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DON'T MISS URBANA 06! Find out more... Why Overseas Missionary Training Works
Swimming Is Best Learned Wet
by Roger Charles

Rice paddies surrounded the seminary where Dirk studied church planting. Friends debated the theory and practice of Muslim evangelism over heaping bowls of rice and chili peppers. The competing melodies of Indonesian church music and the call to prayer at a dozen nearby mosques set the mood for his theological studies. Crowded dorms and buses and the lack of clocks and electricity taught Dirk volumes about the values and realities of ministry in another culture. The farmers in his village church grew to respect the foreigner who was first a learner, then a teacher.

After graduating from the Indonesian seminary, Dirk wrote, “I have found that my impact on Asians is largely measured by Asia’s impact on me. Overseas training has brought me thousands of miles closer to the hearts of those I want to serve. I believe this extra cultural learning has added an incarnational freshness to my ministry that rings true with the lifestyle of Jesus and the apostles.”

Taking the Plunge
Dirk and many other aspiring missionaries have experienced the strengths and weaknesses of overseas training. Many came from strong local churches and top Bible schools, yet they recognized gaps in their cross-cultural preparation. Overseas training provided the right tools for their job and exposed them to real cross-cultural living. Though they went about it in different ways, cultural immersion was their common goal.

Missionaries often mistake plunging into ministry for plunging into culture. They pay for a fast trip through language school by enduring years of slow and pain-filled ministry. Some are disillusioned and discouraged when what were great ministry skills and experience in the U.S. are not immediately useful overseas.

Swimming is best learned wet. Before missionaries face the pounding surf of full-time ministry, they need a chance to paddle around, flounder, and right themselves in shallower waters. The mistakes that knock them down need time to be transformed from failure to insight.

Slowing down at the beginning for a mixture of formal and informal on-site training can immensely accelerate their ensuing climb up the learning curve to high-quality ministry.

Seminary Overseas
Dirk’s seminary classes were all taught in the Indonesian language. He planted and pastored a church on weekends. He interned on a local missionary team. Academically, he could have done better in America. But his experience has made him a cultural insider with a large network of Indonesian pastors and leaders. He’s now teaching and writing training materials with a distinctly Asian focus and flavor.

Of course, full-time theological training is not for everyone, even when linked with plenty of hands-on ministry. Australians Barry and Mary entered the same seminary program as Dirk, but unlike him they did not have a mission board to shepherd them. The Indonesian school’s time demands were overwhelming and not geared for a foreign family. Barry and Mary decided to slow down and study part-time. That helped.

After a year of language and a year of part-time studies, Barry and Mary found their ministry niche on a team targeting a large unreached people group. Now they can start this focused ministry having already overcome many family and cultural problems.

Seminary anywhere is difficult. In another language it is often incomprehensible. For those interested in a year or two of study near but not immersed in a foreign culture, seminary programs in English are available in the Philippines, Singapore, India, and several African and Latin American countries.

Wading in Gradually
Sharon was headed for Thailand. She received one month of candidate orientation in the U.S., then three months of training in Singapore. There she was directly exposed to Asian cultural issues. She studied culture and missions with full-time missionaries. She learned to eat hot sauce on rice by adding one drop each day. Her entry into the culture and language of Thailand, which is so radically different from the U.S., was moderated by a general introduction and immersion into Asia.

Sharon’s cultural training was just beginning when she went from Singapore to Thailand for 12 months of language school. Then, for her first term, her mission gave her a culturally intense assignment and evaluated her language progress quarterly.

Sharon spent that first two-year term living in a Christian girls’ hostel, surrounded by Thai friends, Thai food, and the Thai language. After leading Bible studies and worship for hundreds of evenings over those two years, Sharon’s degree of language fluency and cultural adaptation astonished her family, friends, and even other missionaries.

Building on Short Terms
Overseas training is the logical extension of “see it first” ministry visits. Cultural immersion provides purposeful mastery of the cultural adaptation skills necessary for an interested visitor to become an effective resident.

Amy took this route. She had gone on several short-term trips to the Philippines. Those experiences whetted her appetite for missions and gave her a desire to return as a long-term missionary.

She enrolled in the Asian studies program at the University of the Philippines. For two years she studied in the city and ministered in a church in the countryside.

