Is Seminary a Requirement for Missionary Service?

I was recently asked to comment on the need for seminary if one is considering becoming a missionary. The question was spurred by short video by Ligon Duncan posted on Vimeo that was promoting the Cross Conference. In the video, Duncan states that the best missionaries he knows were prepared by being involved in a local church and by going to seminary.

Involvement in a “Bible believing local church” pretty much goes without saying. Amen to that. Seminary? Now that’s a another can of worms.

I went to seminary and received two degrees. I am no enemy of seminaries. However, the best missionaries I have met were not marked by seminary attendance. I would guess that Duncan’s experience is flavored by his involvement with denominational missions (most denominational agencies require seminary).

Seminary has the potential to be harmful to missionary service in a number of ways. Debt is an obvious one. There are very few seminary graduates who have avoided debt as they obtained their degrees. In my case, generous scholarships made it possible for me to complete seminary while I worked full time. These opportunities are few and far between. Another problem is time. Taking three to five years to study is a huge investment if there isn’t a direct connection to how that time spent affects the missionary outcome. In three to five years people change. My experience has been that many who go into seminary planning on missions decide to go into the pastorate instead because seminary is about pastoring. Others have kids and decide they can’t go overseas as a result of a growing family. Still others just plain forget their original intention. Seminary can derail a person’s vision for cross-cultural ministry.

I would warn you that the ecclesiology taught in most seminaries has little to do with church planting globally and much to do with a Western, institutionalized version of the church. If you want to be a missionary, be careful not to let that sort of ecclesiology invade your philosophy of ministry. Instead, teach yourself to see the church in the way that the first century movement saw the church. This is much more like the missionary experience and model that you will be utilizing on the field.

The seminary system was not designed for missionary preparation. It was designed for institutional church leadership. There are many assumptions in the seminary system that don’t apply well on the mission field. For example, the idea that you, as a Western missionary, must be prepared to preach sermons is rather outdated. You will not be the pastor-preacher. If you are, you are most likely doing something wrong. Your role as a missionary, in most cases, will be to support the work of indigenous people who will be ones doing the pastoring and preaching (if there is any preaching at all!).

If your role will be to lead or train in an overseas seminary than you should get a seminary degree. I am not sure this really qualifies as missionary work  (see Deyoung’s article on this) but it is an example of why seminary might be a good idea. If you feel the need to understand the history of Calvanist thought or really want to develop your own theological works in a new language group than seminary might be a good idea. There are a lot of great reasons to go to seminary (including the sense that God is calling you to do it) but only in specific cases would I say seminary is necessary for missionary service .

Also, it’s important to remember that business skills, teaching and a host of other types of services are often desperately needed where missionaries are working. Serving the people might require a professional skill that you won’t get in seminary.

For most who want to serve cross-culturally I would suggest some core courses. Systematic theology, hermeneutics, Old & New Testament survey courses are probably the bare minimums. These can be taken for credit if you think you might one day want to go to seminary. These courses will get you started in the right direction and you can build off of them as you gain experience cross-culturally.

The best preparation is to do church planting cross-culturally, on a team, planting house churches. You can do this in just about any major city in the USA. The single best program I know of is New York City Immerse. There are others.

So, I rarely suggest that people go to seminary to become missionaries. Take a few courses and get practical, hands-on training instead. Better yet, combine these with a professional skill that serves the culture in which you will be living.

Read the Bible Like a Missionary

A subtle but deceptive way to misread scripture is to read the Bible from our own cultural context. At one level I realize that this is unavoidable. We should, however, always remember that many Bible passages were written in a particular cultural context. Some passages are truly timeless treatise of theology (I think of Romans 8 as an example). Others are cemented into a worldview quite different from our own.

Consider the following story about Mike and Joe.

Used Car Salesman

Then Mike needed a car when he was living among the people of a foreign city called New York. He said the people, “I really need a car.” The New Yorkers heard him and said, “Listen, man, you are a prince of God among us. Pick any car you like and it’s yours. Nobody will say ‘no’ to your request for a car.”

