Dr Paul Bendor-Samuel received a unique call from the Lord at a young age to train as a medical doctor so that he could reach places missionaries could not go. He shares his intriguing life story with City News.
On the final morning of the Global Pentecostal Summit (3-6 Nov), Dr Paul Bendor-Samuel eloquently, and with great clarity shared what he thought God was doing through the summit.
Dr Bendor-Samuel is the executive director of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS) in the United Kingdom. He is a qualified doctor of medicine and has served as a primary healthcare practitioner in southern Tunisia and as a medical general practitioner in South Wales. In 2000, he was conferred the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
Impressive though his credentials are, the person of Dr Bendor-Samuel is much more so. His parents are passionate missionaries and grew up on the mission field, an upbringing that caused him to develop a strong passion to serve people and bring them to Jesus. Having lived among the people in Africa and Asia, this gentleman is well-versed in their culture.
City News was privileged to sit down with the Dr Bendor-Samuel for a chat about his life mission and his thoughts on what the GPS brings to the future of Pentecostalism.
How were you saved and how did you go from a medical doctor to the executive director of OCMS?
I was born into a mission family. My parents became Bible translators almost as soon as they left university. They felt this call from God and they met in their training programme.
Initially, they were working in Brazil. When I was 3 weeks old, they took me deep into the Amazon jungle, where they were working with a tribe of indigenous community. They began to learn the language in preparation for translating the Bible. It’s amazing. So, that was the start of my life.
After three years, their organisation Wycliffe Bible Translators asked them to go to Africa to start the work on Bible translation there. So, we moved to West Africa when I was 3. From the age of 3 to 10, I was in Africa, Ghana and Nigeria, in West Africa.
When I was 10, I went back to the UK to go to boarding school. But my life up till that point was very much overseas—a cross-cultural mission experience. When I was 6, my father said to me, “Paul, do you want to follow Jesus?” I had told him before many times, “I want to follow Jesus.” But they’d said, “You’re still young.” So finally, at age 6, my father said to me, “Okay, are you serious? You want to follow Jesus?” Then, I prayed the sinner’s prayer. That was the beginning, formally. But of course, I never had one moment in my life when I didn’t experience the presence of God.
I have an incredible family heritage. I got baptised when I was 14 but looking back, my life has been a series of conversions. Every now and again, I’ll suddenly think, “Now I really know the Lord, now I’m really following Him.” Then I’ll go on a few more years, and then, “Now I really know the Lord.” So, this is the process of spiritual growth and development.
But at age 16, I had a very strong sense that God wanted me to be a medical doctor. No medical doctors in my family, but I had a very strong sense that this was my calling: to be a doctor in order to work in a country where missionaries couldn’t work, using medicine as a way to share the love of Christ.
In medical school, I met my wife. She also had a strong sense that God had called her to urban mission in the UK. We got married, and God led us eventually to North Africa. We did a couple of years of theological training, then we spent 12 years working in Tunisia. Initially, we did primary health care work and public health, then we began to develop other kinds of development work with people with disability and socially marginalised people, and growing the ministry there. For seven years, I led the organisation we were part of.
Even at that stage, I was beginning to shift from medicine to organisational leadership. It was a very natural process. In each step, we just asked the Lord, “What do you want us to do next?” There was no decision to leave medicine; it was just “What is the next step?” Until one day, I realised I’d pretty much left medicine.
That was my journey. When we left Tunisia after 12 years, I was asked to lead our mission agency Interserve where we mobilise professionals to use their professional skills—across Asia and the Middle East—for Christ. It’s for professionals who want to use their skills, and at the same time, want to share the gospel and see the church strengthen. We have about 1,000 people in our organisation across Asia, and the Middle East, and I was asked to lead that work internationally. I became the international director of Interserve in 2003, and for 12 years I led that ministry.
We moved our international office to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, so for 10 years, we were based in KL. I absolutely love this part of the world. I visited Singapore often during that time.
In 2015, I handed over the leadership and we went back to the UK, with no idea what God wanted for us. I was asked to lead the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. After a period of discernment, we felt yes, this was God calling us to do it and we’ve been there now for seven and a half years.
