Changing Our Minds about Missionary Training

BibleDissatisfaction with current missionary training has led to radical proposals. Ferris, following Frame, proposes that “we dump the academic model once and for all—degrees, accreditation, tenure, the works” (Ferris 1990, 16). Prominent missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen decided to leave Abilene Christian University based on the following conclusion: “We have grown to believe that we cannot adequately train people for evangelism and church planting within an institutional setting” (Van Rheenen 2004, 7). It is not necessary to agree with dissonant voices, yet their concerns should be heard.

A number of training modes describe various perspectives. I am not an expert on missionary training, but I listen to the experts. Here we’ll consider the formal, nonformal, and informal modes. Thompson summarizes the purpose of these different modes of learning:

Each of these learning modes has differing methodologies and goals. The goal of informal learning is acculturation. The goal of formal learning is preparation. The goal of nonformal learning is transformation. (Thompson 1995, 37)

Formal Training

Formal training has been defined “as that form of education that is institutionalized, chronologically graded, and hierarchically structured in a system that spans primary through higher education” (Pazmiño 1992, 62). This aspect of education is “highly structured; largely classroom and lecture oriented; … primarily theoretical, … tending to move towards some certification or degree” (Taylor 1991, 7). Windsor’s research has demonstrated that “45% of North American missionary training centers have 90-100% formal education” (Windsor 1995, 4). Evaluators of missionary training are not unanimous on the value of formal training and point to critical concerns related to an overemphasis on formal education to the neglect of other facets. These concerns include a prolonged period of study that diminishes one’s ability to learn culture and language, character development, and the adequacy of training for cross-cultural work. Bonk attributes “the diminishing effectiveness of the Western missionary enterprise” to the type of formal missiological training received in seminaries:

So prolonged and rigorous is the formal enculturation process that the graduate, once the course is finished, finds himself or herself saddled with both family and debt, ensuring postponement of any anticipated venture into missionary work. By the time would-be missionaries from North America arrive at their appointed places of service, they are beyond the age when humans can be expected to learn another language fluently. (Bonk 2003, 138)

Taylor states that “formal theological institutions that say they train missionaries often address primarily knowledge components, not character nor even skills needed to survive and thrive in cross-cultural missions” (Taylor 1997, 13). Steffen addresses some of the perceived weaknesses of seminary training. He asserts that while “the seminary can help Christian workers prepare for monocultural ministry, it often fails to educate for cross-cultural ministry” (Steffen 2003, 146). This observation highlights the fact that one should not assume that ministry training for and in one’s home culture will equip church planters for ministry in another culture. Pastoral and church planting training by American professors without cross-cultural experience for ministry in American churches may not sufficiently prepare someone to plant a church in a cross-cultural context.

The previous comments should not be interpreted to mean that serious biblical and theological training are unnecessary. The essential and foundational nature of these elements in the church planter’s life and ministry should be evident. However, the question needs to be asked: What kind of setting will provide the best training? Taylor emphasizes the need for flexibility in providing training tailored to the individual:

Biblical and theological studies are central to preparation, even though not all candidates must have the same formal training. Such programs must be tailored both to the individual and to the individual’s future ministry. (Taylor 1993, 244)

Formal education has an important place in missionary training. Its importance must neither be underrated nor exaggerated, nor its limitations ignored. Ward writes,

Formal education can facilitate a person’s development, replace certain deficiencies of environmental experience with a schooled alternative and correct some misunderstandings and misinformation. But it is not of much value in reshaping personality traits and overcoming prejudice. (Ward 1987, 404)

There may be little agreement on how much formal training is needed or whether an institutional setting will be the best and only option for all candidates. How much formal training one receives will depend on opportunities, motivation, and outside encouragement to pursue the requisite areas of study. Yet the warning must be heeded to “avoid the tendency to reduce missionary training to a mere academic exercise” (Girón 1997, 31). There should be agreement that “going to the mission field without biblical training will greatly diminish the impact a missionary can make” (Girón 1997, 33) and that missionaries “by the very nature of their task, must be theologians” (Hiebert, Shaw, and Tiénou 1999, 26). Hiebert warns of the danger of “a theology divorced from human realities and a missiology that lacks theological foundations” (Hiebert 1996, 38). Yet those who only have formal training may not be as well prepared for cross-cultural ministry as they think they are. Arriving in another culture with expectations of effective ministry based on the achievements of formal education has often led to disappointment.

Nonformal Training

Nonformal education has been defined “as any organized systematic educational activity carried on outside the framework of the formal system to provide selective types of learning to particular subgroups in the population” (Pazmiño 1992, 62). Nonformal education would include seminars and small-group gatherings for specialized training. “It tends to be geared to learning by doing, in context” (Taylor 1991, 7). Many educators feel that “missionary candidates who study missions in a Bible school still need the practical training offered by missionary training centers” (Ferris and Fuller 1995, 57).

