Sanders and immediately called him to Africa, Sanders said, “There wasn’t any fear in my heart about it.”

In the following weeks, Sanders bought a Bible, quit his job, and enrolled in college, where he was discipled by Campus Crusade and Navigators.

“Campus Crusade taught me a lot about witnessing and Bible study,” Sanders said. “Navigators also taught me about inductive Bible study and disciple making.”

Freshly founded in the faith, Sanders struggled in overcoming his past sins. “I had highs and lows, but I wanted to share with my friends what God had done in my life,” he said.

“God brought people into my life who helped me process any question I had because it was a big transition,” Sanders said. “My parents could see the change, but they weren’t sure how to be involved and help me through it.”

Sanders finished his studies and applied for the International Mission Board’s Journeyman Program. He was soon headed to Zambia to plant churches.

During his farewell party, Sanders encountered Beth — a young woman who donated to his missionary venture. IMB officials encouraged Sanders not to date prior to going overseas, but “she gave me a check, and I needed to thank her,” Sanders said. “So, I asked her out to thank her.” After a few dates, the two committed to marry upon Sanders’ return, which they did.

Following the Zambia stint, the young couple moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where Sanders enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. After seminary, Sanders returned to Africa with his young family.

Commissioned to Kenya, Sanders and fellow missionaries planted churches and discipled the Pokot people group in northwest Kenya. They planted about 20 churches among the Pokot and also taught and discipled pastors from other churches and people groups.

Sanders also taught at Kenya Baptist Theological College. “We had a seminary there in Nairobi, Kenya, that was non- residential,” Sanders said. “So students would come in for two-to-three weeks every three or four months, get their classes, and go back to their home area and apply what they had learned either as pastors or church planters.”

The challenges for Sanders were learning the new language, adjusting to a new culture, understanding different worldviews and “trying to communicate the Gospel across these different cultures and worldviews,” he said.

“God taught me that a good amount of my Christianity was cultural more than biblical,” Sanders said. “When I had to communicate what it meant to be a Christian in another culture, it was eye-opening to see how much of what I wanted to communicate was from my culture, not from the Bible.”

Ten years later, the Sanders family returned to the States, where Sanders worked as a visiting professor of missions at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Additionally, he served as minister of missions at a nearby church.

Sanders later accepted a position in church planting at the North American Mission Board (NAMB), and moved to Georgia in 2000. During his 11-year stint at NAMB, Sanders identified immigrant people groups in the U.S., and assisted local churches to evangelize and plant churches among immigrant people groups like Somalis, Gujarati , Vietnamese or “whatever people groups were nearby,” he said.

“When I was overseas in Kenya, around 1990, I said, ‘Sometime in the future, I want to teach at a Christian seminary or college,'” recalled Sanders, who decided to pursue a doctorate in missiology.

When the position at Truett-McConnell arose, Sanders said, “Man, this is what the Lord wants.”

In addition to other courses, Sanders teaches World Religions, History of Missions, and Introduction to Great Commission Studies. He is also director of mobilization for Truett-McConnell’s World Missions Center.

“Though I’ll be leading mission trips overseas,” Sanders said, “I want to focus on unreached people groups here as well as overseas.”

Also serving as director of TMC’s Quality Enhancement Plan, Sanders said he wants to “weave everything together and help our students understand that part of being transformed into Christlikeness at a worldview level comes about through submission to Jesus.”

“I want to see [students] transformed at their root so they bear more fruit,” Sanders said. “That root — our worldview — changes into Christlikeness, therefore our outward expression and fruit increases in that Christlikeness.”

Addressing biblically based education, Sanders said that, if God is the creator of anything that is true, then God is the foundation of all classroom subjects.

“When we come at any truth from His perspective, then our understanding of those subjects is going to be better and more accurate because we’re starting with the God who created that subject,” said Sanders, who added that in training students, he recognizes not all are “called to be a missionary or called to be a pastor, but everyone is called to witness.”

“Christianity in the U.S. the last 50 years or more has made this false dichotomy between those who do ministry and those who support the ministers, but we’re all ministers,” Sanders said. “We just need to recognize the different gifts believers have and encourage one another to use those gifts and do the calling God has given us.”


Vicky Kaniaru is senior staff writer at Truett-McConnell College.

On the cover: Graphical design by Carrie Ann Sienkiewicz

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