St. Patrick and the Importance of Good Theology in Missions

One of my missionary heroes is Patrick of Ireland. He’s the only missionary with his own holiday—what could be better than that? Although I am not sure he would be pleased with all the parades, green beer, and other excesses, Patrick is a missionary rock star.

Few know much about Patrick’s story. He was kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave. After he escaped and made his way back home, he was praying and, according to legend, he heard a voice speaking in an Irish accent begging him to come back and preach to them. He followed God’s call and returned to Ireland as a missionary. According to tradition, Patrick’s ministry resulted in thousands coming to faith and hundreds of churches being planted.

One of St. Patrick’s trademarks is the shamrock. He is said to have used this three-leaf clover as an illustration to explain the Trinity. As cute as this analogy is, many have pointed out that it’s theologically problematic. It fails to explain that each member of the Trinity is fully God and each person is distinct from one another. If you want a humorous explanation of this problem, you can see it in this satirical video.

Now some may ask, “What’s the big deal? You just said that Patrick was a hero, and now you are saying that his primary teaching may have been theologically problematic.”

Is theology really that important? Can evangelistic results overcome bad theology?

“God works despite our theological missteps. On the other hand, none of us sets out to make theological mistakes. We want to be as accurate as possible.”

Of course, we’ve all heard stories, or perhaps know from personal experience, that God works despite our theological missteps. On the other hand, none of us sets out to make theological mistakes. We want to be as accurate as possible. For this reason, it seems the better question is, “What role does sound theology play in our missionary practice?”

Theology Sets the Priority of Missions

Most missionary mobilization focuses on the needs of people. This is a biblical view. Billions of people don’t know Christ and have never heard of God’s love. Untold millions suffer under pains of sin and false worship. These statistics move us. Pictures stir our compassion. Stories rattle us out of complacency. However, neither people nor their needs can serve as the primary motivation for missions.

Missionary work is hard, exhausting, and filled with disappointment. Leading a church to send your best people out on mission can be frightening. However, good theology reminds us that the will of God, not simply the needs of people, makes missions important. Good theology grounds us in the Bible and allows God’s Word to shape our priorities. Theology teaches us that God is the hero of Bible stories, and his passion is that all the nations know and worship him. Missions is primary because God is primary.

Theology Supplies the Preaching for Missions

When we think about missionaries, one of the first things that come to mind is learning another language. In fact, language learning seems to be one of the most daunting barriers for those considering becoming a missionary. It is difficult, but learning to speak the language of a people is crucial. Communication is necessary for survival: eating, paying bills, getting directions. Communication is also the bridge for establishing relationships.

Most importantly, communication is the mandate of the missionary. We have a story to tell. A message of salvation and hope. However, salvation and hope are not found in “just any message.” Salvation is only found in faith in Jesus Christ.

Lesslie Newbigin once observed,

When an evangelist goes into an Indian village where the name of Jesus is unknown and preaches the gospel for the first time, how is he to introduce the Name? . . . I have sometimes heard the gospel preached in such a way that hearers—accustomed to many gods—were led to think that the name of Jesus represented yet another god, this time more powerful and beneficent than those they already knew. Clearly, that would not be the Christian faith as the New Testament understands it. [1]

The discipline of theology helps the missionary avoid error in preaching and provides clarity so that those who accept the message are genuinely saved.

Theology Shapes the Practice of Missions

Perhaps the most daunting reality for a missionary is the constant reminder that the task is larger than the individual. Missionaries are surrounded by multitudes who not only do not believe in but have never even heard of Jesus. One person or family in a sea of lostness can be overwhelming and frustrating.

“Good theology helps shape missionary practice.”

The overwhelming nature of the task is one of the top reasons missionaries give for neglecting theology and theological education. The discipline seems so impractical. However, the opposite is true. Good theology helps shape missionary practice. Theology gives form to evangelism techniques. Theology provides pathways and guardrails for church planting theories and practices. Theology guides leadership development and helps set long-range goals and map out daily practices. It may seem more practical to “just do something.” But, doing things the right way is always best, and, in the long-run, saves time and achieves the desired goal.

Theology Sustains the Practitioner of Missions

Every missionary considers quitting. The work is painful. Lives are lonely. People are unreceptive. Tears flow freely. Doing anything else, somewhere else, seems easier and more appealing. When the field seems to be pushing you away and “home” is calling, it is difficult to stay.

Theology provides the reason to endure. When the call to go “home” is loud, God’s call sustains. When our days are lonely and the work seems futile, the firm convictions gained from disciplined reflection on God’s Word remind us that we are not alone and that working for God’s mission is never in vain.

Being good at theology requires effort and discipline. However, we must never forget that the textbook for our theology–the Bible—is a missionary book. It was written by missionaries for missionaries. Let’s continue in this great tradition of being missionary-theologians.

Scott Hildreth is an assistant professor of global studies and director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @DSHildreth.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, “The Relevance of Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission” CWEM Study Pamphlets, NO.2. London: Edinburgh House Press.

Portions of this post have been adapted from Scott’s article, “Why a Missionary Should be Concerned about Theology,” Southeastern Seminary Magazine, Fall 2016, 26–27.