Taylor observes that “Western schools for the most part do not have flexible programs that integrate formal, nonformal, and informal education” (Taylor 1993, 244). This has led to the establishment of missionary training centers to provide the nonformal aspect. Training “that integrates theory and practice will increase the effectiveness of missionaries for any culture” (Plueddmann 1991, 229). In differentiating formal and nonformal training, Thompson points out that “many of nonformal education’s aims seek to develop competencies in persons at different stages of their maturation journey” (Thompson 1995, 42). Those competencies that relate to cross-cultural church planters will be discussed in another essay.

Informal Training

Informal education has been defined as the “lifelong process by which every person acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environment and through interactions in life” (Pazmiño 1992, 62) which “takes place in the dynamics of the learning community” (Taylor 1991, 7). The importance of practical experience and personal spiritual growth are emphasized for “the acquisition and development of positive and open attitudes toward other cultures, as well as ways of living out our Christianity in a multi-cultural arena” (Taylor 1991, 7).

Taylor observes that “the prime causes [for premature field departure] were clustered around issues related to spirituality, character, and relationality in the life of the missionary” (Taylor 2000, 489). The neglect of informal training may, in part, be the missing ingredient in missionary preparation and its absence responsible for high attrition. Informal training provides the prospective missionary with real life experience and interaction with others. It reveals areas of weakness and offers an atmosphere for growth. An institutional emphasis on acquiring knowledge and earning degrees may unwittingly neglect spiritual formation, character development, and practical experience. Informal training that involves gaining experience and promotes spiritual growth complements the academic acquisition of knowledge components.

Where do we go from here in equipping cross-cultural ministers of the gospel? I would suggest that formal training institutions evaluate the training they are providing and determine how other components might be included. These institutions might enlist input from graduates engaged in cross-cultural ministry in order to have their perspective in what was missing in their training experience. I would suggest that prospective missionary candidates not depend on any one mode of training or any one place to receive that training. A solid formal theological foundation should be enhanced by seminars and courses at specialized missionary training organizations. However, there is no substitute for experience gained in doing ministry. Short-term missionary internships are advisable in order to confirm one’s calling, demonstrate potential for effective ministry and language learning, and provide evidence of requisite gifts. I’ve seen many couples who sensed a call to cross-cultural ministry who after a short-term experience were able to determine that they were not called to a particular field, were not yet equipped for ministry there, or had their calling and gifts confirmed. I have seen far too many inexperienced and under-trained missionary candidates, who although zealous for ministry and convinced of their calling found themselves in a place and in a ministry for which they were not prepared and in which they could not continue. What heartbreak that after several years of grueling deputation and personal sacrifices, after the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars, missionary families return home disillusioned and wonder why no one encouraged them to wait until they were better prepared or why they were not warned of the challenges they would face! Churches, mission agencies, and training institutions can never provide everything needed that would guarantee missionaries success and ministry longevity. But we are kidding ourselves if we think that we are doing our best, and we are shortsighted if we refuse to change our minds about how we prepare missionaries for the glorious task to which they are called.


Bonk, Jonathan J., ed. “Between Past and Future: Non-Western Theological Education Entering the Twenty-first Century.” In Between Past and Future: Evangelical Mission Entering the Twenty-first Century, 121-46. EMS series no. 10. Pasadena, Cal: William Carey Library, 2003.

Ferris, Robert W. Renewal in Theological Education: Strategies for Change. Wheaton, Ill.: The Billy Graham Center, 1990.

Ferris, Robert W. & Lois Fuller. Transforming a Profile into Training Goals. In Establishing Ministry Training: A Manual for Programme Developers. Pasadena, Cal: William Carey Library, 1995.

Girón, Rodolfo. “An Integrated Model of Missions.” In Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, ed. William D. Taylor, 25-40. Pasadena, Cal: William Carey Library, 1997.

Hiebert, Paul G. “Missiological Education for a Global Era.” In Missiological Education for the 21st Century, ed. J. Dudley Woodberry, Charles Van Engen, and Edgar J. Elliston. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.

Hiebert, Paul G., R. Daniel Shaw and Tite Tiénou. Understanding Folk Religions: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1999.

Pazmiño, Robert W. Principles and Practices of Christian Education: An Evangelical Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House. 1992.

Plueddmann, James E. “Culture Learning and Missionary Training.” In Internationalising Missionary training: A Global Perspective, ed. William David Taylor. Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 1991.

Steffen, Tom A.” Missiology’s Journey for Acceptance in the Educational World.” Missiology 31:2 (April 2003.): 131-53.

Taylor, William David, ed. Internationalising Missionary Training: A Global Perspective. Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 1991.

__________. “How Shall We Equip the Cross-cultural Force?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 29:3 (July 1993): 242-48.

__________, ed. Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Pasadena, Cal: William Carey Library, 1997.

__________. ed. Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000.

Thompson, J. Allen. Church Planter Competencies as Perceived by Church Planters and Assessment Center Leaders: A Protestant North American study. Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1995.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. “A Change of Life.” Monthly Missiological Reflection #31. Occasional Bulletin of the Evangelical Missiological Society 17:2 (Spring 2004): 5-8.

Windsor, Raymond, ed. World Directory of Missionary Training Programmes. Pasadena, Cal: William Carey Library, 1995

Ward, Ted. “Educational Preparation of Missionaries—A Look Ahead.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 23:4 (October1987): 398-404.

Steve DavisDr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.
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