How much seminary training does a missionary need?

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An old pastors’ adage says, “Those who can’t, go; those who can’t go, teach”—the shortened aphorism for “Those who can’t preach, go to the mission field; those who can’t go to the mission field, teach.” Whoever created this useless and unbiblical proverb deserves appointment as minister of sanitation over church restrooms. This adage contradicts the following truths:

  1. Every man going to the mission field must be able to preach the Word.
  2. No one should go to the mission field as their second or third option for ministry.
  3. Every man who / must be able to preach the Word.
  4. No one should teach who cannot qualify as a preacher and a missionary.
  5. No one should teach the Word of God as their second or third option for ministry.

Each individual’s primary ministry should result from God’s leading and His will for them. Without God’s leading, no one should enter into any ministry of any kind anywhere at anytime. If God is in it, it really does not matter what one can or cannot do. Therefore, the quickest, shortest, and simplest answer to our question is “None. Seminary training is not absolutely essential for any servant of the Lord as preacher, missionary, or teacher.” Please do not stop reading with that answer, however. Let’s examine the matter more deeply.

Historical Examples

Consider Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “the prince of preachers”—no seminary training. Take a look at William Carey, “the father of modern missions”—no seminary training. Think about John Calvin, one of the greatest teachers in the history of the Christian church, whose works still teach and train seminarians—no seminary training. Calvin received a secular education in grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, and civil law. When it came to the Bible and theology he taught himself and read the works of other reformers.

Note something very interesting, however. All three men founded institutions for training preachers, missionaries, and teachers. Spurgeon founded the Pastor’s College; Carey established at Serampore the first institution in India to offer studies in divinity; Calvin founded the University of Geneva to prepare students in the areas of theology, Hebrew, Greek, New Testament, Old Testament, as well as the usual academic studies—for ministry. Why? Because the school of hard knocks taught Calvin, Carey, and Spurgeon the value of preparation for ministry.

Biblical Commands

And, let’s not forget something very important—God Himself commands that church leadership train men (and women) for their respective ministries:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:91–20, ESV)

 

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, . . . (Ephesians 4:11–12)

 

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13)

 

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:1–2)

Knowing that such training ought to be taking place within every church, how many actually provide that training? God did not specify any conduit for training other than the local church itself. Due either to lack of purpose, lack of knowledge, lack of willingness, or absence of enough gifted people, many churches struggle even to prepare their members for daily life, much less the intense demands of full-time ministry. That is why Bible institutes, Bible colleges, and seminaries exist—to help the churches prepare men and women for full-time ministry roles.

Keys to Missions Training

Every potential missionary must possess the attribute of Christian humility. Pride has no place in any believer, but especially in any of God’s servants who serve as preachers, pastors, missionaries, and theological/Bible teachers. The first evidence of humility appears in one’s willingness to submit to all that the Lord might require with regard to preparation for ministry.

  • The prideful individual thinks, “Spurgeon, Carey, and Calvin didn’t need formal training—so I don’t either.”
  • The humble Christian thinks, “I’m not a Spurgeon, a Carey, or a Calvin—God help me!”
  • The prideful person says, “I only need some introductory studies to lay my foundation.”
  • The humble person says, “What I need is to mature personally, spiritually, and socially as a servant of Jesus Christ where I am now.”

Missionaries require broad, rather than narrow, preparation for ministry. A missionary needs to be grounded in biblical theology, Bible backgrounds (history, archaeology, culture, geography, etc.), Bible interpretation (hermeneutics), pastoral ministries, church history, and the biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). As a missionary, the servant of God will be called upon to fulfill many roles, to wear many hats. They must go prepared to preach and teach the Word, to evangelize, to plant churches, to counsel people, to administer all kinds of ministries, to take advantage of every opportunity of service—including writing and publishing gospel tracts and biblical curriculums for every age, translating the Bible, establishing outreach ministries such as orphanages and schools (from elementary all the way through to training institutes for future pastors), and, in some cases, even to provide elementary medical care.

