Posts Tagged ‘missionary training’

In the first month of my first semester at Harding, a senior student named Ron McFarland walked up to me in the aisle before chapel and said, “Hey, would you like to go on a mission campaign?”  Completely intimidated and equally ignorant, I replied confidently, “Sure!”

I went to an interview with Owen Olbricht for a spot on the Campaigns Northeast team from Harding for the next summer.  One of the first questions he asked me was why I wanted to go—and I literally had no answer because I had no idea what a missions campaign was!  I was only 17 years old and already felt like I had gone to the moon to leave Texas and go to Arkansas to college.  Clueless!

I was accepted—but was completely unprepared for what I had committed to do—so, of course, I was afraid and tried to drop off the team at least once.   Ignorance, inexperience, fear, and no relationship with anyone else going all were a certain recipe for disaster. The promise of training was my only hope!

 In retrospect, the training I received was minimal. The twelve of us met weekly in a classroom of the Bible building. Sometimes we had mimeographed handouts of information on Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and other exotic religious groups we would certainly meet in Pennsylvania. We did go over the Salvation Sheet, which is the outline of scriptures that we used to present the need for salvation to those who agreed to study with us.  Mostly, we listened to stories from people who had gone before.

Six years later, Sherrylee and I left for full-time mission work in Germany. This was shortly before the introduction in our fellowship of mission majors, mission internships, and psychological testing. In fact, our only training for the mission field was our experiences on Campaigns Northeast.  Four summers of knocking on doors, talking with literally hundreds of people of all sorts about salvation, and working with mission churches in the Northeast United States may have been the best training available at the time.

Here’s what I know about training for missions—or equipping, as we prefer to call it now:

  • Everyone who does short-term or long-term missions needs serious preparation! Don’t put your youth group on the bus, don’t let your retiring Boomers on a plane, and don’t send your preacher overseas without their having been equipped and prepared for the foreseen tasks.  This is so obvious, but most short-term workers go ill-prepared!
  • Preparation and training involves more than just providing information! Reading a book on cultural faux pas in China is helpful, but not enough! Telling the youth group not to wander off is a start, but not complete. Some of the poorest works I know about were instigated by academic-type missionaries who knew everything about their field and about missiology—but did not know people.
  • Nothing can replace experiential training! We learn by doing. In my day, that meant we learned by trial and error on the field. Today, supervised internships and mentoring programs offer great opportunities for long-term workers to receive hands-on training.  Short-term mission workers are the ones who often are short-changed here.  In fact, short-term missions are often used as a training event—which is one of the reasons for the distaste for short-term missions among some missions people.
  •  Short-term missions should not be used as a training exercise when they involve real people!  It’s like sending an army recruit to the battlefront for two weeks to teach him how to be a soldier. Or sending a first-year medical student to operate on people for a couple of weeks to give her a taste of what it is like to be a doctor.
  • There is no single perfect path for mission preparations.  A short-term trip to China and a short-term trip to Africa may have some common moments, but MUCH of the experience will require very different skills, therefore, very different preparation.  In fact, mission preparations for sub-Saharan  Africa would be very different from preparations for North Africa.  So why do we think that one curriculum, one missions philosophy, or even one mentor can adequately prepare missionaries for the diversity of the world we live in??
  • A spiritual and theological preparation is foundational to any mission work, either short or long term!  Needless to say, these areas are most often assumed to be in place, and, therefore, skipped over for lack of time or money or personnel, or whatever!  But do you know what those teenagers believe who are going to Honduras?  You may know what they have been taught, but do you know what they believe?  So you have found someone willing to go to China, but what is their picture of church?  If their only reference is American church, they most likely can only operate within that frame.  But that frame doesn’t really work in China today, so now what??

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes the 10,000 Hour Rule, which he identifies as the 10,000 hours of practice that great success requires.  Abraham Lincoln reportedly said,“ Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”

I wonder if all of our mission workers wouldn’t be much happier and much more effective if we recommended—no, insisted—on more and better preparation—somewhere between four and 10,000 hours!

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Paradigm shifts are always resisted! I want to address today some of the resisting comments that have been posted about Re-Thinking Mission Work!

I said that our system is broken because we require our missionaries to first be good fund-raisers. Some argued that the skill set for fund raising is similar to that of a good missionary, so it is a legitimate filter.  If they can’t raise money, how could they be a good missionary?

No doubt, good people skills are a prerequisite for both raising funds and missions. Other broad skills like perseverance and the ability to communicate would certainly fit both tasks, so this argument is not farfetched. However, here’s a short list of skills necessary for a good missionary that are not necessary to be a good fund-raiser:

  • Prayerful
  • A thoughtful student of the Word
  • An effective teacher of the Word
  •  A vision-caster
  • A team builder
  • Cross-culturally sensitive
  • A lover of language—often, the ability to learn a new language.
  • A lover of people, not just a manipulator of people
  • Extreme faith and trust in an all-powerful God

I said that we need greater access to better pre-mission training for more people!  Several suggested that our Christian colleges offer plenty of good preparation.

