Do Missionaries Need Seminary?

Southern Seminary Campus.

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.

As with all great, timeless questions, we need more details before we can answer. If we mean to say that missionaries must have seminary, then the answer is no. Where, after all, did William Carey attend seminary? Or Paul’s protégé Timothy, for that matter?

Some of the most faithful, fruitful missionaries I know had no seminary hours when they came to the field. On the other hand, I know many other fruitful missionaries who were seminary graduates. The first lesson is, then, that seminary education can be a useful means of preparing missionaries, but it’s not a necessary means of doing so.

Let’s Be Biblical

Seminary education can be an enriching piece in a larger picture of missionary training. The most important point, though, is to think biblically about preparation and training for missionary work. Sometimes our predilections about what constitutes proper ministry education (some type of formal education, most often in a seminary) can keep us from seeing a more straightforward picture of what training looked like in the early church.

In the first place, ministry training in the Bible rarely took the form of a set-aside time of “preparation.” The New Testament consistently depicts gospel workers—the Twelve alongside Jesus, the apostolic coworkers of Paul—as learners who were also engaged in missionary work. Workers were trained “on the way” in the midst of preaching and discipling new believers into churches. Training in the Bible took place in the midst of the same types of service the workers would be doing themselves.

“Seminary education can be a useful means of preparing missionaries, but it’s not a necessary means of doing so.”

In other words, it wasn’t learning about doctrine and theology in a classroom and then teaching junior high Sunday school on the weekends (the very thing, by the way, that I did in seminary!). The truths of the gospel were lived, preached, taught, and applied as the disciples were learning them. This in-mission aspect of biblical training ensured there was little, if any, dissonance between what was taught and how it was applied.

In the same vein, teachers in the New Testament taught as they went about their missionary work. While there were set-aside times of deeper discussion, teaching, and reflection (Matt. 13:36–43; 17:19–23; 19:23–30; 20:17–28; 26:26–35; 28:16–20; Mark 4:34; Acts 20:17–35), those were always integrated into the broader life of the group as the teacher led out in ministry alongside his disciples. The life and ministry of the teacher weren’t ancillary elements to their “professional” qualifications; they were the very things that qualified him to teach.

Paul pointed to his personal example in life and ministry in his correspondence with churches and disciples (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9; 2 Tim 1:13; 2:2; Acts 20:35) and he expected them to do the same (Phil. 3:17; 1 Tim. 4:12; 2 Tim. 2:2). Following the living ministry of their mentors, the disciples became teachers and churches became centers of training.

In-Mission Essentials

In light of this biblical picture of missionary training, my advice to aspiring missionaries is to prioritize these in-mission essentials in whatever path of training you pursue.

First, seek out ministry and mentors who actively engage in disciple making and church planting among those with little gospel access. Then look for good biblical instruction in life and doctrine along the way. That instruction may often be found at a seminary.

It’s important to recognize the proper place of seminary education within the broader sphere of missionary training. The types of skills needed to flourish on the mission field—bold, culturally aware evangelism; doggedly persistent follow-up in hard fields; mentoring and multiplying disciples from scratch; theologizing with only the Bible—may not make the list of learning outcomes for a seminary class.

The point is that we shouldn’t expect seminaries to bear the full brunt of missionary preparation—a fact that makes it that much more crucial that theological training coincide with disciple-making work. Recognizing this reality, many of our Southern Baptist seminaries are innovating ways to offer more options for getting credit in the midst of doing ministry, whether in the US or overseas.

“The types of skills needed to flourish on the mission field . . . may not make the list of learning outcomes for a seminary class.”

If you’re currently in seminary, ruthlessly pursue ministry opportunities that look like your future job description—making disciples, starting churches, and training leaders among people who have little to no Christian background. I’ve found that a desire to preach the gospel, make disciples, and plant churches often carries an associated desire to grow in biblical doctrine.

Remember also that your training isn’t just for you. You’re to “entrust” (ESV) what you have learned to “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2, HCSB). Nothing sharpens and enlivens theological study like helping to bring it to life for fledgling believers and churches.

Finally, a modulated approach to seminary like the one presented here shouldn’t be taken as an excuse for theological laxity in missionary training. As we look to the Bible for our patterns of training, we see that Paul was just as insistent that Timothy “[h]old on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me” (2 Tim. 1:13, HCSB) as he was that he should “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5, HCSB).

Paul admonished Timothy to be “a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, HCSB). The implication here is that Paul believed Timothy had been trained along the way to do that very thing.

The in-mission training pattern of the New Testament wasn’t simply a stop-gap measure until credentialed teachers and school buildings came along. Jesus’s and Paul’s method of training sent-out ones indicates that those who are called to do the work are most effectively equipped as they are doing it.

Let your training—seminary or otherwise—and your mission work coincide as much as possible, equipping you toward the same end that Paul himself sought: “the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:5 HCSB).

J. Brennan serves in South Asia where he and his wife have led church-planting teams for the past twelve years. He recently completed a PhD at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.