Mike bowed down to the New Yorkers, the people of the city, and said, “If any of you are willing that I should have a car, hear me and ask Joe for his Cadillac, the one he owns. It is at the end of the street. I want to pay the full price and you can be witnesses to this transaction.”

Now Joe was standing there on the sidewalk when this discussion was happening. He stepped forward in the presence of the New Yorkers. He said, “No, dude, you listen to me! I am giving you the Cadillac. It’s yours; take whatever is in the trunk, too. Here, in front of all these witnesses, I give you the Cadillac. Take it.”

But Mike bowed again and then said, “If you would just listen, please, I want to pay you for the car, the full asking price. I have the cash right here.”

The Joe responded, “C’mon, man. A car that’s worth ten thousand dollars is nothing between you and me. Take the keys and drive, my brother!”

So Mike took out his money and counted out ten thousand dollars, the amount that Joe had declared as the used car’s value in front of all the people on the sidewalk. And Mike took the keys, and drove off, content with his purchase.

The End

So what passage of scripture are we seeing mirrored in this little story? Genesis 23 in which Abraham negotiates for Sarah’s burial place. If you go read it you will see that I tried to copy the structure of the negotiation that takes place in that chapter. In our culture we do this in a very different way so it sounds very funny when placed into the style of an ancient culture.

But before we judge the ancients too harshly take a look at their approach to negotiation. There are some thing we might learn!

In the ancient context the negotiation isn’t just about getting the lowest price (the buyer’s interest) or the highest price (the seller’s interest). It’s also about the community. Everybody was present and say the exchange happen between them. In our system, financial dealings are almost always private. In our system there are also a lot of lawsuits. Abraham didn’t have to fear that he was taking advantage of the Hittites because the dealings were transparent to all. Nobody was going to complain later on that Abraham had acted deceitfully.

In our system we dicker over the price pretty boldly (other cultures are even bolder – if you’ve ever bartered at an Asian street market you will know what I mean).  We write the prices of used cars in bold letters on the windshield.

Abraham’s negotiation starts off with respectful, face-saving statements. Note that Abraham wanted a good price but he started off by making a generous offer. Ephron, the owner of the field, knew its value, but offered it for free. Nobody thought this would happen but they were giving the other respect in the process. Do you feel respect when a used car salesman approaches you? Do you show them respect? In most cases we see them as trying to get the most money out of us.

Am I suggesting that the ancients “did it better” than we do? Not at all. Rather, when we read the Bible, look for the ways in which the ancient culture affects and informs the storyline. This will give you perspective about your own culture and how it influences your interpretation of the Scriptures. Cross-cultural missionaries develop this skill in all areas of life.

Another part of this story is Abraham’s cross-cultural maturity. When he started out he was fearful of other cultures and made bad decisions about them (see Genesis 12:12-13 and Genesis 20). He jumped to conclusions about their reaction to him. Now, as an old man who has lived cross-culturally for many years, we see him adopt the customs of the Hittites and act in a way that shows an understanding of their culture.

This is how you read the Bible like a missionary.

The World Christian Podcast

World Christian Podcast logo

News and info from the front lines of the global Christian movement.

From 2005 to 2008 I put out twenty episodes of the World Christian Podcast. There were news items, short facts about the global Christian movement and interviews of people doing ministry around the world. Some of the interviews were conducted via Skype, giving the podcast an eyewitness feeling.

Life happens and I was doing a PhD. I gave up the podcast in light of other involvements. In the last few months I have a set of rather strange encounters with former listeners. A number of them said, “Ted, do more of them!”

 

So, starting in a few weeks, you will once again be able to download new episodes of the World Christian Podcast. Watch here and on twitter/Facebook for an announcement.

I have a special couple to interview for this re-launch and I think you will enjoy it!

Can identity and spirituality be separated?

I was just reading the International Journal of Frontier Missiology’s recent edition. There is an article which is a conversation between two missiologists on the topic of Insider Movements. I really appreciate LD Waterman’s questioning of the “socio-religious” identity issues (it’s too bad my article was sandwiched in between the articles debating Insider Movements – mine has nothing to do with the controversy).