Biblical Language Training

Perhaps the most neglected area for missionary training occurs in the area of biblical language training. Whoa! Biblical languages? Why are they necessary? Just to begin with, by mastering the original language,

  1. You gain a unique perspective by which to judge the accuracy of available translations,
  2. You obtain an insight into the thinking and expression of thought by the speakers of that language,
  3. You acquire another window or access point to the ancient culture, and
  4. You attain a better understanding of both the limitations and the advantages of the ancient language to communicate the content of the material you are attempting to read and understand.

That’s why the schools established by Calvin, Carey, and Spurgeon taught the biblical languages. These three men also used the biblical languages to prepare their sermons and lessons, to be involved in or to encourage Bible translation, and to write their commentaries and theologies. Whether the missionary is giving the gospel, preaching a sermon, or teaching a discipleship lesson, he must communicate in the language of his hearers. If he translates his Bible from the English into another language, his translation is one more step removed from the original. It is like the old whisper-in-my-ear game to see what comes out in comparison to the beginning message at the end of a line of people—and we all know how that can turn out.

Which Degree for a Missionary?

The actual degree with which a potential missionary completes seminary training can vary from the standard MDiv (Master of Divinity) to a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). Based upon personal experience, I recommend a minimum of a ThM (Master of Theology). Why? The ThM is the first terminal degree for teaching. The whole world pays attention to academic preparation and the academic integrity of teachers and institutions. If a missionary ends up establishing a training school for pastors, he will find the ThM very helpful for his credentials in that foreign land. It will also mean that he will not have to return to America to obtain the degree once he decides that he needs it. Also, advanced degrees are an advantage to obtaining renewed visas in many countries. The higher the missionary’s academic credentials, the fewer nationals there will be who could replace him—making him all the more desirable for that nation to retain. Plan to prepare to a level for which you will not need to interrupt your ministries, return home, and spend years to obtain additional academic training before returning to the field. Before you end your academic training, confer with fellow missionaries about long-term team goals for future ministries (like Bible translation and training pastors). Do not set the bar too low for your preparation, or it will become a stumbling block rather than a stepping stone.

Secular Education and Experience

Secular academic training also plays a significant role in preparing both men and women for their respective ministries. Training in law prepared Calvin for writing his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The task of Bible translation also demands knowledge of a wide range of subjects such as architecture (the description of Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 7), zoological classifications of animals (in lists of clean and unclean animals in Leviticus 11), gemstone identifications (for Exodus 28), and many other texts and topics. A thirst for knowledge and an enthusiasm for reading on a variety of topics become very helpful to the serious preacher, missionary, and Bible teacher.

Continuing Education

Missionaries must never cease to be students with a determination to learn and to improve their ministry skills. In order to accomplish this ongoing self-education, one should obtain a good digital library of commentaries, language tools, journals, and biblical language resources. It proves much cheaper and wiser to carry a digital library to the mission field than a hard copy library.

Be disciplined, set priorities (including priorities for balanced diet, exercise, and family), enjoy what you are studying, remain enthusiastic to learn, set high standards for research and writing, learn to admit that you don’t know something. Above all else, cultivate a deep and abiding relationship to Jesus Christ. Develop consistent worship patterns. Always be enrolled in the schools of Bible reading and prayer.

Concluding Thoughts

Years ago, as a seminary professor in Denver, Colorado, I had the privilege of training a young man from India for ministry. One day Prem told me that he was preparing to preach only one sermon. When I asked why, he explained that his hearers might kill him after he preached one sermon. He wanted to be prepared to preach the very best sermon he possibly could with the Lord’s help. Yes, he committed himself to four years of rigorous training to possibly preach only one sermon. His commitment, pursuit of excellence, willingness to sacrifice, and humility continue to this day as a glowing example of how we must follow in his footsteps. If God should give you or me a single opportunity to preach or teach, how well should we prepare ourselves for that occasion? We should prepare no less for a lifetime of preaching and teaching.

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