by Monroe Brewer
Practical reasons for missionaries to cultivate a lifelong learning approach.
In travelling to nearly 80 countries of the world and in working with hundreds of missionaries over the years in my capacity as a missions pastor, much of my time in the field is spent listening. I am especially curious about what missionaries say during times of reflection.
One of my favorite questions is: "If you could do it all over again and could change anything you have done, what would you do differently?" Almost without exception, they respond, "I wish I had gotten more Bible before I went to the field."
Unfortunately, many said such statements wistfully, knowing that they had not received the most thorough preparation beforehand, and yet also knowing that nothing could be done about their predicament now. While the former is no doubt true, the latter is definitely not true. Much, even now, can be done about their predicament, and this is the central message of this article.
Every year more and more doors are opening to provide career missionaries with the opportunities they need to further their educational aspirations, especially on the graduate level. In fact, the anthropological and theological training available now to missionary candidates and short-termers is more extensive, innovative, and effective than almost anything available to career missionaries a generation ago. The training programs are there, and the felt needs of the missionaries are there.
A COMMITMENT TO LIFELONG LEARNING
Some nagging questions persist, though, in the minds of many. Where will I ever get the extra time needed to diligently pursue my new studies? How can I possibly pay for those expensive semester units when I’m already several hundred dollars under-supported each month in my personal support account? What will my field director think? What will my peers on the field think are my real motives for "going back to school"? Don’t my children even need me more now than when they were little? Won’t I feel foolish or awkward trying to compete with many younger students? What if I can’t even pass the first course? What if I’m not accepted into the program? Maybe it’s not even worth the effort to begin with…
The purpose of this article is to convince you, at least objectively, that a commitment to lifelong learning is a decision that every missionary should make. You may not be able to dispel totally some of the above questions from your mind, but you need to face squarely a host of other important factors that persuasively argue for considering education as a way of life for the missionary.
As missionaries commit themselves to a life of continuous learning, many of the following benefits will be evident to them: intellectual stimulation, broadening of perspective, solutions to problems in ministry, immediate applicability of information, a growing network of like-minded professionals, academic credit, the attainment of realistic goals, and the thrill of satisfaction of directing one’s own learning path.
There are a number of sound philosophical reasons for missionaries to cultivate a lifelong learning approach, but here we want to discuss practical reasons. These reasons take into account the biographies of various missionaries associated with the missions program of my church. Instead of footnoting evidence from the vast body of literature on the subject, I will let their true stories speak for themselves.
THE CONTEXTUAL FACTOR
A lifelong approach to education most easily and naturally seeks to make one’s ministry more relevant to the local scene. The contextual factor is illustrated by two men: Renato, a former missionary in Argentina, who is presently pastor of missions in his home country of Brazil and Bob, a missionary to North Africa.
The elders of Renato’s church recently voted to send him, his wife, and three children to the U.S. for one year as investment for their church’s future. Renato and his wife are diligently learning English six hours a day in nonaccredited university courses in Los Angeles. Their three children are attending grammar school. None of the five spoke English when they came to America, but they all learned remarkably fast. His elders were especially concerned that Renato learn English, so that he could take advantage of the wealth of audio, visual, and printed materials in English to assist him in his preaching and teaching ministry.
While in the U.S. he interned in a large nondenominational church very similar to his in Brazil. This helped him to internalize ministry principles better, to see his own church’s strengths and weaknesses more clearly, and to interact with others as he planned his future ministry in Brazil. His time in America also gave him opportunity to visit other churches and to meet church and missions leaders around the country.
Bob and his wife participated in a 12 unit graduate-level study abroad program in North Africa several years ago after graduating from seminary. Upon successfully completing that program, they returned to California where Bob interned for a year in a small community church. Recently Bob began a master’s program in public health at a local university. He and his family are returning to North Africa this fall. He returns officially as a graduate student doing research on his degree, but unofficially as the member of a mission agency.
Bob is using his schooling as a means to build friendships and a working network, to further their cultural adaptation, and to assess needs and future ministry possibilities. He already has an open invitation from his host country’s Washington D.C. consulate. Like Renato, Bob is continuing to blend ministry and schooling together in the immediate context. He knows that the more relevant this schooling is to the local scene, the more dynamic will be his ministry in the present and in the future.