What does OCMS do?
OCMS is 40 years old this year and it was founded by a group of Christian leaders from Africa, Latin America and Asia. It was not founded by British people.
The intellectual drivers for OCMS were all outstanding leaders from Latin America, Africa and Asia. The reason OCMS was formed is that in the 1970s, there started to be a debate within evangelicalism: “What is mission?” On the one hand, you had a largely Western group, saying the mission is evangelism and church planting. And then you had another group largely from the emerging nations, who said, “Actually, God’s mission is about the transformation of our societies because it’s not just about planting churches. We are called as disciples to see Christ as Lord over all our society.” And they were working in the context of poverty, dictatorship, and struggle. How does mission relate to those things?
So, they said, “We need to form our own leaders, to think critically about the nature of God’s mission in our context, not just relying on a theology and an understanding of mission that has been developed in Europe, and North America, which is a very different context.” The whole vision behind OCMS was to equip leaders from the Majority World, leaders who could think and do theology in their own context.
So, I’m kind of strange, because I’ve got white skin but inside, I’m not [white] because of all my [heritage]. I’m like a Singaporean, a bridge.
Anyway, that has always been OCMS’ passion. Now, we don’t just say we are for the Majority World. We say that God has called us to serve the whole global church. Why? Because in the West, there has to be a reimagining of mission today—we have to reimagine our spiritual life, what it means to be a disciple and how to reach out in the Western context. Now we say we serve the whole global church, so we have people who come to us from North America, as well as Africa and Asia.
The main programme that we run is a PhD program. Why PhD? You can do a MA, or other degrees anywhere in the world but there aren’t many places where you can be enabled to do a PhD from the perspective that we have. What is the nature of God’s mission in this place? For us, we create a space where people can bring the questions from their context. We don’t tell them how to think but we enable them to think and do their research. That’s the vision of OCMS. We have about 90 scholars from over 40 countries at the moment, doing their PhD with us.
OCMS was a co-organiser of the GPS. How did that happen?
Well, Prof Doug contacted me one day and said, “We’re going to have a conference. We would like it if OCMS can provide academic support for us.” He shared the vision of the conference with me and I was really captured by the thought of an academic conference situated within the church. I came last February to meet with Pastor Kong and I spent a weekend worshipping with the church. I said to myself, “This is exceptional. It’s very important for us to be part of this.”
It came (to us); I wasn’t looking for it. God opened the door. We are absolutely thrilled to be part of it and we expect a lot to come from this.
What are your thoughts about the Global Pentecostal Summit? How do you think it will impact Christianity or Pentecostalism in the years to come?
There’s so much going on here that’s important. First of all, academic work has struggled to hold together its primary purpose, which is actually to serve the church and the calling to rigorous thinking. What tends to happen often in academic work is that the academy begins more and more to just be in its own space. It becomes isolated from those it’s designed to serve. What this conference has done is that it brought those two together, in an extraordinary way.
I’ve been to many academic conferences but this is almost unique, in my experience, in achieving what I believe is God’s intention for us: that we do the rigorous work of our thinking in a context of worship. God says to us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” If we separate the loving God with our mind from the rest, we’re in trouble. They come together. This conference has brought them together in a quite remarkable way. There’s something in this that we have to listen to and say, “How could we continue to do this kind of work in this way?”
Secondly, I think the intention of bringing together different voices from global Pentecostalism is absolutely right. We are dominated by particular voices in global Christianity, and it is hugely important that the body of Christ develops the ability to listen and take seriously all the voices. This is an attempt to bring different voices and different contexts together and take them seriously. To me, it is still the start of that journey. We still have more to learn about how we truly listen to each other in the global body of Christ, but it’s a good start. I have really appreciated the quality of the presentations, the amazing responses and the way in which the church participants have asked very pertinent questions.
I think it’s been a very rich, very rich experience. I’m anticipating that more will come from this, this will not be a one-off event.
Interview by Chiong Xiao Ting. Story by Dawn Seow