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Steve Strauss (1955-2013)

by Stephen Smith on June 11, 2013 in Profiles

Our beloved Dr. Steve Strauss went to be with the Lord Tuesday, June 11 at 2:00 a.m. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, June 22, at Scofield Memorial Church at 11:00 a.m. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be sent to Serving in Mission or to DTS. Please continue to pray for the Strauss family as they grieve the separation from their precious loved one.

"Be prepared to pray any time, preach any time, and die any time.”

–Dr. Steve Strauss

In January 1991, bullets whizzed through the streets of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. Rebel elements of the EPRDF patrolled concrete roads littered with shell casings and destroyed vehicles. Near Steve and Marcia Strauss’s house, a government Dergue tank burned. It sent oily black smoke into the night. The Strausses could smell creosote and gunpowder. Ethiopia’s genocidal government was about to fall, but who knew whether the rebels would bring peace or a sword?

Recalling the incident years later, Steve said, “Our kids didn’t really know how dangerous the coup was. The boys thought the tanks were cool. We kept a straight face and played along, but then Marcia packed the kids off to safety while I stayed behind.” As principal and lecturer at the Evangelical Theological College in Addis Ababa and assistant pastor at the International Evangelical Church, Strauss felt bound to stay and share the fate of his Ethiopian colleagues and students.

Twenty years later, a former Ethiopian student wrote to Steve and Marcia about those unstable days. “I have seen you praying and preaching any time, but twenty years ago I saw your readiness to die any time when Steve stayed behind in Addis Ababa as Marcia took the young children to safety.”

Both as a missionary in Ethiopia and as department chairman and professor of World Missions and Intercultural Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, Steve Strauss inspired students and colleagues to model his lifestyle of humble faith.

“Dr. Steve Strauss was a world–class ambassador for Christ. He was a lover of God and people, and he was a leader for God's mission in the world. All of us at DTS have received more ministry from Steve and Marcia these past fifteen months than we have extended to them. Steve's absence will be noticeable for months and years to come. His departure to heaven leaves a vacuum in our community that only God can fill. No one will ever be like Steve, but we will trust God to raise up a host to take his place in the ranks of godly servant-leaders for the future. ”

–Dr. Mark Bailey, President, Dallas Theological Seminary

“I Wouldn’t Stay Here in the States”

Steve was born in Dallas into a family steeped in Christian service. The son and grandson of pastors, he credits his dad’s life and ministry as his inspiration toward Christian growth and serving the Lord.

Academics always smiled on Strauss. He earned his B.A. in History from Bryan College in Tennessee, winning the highest GPA award. But his greatest accomplishment may have been another milestone: meeting and marrying Marcia Krick. The two formed a loyal and like-minded bond that yielded three children, Cara (1981), Mark (1983), and David (1986)—all now married, and one grandchild, Ariana.

Feeling called to ministry, Steve recognized his need for further theological training. He attended Dallas Seminary, graduating in 1980 and receiving the W. Griffith Thomas Academic Achievement Award. The seminary saw his talent and invited Steve to lecture in homiletics. He accepted the position, but overseas missions still captured his heart.

While Steve was still at seminary, it was the late Howard Hendricks who most influenced him toward missions. “Gentlemen,” Steve recalled Hendricks rasping, “if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't stay here in the States where there's a church on every block. I'd go overseas to some country where there was no school like Dallas Theological Seminary, and I'd start something like it.” The challenge sent chills up Steve’s spine. He joined SIM (Serving in Mission) in 1980 and went to Ethiopia in 1982.

“Exegete Your World as Well as the Word”

Gifted with a sharp intellect and boundless energy, Strauss met his match as he learned Amharic and the culture of Ethiopia. An ancient Christian faith still lingered among the bustling towns and cities of Ethiopia, but it seemed dusted with silt from centuries of neglect. Steve quickly realized the wisdom of Hendricks’s exhortation to found theological schools that could train local pastors in the accurate interpretation of God’s Word.

Strauss served on the founding committees for three African theological schools: The Evangelical Theological College (1983); the Kale Heywet Ministry Center in Dilla (1987); and the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (1997). Strauss also traveled widely throughout Africa and India, teaching at conferences and seminars and refining his thinking on contextualization and missiology.

