Preparing Missionaries for Cross-Cultural Church Planting

booksThe issue of adequate preparation for missionary candidates is not new. Years ago J. Herbert Kane lamented the practice of sending unqualified individuals to engage in cross-cultural ministry:

It is an act of consummate folly for anyone to proceed to the mission field without professional as well as theological training. Yet the practice continues year after year. The time has come to call a halt to this unsatisfactory procedure… . We should do our best to send out fully qualified missionaries. Anything less is unfair to the national churches and dishonoring to the Lord. (Kane 1982, 176)

This article seeks to highlight some of the areas that are important for missionary emphasis prior to field departure. A few observations are in order relating to the value and limitations of pre-field cross-cultural preparation. First, training alone cannot account for or guarantee effective ministry. Yet it has been recognized “that effective and appropriate pre-field training can make a major difference in the ‘experience’” (Dipple 1997, 217).

Second, it must be granted that there are many variables related to personal giftedness, target group receptivity, personality, and expenditure of personal energies. Pre-field training can never anticipate all the challenges and situations that will be faced by church planters. However, according to Dipple,“73.8% of the reasons given for missionary loss by agencies from old sending countries [1] could be addressed and corrected by more adequate and appropriate pre-field training” (Dipple 1997, 217).

Third, no amount of pre-field training can completely prepare the prospective church planter for the disorientation and frustrations of cross-cultural ministry. One experienced missionary with graduate missions training recounts that he and his wife were “unprepared for the emotional process involved in cultural adjustment,” and they “were blindsided by periods of depression and emotional exhaustion during [their] first four years of Cantonese language study” (Commons 2003, 17).

Fourth, there must be a willingness to allow for change in the ways cross-cultural church planters are trained. According to Ward, “the assumption that present educational approaches are adequate—even for the world situation as it is now—is vulnerable” (Ward 1987, 398). The passing of twenty years since that observation has not diminished its relevancy.

Fifth, the preparation needed by cross-cultural church planters can never be completely furnished by educational institutions or appropriate experiences. Ultimately it will be a question of spiritual resources and the Christian character developed by a vital relationship to the living God. Yet the truth of this previous observation does not permit haphazardness in pre-field training approaches. As Bavinck remarks,

Missionary work is exceedingly exacting and requires deep insight and knowledge. The mistakes made by a missionary are often still visible after centuries. If a missionary has no insight into the society in which he works, and if he has no conception of its religious background, he can commit great errors even with the best of intentions… . It is generally recognized today that it is not responsible to send out men who are not prepared for their task. (Bavinck 1960, 99)

Perhaps we should listen and learn from what others have said who have far more experience in this area. For example, Taylor emphasizes the importance of focusing on pre-field preparation in order to “significantly reduce painful and early departure from mission work” (Taylor 2002, 80). Further, Ward affirms that pre-field training provides the tools “to cope reasonably well with early encounters in the real world of ministry and set the stage for a pattern of continued learning” (Ward 1987, 400). Winter proposes what he considers radical change in missionary training that does not require relocation to a formal educational setting. He pinpoints what he considers a major drawback to past trends:

In the past fifty years, then, the mission movement has moved considerably from seeking candidates from Christian schools with a lackluster training in missions, to seeking candidates from secular schools, often with a lackluster preparation for Christian service. (Winter 2003, 136)

Mayers comments on the importance of “training that gives us tools to be effective communicators whenever we cross cultural, ethnic, and linguistic borders” (Mayers 1985, 308). Finally, Girón places a special emphasis on apologetics and advises missionaries to “spend time in advance acquiring the theological and missiological foundation they will need” (Girón 1997, 34).

There may be the rare Bible college graduate ready for cross-cultural church planting when newly married at the age of twenty-three. I’ve known some of these exceptions. They remain the exception, and as a rule I recommend an M.Div. and directed practical training which provide evidence of the prospective missionary’s giftedness. The accumulation of degrees is no guarantee of effective future ministry. However, time in seminary and local church ministry and a few years of marriage growth provide a testing ground and demonstrate a fitness for the work, a fitness that cannot be readily observed in someone’s life who has been spent four years in a controlled educational setting often far removed from the realities of real life ministry.

