Many people see seminary like calculus. What are the chances that you’ll ever use that textbook stuff in real life? If students or professionals are considering overseas missions, such sentiments may only intensify as they measure the length of study against the urgency of reaching the lost.
The reasoning can be something like this: “Won’t four years of seminary training delay my calling? Besides, seminary doesn’t answer the real-to-life questions of a cross-cultural church planter. Ivory tower understandings of theology are largely impractical for a life on mission.”
True, seminary isn’t for everyone. Seminary is neither perfect nor necessary in an absolute sense (though some sending agencies may make it a requirement). Furthermore, seminary can’t answer every question or prepare a student for every context. But what seminary can’t do isn’t all that it does. In fact, for me, seminary proved to be a formative experience in spite of common objections.
“Seminary doesn’t get you overseas any quicker.”
My wife and I always envisioned landing on the mission field straight out of college. But as we approached my senior year, I began to rethink our plans.
For one, I didn’t feel grounded theologically. Second, I didn’t know if we were spiritually mature enough for the rigors of ministry overseas. I can still remember a short conversation I had with the president of a missionary agency when he visited our college campus. He strongly recommended seminary.
“For most missionaries, the challenge isn’t getting to the field. It’s staying there.”
Today, sixteen years on, I’m thankful for his wise counsel. While seminary inevitably postponed our departure for the field, it enriched our arrival. In addition to doctrine, a seminary education has the ability to teach patience and endurance, lessons critical for life overseas. Because, for most missionaries, the challenge isn’t getting to the field. It’s staying there.
“Seminary won’t teach you the target language for ministry.”
Most missionaries will spend years focused on learning language. Many others will need to learn more than one language. So spending long nights in seminary studying dead, biblical languages can seem like a worthless expenditure of brain cells. Furthermore, if the prospective missionary struggles with grasping the biblical languages, he or she may feel hopeless at the thought of studying Mandarin or Arabic.
I also didn’t have the most encouraging experience with biblical languages. I still remember pulsing headaches of confusion in my 12:30 p.m. Greek class. Some days I felt way behind. I could barely keep pace with the lecture. Hebrew was even more difficult. One time I recall my professor peering over my shoulder at a sentence, pausing, then telling me that I had translated it perfectly—except into Aramaic.
When I arrived on the field and thought about learning a Central Asian language—one of the more difficult language families in the world—I wasn’t overly optimistic. But with time I discovered that years of studying Greek and Hebrew, the repetition of identifying accusative and genitive forms, had worn pathways in the forest of my mind. The language I learned followed some of those same trails and was clear in ways Greek and Hebrew never were.
“Seminary can’t give you experience in cross-cultural living.”
Nothing can truly prepare you for the myriad challenges that come with life overseas. A short-term trip with return ticket in hand won’t do it. Cross-cultural ministry is demanding. If nothing else, it’s a life of the unknown and unexpected. But a grueling seminary education can be like necessary strength training. While completion of a degree program doesn’t guarantee endurance or a willingness to sacrifice, the reps of self-discipline, focused study, and hard work will build strength for overseas ministry and cultural adaptation.
“A grueling seminary education can be like necessary strength training.”
During seminary, my wife and I lived in the same apartment for five years. We often longed for a yard and open spaces for our young kids to roam. But those years of getting by, of learning to surrender dreams and sacrifice desires for a greater goal, were a useful precursor for overseas adaptation. Apartment life is now second nature to us.
The lessons we learned of relinquishing our rights for the sake of God’s glory, while not easy, truly prepared us for ministry. After all, developing those attitudes of heart will always be more important than an ability to swallow sheep brain soup or an intestine sandwich.
“Seminary won’t answer every missiological question.”
Seminary often takes a bad rap for not adequately preparing students for ministry. Nowhere is this truer than in missiological circles. The classroom is often slow to learn of trends on the field. And professors may not always address the pressing questions and theological issues of modern missionaries. Some of the current debates in our Muslim context are those of Insider Movements and the use of familial language in translation. I don’t recall those topics on the white board or in class notes while I was in seminary.
But, in a sense, that doesn’t matter. No education should be expected to exhaustively answer all real and potential challenges. Instead, a good seminary does one better. It supplies students with a solid hermeneutical foundation and a biblical-theological framework. It gives the prospective missionary the tools necessary to run the plumbing and wire the house, all the while carefully building according to the master blueprint.
Suggestions for Seminary Students
Seminary has much to offer the prospective missionary. For any who might be reading this, I would offer a few brief suggestions for their remaining time in the theological classroom.
- Give yourself fully to learning the biblical languages. The acquisition of Greek and Hebrew is worth it alone. But by learning to think grammatically and training your mind to decode languages, you’re giving yourself a head start for future learning.
- Give yourself to the study of the Scriptures, especially biblical theology and hermeneutics. Missiological and world religion studies are helpful, but so much of what you learn today will not apply to your context or will be outdated in a decade. Unless you’re skillful in the Word, you’ll be useless discipling others or dialoguing with colleagues.
- Give yourself to the task at hand. Do your best at your studies and cultivate the personal discipline of hard work for the glory of God. Don’t wish away the days. Be thankful for the wonderful opportunity and privilege of study. Sow endurance today and you’ll reap it when truly needed.
Elliot Clark (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lived in Central Asia where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas with Training Leaders International.