As a seminary admissions director working with prospective students, I am often asked, “How much education do I need to be a missionary?” This question usually comes from individuals who have just completed 17 rigorous years of education. They are anxious to get out into the real world and do something meaningful.
I can relate to that feeling. I had the same yen for adventure when I was an Intercultural Studies student at Corban University. I was compelled to reach people for Christ. I had a sense of urgency to preach the gospel and make disciples immediately… before it was too late, before the door of opportunity closed.
Often in our zeal to reach others with the Gospel, we assume that further training will only slow us down from the real work of practical ministry, so we forge ahead and board the plane with our Bibles and our good intentions. Maybe we have never even considered further education, believing that our church background or personal experience has adequately prepared us. We think that if we already know the truth, having responded to the Gospel ourselves, then the only work left to do is preach it to others.
If a missionary’s job description was limited to sharing the facts about how Jesus died to save sinners, most Christians could survive on what they already know. But when we look at the Scripture commonly known as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20, the goal is not just to preach the gospel and baptize converts, but to make disciples and teach them to obey all that Christ commanded. It involves the task of training others to better understand God and his Word, and to live in obedience to His truth.
For example, Corban School of Ministry graduates Caxton and Liz Mburu are returning to their home country of Kenya this year to train pastors and other Christian leaders in a place where Christianity has been referred to as being a mile wide, but an inch deep. They want to provide foundational biblical resources to those who still have many questions about Christianity. There are many reports of syncretistic beliefs, such as attending church on Sunday, but visiting the witch doctor during the week.
A Broader Scope
Ministering in this broader scope for the long term can seem like a daunting task. After all, it is impossible to know the answers to every question we will face in ministry. But new social and cultural contexts demand new biblical answers and new theological constructs. Although the truth never changes, the questions cultures ask of the truth will be different over time. How will we answer the hard questions like, “How should a believer in China live under Communism?” or “If a tribal leader in Africa with four wives is saved, must he give up three wives to serve as an elder in the church?” or “Can a Japanese believer display a picture of his deceased loved one in a culture that practices ancestor worship?”
In order to attend to the whole person and make disciples, not just converts, we must ask a bigger question than “How much education do I need to be a missionary?”- a question that can often be rephrased, “How little education can I get by with in order to get to the mission field now?” If we are to accomplish what Christ commanded, our question needs to be, “How can I most effectively prepare for the life-altering task of training people to become obedient Christ followers?”
The answer is twofold. First, we must be equipped to do an exacting job of interpreting biblical texts and discerning the transcultural, timeless principles to be found there. Second, we must explore the meaning and significance of cultural practices in order to find ways to best express those timeless principles. When we have developed skills in those two areas, we must train local Christians to address the questions their culture is asking, and to multiply themselves by raising up future leaders.
Exploring the Significance of the Culture
Does that mean we cannot go to the mission field until we have doctorates in theology and missiology? Not necessarily. But we should always be asking, “How can I be as fully equipped and prepared as possible?” That question requires a posture of humility and a desire to be a person of excellence, always giving our best in whatever God has given us to do.
I faced this question after graduating from high school. Earnestly believing that God was calling me to the mission field, I knew I needed to be equipped. I also knew that would involve more than the great Bible education I had received in church and more than the cross-cultural skills I had developed growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite my lack of college funding and a physical set back from a near-fatal collision on my first visit to the school, God miraculously provided for me to study at Corban University (then Western Baptist College). There I developed a greater proficiency in the Word of God, and gained a better understanding of how to learn another language, complements of my wisely seasoned missions professor, Dr. Bob Wright.
In addition to language-learning skills, Dr. Wright also taught me that effective cross-cultural communication required more than just knowing another language. It required understanding another person’s culture and worldview in order to avoid misunderstandings. Like the Lebanese woman who, after eight lonely years in America, discovered that we use direct communication instead of the indirect communication that is considered polite in Lebanon. Having declined multiple offers of hospitality and friendship without even realizing it, she said, “When people in the office would ask me if I wanted to go to lunch, I would say ‘no’ to be polite, fully expecting them to ask me again. When they didn’t and left without me, I thought they didn’t really want me along and had asked only out of politeness. In my culture, it would have been too forward to say ‘yes’ the first time.”
I experienced something similar with Asian friends who would never accept my offers of food or drink. After learning that they were merely being polite and would only answer yes when the item was offered the third time, I realized I was not effectively communicating. I began asking a follow up question: “Is that an American ‘no’ or an Asian ‘no’?” It became a humorous way for my friends to retain their cultural courtesy while allowing me to discover if they really wanted something.
