Preparing Missionaries for Cross Cultural Church Planting

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The issue of adequate preparation for missionary candidates is not new. Years ago J. Herbert Kane lamented the practice of sending unqualified individuals to engage in cross-cultural ministry:

It is an act of consummate folly for anyone to proceed to the mission field without professional as well as theological training. Yet the practice continues year after year. The time has come to call a halt to this unsatisfactory procedure. . . . We should do our best to send out fully qualified missionaries. Anything less is unfair to the national churches and dishonoring to the Lord. (Kane 1982, 176)

This article seeks to highlight some of the areas that are important for missionary emphasis prior to field departure. A few observations are in order relating to the value and limitations of pre-field cross-cultural preparation. First, training alone cannot account for or guarantee effective ministry. Yet it has been recognized “that effective and appropriate pre-field training can make a major difference in the ‘experience’” (Dipple 1997, 217).

Second, it must be granted that there are many variables related to personal giftedness, target group receptivity, personality, and expenditure of personal energies. Pre-field training can never anticipate all the challenges and situations that will be faced by church planters. However, according to Dipple,“73.8% of the reasons given for missionary loss by agencies from old sending countries [1] could be addressed and corrected by more adequate and appropriate pre-field training” (Dipple 1997, 217).

Third, no amount of pre-field training can completely prepare the prospective church planter for the disorientation and frustrations of cross-cultural ministry. One experienced missionary with graduate missions training recounts that he and his wife were “unprepared for the emotional process involved in cultural adjustment,” and they “were blindsided by periods of depression and emotional exhaustion during [their] first four years of Cantonese language study” (Commons 2003, 17).

Fourth, there must be a willingness to allow for change in the ways cross-cultural church planters are trained. According to Ward, “the assumption that present educational approaches are adequate—even for the world situation as it is now—is vulnerable” (Ward 1987, 398). The passing of twenty years since that observation has not diminished its relevancy.

Fifth, the preparation needed by cross-cultural church planters can never be completely furnished by educational institutions or appropriate experiences. Ultimately it will be a question of spiritual resources and the Christian character developed by a vital relationship to the living God. Yet the truth of this previous observation does not permit haphazardness in pre-field training approaches. As Bavinck remarks,

Missionary work is exceedingly exacting and requires deep insight and knowledge. The mistakes made by a missionary are often still visible after centuries. If a missionary has no insight into the society in which he works, and if he has no conception of its religious background, he can commit great errors even with the best of intentions. . . . It is generally recognized today that it is not responsible to send out men who are not prepared for their task. (Bavinck 1960, 99)

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