What I sense from proponents of Insider Movements is that they have taken the Western concept of dichotomy to a “whole nuther level.” Modernity taught us to compartmentalize our religious worldview. You might believe something “personally” but it was best not to talk about it if it was religious. We separated our spiritual persona from our social persona (it’s rather amazing to me that Evangelicals played into this whole paradigm with the bizarre concept of “knowing Jesus as a personal savior” – now that’s some strange language for you). With the mix of cultures and religions globally in our major cities it has made it even more dichotomous (try talking religion at work and see how far that gets you).

So… when Insider Movement advocates say that one can be a “follower of Jesus” but have a “Muslim identity” I cringe. For sure, Christendom introduces many aspects of culture into what we know as Evangelicalism. However, as a believer in Jesus, my identity must be firmly rooted in him. Christendom certainly injects unhelpful culture into my spirituality (which is the thing the Insiders are seeking to combat) but Islam, I am pretty sure, would inject far more. Doesn’t the whole idea of being transformed by the Holy Spirit mean that my whole person will be transformed? How can that be wrapped in a separate socio-religious identity?

It makes me wonder if Insider missiologists are influenced by modernity’s concept of dichotomy.

My article was published in IJFM!

Two Church Planting Paradigms was published!

I found out when a colleague wrote me to ask how controversial this article will be in my own organization. Let’s hope I am not burned at the stake!

The Effect of Protestant Missionaries

Check out the effect that missionaries have on other cultures:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations. (39)

For the “article about the article,” (the original is behind CT’s paywall) check out http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/missions-rescuing-from-hell-and-renewing-the-world:

BAM Effectiveness Study

Steve Rundle of Biola recently published an article in the International Bulletin of Missiological Research on the effectiveness of donor supported versus business supported cross-cultural workers. I want to give you a few of my thoughts on this study but before I do I must unequivocally state that I LOVE BUSINESS AS MISSION (BAM).

However…  Rundle’s article makes a few presumptions that I believe are downright harmful to the discussion. Since the article is behind IMBR’s paywall, let me quote this section and then respond:

Business-As-Mission Continuum
missionary-sending organizations < ———–> “regular” business
Practitioners are donor supported. Self-supported.
Spiritual fruit is the only thing that matters. Holistic view of ministry.
Business can distract from “ministry.” Business itself can glorify God.
Business is a means to an end. Business success is essential for any meaningful impact.

The problem with this table is that it is a biased view of what missionary-sending organizations think about BAM. This representation about BAM starts off in the wrong place by creating an unnecessary dichotomy. I know hundreds of missionaries and I don’t believe any would say “Spiritual fruit is the only thing that matters.” Words like “holistic” can be code for “we don’t have other standards for what it means to be spiritually effective – for us, just being a good influence is enough.”

There must also be recognition that BAM can create problems in a culture if it’s not missiologically well thought out (see this article, BAM: The New Colonialism).

Rundle compares two groups of BAM practitioners: those practicing BAM who are donor supported versus those that are business supported only. His conclusion: “This study found that, compared with fully donor-supported BAM practitioners, those who are fully supported by their business report significantly better results in the economic and social arenas, and are no less effective in producing spiritual results.” Note that the study could easily be mistaken as a comparison between BAM practitioners and non-BAM practitioners. It is not that.

Missing from this analysis is a working definition of “spiritual results.” The questions suggested by the article suggest that this was limited to “making ones faith known.” From my perspective, the best missionaries are not out there “making ones faith known.” They are working with cultural insiders to assist them in making their faith known. This indirect influence has a far greater and more indigenous impact than direct evangelism by foreigners. This is just one example among others that cause me to question the premise behind the BAM-supported versus BAM-for-profit dichotomy. The study would be better if it defined “spiritual results” (to be fair, few agencies do this sort of analysis on their own work either!).

