Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing conversation in regard to the role of education in missions. Viewpoints on the matter are many and varied. You can read another one here.
If the world is lost and going to hell, why spend precious years in seminary getting theological education? After all, there is so much to do in this world to win the lost to Christ, disciple them, plant churches, and teach them all that Christ commanded us. Missiologists estimate that over a third of the world’s population hasn’t heard the gospel. That means about 2.5 billion people have no access to the gospel. Of that number, about fifty thousand people die daily and go into a Christless eternity. How can we justify delaying even one more day?
The reasoning to drop everything and go right now appears airtight. But we must remember that any call to ministry brings with it a call to prepare. The urgent need for surgeons after a war or natural disaster should be met by those with medical training. The vital need to replace damaged bridges and buildings should be met by those with training and skill to build them, not those who simply see the need and have a heart to do the work.
The Need for Speed
The great missiological error of our day is the mistaken notion that the Great Commission equals reaching the unreached. Of course, we must reach the unreached, but this requires more than preaching the gospel in one evangelistic campaign. The great tragedy of the world is not that it is unreached; it is that it is undiscipled. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not just to get decisions. Paul mentored Timothy and told him to take the things he had learned and teach others who would teach still others.
“The great tragedy of the world is not that it is unreached; it is that it is undiscipled. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not just to get decisions.”
The apostle Paul greatly desired to preach Christ where he had never been named, but Paul also saw the need for trained leadership in the advance of the gospel.
Some have argued that the great need for more churches faster on the mission field justifies the practice of some church planters starting churches and leaving them in the hands of leaders who aren’t necessarily biblically qualified. Could anyone argue that the needs of any specific mission field today has greater need and fewer biblically qualified candidates than the churches where Timothy and Titus served (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9)?
Missionaries Need Training
In mission settings where there are no trained leaders or sound churches, the missionary will be evangelizing, discipling, and teaching theology to people who come from pagan backgrounds. He will be teaching new believers the Bible and how to apply it to their lives. It is absolutely essential that the missionary knows the truth in order to teach it. Many find that the best place for them to gain such critical information is in a seminary.
In seminary, you’re digging a well you’ll drink from for the rest of your life—and so will your hearers, your family, and those who must follow your leadership. Every Christian should get all the education they can get. Some have careers and family responsibilities that preclude moving to a seminary for a traditional residential degree.
However, many seminaries have degree programs completely online and in creative delivery systems. Many Christians have self-educated themselves by reading books, attending seminars, and listening to podcasts. Whatever he or she must do, a missionary should get all the education he or she can get. Many do so all their lives—before they go to the mission field, while they are there, and after they retire and return home.
Others have said theological education of missionaries is superfluous because you don’t need a theological seminary degree to share a tract. This notion that missionaries don’t need theological formation is as misguided as saying that medical missionaries don’t need to take the time to go to medical school because medical needs are so urgently needed around the world. It could also be argued that you don’t need a medical degree to put on Band-Aids. The time comes when a disease diagnosis or surgical procedure is needed, and the medical degree makes the difference between life and death.
Missionaries do a lot more than share tracts just as medical missionaries do a lot more than hand out Band-Aids. Missionaries regularly go toe to toe with postmoderns, imams, atheists, and shamans. They must teach new believers to think biblically and use the Word of God in life and practice. They help peoples critically contextualize the gospel in ways that must be biblically faithful and culturally appropriate. They must plant churches and teach essential truths without simply importing their home churches with tall steeples, red brick buildings, wooden pews, and Sunday schools that start at nine-thirty with worship services at eleven, complete with little signs behind the pulpit saying how many were in Sunday school, tithed, and brought their Bibles that day.
Theological preparation is necessary to plant the pure seed of the gospel in the soil of the target culture rather than simply bringing a potted plant that is indigenous to the missionary’s home culture.
“Every missionary must have a masters degree from the School of Christ, no matter how or where he gets it.”
Yet, a degree from a theological seminary may not be necessary, and in fact, some seminaries might do more harm than good. But every missionary must have a masters degree from the School of Christ, no matter how or where he gets it.
Missionaries would be wise to go to the best seminary they can find, one that teaches sound theology and biblical missiology, and get all the education they can in preparation before deploying to the nations.
If God opens the door before they actually graduate, then by all means they should follow his guidance and go. The Lord knows what each missionary needs to do all he has planned for him or her to do, and he also knows what the world needs.
Make sure you hear the still, small voice that says, “This is the way, walk in it,” and then obey that call as if souls depended on it. You shouldn’t run before you’re ready any more than you should delay once you are. God’s timing is not ours. If he hasn’t yet said, “Go now!” then get all the education you can get while you’re home.
Dig that well deep. Get down to clean, pure water that’ll serve you and the nations for the rest of your life.
M. David Sills (DMiss, PhD; Reformed Theological Seminary) is A. P. and Faye Stone professor of Christian missions and cultural anthropology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as director of global strategic initiatives and intercultural programs. He is the founder and president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries, which serves people around the world through evangelism, discipleship, pastoral preparation, leadership training, and theological education.