THE ORGANIZATIONAL FACTOR
Simply stated, missionary agencies are eager to have more flexible, better trained field staff and home office personnel. They know that better educated missions leaders mean more efficient, effective ministries within their organizational long-range plans.
No missionary organization in the world understands this factor better or has applied this principle more fully than Wycliffe Bible Translators. Missionary candidates with Wycliffe must survive the rigors of at least two years of formal and nonformal training-three semesters on the graduate level in linguistics, one month of QUEST, an orientation course, and five months in "jungle camp." As many as possible of their Bible translators are encouraged to earn graduate degrees (which is done in conjunction with their field work). At least 217 current members with Wycliffe hold doctoral degrees and 1,155 have master’s degrees.
Tim is a new missionary with SIM International in West Africa. Before going on a short-term assignment with SIM, he started an Ed.D. program. While working in the Caribbean as a short-term missionary and as a conference teacher in Asia, Tim was able to earn many graduate units towards his degree, gaining practical experience and academic training at the same time. Now SIM is granting him a one-semester study leave to return to California to finish the course-work for his doctorate. His studies and invigorating ministry have already been a real encouragement to SIM’s work in Africa.
THE INSTITUTIONAL FACTOR
Many schools, Bible institutes, colleges, seminaries, and graduate schools are anxious to offer innovative programs to candidates and veteran missionaries. The "market" is a substantial one-at least 40,000 short-term and career Protestant missionaries from North America working overseas presently, with thousands more in various stages of preparation. And many of the major evangelical institutions across the continent are now offering special majors, degrees, extension programs, field studies, and study abroad projects to capture new student interest and at the same time provide them with good opportunities to apply their missions training.
One of the most innovative of all the institutional programs being offered currently involves a study abroad program in North Africa. The project is jointly sponsored by: a graduate school (Biola’s School of Intercultural Studies), a university (William Carey International University), a Bible college (The Master’s College), a mission agency (Wycliffe Bible Translators), and a local church (Grace Community Church.) Students can earn up to 15 units of undergraduate or graduate credit through a husband-wife team that are adjunct professors of all three institutions, and members of the mission agency and the local church.
Students live in the homes of non-Christian host families, learn some Arabic, conduct original research, enjoy wonderful personal ministries, and are tutored in such courses as intercultural adjustment, introduction to linguistics, and applied anthropology. Each student’s missionary aptitudes are assessed, with a written evaluation provided at course end, and each is personally discipled through the course by veteran missionaries with 25 years of field experience.
Already at least seven "graduates" of the course are returning for longer service in that Muslim country. More than 20 are participating in the 1988 program. After six years of excellent results, this program is a winner. But it would not be possible without the support, assistance, and encouragement of the educational institutions.
THE MISSIONAL FACTOR
The world of missions continues to need more research, more books and articles, more reflection upon and stimulation of missiological themes and issues. A commitment to lifelong learning provides one the ongoing opportunities to collect, analyze, disseminate, and interact upon important information crucial to the task of world evangelization.
Larry was one of our missionaries in Latin America for 13 years and is now a missions executive. While working in Brazil, he became increasingly aware of the growing number of non-Western mission agencies in Latin America and elsewhere. He began corresponding with many of them and collecting data on their ministries. He was helped by earlier writers on the subject, and he was anxious to update the missions world on matters they had initially reported on in the early 1970s. Ultimately the fruit of his research resulted in the publishing in 1983 of his D.Miss. dissertation, adding an important contribution to the field of missiology. He had been allowed by his mission agency and supporting churches to use one of his furloughs to complete his doctoral studies, and the whole world of missions was helped in the process.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
People need to keep learning, thinking, and growing to avoid stagnation and to reach their human potential. A commitment to lifelong learning stretches them, helps them see new facets in their make-up, new abilities, new possibilities.