Encountering Ethiopian culture spurred Strauss toward a practical contextualization of theology. As a missionary, Steve struggled with the relationship between the Bible and culture. Seeking answers, he devoured writings by renowned missiologist Paul Hiebert. Ever the avid student, Steve later received his Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Hiebert served on Steve’s dissertation committee.

To bring theology and the study of missions to a practical level, Strauss often shared from his own experience. In one DTS class on intercultural communication, Strauss told his students, “When a wife asks her husband, ‘Does this dress make me look fat?’ he would be a fool to say anything other than ‘No,’ because his wife is not asking an informational question. Instead, she wants to be reassured that she is beautiful to her husband. Learn to identify the question behind the question. You have to exegete your world as well as the Word.”

Windsurfing in a Volcano

Though his schedule in Ethiopia could have killed an elephant, Strauss maintained a joie de vivre which proved contagious. Twenty-two years ago, Steve convinced his former DTS colleague and friend Victor Anderson to join him as a missionary in Ethiopia. Tanks rumbled through the streets, the government was falling apart, and guns were everywhere, but it was a ripe time of harvest for Christian workers among the Amharic people.

Anderson—now chair of the Pastoral Ministries department at Dallas Theological Seminary—recalls that Strauss had a passion for teaching and learning. But even Anderson was surprised when Strauss taught him a most unusual skill in Ethiopia: how to windsurf.

“You have to be a little crazy to do what we did,” Anderson said. It was no easy task getting an eight-foot windsurfer board with its masts, boom, and sail into the country of Ethiopia. The lake also sat in an inactive volcanic bowl, increasing the challenge. Winds swirled unpredictably, often catapulting the would-be surfers into chilly waters. “The water was usually cold and always deep,” Anderson remembers, “adding to the peril.”

Steve proved a patient teacher—laughing, cajoling, and encouraging Anderson as he climbed on the board and fell off again and again. “It was pretty amusing to see two professor-types looking like little kids on a watery playground,” Anderson remembers. “I will always appreciate Steve for helping me learn something that I certainly would not have gotten from anyone else—not just windsurfing, but helping others enjoy adventure, life, and friendship more than they ever anticipated.”

“It Is Better that You Turn to God”

Ethiopian colleagues remember Steve as friendly, humble, and kind. Zenebe Mitiku recalls that Steve equipped a lot of Christian leaders and was instrumental to the planting and expansion of many evangelical churches in Ethiopia. “Steve and Marcia have served the people of Ethiopia, leading by example,” says Mitiku. “Their legacy lives on.”

Biruk Mitiku felt like an adopted son to the Strausses. He played soccer with the family and soaked up a practical theology from Steve. “Dr. Steve has been a wonderful example for my life to show Christ and lead me to the Cross,” he said. “Steve always added value into my life and has always something new to tell, teach, and explain.” 

Other colleagues remember Steve’s positive outlook and humility. Pastor Yiheyis Tadesse learned much from Steve’s devotion to Jesus and genuine love for other believers. “Besides his academic excellence, he was humble, kind, and friendly to each one of us. I always think of his exemplary life when I am forced to pass through challenging situations.”

One story stands out. Zenebe Mitiku tells it: “About ten to fifteen years ago, there was an Ethiopian security guard who was hired to watch the residence where the Strausses lived. Although all employees are supposed to be Christians and no alcohol was allowed, this particular guard had drinking problems. It came to Dr. Strauss's attention that the guard was getting drunk, always reporting for duty late, and abusing his wife at home. Everyone said Dr. Strauss should fire this guard. As you can imagine, all eyes were on Steve when he called the guard to have a few words with him. Steve's actions that day were amazing. Steve told the guard, ‘Listen. I have heard everything. God sees and knows everything you are doing. God loves you, and I love you too. It is better that you turn to God. With your permission, I would like to pray for you.’ Steve put his arm around this guy, and prayed for the guard and for his family.”

