The writer of Hebrews exhorts followers of Christ to run their race set before them with endurance. As many commentators and preachers have said regarding the well known passage, our Christian life is not as much a dash as a marathon —which is endured explicitly because the athlete prepared in the months before lining up to run 26.2 miles.
To take the analogy a bit further, experienced marathoners say the halfway point is not 13.1 miles, but mile 20 when energy is depleted, legs are like stone columns, and the will to keep running wains. It is in the last few miles when all the pre-race endurance training and the wisdom gathered from those who have run before becomes most valuable.
What is true for all Christ followers, and marathon runners, is also applicable to missionaries desiring long and effective cross-cultural service. The pre-field investment in missionary specific training will pay off in endurance of missionary service. This is particularly important, considering the findings of a recent survey that showed only 11 percent of missionaries remain on the field more than five years.
Longevity and Effectiveness
In the Lord’s sovereignty and desire to seek that which is lost, He uses all types of people to draw worshipers from every tribe, language, people and nation. Some of the greatest missionary testimonies come from inexperienced and unprepared missionaries, but that is the exception. The testimonies which are only shared privately, if at all, are the much more common stories of ill prepared missionaries being a burden to other missionaries, and untrained missionaries choosing missionary methods which cause long term damage to the work and ill equipped missionaries creating unneeded conflict.
Granted, testimonies of broken relationships leading to pain and shame do not make for encouraging missionary newsletters, but every career missionary has experienced the damage of ill prepared missionaries at one level or another. The earlier mentioned survey found almost 80 percent of those who received pre-field training said it was helpful. The most telling portion of the poll was 93 percent of experienced field missionaries said specific pre-field missionary training should either be strongly encouraged or required of all new missionaries.
For sake of a definition, pre-field missionary training is specifically designed for equipping missionaries for cultural adaptation, to successfully integrate into their host culture, develop an understanding of their world view allowing adaptation and contextualization of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It should be noted, missionary specific pre-field training is in addition to solid theological equipping.
Types of Pre-Field Training
All are respectful distances, but a 5,000 meter community charity race, a high school cross country race or a 26.2 mile marathon all take different types of pre-run preparation to run with endurance. Similar to different running races, different missionary settings will require different pre-field preparation to serve with endurance and effectiveness. A missionary preparing to serve among a tribal people in Papua New Guinea without a translated Bible needs to endure just as the missionary serving in a university campus ministry in a large European city needs to endure. One may be best served in a multi-year training with special teachings in linguistics and church planting among oral cultures. The other equally valid missionary may be best served with a two week intensive pre-field missionary training program like TRAIN International’s ORIENT.
While the depth of training may vary for different missionary settings, here are some basic topics which should always be covered.
- Missionary team building and maintenance
- Spiritual warfare
- Contextualizing the Gospel
- Conflict resolution and relationships
- Assessing world view and values
- Understanding and using the Bible’s meta narrative
- Navigating missionary transitions and stressors
- Language and culture acquisition
- Marriage, family and singleness on the field
- Church planting, mission methodologies and ministry practices
- Missionary communication and support raising
- Christian living
The above is a starting point and in no way considered exhaustive. A good program will also provide an element of assessment and feedback to the sending church.
Runners not enduring their race receive a DNF on the results board. It simply means, did not finish. That is not a pejorative term, but simply means the runner, for whatever reason, did not endure and the race was not completed. For missionaries unable to endure the field, the toll is much higher. Relationships are damaged, missionaries return with shame and churches are less likely to invest in other missionaries. Ultimately, disciples of all nations are not being made.
Of the missionaries who do not finish it is estimated that 70 percent left the field for preventable reasons. Since it’s not uncommon for $180,000, or more, to be spent sending a missionary family for their first two years on the field, it seems foolish to not invest in their pre-field preparation. Being unprepared to run with endurance is simply poor stewardship of God’s resources of finances, and more importantly, His people engaged in His commission.
Winning is good, but it is telling that the writer of Hebrews says to run with endurance instead of run to win. Endurance for the runner, and the missionary, infers not just completing the distance, but competing the task faithfully. This suggests the ability to endure comes in the time before taking the field.
Ed Compean, along with his family, served as missionaries in Kenya and Mexico for more than 12-years. He is now engaged in church relations and communications at Shepherd’s Staff Mission Facilitators.