Connie, a 25-year veteran missionary now in North Africa, recently earned her master’s degree. She had taken her course-work on furloughs and by arrangement on the field, and her thesis was a statement of much that she had learned in ministry on the field. Many candidates and missionaries each year have benefitted from her studies as she continues to grow as a teacher, linguist, and coach.
Misko is a church-planting pastor in Eastern Europe, and is considered a key evangelical leader in his country. However, after more than 20 years of successful ministry in Europe, he felt the need to upgrade his ministry skills and Bible knowledge. The president of his European mission agency encouraged him to attend seminary in the U.S. While working on his Master of Divinity degree, his first opportunity to study in English, he is working in an American church, stimulating the congregation and taking ministry teams from the church to Europe for summer ministries. It is also proving to be a great experience for his children, too, as they are schooled for the first time in an English-speaking environment.
Some of our missionary wives, like Becky in Papau New Guinea or Kathy in Belgium, either have a master’s degree or have already taken at least three semesters of graduate school. But Bible knowledge is what they really need or lack. Schools like Moody Bible Institute provide an invaluable service to people like these who can take Bible correspondence courses at their own pace and in areas of their own interest or specialization.
THE GEOGRAPHICAL FACTOR
A commitment to lifelong learning best fits the lifestyle of today’s missionary. With one furlough near one’s home church and the next near the children’s college, with yearly board meetings back at the home office, and a few regional and international gatherings sprinkled in, missionaries today are traveling more over shorter periods of time. Even the length of furloughs is changing.
In our own church experience, more of our missionaries come home on furlough every two to three years for three to six months (usually during the summer when kids are out of school) than the traditional one-year furlough every four or five years. Such regular travel makes continuous education just that much easier to incorporate into one’s lifestyle. All that is required is some regular planning to coordinate opportunities with learning experiences.
Al, a missions pastor at our church, was a missionary for 14 years in Central America. Throughout his missionary career, his college and graduate school education spanned three different decades and included six schools and seminaries in three countries. Bob, a missionary in Hong Kong and Indonesia, was able to plan his Ph.D. studies in California around his home church and his frequent board meetings in the U.S. Daryl, a missionary for 20 years in Latin America, completed the course work for his D.Miss. degree in California where his school, home churches, and mission agency are located. Even his dissertation dealt with cities in Latin America where his agency works or is planning new ministries.
Over the last seven years in my doctoral studies, nearly half of all my units were directly tied to overseas trips, consultations, congresses, and other events I had to be at anyway. I was able to utilize every ministry opportunity to advance my schooling goals, and at the same time my doctoral program immeasurably enriched my life and ministry. For me, schooling and ministry have become the two rails of the same track, keeping me balanced, on target, and moving ahead.
THE MODELING FACTOR
A missionary committed to lifelong learning makes a very strong statement to one’s constituents, and especially to those in one’s ministry-that learning, ministry and life are synonymous.
Harold holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and his South American homeland. He is academic dean at one of the major seminaries in Venezuela. Having completed his doctoral program recently while working at the seminary, he served as a positive example to the students that even a missionary with 40 years experience still has things to learn.
Paul works with church leaders in Eastern Europe. At the same time he is completing his Ph.D. work there. Men in Iron Curtain countries know what a commitment he has made to train them, and when they see him also continuing to study and learn himself, it encourages them all the more to learn the Bible and give their lives for the sake of Jesus Christ.
FOR THE GLORY OF THE LORD
Because all of life continues to change, the only way that anyone can excellently serve the Lord and others is by continuing to learn and grow. A commitment to excellence in life and ministry befits a God of excellence. A life lived fully to the glory of God reflects to others a life of inquiry, creativity, discipline, humility, and perspective. The final goal of all education and learning is the glory of God.
By taking into account all of these factors that so heavily bear upon this crucial issue of lifelong learning, our lives and ministries will be transformed as God works in us. By planning for growth on all levels-personal, cultural, organizational-missionaries will help correct errors of the past, will learn better, will more creatively interact with life situations, will be more flexible, relevant, and stimulating in their ministries, will have lives more fully integrated and balanced, and will tend to have fewer and less serious problems. Each missionary has the personal and corporate responsibility to work with God in restoring his image to his people all over the world.
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