Any conversation around an exponential increase in the global missionary force must include methods for missionary education and training. When we think about those things, our gut reaction is often to rely solely on seminaries and missions agencies to fulfill educational needs.
The problem with that knee-jerk response is that it de-emphasizes the role of local churches in missionary training when congregational life and discipleship should prepare missionaries for cross-cultural sending in many ways. We need to develop more robust methods of discipling our congregations that include training for purposefully crossing cultures with the gospel.
We need to develop more robust methods of discipling our congregations that include training for purposefully crossing cultures with the gospel.
That said, there is certainly great value in the vast educational resources offered by theological institutions that can undergird, support, and strengthen the training efforts of our local churches. I’d like to note three distinct essentials for missionary training that could be served by such partnerships.
1. Biblical foundation
The first may seem a bit obvious, but a solid biblical grounding is absolutely essential. Any candidate with a desire to enter into cross-cultural sending must first have a healthy, growing understanding of the Scriptures and the ability to engage practically with its foundational principles. He or she needs a biblical fluency that goes beyond simple head knowledge of Scripture and into the experience of obedient application.
This sort of life would produce familiarity with biblical teachings and the doctrines that flow from them. For instance, it would develop an understanding of salvation taught by the book of Romans, the person of the Holy Spirit from the writings of Luke, and the doctrines of righteousness and justice as seen in Amos. A grasp of these foundational truths is a necessity for anyone who desires to explain the gospel to others and call them to repentance and belief.
2. Theological foundation
The second essential for training, closely related to the first, is theological grounding. Theology—the study of God—is not a standalone discipline. The study of Scripture leads to its development over time.
It is certainly not necessary for every missionary candidate to author a work on systematic theology, but a firm grasp of certain basic doctrines should be expected. For example, the doctrines of sin and death, an understanding of faith, the authority of Scripture, and the Trinitarian nature of God are all part of necessary doctrinal foundations. Thus, some guided theological training is certainly appropriate.
3. Missiological foundation
The third training essential is a specific missiological foundation by which biblical and theological truths are applied to the cross-cultural setting. It is not only what we say that matters, but how we say it and how it is received across cultures. Robust missiology, then, seeks to understand communication and how people within different cultures relate to one another. It seeks to understand God’s mission and how we take part in it, and it may include other disciplines such as anthropology—the study of people.
For most local churches, this is the weakest area of training. Many church leaders do not have a well-developed missiology, much less a method for passing it on to others. It is also not typically part of most formal training within seminaries and divinity schools. This is the type of training with the most immediate need for attention. It presents a wonderful opportunity for partnership between churches, seminaries, and missions organizations.
Thinking about educational needs for missionaries inevitably leads to questions about the role of traditional institutions in their training. As we begin to develop new pathways for “limitless” sending, we open the doors of missions not only to seminarians, but also business people and students and artists and . . .
We will no longer be sending only people who have completed years of formal theological preparation. We will be sending people who have asked for international transfers within the workplace. They will have new jobs in brand new cultures, which will most likely make much formal training within an institution prohibitive.
We will no longer be sending only people who have completed years of formal theological preparation.
Obviously, creativity is needed. Some institutions have already begun to develop programs to meet the minimum requirements of mission organizations, and that’s good. Yet, more needs to be done to get to the kind of limitless sending we desire.
Of course, not everyone will meet these formal requirements in many places around the world, but for those who can, academic institutions can be of great help. For example, a prepackaged missionary training certificate that develops these biblical, theological, and missiological foundations can be developed (where they don’t already exist). Such programs can be delivered in traditional format to those who can relocate, or through nontraditional means for those who cannot.
To maximize the learning journey, part of the training could be completed before they go and part of it once they’ve reached their new location. The possibilities are endless, and as varying pathways for sending are developed, more flexible, creative training tools will need to be developed, as well.
Limitless Sending Warrants Accessible Education
Seminaries and divinity schools are a wonderful resource and a gift to our churches. They can and should be willing partners who come alongside churches and missions organizations and work together toward limitless sending. Simply put, if we’re going to send limitless missionaries through a variety of pathways, we’re going to have to have practical programs that address biblical, theological, and missiological issues to prepare them well though missionary education as they join the missionary force among the nations for the glory of God.
Ed Stetzer, PhD., holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College. You can find him on Twitter @edstetzer.