Until we leave behind the either/or dichotomy represented in Rundle’s paper we will not realize the full potential of BAM. The best definition of BAM is not one in which profits are a requirement: we should embrace the spectrum of BAM opportunities. The doors of BAM are opened widest when we see it as one more tool in the toolkit and not an end in itself. The same is true for full-time, donor supported missionary service: they are not the end, they are a means.

The best BAM work I have seen on the field happens when full-time, donor supported (non-BAM) missionaries work hand in hand with team members who are tentmakers and with BAM practitioners in for-profit enterprises. This model captures the best of all models and provides a way forward that the current BAM evangelists seem to ignore.

The Four Guns Every Man Should Own

Well… so this is a little off topic from what I usually write about. I am home sick today and have a little time to think about my arsenal and what I need for it. So, here is a list of the four guns that should be in every man’s gun safe. I plan on ending up with these four guns within the year.

Last fall I went hunting in my homeland of Minnesota and had a blast. I forgot how much I enjoyed just sitting in woods, walking the corn fields and seeing the sunrise from a deer stand. When I was kid I hunted more than I have for the past two decades. In my 20s I shot clays and birds. I miss it and intend to shoot more in the future.

So, without any further ado, here is my list of the four guns every man should own.

1. A Small Handgun

In this day and age I think every man worth his salt should be able to pack. That’s right: there is no reason not to if you live in a state which allows it. I don’t actually very often but when I know I am going to be in a place where crime might be happening you can rest assured that I do.

There are lots of options here. In my case, I have something really small. It’s a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard 380. The reason I like this weapon is that it’s SMALL. It’s no good to have a weapon that sits at home because it’s too big to carry around. If I lived up north and wore a jacket all the time I might have gone with something that had a bit more stopping power, like an M&P (380 ammunition isn’t cheap or easy to come by, though, so stock up when you see the price dip). If you are going to use a small handgun, get familiar with it and remember to let the target get in close. You won’t be accurate at any distance past about 8-10 feet unless you’re a trained professional (I am an untrained amateur so consider yourself warned).

2. A 22 Caliber Rifle

It’s a basic gun with lots of promise for practice, varmits and teaching boys how to shoot. They are cheap and so is the ammo. It really doesn’t matter which one you buy but I would get a scope of some sort. These guns are awesome little weapons for just messing around on a weekend camping trip or plinking cans.

My 22 was a gift from my grandpa to my dad when he was 12 years old. I have had trouble with it since I got only to learn that it only shoots “22 longs.” This is relatively rare but check out the weapon before you buy it.

3.  A Shotgun

Shotguns are the best overall home defender. If you point a shotgun at somebody that’s in your house chances are pretty good that you will come out the winner. They are also very versatile hunting guns. Many states restrict some or all of their hunting zones to shotguns – no rifles. One can use a special barrel and shotgun shell to improve the accuracy of shotguns. For this reason, you may consider buying a gun which has two barrels: one better for shooting slugs at deer and one that is better for birding.

I used one of my dad’s guns last  for deer hunting and whiffed on an easy shot. I didn’t know the gun well enough (hadn’t shot it for about 15 years – which was not very smart on my part) and it wasn’t setup with a rifled barrel and appropriate ammo. This year I will be purchasing a new shotgun. At the top of my list is the Mossberg 500 with two barrels. The Remington 870 is another good option. Both of these are reasonably priced. I will mount a “red dot” scope on this weapon and use it in the north woods next year.

4. A Rifle

A true rifle shoots a projectile longer and further than any other weapon listed here. If the conspiracy theorists turn out to be right and we have to fend off hearth and home from bad guys, the rifle will be your weapon of choice. In some states, like the one I live in, Florida, a rifle is best for deer hunting. I haven’t done any deer hunting in Florida but plan on changing that next year. Can anybody hook me up on some land to hunt?

Some people will spend a ton on a rifle but I don’t think I will. I have learned that you can purchase old Russian rifles that are extremely accurate for less than $300. Since I don’t see using this weapon so much I don’t want to invest a lot in it. I will probably pay more for the scope on this one than on the shotgun since it’s purpose is for hitting targets at long range.