They are right about the quality of training that our Christian universities offer. It is excellent! But access is the real issue.  The general mission preparation is designed for 18-21 year old, full-time students working toward a bachelor’s degree.

  • What about the 90% of young people in churches of Christ who do not attend a Christian college?
  • What about the young professionals who are called to the mission after graduation?
  • What about families—Dad, Mom, and kids—who are called to the mission?
  • What about those who can commit only two years? Is it reasonable to ask them to prepare four years for two of service?
  • What about early retirees and mature Christians?  How will they be trained?

I know about summer seminars, but how many short courses would it take to prepare a novice missionary?

I am happy to report that the idea of required apprenticeships resonated with many of you! It is an idea that I will try to flesh out more in a future posting!

Several readers pointed out the benefits of supporting national workers instead of Americans.  I’m a firm believer that American missionaries should all be temporary and that training nationals to reach their own people—and to send their own missionaries—should be given high priority.  I am strongly opposed—with rare exceptions—to putting national evangelists on American church support.  The problems created by supporting nationals are immense!  Sending money is not a substitute for Going!

I have not called for any kind of centralized organization, but some of you who commented did! Several suggested that the historic stand against missionary societies was never well grounded.  I believe that we can achieve our goal of better mission work done by more missionaries without a centralized bureaucracy—but not with cooperation.  I doubt that we Americans can create a centralized organization that would not succumb to wielding big financial, political, or personal bludgeons, so that’s not the direction I would like to see us go, even if we could get beyond the doctrinal issues.

Look around! The Mormons have over fifty thousand unpaid, full-time missionaries!  All of their missionaries go through several weeks of training at one of the seventeen Mission Training Centers, located throughout the world! Mormonism—which began in the U.S. about the same time as the American Restoration Movement– continues to be a growing world-wide movement with over 14 million members!

What other models for supporting and overseeing mission work are you aware of? Can the current model among churches of Christ  be improved by learning from other religious groups?

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To become a doctor who saves lives, you must have four years of undergraduate studies, two more intense years of graduate medical school, two years of non-specialized guided practice, and then most doctors spend three to five years in a specialty residency, which is a kind of apprenticeship.

To become a missionary who saves souls, you must have zeal and the ability to raise your support.

Preparation for mission work is one of the areas where we can make the most significant changes in our paradigm with the least pain and the most results!  I believe this because I believe our fellowship has made significant changes even during my lifetime—almost all in the right direction.

Before we go any further, let me just say many hall-of-fame missionaries had zero formal missions training! As we talk about what we can do, let’s not for a moment believe that God is limited by us. I’ve always loved the reminder in Proverbs 21:31, “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.”  This conversation is just about preparing horses the best we can!!

It was the 1960s when our Christian colleges really started offering academic preparations for missions. I’m sure I took a course in World Religions, but I do not remember any other specific mission courses being offered, though there may have been.

Later, most of our Christian colleges offered missions majors; some even specialized more by offering a vocational missions major/minor. Almost all of the colleges began bringing in visiting missionaries who would teach mission courses. All of this was intended to improve the preparations for future missionaries.

Another positive shift in recent decades was the expectation that future missionaries should have surveyed their prospective field. The most common survey trip would be 2-3 weeks duration, during which the prospective missionaries are shown examples of what is currently being done  The benefits from survey trips vary immensely in my experience, usually depending on whether the hopeful missionaries plan the trip themselves or whether their survey trip is guided by an experienced mentor.

Another positive impulse in our fellowship has been the development of mission internships. Internships could generally be described as a commitment of six months to two years of working beside a local missionary. Again, most of the impulse for internships is coming from our Christian colleges, although Sunset also has a long history of providing these kinds of experiences through their Adventures In Missions Program (AIM).

So here is the typical pathway of preparation for potential missionaries today:  a young person goes on a short-term mission trip overseas. They come back changed and desiring to do long-term missions.  The very young go to AIM. Those in Christian colleges are pointed to mission courses, which they take as their academic program allows. A very small number become mission majors.

These Hopefuls likely will be offered the possibilities of internships—especially if they are single. But, if they are married, they are more likely to move immediately to the team building phase and start making the First Decisions that we have been talking about in previous posts.  If they can form or join a team, then they are more likely to receive additional preparation from either their mentor or a mission organization like Missions Resource Network or Continent of Great Cities.

Of those Hopefuls who began this pathway, only a few get to this point–very few—too few! Others, especially those out of college or older simply start looking for support, and if they are able to raise it, they go.  That’s it.

While I think our fellowship has made great strides, I’d like to suggest two or three areas where we could continue to make some shifts which could move us to more missionaries, better prepared.

First, if you were to calculate the total number of hours of mission training offered across our fellowship, 90% of it would be through Christian universities and 10% would be through mission organizations (The percentages are just my opinion, not researched information!) What this means is

  • only an extremely small percentage of our fellowship has access to the training. (The figures I remember are that less than 10% of college-aged students within our fellowship attend Christian colleges.)
  • the training is usually bundled with other academic requirements
  • the training is very costly
  • the training is scheduled and paced according to academic requirements which have little to do with greatest access  or the most productive use of time.

