LUBBOCK, Texas — SUNSET INTERNATIONAL BIBLE INSTITUTE reaches far beyond its humble campus in west Texas: Technology, partnerships and prayer have helped the ministry expand to serve more than 8,000 students around the globe.
Cotton fields, wide-open spaces and dust storms are common sights in this west Texas town. Barbecue restaurants and friendly faces also are hard to miss.
That’s no surprise in a place where ranching and cowboy cultures run deep.
Few would expect, however, to find a dynamic Christian school with an international influence tucked away here.
In the past 14 years, Sunset International Bible Institute has been transformed into a global phenomenon — a major force in preparing workers for evangelism and church planting around the world.
The ministry has grown from about 200 students on the Lubbock campus in the early 1990s to more than 8,000 students worldwide today.
“When I think of Sunset, I think of enthusiasm for world missions,” said Bob Stump, a missionary in Bratislava, Slovakia, who studied
missions at Sunset and Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver, another ministry training school.
Bratislava church member Roman Halamicek recently graduated from a Sunset extension school in the Central European nation, Stump said.
One of Sunset’s strengths is “a willingness to overcome hurdles to missions,” including cultural differences, he added. Sunset also has “an unwillingness to accept any status quo that hinders taking the gospel into every part of the world.”
In Lubbock, each morning at 8:35, ministry students worship in the “Flag Room” of the Sunset church building. Colorful flags line the walls, representing 113 nations where Sunset graduates have taken the gospel.
As the student speaker steps to the podium, his classmates shout in unison, “Preach the word!”
It’s a challenge issued to Sunset students scattered around the world. Most of these students, including Wittawat Kerichakchai, study in Sunset’s satellite programs and are unlikely ever to set foot in Lubbock.
A member of the Hmong tribe from the south Asian nation of Thailand, Kerichakchai and three other Hmong are studying at the Bangkok Leadership Training Institute. All four want to return to their small villages and teach their people about Christ.
Like many of Sunset’s students, they have made tremendous personal sacrifices. When the four converted to Christianity, their ancestor-worshipping families looked on them as traitors and outcasts, said Patinya Thitathan, the school’s director.
After six months, Wittawat’s wife and five children returned to their village, unable to adapt to life in Bangkok, a city of 10 million people.
When Thitathan asked the 30-year old student what he would do, Kerichakchai tearfully replied, “A man who starts to follow Christ cannot turn back. I want to finish learning the word of God and be able to go back to the mountains and teach my people.”
A VISION FOR TRAINING MINISTERS
The classrooms on the Lubbock campus, shared by the institute and the Sunset church, are connected by a maze of narrow hallways. As they’ve expanded facilities, Sunset leaders have tried to squeeze as much space as possible from their humble facilities.
Truitt Adair, the institute’s director since 1993, spends a lot of time out of his office, on the road recruiting and fundraising.
Adair, 62, has degrees from Sunset and Abilene Christian University in Texas. He is the handpicked successor to Cline Paden, who founded the institute in 1962 and served as its director, and later its chancellor, until his death May 26.
Paden, a former missionary to Italy and Denmark, caught the vision for ministry training in 1962 in Plainview, Texas, when a mission field presented itself in the form of large numbers of migrant, Spanish-speaking workers who came to pick cotton.
Paden, then minister for the Tenth and Utica church in Plainview, and the church’s elders began looking for a Spanish-speaking preacher who would move to Plainview and minister to the migrant workers.
Despite their extensive efforts, no workers could be found. Church leaders decided it was urgent to train people with Spanish backgrounds who could do effective evangelistic work, Adair said.
Paden resigned as minister and took up the cause. With little financial support, he moved his family 50 miles south to Lubbock and opened the tuition-free Latin American Bible School with nine Spanish-speaking students. Classes met in a barracks on the campus of Lubbock Christian College.
It wasn’t long before Anglos wanted to attend the classes, and they also were accepted into the two-year program, Adair said.
In 1963, the elders of the Sunset church in Lubbock agreed to sponsor the school, and its name was changed to West Texas Bible School.
In 1964, the school moved to the church building and became the Sunset School of Preaching.
In the 1970s, the student body reached 400, fueled by an increasing interest in world missions among Churches of Christ. The GI Bill of Rights made it possible for veterans returning from the Vietnam War to move into full-time missions training. About half of the students were veterans, Adair said.
But in the 1980s the Texas oil bust, the demise of the GI Bill and the proliferation of ministry training programs led to an enrollment decline. In addition, Churches of Christ across the nation faced a decreasing pool of members interested in full-time ministry, Adair said.
