I admit my bias here. I am a seminary dean and professor, and I believe in education. Students have become my friends, my mentees, my children in the faith. Graduates make me proud.
Furthermore, I love missionaries. If the Lord granted me freedom to do so, I would be on the field with them today. So, I take every opportunity to spend time with – and learn from – field personnel.
My reason for writing this post, though, goes beyond these thoughts. If we are doing the work of God, we must give our absolute best, including a commitment to never stop learning. With those thoughts in mind, here are nine reasons why missionaries should continue their education:
1. The Christian life is about growth. We are babies in Christ at new birth, yet called to continual growth and maturity as God is conforming us to the image of His Son (Heb. 5:12-14, Rom. 8:29). If any believers, including missionaries, assume they’ve “arrived” and need no further training, they are neglecting essential Christian responsibility.
2. A willingness to learn is a sign of humility. Education is seldom easy. An openness to become a student again, to be held accountable for assignments, and to be evaluated by others is a sign of the kind of humility all leaders should exhibit. The education process can sift our pride to make us better servants and missionaries.
3. We always face theological issues. The authority of the Word of God, especially when evaluated against sacred documents of other world faiths, continues to be an issue. We must increasingly defend the truth that a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to God. The doctrine of the Trinity is at times an issue when evangelizing around the world. Continued education can help us be better prepared to respond to these types of significant issues.
4. We continue to confront new ethical and moral issues. When I started in ministry over thirty years ago, I did not imagine ministering in a culture that affirms same-sex marriage. Internet pornography was not even an option. Issues like these are not, of course, limited to North America, and further education equips us to minister in ever-changing cultures across the world.
5. Online learning allows us to continue education without leaving the field. Gone are the days when education required students to move to a campus. Today, the Internet offers unprecedented opportunities for continued training without evacuating significant ministries. Southeastern Seminary now offers masters and doctoral degrees – including the PhD – that do not require residence in North Carolina. The relocation obstacle to continued education simply doesn’t exist anymore.
6. Learning within a group of peers is important. Many opportunities for advanced training include small group, peer-to-peer learning that focuses on particular aspects of missionary practice. Few educational options are as valuable as these. Each student brings his/her own knowledge to the classroom—even the Internet classroom—thus helping to build a community of scholars.
7. We often learn better after leadership experience. Frankly, it’s easy to tell others how to be a leader on the field until you actually have to be one. The best students I know are those whose missionary experience gives them a grid through which to evaluate concepts and methodologies. These students learn well, and they teach us at the same time.
8. The discipline of learning is important. Let’s be honest: even missionaries sometimes get lazy. We rely solely on yesterday’s learning to face today’s issues. We talk more about what we have read than about what we are reading. Continued education, on the other hand, challenges us to return to rigor and discipline.
9. Continued education stretches our faith. The obstacles to further training are real. Too little time. Too few dollars. Too many years out of school. Too many other responsibilities. Too much risk of failure. Here’s the bottom line, though: sometimes we just have to trust God to help us do what He expects us to do.
A version of this post was first published for Thom Rainer’s blog
Chuck Lawless is Dean and Vice-President of Graduate Studies and Ministry Centers at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, where he also serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions. In addition, he is Global Theological Education Consultant for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.