A Life Shaped and Sent: An Interview with Alumni Toni and Walter Kim (Part Two)
Regent Alumni Toni and Walter Kim studied here between 1993–1998, and life has taken them many places since: Harvard, pastoral ministry, parenthood. Today, they live in Virginia, where Walter was recently elected President of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).
This spring, we sat down with the Kims to discuss the life-long impact Regent had on their lives, as well as their deep hopes for evangelical faith in North America. Read part two of their interview below!
What makes you both hopeful for evangelical faith in America today? (Answer continued from part one.)
Walter: One of the first things I did before I officially began my tenure as president of the NAE was to attend the World Evangelical Alliance conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. There were 1,000 delegates from nearly 90 countries. As I looked around, and we sang worship songs in different languages, I sensed that if evangelical faith can be thriving all throughout the world, and if I get to participate in that, then I have every reason to be confident that the good news remains the good news. Even in North America.
Toni: A lot of times we think on the global scale, but I’m more detail oriented. So for me, my hope for evangelicalism in America is just the individual changed lives. Talking to people we’ve pastored, and hearing how the gospel of Jesus is changing and shaping their lives, I realized that my hope in Jesus is for the world—but it also works in individual lives. From this, people become communities, and communities become societies. So I see the way God works both globally, but also very personally.
Yes, sometimes we forget about the microcosms of real, changed lives and instead focus on the macrocosm of media or the dominant social narrative—so it’s good to be reminded of real lives being transformed. With all that you’ve said, how do you see American evangelicalism broadening and diversifying? And is that even important?
Walter: It’s absolutely important. If the mission field of America is changing then those who are sent on that mission, those who are good news people, we need to enter into that new reality. So the NAE is very committed to diversifying ethnically, to strengthening the role of men and women in leadership and ministry opportunities, to build bridges with various communities of colour that perhaps historically have been underrepresented in the evangelical movement.
You know, there are many communities that may not call themselves evangelical because of America’s very complicated racial history. But many of these people are in fact evangelical by belief and practice. For example, there was a recent survey done that 44% of all African-Americans—not just African-American churches—but 44% of African-American citizens in total hold to evangelical beliefs. That’s an extraordinary number of people! And if you look at the Hispanic Pentecostal churches in America, they are absolutely exploding. They are not following the narrative of white Protestant demise. Or if you look at immigrant churches in pockets of mega cities, they also are thriving: Southeast Asian churches, Portuguese churches in Boston. They are experiencing what missiologists call a quiet revival. American evangelicalism is changing. The leadership needs to catch up. Formal networks or institutions like the NAE need to find creative ways of embracing that reality and building towards a future that captures that reality, because that is the Spirit of God at work.
That is so exciting to hear about, and so neat to think about how what you saw in Jakarta on a global level is also really taking shape at home, too, in North America. That’s an encouraging picture. And yet, throughout North America, the evangelical church feels a bit divided these days: across political lines, across broader ideologies, maybe even across denominations. Do you see the NAE playing a key role in healing this divide in Christ’s body?
Walter: In John 17, on one of the last nights before his crucifixion, Jesus distilled everything he stood for in that final prayer of blessing in John 17. And he prayed for unity. He prayed for our unity, which reflects the unity of the Triune God—our unity as a people rooted in Christ and brought in by the Spirit in union with God. He prayed for that unity among believers as a vital aspect of our witness. This is what he chose to pray for. Because of this, unity needs to be given the kind of priority that Jesus gave it.
That’s actually why the NAE was founded over 75 years ago, in a period of deep concern over the fragmentation of the church. Christian leaders throughout America wanted to come together and commit themselves to the core of evangelical faith and to work in collaboration and accomplish something together, much greater than what they could accomplish apart. And so the NAE has scores of different denominations, well over 100 different organizations and institutions that work collaboratively—all sorts of churches and organizations actually connecting together. I only wish for this to continue even more as we build more bridges. Because an association that works collaboratively is no longer just a luxury. It’s a necessity going forward. It’s an important statement about the vitality of the gospel.
How did your time at a transdenominational graduate school help you relate with Christians who hold radically different views from your own? Do you think this openness to others is a necessary quality in a believer?
Toni: Regent gave us a real generosity of spirit: one that agreed to say, “Let’s keep the main things the main things.” That was formative in our young age, in the youth of our marriage, and in our ministry together. It shaped how we relate to other Christians and to those who are not Christians as well. What does it look like to think charitably of the other person? To really try and understand the other person? And then to try and hone in on, "How does the gospel make a difference here?"
Walter: I think of the experiences we have sitting in the Atrium with a cup of coffee and on any given day I could be talking to an African believer whose experience of Christ, whose questions about the faith, and whose basic worldview differ from mine. Yet because we have this common faith in Christ, I have this chance to put on lenses, to look at faith through the eyes of another and discover things about Christ that I wouldn’t ever otherwise. And that could be repeated over and over. Sitting with someone from Hong Kong or from Europe, and hearing the questions the Europeans or the Australians are asking the professor: they’re asking different questions. And the opportunity to learn from people who ask questions from such a different vantage point—whether it’s globally or denominationally different—develops that generosity of spirit that Toni described.
It also develops a fundamental curiosity. If God can make so many kinds of Christians, and bring them together under the “green roof” at Regent, what an extraordinary foretaste of what’s going to happen in Heaven! I think it was absolutely formative for our adult years of ministry: developing a generosity of spirit, a curiosity for God’s work throughout the world, all while holding deep convictions about orthodoxy and the gospel.
Do you think this curiosity for others, this openness to others, is an integral quality for a Christian?
Toni: I would say so. You know, the apostle Paul, when he’s talking about his work, he talks about how: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22–23). It is so important for us not to just expect people to come to us. God did not simply expect us to come to Him—He came down from Heaven to dwell on earth and live among us. So God is a missional God, an incarnational God, who becomes the High Priest who understands our weakness. It is so crucial for us as well to not just wait for people to come to us and meet us on our terms, but for us to become as one of them in order to share the good news and to enable others to come into the kingdom of God’s good work.
Walter: Regent really taught us not only to have generosity and curiosity but also courage. That it’s ok to ask hard questions of God and of each other. That it’s ok to explore, whether it’s the deep painful past that forms us or the tough questions of culture that challenge us. And we also have to have courage of belief! Courage not to fall into skepticism. Because that’s just so easy. But the courage to actually have belief. That the triune God still sits on the throne, that the gospel is still good news, and that we as God’s people, however fractured we may be, can really be put together by God and sent into this world. I’m so grateful that Regent provided that for us as individuals, as a couple, but also as people who seek to be ministers of the gospel in whatever form that takes shape.
Toni: Regent is so much more than a seminary. We got all that stuff! We learned so much: biblical languages, exegesis, theology. We did get all the information. But it was so much more than that. It was a true experience of community. It was living life together with our friends and our professors. It really had this sense of the shared journey that we are all on together with God’s Spirit leading. So it was the whole experience of Regent for which we are incredibly grateful.
Missed part one of Toni and Walter's interview? Click here to read.