by Richard G. Lewis
When I asked a new missionary how he was doing after being on the field for a year, he replied, “Lewis, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.”
When I asked a new missionary how he was doing after being on the field for a year, he replied, "Lewis, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing."
Despite graduating from seminary and successfully completing a two-year internship in Zambia, this sincere brother was floundering as a career missionary. Although he had the required academic background and had been exposed to cross-cultural living, no one had ever walked the path with him or helped him develop a plan for his future ministry.
But his experience was not unique. Working with and observing missionaries for the past 20 years, I’ve come to realize that church and mission agencies still have a long way to go in missionary preparation.
The church, like much of the world, is full of trend-followers, not trend-setters. One of the most recent trends is our tacit acknowledgment of the need for missionary training. Almost all mission agencies and some local churches claim to offer some type of training for appointees today.
Recently, a consortium called The Next Step, comprised of agencies, training programs, seminaries, and churches, was created to network resources for equipping missionaries. (See www.TheNextStep.org.) While this trend is encouraging, we need to understand what missionary training is all about and look at the strengths and weakness of each training approach.
Orientation: Almost every sending agency has a one- to three-week orientation program for missionary appointees. Orientation primarily deals with in-house administration issues, i.e., physical and emotional evaluations, guidelines for financial accountability, reporting systems, policies, and an overview of the corporate structure. Responding to the trend, many organizations have added modules on conflict management or culture adaptation. Of course, orientation is not training, and many organizations depend on outside sources to provide the in-depth missionary preparedness people really need.
Affective Programming: I was privileged to be a part of the consultation sponsored by the World Evangelical Fellowship to study missionary attrition. The study pointed out that many missionaries leave the field for emotional or spiritual reasons. The book Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, edited by William D. Taylor (William Carey Library, 1997), urges agencies and churches to better prepare people for the stress cross-cultural workers face.
Culture shock, family difficulties, interpersonal conflict, team issues, and martial stress are key factors in missionary attrition. Missionaries also must attend to their own spiritual development and be aware of spiritual warfare issues. Much of the training offered today within mission agencies and churches focuses on these affective issues.
Skill Training: What skills do missionaries need besides how to cope? Language acquisition, TESL, computer training, appropriate technology, and financial management are some of the biggies. Yet few agencies and churches offer these kinds of programs. They are out there, but finding them and then affording them are challenges.
Strategic Planning: A missionary may be technically capable and emotionally and spiritually prepared for service, yet still not know what to do on the field. Few agencies and churches help missionaries develop a ministry plan that fits the context of a specific field and people group. Many methods, e.g., chronological storying, cell group development, and 10 steps in planting a church, may be taught, but these don’t always translate into a strategic plan for ministry.
One element in missionary attrition is a lack of job satisfaction. Missionaries who are long term have meaningful and rewarding ministries. Floundering missionaries trying to figure out what role they should be playing experience a lot of stress. Eventually, such people seek contentment in their home cultures. Strategic planning, however, should not be a program designed simply to stem attrition, although this is a welcome byproduct. We send missionaries to the field not just to survive, but to contribute. Strategic planning moves beyond a defensive posture to equip people to be effective in their service for Christ.
While the growing awareness of the need for better missionary preparedness is a good thing, we need to develop a well-rounded plan to equip cross-cultural workers. Just pulling a few seminars together and expecting people to assimilate the eclectic mix into a cohesive whole is almost as bad, though not quite, as just sending them without any preparation.
Like produces like. If we focus on our task of training, by God’s grace, the people we train will be truly equipped and focused for the task God has called them to do.
EMQ, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 14-15. Copyright © 2001 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.