But Ted… what about an AR-15?

A number of my friends are buying AR-15s, the famed (but ambiguously labeled) “assault rifle” that has been much in the news these past few years. In a communist takeover they are the dream gun: versatile, accurate and extremely deadly. They are fine weapons and highly customizable.

They are also limited use guns. About the only place I see them is on the shooting range and the very occasional hunter. A lot of people that own ARs don’t hunt with them – they cradle them like small children and are afraid of wear and tear on the weapon. They also start at about $800 (usually much more) and the price goes way up from there.  I think it’s possible to purchase all four of the guns noted above for $1,200. In my humble opinion, the AR isn’t a good value for the casual shooter. The people I know that have them spend more time buying and selling components, upgrading, downgrading and just messing with them than they do shooting them. Since I already have gonads I don’t need an AR-15 to buttress my manhood.

From my perspective, they are the best gun for the gun enthusiast. That’s not really me, nor do I think it’s most men. If you want one, they fit the bill for the rifle requirement noted above.

So, every man should have a handgun, a 22, a shotgun and a rifle. With those four weapons in your gun safe you are assured of being ready for most situations.

The NSA, Spies and Missionaries

The fact that the NSA has been regularly and consistently spying on US citizens has become undeniable. What impact do these revelations have on global missions?

Plenty.

Throughout the last half centuries there have been charges leveled by anti-Christian governments that missionaries are spies. I personally have never met a missionary-spy. Do they exist? I have no doubt that they do.

There was a story that circulated among the missionary community in the Balkans about a certain missionary from a large denominational board was a “dual-income-creative-access” worker. Upon leaving the field he moved to the Langely area and supposedly worked for the CIA. It was an intriguing story but never verified. The infamous John Birch society got its name from a missionary who also spied on Japanese forces during World War 2. There are other historical examples.

The use of missionaries as spies discredits the work of all missionaries and should be strongly condemned. It puts the people in danger, calls into question the character of foreigners and brings dishonor to the gospel. I have no hard proof that contemporary agencies are harboring spies. The sheer devious and evil nature of the NSA, as we have come to learn, gives me concern. We in agency leadership should do all we can to oppose this perverse approach to intelligence gathering.

So what can we do about it? One of the best defenses against this is for agencies to know their candidates. The process of selection and screening must be designed to increase the relationship component. It’s only by careful listening to candidate testimonies, a strong sending church partnership and honest evaluation can the true motives for each potential staff member be discerned.

Another step toward protecting the missionary force is through team ministry. All church planters should be working shoulder-to-shoulder with other workers who intimately know and can observe the behavior of their teammates.

Good, basic security principles should be taught and re-taught to all staff globally. This type of training typically teaches staff how to spot intelligence activities such as “tails” and snooping. This could be extended to increase sensitivity to spy recruitment while on the field. Staff should be instructed to avoid the embassy whenever possible: all countries use these outposts for spying activities.

Finally, good computer security protocols should be followed. They can hack us, they can listen in and now we know that they are and that they will. We must recognize that when you live abroad you essentially have no rights to privacy. Be careful out there. Border crossings are particularly dangerous (see this link for more info). I no longer travel abroad with a computer. My phone and the cloud is enough.

We know that Americans abroad are targets of the US spying regime. That is a fact we must simply accept as I see little that can be done about it. Could I ask why so few Christian bloggers and organizations have spoken out on the NSA spying on US citizens within our own borders? It’s a clear violation of our rights as Americans. Support policies and politicians that respect privacy and seek to limit the amount of spying that our government is bent on doing.

Arrogance and Church Planting

Bruce Wesley wrote a piece that Christianity Today published on their blog with the provocative title, The Arrogance and Impatience of Church Planters. Go read it: he makes a number of really good points.

He also assumes a particular model of church planting in his analysis. That assumption may be one reason why we don’t see churches planting churches at much higher rates that we do in the US.

