by Frank Severn
Just how important is missionary training?
The interesting book Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1997), edited by William Taylor, concludes that more needs to be done to help prepare and train missionaries, especially the new wave from the Two-Thirds World. It would be hard to disagree. Yet just how important is training? And is training really the key to stemming the tide of missionary attrition? After more than 30 years of personal experience, including over 20 in mission leadership, I have found that education is not a panacea. Sometimes it can even make the problem worse.
I look back on my Bible college experience with great thanks. I received solid grounding in the word of God. After one term overseas I realized there were some serious deficiencies in my education and training, so I chose a masters in mission program at a well-known seminary. Fashioning my course load by my areas of need, I found this time to be stimulating and enriching. I had a context and experiences that made the studies relevant.
Before going overseas as missionaries, Jane and I went through a nine-month Missionary Internship (now Mission Training International) program. We lived in one room in a widow’s small house. Our host almost fainted when we arrived. She was not expecting a pregnant wife. We were paid $20 a week, and our salary did not go up when the baby arrived. Just surviving that experience was great missionary training.
I learned much about church life in my internship and gained lifelong friends and prayer partners. While the curriculum helped prepare me for overseas service, my life experience was more important.
Education can actually be the reason some missionaries leave the field. Those who study for higher degrees, especially doctorates, often educate themselves out of a job.
Becoming experts in narrow fields, general missionary work seems to them like a waste of their education. They also become sought after by institutions in sending countries.
Further, sometimes it appears that the education someone receives prefield, may, at times contribute to attrition.
A very talented couple comes out of an excellent school, where they majored in sociology and cross-cultural communication. They have read the books and know the best way to do mission. They insist on bonding and are suspicious of the missions community. They are placed in a village where life is very difficult. They work hard but become mission casualties because "the mission did not provide an adequate support system." Their prefield expectations set them up for failure. They were inexperienced experts.
Or take a professor with a Ph.D. who goes to an overseas seminary. He is asked to learn the language and culture before he begins, but objects. Because of the need, he is allowed to jump in and teach. Before long, however, the cultural and language deficiencies get to him and his family, and they come home after the first term.
In my responsibility as language and orientation coordinator, I noted that in some cases, the higher the academic achievement, the greater difficulty in language study. Being reduced to toddler stage in language ability is very hard for highly educated people.
Is education helpful? It can be and should be. However, education is no guarantee.
Knowledge does not produce wisdom. Theological issues are best dealt with in the crucible of life. If our training produces a hunger to know Christ, learn another culture, and communicate the truth of God in a new context, then it has served us well. But if it makes us "experts" and closes us off from a lifelong pursuit of holiness and truth, then we have been ill-served.
Is education the key to missionary attrition? It is one factor, which can be positive or negative.
We need to build upon the positive side. Prefield training that provides solid biblical knowledge, helps people know themselves, appreciate the culture in which they will minister, and understand the history and culture of the organization with which they work, along with needs-based continuing education, certainly would be a useful component in longevity.
However, other issues also loom large, and may in fact be more critical. These include holiness, prayer, Bible study, life application, and a hunger to communicate in, and understand, the culture to which one is sent. The issue of call comes quickly to the front when the going gets rough. It becomes an issue of Who, not what, you know. Education is not a cure-all for missionary attrition.
Frank Severn is general direcctor of SEND International (Farmington, Mich.). He and his wife, Jane, served for 15 years in the Philippines, much of the time as church planters. He was also an instructor in church growth at Asian Theological Seminary and Febias Bible College in Manila.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 20-21. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.