Missions and Seminary Education (1): A Match Made in Heaven or Hell?

If the truth be told, missionaries and church planters often find themselves in a tension-riddled relationship with seminary people. Or, at least, that is the impression I have gained over the past fifteen years, as my peregrinations have led me back and forth between the mission field and the seminary context. Often the tension is based upon misperceptions fostered on each end of the divide, but sometimes the tension is based in reality. Although surely both parties deserve some of the blame, I will focus on delineating some ways in which we seminary people can create a more positive and healthy environment which will in turn foster professors and graduates who will more naturally resonate with folks on the mission field.

Why the tension between mission leaders and seminary graduates?

Reason #1: Seminary graduates who are “cage-stage” theologians:

Over the past few years, I have worked alongside dozens of North American church planters and revitalizers. I now serve as an elder at the Summit Church where we are seeing God’s hand move mightily in RDU. I can guarantee you that, as we look for interns or staff members, we are not looking for seminary dorks, punks, or snobs (each of which I have written about elsewhere, and can be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinks immediately before this parenthetical qualifier).

But we (and mission leaders in general) especially are not looking for seminary cage-stagers. A cage-stager is a seminary student who nobody wants to have a conversation with because of the axe he has to grind. A lot of attention has been given to “cage stage” Calvinists (these are freshly minted Calvinists who ought to be locked in a cage for a couple of years until they stop referring to four-pointers as “semi-Pelagian” and start uttering sentences that do not contain the phrase “the doctrines of grace”). But there are cage-stage Baptiminians too (whose hearts are strangely warmed by John Wesley and who can’t claim that God ordained them to be obnoxious). Another way to put it is that cage-stagers are students whose primary goal is perpetual bloviation about their pet theological system. How would a seminary student know if he is a cage-stager? Well, here is a little litmus test: Do people groan and roll their eyes when he walks toward them, because they already know exactly which subject he will turn the conversation toward? Does he like to bring up his pet theory during every encounter, struggling to adapt it to the present flow of conversation? Do his fellow students ever tell him that every time he begins talking, they feel like ferrets swimming in a bucket of Thorazine? If he answers yes to any of those questions, he might be a cage-stager.

Those of us who pastor here in the United States don’t want cage-stagers. We want seminary grads who love God and his Word, who hold their theological systems with both conviction and humility, who can easily connect with people who work hard, who are team players, and who love the local church.

Reason #2: Seminary graduates who are about ten steps removed from reality:

I have served alongside many of our overseas workers during the past fifteen years. I can guarantee you that IMB missionaries are petrified that their freshly minted seminary grads are going to be tens steps removed from reality. In other words, mission leaders need seminary grads who can translate their valuable seminary education into practical mission work. For example, they need seminary grads who can teach the Scriptures to people who can’t read. Many or perhaps most of the unreached and unengaged peoples of the world are oral learners (non-literate), and therefore you must teach them the Scriptures orally in such a way that your teaching is faithful to authorial intent, centers on memorized passages of Scripture, and is simple enough for them to reproduce as they in turn teach others. In other words, IMB missionaries want seminary graduates who are willing to roll up their shirt sleeves and work their tails off, who will partner graciously and humbly with the others on their team, who are willing and able to share the gospel and teach believers at a level they can understand and in a way that is appropriate to their contexts.

Various other reasons:

There are other reasons why mission leaders might wince when they find out they are about to receive a freshly minted seminary grad. Sometimes they are afraid they’ll be stuck with a seminarian who is contextualizing for the wrong century or for the wrong continent. Mission leaders don’t need somebody who can answer all the questions that people were asking in the 16th century. Or perhaps mission leaders are afraid they will get a seminary grad who doesn’t easily or naturally share the gospel because he has just spent three years on a campus removed from unbelievers. Finally, they might be afraid that they’ll receive a seminary student who is eager to criticize, or is perpetually critical, or is critical in some unnecessary or unhelpful manner.

Concluding Note

There are also reasons that I could list that lay blame more at the feet of mission leaders and missionaries and less at the feet of seminary grads. Further, I want to make clear my conviction that a healthy seminary education can be a tremendous boost to the effectiveness of a future missionary and church planter. But the point of this two-part blog series is to delineate ways in which we as seminary leaders and teachers can foster a healthy seminary environment which in turn fosters spiritually vibrant, theologically sound, and missiologically savvy seminary grads. While this first point has surfaced some of the challenges, the next post will provide some ways that we can overcome the challenges.

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  1. Jay Bailey   •  

    While I agree with all that you said I would add that the most important quality for all of us is for the Lord to remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. Give us a servant’s heart and have us emulate Jesus as he served and washed the disciples feet. If we would remember this act of humility instead of worrying or arguing about who is the greatest then we would keep things in perspective no matter what theological system we love. The bottom line is that we need to love the Lord supremely and love our neighbor as ourself and that is where we have to live, learn,and work. Yes that means loving those who think differently ( Calvinists, Arminians, Liberals, Conservatives, Fundamentalists, Atheists and Agnostics) and are hard to love. You can be right theologically and have a wrong spirit and have profited nothing for the kingdom. Thanks be to God for calling us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Thank you for your blog.

  2. Zack   •  

    Good stuff!

    This is a primary reason that I went straight to the mission field after college, rather than going to Seminary.

    I don’t have time to write it all out, but I remember a half funny, half sad story that involves some seminary guys visiting a men’s group at our church and a debate about ‘election’ that got so heated that someone threw their half-empty coke can against the wall and stormed out.

    Of a Bible study.

    Keep it up!

  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jay, yours is a prescient and salient reminder. Thank you.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Zack, thanks for checking in man.

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