Now, to be fair, his model is the THE model for most US based church planting efforts. But I would argue that it’s not the arrogance of church planters that is the problem: the model itself increases the potential for arrogance.

US church planting usually begins and ends with “the man.” That particular man who starts, waters, grows, prunes and, eventually, harvests. It sees the process of church planting as a visionary, linear process which must be strategically thought out and planned. The man must be qualified, have the right lifestyle and exhibit a particular set of gifts. The man gets a vision. The man prays. The man is selected. The man starts the work. The man teaches, preaches, disciples, etc. If the man is able to overcome he will one day sit atop a successful church (the word “successful” here can usually be replaced with the word “large”). This model of church planting is based on the theologically thin (but widely practiced) idea that churches are led by pastors.

Let me state clearly that I don’t believe that this model of church planting is “wrong” or “unbiblical.” It’s one way of doing it, though, and not the only way. In fact, I think it is contextualized to our Western church tradition and thus enjoys some success in the US. Most church planting networks and denominations use it. But, let’s also recognize that it has problems. An easy one to identify is the rise of celebrity pastors. The teaching-centricity of this model means that discipleship is often reduced to knowing instead of being. Could it be that this model, focused as it is on “the man,” creates the sort of arrogance that Wesley describes? Yep, I think so.

As I travel globally I see a very different model being utilized. The organic model of church planting which focuses on discipleship and small house churches is very different. It doesn’t employ the singular leader style of church that we see in the USA. Leaders are secondary to followers: in fact, it’s often the role of the church planter to NOT teach, to NOT lead, to NOT take the stage in any way, and to NOT be the center of the church planting process. Instead, the small house church structure encourages all believers to exercise their gifts and not simply to give “the man” the opportunity to express his.

Just like the previous model, this model has issues. Churches are not institutionalized and recidivism is high (the churches don’t last a long time, they tend to come and go). They don’t wield institutional power like the traditional church model can (which can, of course, be a good thing as well as a bad thing). They aren’t easy to lead in whole. But from my personal observations, where movements of church planting churches are actually happening it is through this organic model, not the leader-centric model we see in the US.

The leader-centric model requires selection and screening, copious amounts of training, lots of coaching and oversight and has a high failure rate. This is because we aren’t only planting churches: we are, in fact, planting institutions and the requirements for institution planting are necessarily high.

Wesley, referencing the Acts 29 network, writes, “As a movement, church planting must look to the growth of its established churches, not the number of churches it has started, as a gauge of success.” Now, I love the Acts 29 network.  Just a few years ago I would talk about church planting and eyes would glaze over. Nobody really “got” what I was talking about. Acts 29, Catalyst and a host of others have changed that dynamic and I am thankful for it – very thankful. However, I don’t think Wesley’s gauge of success is the best one to use. In fact, I think it’s the opposite.

In the US we do not need more large, established churches. We need ordinary disciples that see themselves as church planters. By deconstructing this idea that we are to plant institutions we can empower just about anybody to be a part of church multiplication. To do this, we would need to move from our focus on “the man” and look to empowering ordinary pew-sitters and turn them into extraordinary disciple-makers. If each Christian saw that they were “the man” we might see a revolution of churches planting churches across the USA.

That’s something I could be very excited about.

Can that happen? Yes, I believe I have personally walked among a movement or two that has achieved this dynamic. In one of these movements I was amazed at the way they had implanted a church planting vision in each person. I asked dozens of people, “What do you do here?” It didn’t matter if they were secretaries, Bible teachers, or business people. They all responded, “I am a church planter.” It was almost cult-like!

True movements like this are rare. It is a lofty dream to think that we could see this in the US church, I know. I love the church in ALL of its forms, from mega to micro. We will always have large churches and we should. However, I don’t believe they will be the standard bearers of a movement of church planting. Perhaps their greatest contribution will be in freeing up their human capital to plant thousands and thousands of organic, disciple-making churches. I challenge these churches to see this as the real gauge of their success, not, as Wesley suggests, the ongoing building up of large, institutionalized churches.

And that is asking a lot.