Ridge Burns is a unique guy. First he’s unique, because he’s the only person who I’ve known that has worn the same style of red shoes (yes, red) for a quarter of a century. Second, he’s unique because he leads the the oldest domestic mission organization in the U.S. Ridge Burns is a leader who has a gift for mobilizing God’s people, and a knack for instilling a passion for gospel living. He’s creative to the hilt, but he leverages the gifts that God has given him to exalt Christ in communities around the United States. The history of the American Missionary Fellowship is an exciting story of change and evangelism over many years. The mission was founded in 1790 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although their name has changed, the core purpose has never changed—”to glorify God…[and] preach the gospel to all people” (from the website). We interviewed Ridge Burns, Executive Director/CEO of AMF to gain an inside look at the organization. Here’s a bit of our conversation.
First, tell us about the red shoes.
This will be my 25th year of wearing Red Vans shoes. It all started with my son. I was at a Vans shoe store in California, buying a normal pair of shoes. He crawled over, holding a big pair of red shoes. He gave them to me, and I’ve been wearing red shoes ever since. It’s not that exciting of a story, but it has become part of who I am.
AMF has changed over the years—its name, its strategy, its approach. What changes are going on right now, that help AMF connect with the current generation?
We want to be “men of Issachar,” the people who understand the culture and times. One of the things that we are doing is a tremendous amount of focus groups. We’re listening to the millennial generation. We are trying to understand how they operate, how they work, what kind of things would draw them to a missional kind of an organization. We are morphing from a lifetime commitment to mission, into what we call mid-term missions, where we are looking for a 3-5-year commitment. Instead of looking for individuals to serve, we’re looking for communities or groups of individuals that are connected to each other before they even apply or want to come to the mission. They may be a church, a sports league, a college. They’ve decided to come together and do what we call incarnational ministry—going into a defined geographic area and through the leading of the Holy Spirit, help to introduce Christ in the midst of the community. This idea of incarnational ministry is not a new concept for AMF. It’s an old one. It’s just shaped differently for the Millennials.
The end result is that we confront people with the good news. We declare the awareness of their own sinfulness and need for a savior. Our way of doing that is a biblical, New Testament principle. You show Jesus. You help others understand who He is. They respond, falling at His feet, saying “Woe is me, a sinner.” Sometimes, this may take the form of direct, full-on, proclamation: “This is who Christ is and you need to make a decision.” It depends on the context and on the environment. However, all of our people are committed to presenting the claims and promises of Christ to people in a way that encourages them to respond and accept Him as Savior.
How should Christians with a Great Commission heart and a passion for mission view the immigration crisis that our nation is facing?
It starts with reading the Old Testament about welcoming the nation and not trampling on them. We read about this in Isaiah and Jeremiah. Repeatedly in the Bible, there is a call to love those who are not like us. It is a tension. What I’m going to say might sound like a cop out, but it’s not: We must minister to those whom God brings before us. It’s easy for us to go across the pond into another culture and strive to connect in that culture and then to have an effective ministry. But when we get caught up with the immigration crisis in our own country, we seem to feel differently and act differently regarding the welcomeness of those who are not part of our comfort zone.
It is similar to what you face when you encounter the homeless man on the street, the man who is begging. Is this person placed in front of me just because he’s poor? Is he placed in front of me so I can minister to him? Or do I view that person simply as a nuisance? I’ve had all three of those responses myself, sometimes to the same person. But that’s the same call that we have toward immigrants. Sometimes I think we must reach out and take risks. Our job is to love. Don’t you think that the perfume offered to Jesus was a waste of money? It’s not an easy answer. Our concern is not how the person might respond to our love. Our concern should be to simply obey.
How would you advise pastors to help mobilize their people in becoming more mission-minded, and engaging in missionary activity in their own communities?
Vision trips. If you can afford to do that, the impact is marvelous. Most people, when they think of vision trips, think of India, or Africa or Asia, or something like that. However, just a vision trip into the inner-city is powerful. People want to see, and taste, and smell, and touch, and hear. If I were a pastor, I would desire to put my people in an uncomfortable positions. The people in our mission are aware of the need because they were put in an uncomfortable position. They never lose that sense of discomfort. It’s what drives them. I think many of our churches and pastors desire to be comfortable. And so they have created an environment where the people never have their hearts tugged on. I’m involved with missions today because of short-term mission trips I went on when I was younger. I began to see what God was doing, and I realized, “Wow. This is a huge need!”
Maybe God is bigger than your box. Maybe he’s bigger than the parameters you’ve placed around him. Maybe God isn’t contained in our sociological view of who He is. When a pastor or church allows this to happen, that congregation is very much blessed. It’s amazing
How can people help AMF?
Well, first of all, we’re no different from any other organization. We need people and money. But we need more people than money. People may begin to think, “God has called me, and He’s called me to serve in my own community.” We can serve as a resource to those people. People can come to get the support, the training, the fellowship, and the networking they need.