The desire for prospective cross-cultural church planters to reach the field quickly is easily understood. There is an uncontainable enthusiasm to engage in “real” ministry. There are thoughts of multitudes without Christ who must hear the Good News before it is too late. One might ask, “How many are dying without having heard? How many more might have been saved if only they had heard?” A passion for souls often provides the rationale for premature departure to the field and the temptation to take shortcuts in pre-field preparation. “Why take time for cross-cultural studies when ministry opportunities beckon? Why learn the language and culture of another people group when translators will suffice?” (Steffen 1993, 179). Enthusiasm and passion may help someone succeed in getting to the field. Yet when the newness of ministry wanes, the exotic character of overseas living becomes humdrum, and once friendly relationships begin to deteriorate, much more will be needed. Hesselgrave reminds missionary candidates that “the first ten thousand miles in mission are relatively easy. It is the last eighteen inches that are difficult” (Hesselgrave 1988, 147). The sense of urgency is undeniable and admirable, but there must not only be the urgency to go but the willingness to wait and be properly prepared.

Since it is true the pre-field preparation alone cannot completely prepare missionaries for the task in which they will be engaged consideration should also be given to on-field training. The importance of on-field training should not be neglected and has been ably treated elsewhere. Dooley, for example, admits that pre-field training “aids in adjustment… and provide[s] tools for sorting through the myriad impressions of the acculturation process.” She holds, however, that “pre-field training at its best usually provides experiences through simulation or limited intercultural experience in one’s own country or a neighboring land” (Dooley 1998, 310). However, many agencies are not equipped to provide extensive on-field training. Further, it may be too much to ask first-term missionaries to not only engage in language studies but also to be involved in further missionary preparation on-field. And the question may arise as to the willingness of churches to support missionaries for extended on-field training when they have failed to acquire pre-departure tools. Of course, missionaries should be encouraged to pursue further training. On-field training is not only appropriate if available, but essential for missionaries. At issue is the need to acquire adequate pre-field preparation which prepares the church planter for active and effective ministry without further unnecessary delays once on the field.

Churches often have the expectation that those sent abroad are already prepared at some level to engage in on-field ministry following language learning. Where does one find time for on-field training? How many mission agencies are equipped to do on-field training? In an ideal world there may be room for ongoing professional training during the first term and for training facilitators to accomplish this task. In the world of hands-on ministry that becomes difficult. It may be best to pair first-termers with veterans to help in the transition rather than creating a need for more personnel. In conclusion, Kane cogently comments on the place of missionary training. We would do well to heed his balanced remarks.

The perfect missionary has not yet appeared on the scene; and it would be foolish and futile to insist on standards bordering on perfection. On the other hand it would be a grave mistake to suggest that any Tom, Dick, or Harry, without any special training or any particular qualifications, can make an acceptable missionary. (Kane 1975, 60)


Bavinck, J. H. An Introduction to the Science of Missions. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1960.

Commons, Bill. “The Incarnational Missionary.” ABWE Message 51:2 (Summer 2003).

Donovan, Kath and Ruth Myors. “Reflections on Attrition in Career Missionaries: A Generational Perspective into the Future.” In Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, ed. William D. Taylor, 41-73. Pasadena, Cal: William Carey Library, 1997.

Dooley, Marianna H. Intercultural Competency in Relation to Missionary Effectiveness: Implications for On-field Training. Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 1998.

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.

Hesselgrave, David J. Today’s Choices for Tomorrow’s Mission. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988.

Kane, J. Herbert. The Making of a Missionary, 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975.

__________. A Concise History of the Christian World Mission. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982.

Mayers, Marvin K. “Training Missionaries for the 21st Century.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 22:3 (July 1985): 306-12.

Steffen, Tom A. “Missiological Education for the 21st Century.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 29:2 (April 1993): 178-183.

Taylor, William David. “Revisiting a Provocative Theme: The Attrition of Longer-term Missionaries.” Missiology 30:1 (January 2002): 67-80.

Ward, Ted. “Educational Preparation of Missionaries—A Look Ahead.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 23:4 (October 1987): 398-404.

Winters, Ralph W. “Eleven Frontiers of Perspective.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 20:4 (October-December 2003): 135-41.

1. “Old” sending countries are those traditionally associated with sending missionaries in the era of modern missions (i.e., Western European countries, USA). They are differentiated from “new” sending countries, those formerly evangelized by “old” sending counties but who are now sending out their own missionaries (i.e., Brazil, Philippines, Korea, Nigeria).

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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