When he turned over Sunset’s directorship, Paden encouraged Adair to pursue an innovative strategy for training preachers for the 21st century — one that didn’t rely on church members giving up their jobs and moving to Texas.
Sunset’s leaders began looking for ways to train ministers in their own cultures — and give them tools to plant new churches.
It’s hardly a new concept, Adair said.
“Hundreds and perhaps thousands of churches exist today … because early missionaries focused on training preachers who would plant churches and train other leaders,” he said.
A NETWORK OF HOPE
In 1995, the school changed its name to Sunset International Bible Institute to reflect its new global vision, Adair said.
It had become apparent to Sunset administrators that bringing international students to the United States was not the best way to train them for ministry, said Chris Swinford, dean of the international studies division.
In 1997, Sunset launched its first international school in Quito, Ecuador, an effort to train workers in their own language and culture. In the next decade, the institute built a network of 43 international schools in 31 countries spread across six continents.
Today, a steady stream of existing and potential schools continues to apply for partnership with Sunset, Swinford said. Before they are accepted, schools have to meet and maintain standards set by Sunset including curriculum, competent faculty, adequate housing, financing and accountability.
Behailu Abebe is director of the Sunset branch school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Since partnering with Sunset in 1997, the school has added three extension schools in Ethiopia. It graduates more than 100 students per year from its training programs.
“Our partnership with Sunset has helped us take the saving message of Christ to the whole nation of Ethiopia and neighboring countries by training faithful men,” Abebe said.
In the mid-1990s Sunset also launched a satellite school program — involving small groups of people who gather at church buildings or in homes to study the Bible using Sunset-produced curriculum and videos.
Church members in Edmonton, Canada, and Roosevelt, N.Y., started the first satellite schools, said Virgil Yocham, Sunset’s dean of external studies. Today, satellite schools meet in 47 states and more than 20 countries.
“The men and women who graduated from this school have been able to develop the churches in this region,” said Nateram Seecharan, evangelist for the Edmonton church. “Their work for God is still standing, and others are building upon it.”
Recently, Sunset began reaching out to areas of the United States where Churches of Christ historically have struggled to survive, including the Northeast. Instructors in Lubbock use teleconferencing technology to conduct live classes with students in remote locations.
“If we sent our potential ministers to the South to be trained, they got scooped up and never came home,” said Mike Mullen, minister for the Fall River, Mass., church and director of its Sunset training program. Five men have graduated from this full-time program, launched in 2002, and are preaching in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and New Mexico.
Another live, interactive school began in August in Puyallup, Wash., said Ken Wilson, school director and former pulpit minister for the Lakeview church in nearby Tacoma.
For seven years, the Lakeview church operated a satellite school that averaged 35 to 40 students.
“These classes encourage local men to go into ministry, and they have helped members of the church to grow spiritually,” Wilson said.
Five men have entered the full-time program, but Wilson said he hopes to have 12 to 15 students specializing in evangelism and church planting.
SPECIALIZING IN ‘PLAIN BIBLE TEACHING’
In Lubbock, the 200 full-time students enrolled in Sunset programs represent a number that hasn’t changed much in 25 years. But now those students comprise only a fraction of the thousands trained by Sunset’s programs worldwide.
“There is virtually a program for anybody who wants to learn more about the gospel — church leaders or members,” said Gary Walker, an elder at the Sunset church. “It has become a helping companion to missionaries and indigenous people who need quality training.”
After 45 years, the school and the church remain closely connected, said Bob Jackson, Sunset’s director of development.
The Sunset church provides the school with more than $500,000 in cash, facility use and other support toward the school’s annual operating budget of $2.7 million.
“It is a beneficial, symbiotic relationship,” Walker said. “Both groups are stronger because of the other. The school is our primary ministry, and I can’t imagine the Sunset church without the school.”
The school, which offers non-degree granting programs, is tuition free.
Dennis Welch, 50, was an air-traffic controller in Dallas for 20 years before enrolling in Sunset’s mission program in Lubbock. He and his wife, Sharon, plan to serve as missionaries in Cambodia after he completes his studies next year.
“You are immersed, almost drowned, in the word of God,” he said of the curriculum. “You can’t leave here without being changed.”
Although forming international partnerships and utilizing new technology have played a role in the institute’s growth, the key to its recent success is straightforward Bible teaching, said Walker, a former missionary to India.
“There is a worldwide need for basic Bible teaching that reaches the ordinary man,” he said. “Sunset specializes not in the theological, academic world, but in plain Bible teaching that the average man can understand.”