For Bible translators, this understanding of direct and indirect communication is even more profound. If a national is culture-bound not to directly point out mistakes, an unsuspecting missionary can wrongly assume that his translation has been verified as accurate, even when it is not correct.
More Social Dynamics
Direct and indirect communication is only one aspect of culture that a skilled missionary needs to understand. He also needs to know about individualism versus group orientation. In Africa, for example, some missionaries who do not comprehend this distinction believe they have led whole congregations to the Lord in a single service because everyone responds to the altar call. What they do not realize is that in a group-oriented culture, everyone will respond in order to keep the missionary from feeling the shame of no one responding.
In addition, missionaries need to recognize whether a culture is relationship- or task-oriented, inclusive or private, formal or informal. Our understanding of these aspects will impact our ability to gracefully maneuver through other cultural conventions related to gender roles, time, organization, and hospitality, just to name a few.
My education at Corban prepared me well for addressing many of these issues in the country where I served. In fact, when I graduated from college, I assumed that any additional skills I needed would be gained through practical experience. In some measure, that was true. Teaching English in Asia gave me daily opportunities to increase my language skills and discover cultural nuances through the power of observation. I learned to slurp my soup to politely show my host how much I enjoyed it, to leave food on my plate in order to show that my host had provided enough for me to eat, to never take the seat of honor next to the person facing the door of the banquet room, and to expect that the right to privacy and personal space was a thing of the past. I even learned how to use idiomatic expressions and was sometimes mistaken for a local when talking with someone on the phone.
Yes, practical experience was a great teacher. But the longer I lived in Asia, and the more people began asking me deeper spiritual questions, the more I realized that further training could help me effectively fulfill my calling to make disciples. I needed more than just the ability to understand their culture, speak their language, and answer their immediate questions about faith. I needed to be able to equip them to study the Bible for themselves, so they would not have to rely on me for proper interpretation of Scripture and relevant application of biblical truth. But the decision to return to the States for more training was laced with apprehension. As far as I knew, I was the only Christian most of my friends knew. Who would they talk to about matters of faith while I was gone? Wouldn’t it be better for me, even with my limited abilities, to just stay put and minister as long as I could?
God answered those questions by reminding me that He was the one who led me to Asia in the first place, and He would certainly carry on His work there with or without me. Thus began the next step of my missionary journey.
Exploring the Meaning and Significance of Scripture
When I first attended Corban School of Ministry (formerly Northwest Baptist Seminary), I was like a sponge – ready to take copious notes and learn profound truths that would help me answer all the difficult questions of life. What I did not realize was that in the process, I had to “unlearn” some of the incorrect thinking I had picked up along the way. In my first year Hermeneutics and Exegesis class, Dr. Jack Willsey helped me strip away my own cultural bias to view Scripture from the perspective of the original author and culture. Much like undergraduate education taught me the process of evaluating and understanding culture in missionary endeavors, seminary strengthened my ability to evaluate and understand the language, culture, history and occasion of scriptural texts, in order to be an effective Bible student and teacher. I also gained a new appreciation for the difficulty in interpreting Scripture, and became less hasty to assume my infallibility.
Seminary helped fortify my spiritual foundation, building upon solid biblical truth rather than my own cultural perceptions. It also further equipped me to aid others in understanding Scripture, so they can wrestle with the questions their culture is asking and make wise biblical applications. This is a vital aspect of fulfilling the commission—to go and make disciples, teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded.
So what is the next step? It is easy when standing on the threshold of a call to cross-cultural ministry to feel paralyzed by the inability to filter seemingly endless possibilities into one specific job description. Thankfully, God does not expect His finite creatures to be infinite in their knowledge, only to be faithful in obeying what we already know to be true from His Word. I truly believe that God cares more about the geography of our hearts (our relationship with him) than about the geography of where we serve in the world. He can easily use yielded vessels for His honor, in countless ways.
It may mean going on a short-term mission trip to discover where your gifts and skills can best be used. Maybe you will volunteer in a local church or community outreach ministry, or conduct informational interviews with people in ministry. Perhaps there is a next step in education, whether through a local Perspectives class, or a more formal college, seminary or missions agency setting. Whatever the case, although it is impossible to learn specific answers to all the questions involved in ministry, it is possible to develop skills, insight, cultural sensitivity, practical wisdom and personal godliness in order to tangibly live out a Christian worldview in any location. May we all continue to humbly ask God to show us how we can be as fully equipped and prepared as possible, for what He has called us to do.
Sarah A. Lanier, Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures (Hagerstown, MD: McDougal Publishing, 2000), 10.
Copyright © 2012 Corban University School of Ministry. Originally published in Corban’s e-journal, Dedicated. As long as you include this copyright credit line (and hyperlinks), you may reprint this article in its entirety.