Family as Mission

After twenty years in Ethiopia, Steve accepted the role of Director of SIM USA from 2001–2009. Three years ago, he accepted the position as head of DTS’s World Missions department.

Students at Dallas Theological Seminary considered the Strausses a team. They often saw Steve and Marcia walking hand-in-hand up the stairs of a student apartment complex to attend informal dinners. The couple taught a “Family as Mission” seminar at DTS’s annual World Evangelization Conference. Steve often shared family anecdotes in classes. Alumna Karen Hinkley Root, who spent a summer serving with the Strausses in Ethiopia, said, “The loss of Steve feels like the loss of two people—both the loss of Steve and the loss of ‘Marcia and Steve.’ They were so unified.”

Tommy Jerkovic, former Student Missions president and international student from Germany, agrees. “Alongside of Steve, he had an amazing wife, Marcia, who has been a real blessing particularly to many female DTS students. For my wife and me it was always a sweet blessing seeing them together praying, worshipping, or just living out the ways of the Lord as a couple.”

“You Can Cover the Material, or You Can Teach”

Besides spending time with his family, Steve always insisted that his greatest joy in life was using Scripture to motivate people to catch God’s heart of love for every people group on earth. Despite this majestic goal, most students in his missions or intercultural communication classes knew Strauss as a winsome, fiercely energetic professor who filled classroom discussions with funny examples and warm pastoral care.

In one class, a student broke down after leading the opening prayer. The needs expressed by fellow students had been particularly tragic. Life seemed bleak. Instead of trying to get to the lesson, Strauss spent twenty minutes talking about suffering and pastorally sympathizing with the class. It was a great example of Strauss’s mantra: “You have two choices when you enter a classroom: you can cover the material, or you can teach.”

Impressively, Strauss always seemed to extract a kernel of benefit from even the most digressive or wrong-headed student comment. “It got to the point,” says David Knudsen, a 2012 grad, “where I would look forward to poor answers to in-class questions just to see what Strauss would say.” That kind-hearted ability to alchemize gold from dross was a Strauss trademark which Knudsen now tries to emulate.

Strauss also modeled spiritual disciplines for students. Tommy Jerkovic remembers that Strauss would rise early on Tuesday mornings to attend the Student Missions pre-dawn prayer meetings. “He has been a model for me as a spiritually acute man who successfully combines his spirituality with great intellectual depths in an academic context. I hope and pray that a little bit of his spiritual eagerness and warmth has rubbed off on me.”

Strauss was awarded the 2012 Senior Class award for Teaching Excellence.

“I’m Not Dead Yet”

In the spring of 2012, Strauss was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He underwent a year of chemotherapy treatments, surgery, and conflicting medical projections. Ever the teacher, he used his Caring Bridge site (http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/stevestrauss) to inform and encourage friends and family on a weekly basis. In his first post, Strauss wrote to supporters: “God has already ministered powerfully to our family through this. I have zero fear for myself (though, of course, I’d rather avoid the physical pain ahead!), but an intense, eager anticipation to be with Jesus and enjoy worshiping in his presence. My only concerns are for Marcia and our kids.”

When Chaplain Bill asked Strauss to open a DTS chapel in prayer one day, he introduced him by saying that Strauss was an inspiration just being in chapel. With his trademark humor, Strauss replied: “I don't have a foot in the grave yet, Chaplain.” Strauss was quoting an old Monty Python sketch where one guy is ready to dump his friend onto the cart of corpses, only to hear him shout out, “I'm not dead yet.”

Returning to a reduced teaching schedule at DTS, Strauss continued to cultivate in students a desire to spread the gospel around the world. One alumnus expressed belief that Strauss’s legacy far exceeds the thousands of Ethiopian and American students trained directly under his tutelage: “I am certain,” he said, “that many who never hear his name in this life will express their appreciation to him in eternity for the missionaries who—because of Dr. Strauss’s impact on them—have come to them as better listeners, more humble servants, and more biblically sound ministers of the gospel.”

Such is the legacy of a man prepared to pray anytime, preach anytime, and die anytime.

The Dallas Theological Seminary family mourns his loss and expresses our condolences to his spiritual and earthly family.

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