Amy wrote a thesis on traditional Filipino healing and spiritism, gaining a much deeper understanding of these crucial spiritual issues than do most of the busy long-term missionaries. At her graduation awards banquet, following several dull speeches in English by Filipinos, Amy gave a glowing speech with a Christian message in clear, formal Tagalog. She received thundering applause.

Cultural immersion had turned a bold short-term visitor into a powerful cross-cultural communicator.

Cultural Apprenticeship
Dave and Eve had been on short-term mission trips before their local church sent them to Hong Kong as full-time missionaries. Their assignment was to assist a Chinese friend who was researching the church in mainland China.

While studying Mandarin, Dave began writing a prayer guide on the Chinese church. His cultural and political understanding grew rapidly. Without shepherding and supervision, however, his family was nearing burnout.

Dave linked up with an effective field team and found the right balance of cultural apprenticeship with Chinese friends and ministry apprenticeships with American missionaries. Thereafter, his ministry to China and his web of relationships grew rapidly. Their “let’s be learners first” attitude propelled Dave and Eve into a strategic program, which trains overseas Chinese to minister in mainland China.

Jack, on the other hand, leaped right into an intense international apprenticeship. He was a former Marine, but boot camp never prepared him for the challenges of ministry in inner-city Manila. So after a few months in a language immersion program, Jack joined an inner-city ministry to the poorest of Manila’s street people. He lived with a band of Filipino street evangelists. The 20 of them slept in a room with narrow bunk beds crammed only 18 inches apart.

Jack ate, bathed, and slept “ghetto Christianity.” He followed a Filipino leader everywhere for the first months, then was increasingly sent out to minister on his own. This was cultural boot camp in its most intense form. But in his two years on the streets, Jack won more souls than many lifelong missionaries in Manila and was frequently told by Filipinos, “You speak Tagalog better than we do!”

Seasoned Missionaries Too
Veteran missionaries can also benefit from overseas training opportunities. Rory, after losing his visa as a religious worker in a Muslim country, fulfilled a long-time dream by re-entering the same country as a student. He learned a new regional language and had a chance to study the culture more deeply than when he’d been a busy church planting mis-sionary. Also, he was able to maintain old relationships with his disciples and to informally mentor new missionaries who came to “his” country as tentmakers.

Ray, a senior mission agency administrator, decided to complete a doctorate in management in the Philippines rather than in the U.S. because the school there had a program in English and the location would enable him to spend time with his children, who were in an academy in Manila.

Ray spent one school quarter each year in the Philippines and maintained his ministry and administrative roles in another country the rest of the year. One product of his studies was the creation of an on-the-job training program for new field leadership within his agency. The agency had run similar programs in the U.S., but they were much more expensive to maintain. Ray’s experience gave his agency the expertise needed to plan a new, less costly approach, while providing him with a valuable advanced degree.

Finding Overseas Programs
The cost of overseas missionary training is often quite low - especially compared to the high cost of seminary and the higher cost of first-term burnout! However, finding a well-rounded program that will stretch you without breaking you may take some time.

Christian international students and missionaries from your country of interest can provide insight on the missions training options available in their homeland. Missions professors and missions agency leaders are often also aware of good programs and the costs involved.

Variety is essential to missionary life and training. The best training experiences include most of the following personal spiritual preparation: language learning from people, not books; living with nationals; some structured goals and activities; a national and a foreign mentor; occasional fellowship and spiritual support with missionaries; adequate rest and recreation; a supportive home church and mission committee.

Just as some people can handle spicier food than others, some potential missionaries are able to handle more aggressive training programs. But don’t overestimate your capabilities. Generally, you should settle for a balanced diet of training with a distinctly foreign flavor. The spiritual food served up by missionaries who train overseas will taste a lot more like home cooking to the people they serve.

Roger Charles (a pseudonym) has participated in cultural immersion programs in several countries. He currently trains Asians in cross-cultural communications, comparative reli-gions, and New Testament theology.

Reprinted from Mission Today ’96 with permission of the publisher. Evanston, IL: Berry Publishing, 1996.


Unless otherwise noted, all materials on the urbana.org web site are Copyright InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA. All rights reserved.


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