As with the selection process, we need to move the part of the preparation that is classroom-oriented off of the campuses and into the congregations! Why shouldn’t all available avenues be used to offer training to all of those surfacing with the desire to do foreign missions in our churches?

Let’s begin a project of capturing our best mission teachers teaching their best mission classes, making it available through DVD and/or webinars or any other way to make the excellent classroom instruction accessible to non-students, to state university Christians, to working families, to retiring Christians–why not to anyone seriously wanting to prepare to do mission work?

Secondly, I would suggest that we shift to a much stronger apprenticeship model. What students rarely comprehend, but everyone in industry understands is that a bachelors degree in anything prepares you only for an entry-level job. To become truly skilled, nothing substitutes for workplace, real-time experiences.  As I mentioned earlier, doctors have 2-7 years of “apprenticing.”  Many professional certifications require huge hours of practicum—which is apprentice-type work.

Being a missionary in a foreign country is an extraordinarily challenging task, and I can think of no better way to complete preparations for one’s own mission work than to work under the tutelage and guidance of an experienced missionary in the target country (or similar country).

And I would suggest a standard practice among us of no less than two years be devoted to a preparatory apprenticeship, one that would include intensive language study and daily work at the side of the master missionary before a new missionary launches out independently.

The benefits of these two shifts in our paradigm are that many, many more people desiring to do mission work would have access to the best training available as they are making their First Decisions. Then with a specific work in mind, they have an opportunity to continue their training on their targeted field in a mentored environment until they were really ready to go out on their own!

Well, I hope that starts the conversation. A blog is no place for details and specifics, but I’m absolutely convinced that all of us want more missionaries who are better prepared. If you don’t like my suggestions, what are yours?

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The person who desires to become a full-time missionary supported by churches of Christ has an extraordinarily difficult mountain to climb—unduly difficult—before they will ever reach the mission field. Many never attempt to climb the mountain, and others fall off the mountain in the attempt.

 The current support/oversight paradigm among churches of Christ discourages both potential and existing missionaries. The results are too few long-term missionaries which means less mission work and fewer souls hearing the story of Jesus—none of which can possibly be pleasing to God!

I want to challenge us to rethink the oversight-support model for long-term mission work from churches of Christ and look together at a different model of oversight/support that will lead, I believe, to more missionaries who stay longer and can reach more people more effectively.

Let’s first work our way through the whole process of becoming a missionary as it generally happens among churches of Christ.

First Decisions

 When someone is motivated to become a missionary, he/she/they usually will go through a series of decisive steps before they actually can begin their work.  The basis for all of these decisions is usually the point of first inspiration.

  • If they were inspired by a short-term mission experience, then they want to return to the field they first experienced and work in a similar manner to the missionaries with whom they have worked.
  • If they were inspired by a teacher/mentor, they will make their choice based on the teacher/mentor’s experiences.
  • If they were inspired by a challenge or a public presentation, they will look for an expert (mission professor, missionary, preacher, mission organization.) to help them proceed.
  • Decisions about the field of work are most often driven first by inspiration, followed usually by short-term mission experience in a field or a short survey trip. The experiences and information gained are then supplemented with interviews with current and past missionaries to whom the potential worker might have access.
  • Decisions about the type of work are more difficult.  
  1. First plans are often very broad plans, such as church planting, strengthen the local church, campus ministry, even community outreach.
  2. Some plans are method specific; for example, potential missionaries might decide to start house churches, or do children’s work, or do media-based evangelism.
  3. First plans made by mission teams are often very personality and role specific. For example, the team might have one couple that likes children, so they will plan to do children’s work, while another team member wants to preach, so they will plan for public preaching. Overall their plans still tend to be broad.
  • Decisions about means and types of preparation depend mostly on those advising the future missionary.
  1. Undergraduates/graduate students at Christian universities may begin by taking general mission courses and seeking contact with mentors in mission study groups.
  2. Some desiring to do mission work may seek out higher level mission training, for example, through ACU Summer Mission Seminar, SIBI Advanced Mission Training.
  3. A few parachurch ministries offer mission training.  Continent of Great Cities and Missions Resource Network come to mind right away.
  4. Other people will look for short-term internships on the desired field, if possible, with a current missionary.
  5. Many will work with American churches—often required by sponsoring congregations– and learn to work with and evangelize through an American model.And there are those who will go with little or no specialized training other than their own life/church experiences. This is especially true of those who are a bit older when they decide to become missionaries.

If you haven’t already, go back through this first section and notice the following:

  • All initiative and initial actions come from the person desiring to become a missionary, who is most often untrained, inexperienced, perhaps not completely educated, but highly motivated.
  • While capable professors, mentors, and friends are available for guiding potential missionaries, the number of options for fields, types of work, and for training are enormous. In my experience, most go along a path of inspiration and least resistance rather than a strategic path.

And this is the easy part! Next, I want to lay out the ways we in churches of Christ have typically supported and overseen foreign mission work—and why it is an unsuccessful paradigm.

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