Training and Attrition

A former General Director of OMF, David Harley discusses the integral link that exists between pre-field missionary training and long-term effectiveness. Drawing from history and his experience serving on several continents and teaching in missionary training programs, he shows how inadequate preparation can be disastrous for the people involved, their families, and the ministry they hope to join.



Having lived in Africa, Asia and Europe, David Harley and his wife, Rosemary, have expertise and experience in a variety of areas within Christian work, including that of Christian witness to people of other faiths. David has served as Principal at All Nations Christian College (1985 to 1993) and as General Director of OMF International (2001 to 2006). He studied at Cambridge University and holds doctorates in missiology from Columbia University in the USA and the University of Utrecht in Holland. He is the author of several books, including Preparing to Serve and Missionary Training. Since his retirement, David has continued to minister through speaking and preaching around the world.


Training and Attrition

Mission Round Table 17:1 (January–April 2022): 16–25

A dedicated Christian from Kerala in South India felt God calling him to take the gospel to unreached people in North India. After obtaining a theological degree at Union Biblical Seminary, he set off to North India with his newly married wife. He knew little about the people to whom he was going. Since he was not sure exactly where they lived, it took him some time to find them. When he finally arrived, he realised how inadequately prepared he was. He had not anticipated the differences between his own culture and that of the people to whom he had come. He realised that he knew nothing about their beliefs and customs. The place where they lived was very different from his home in South India, and neither he nor his wife found it easy to adapt to the cold climate.

Their problems became worse when they had twins. His wife had no extended family to help her. They also found themselves involved in a level of spiritual warfare to which they were not accustomed. They wondered if they had made the right decision to come and they began to question their own faith. Did these people really need to hear the gospel? Was Jesus the only way of salvation?

It is important to note that this couple were not immature, untaught Christians. Some years later, the husband became a leader in the Indian Evangelical Mission, one of the largest indigenous missions in the country. The root of their problem was not a lack of dedication nor a lack of theological training, but a lack of cross-cultural preparation.

In 1987, a mission conference was held in Sao Paulo, attended by four thousand Latin American Christians, full of enthusiasm for world mission. In the next few years, hundreds of young men and women from Latin America were sent all over the world as missionaries. They had a deep desire to share the gospel and a confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit. They had seen many people respond to the gospel in their own countries and believed that God would do the same in other parts of the world. They went out full of enthusiasm and with high expectations, but most had little or no preparation for cross-cultural ministry. They were unprepared for the problems that lay ahead. They didn’t know how to adapt to a different culture. They didn’t get the response or the converts they expected from their experience in their own countries. They weren’t prepared for the difficulties and delays they encountered. In a short while, many went home, discouraged and broken. Some lost their faith, while others suffered broken marriages.

The churches that sent them out began to question: “Was it all worthwhile?” One Brazilian pastor said:

So many went out as missionaries with fire in their hearts and a burden to reach those who had never heard the gospel, but many have returned with a profound sense of failure and some of the churches that sent them are now questioning the validity of the whole missionary movement.

No new problem

This is no new problem. Prior to the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh (1910), a commission was set up to study current practices and provision for the preparation of missionaries. The twelve British participants met on ten separate occasions over a period of ten years and conducted a survey among missionary societies, colleges, and training institutions. The early chapters of their report considered current practices in the selection and training of missionary candidates.[1] Chapter four examined the general preparation that was required of different categories of missionaries. Missionaries who were to be ordained within the Church of England received their theological training at university or a theological college. While it was evident that missionary ordinands received substantial theological education, the same was not the case when it came to the matter of specialised missionary training. Most mission boards were dissatisfied with the low status that missionary education received in theological colleges. At the same time, they also knew that missionary candidates formed only a small minority in such colleges and the curriculum was already overloaded. There appeared to be a general resignation that not much could be done to change the situation.

When it came to missionary candidates who were being sent out as teachers, some societies advised them to procure “missionary” training, but few societies made provision for it. One society provided no training for men, but insisted that women should do a year or two at a missionary training institution.[2] A similar situation pertained to medical missionaries. A few mission boards recommended doctors to undergo missionary training. Most did not. Some societies considered that the urgent needs of the field compelled them to send out doctors as soon as possible even though they would prefer them to undergo additional missionary training. One agency felt all they required was for the doctor to have “a real missionary spirit.”[3] Most nurses were required to take a course of missionary preparation, but some “missionary-hearted nurses” were sent out with no special training at all.

A number of mission societies sent out other missionaries to use their technical skills in developing the local economy and training national workers in various skills. These missionaries were often expected to play a full part in the evangelistic work of the mission, to lead Bible studies, or even to pastor churches. Yet they were given little or no preparation to equip them for this aspect of their work.

Although they were expected to assist in the spiritual side of the work and although they tend, when on the field, to claim an increasing share in it, they receive no training for it. Societies are apparently satisfied with technical efficiency and with general assurances as to Christian character.[4]

We need to ask whether much has changed or have we reverted to the inadequate practices of earlier times? In recent decades, there has been an increasing tendency for mission agencies and churches to discount the importance of pre-service training. Some recommend the reading of a few books or attendance at a weekend course. I have met people who serve with mission agencies both in the UK and in parts of Asia where groups of people were being sent out to live and work in the Middle East after two weeks’ preparation. This seems to be the height of arrogance and irresponsibility. Do we place so little value on our need to understand the culture and beliefs of others in our attempts to share the good news of Jesus with them?

We are familiar with the arguments. The task is too urgent to delay. We must share the good news as soon as possible. We cannot pay for someone to attend a residential programme. Those we send out know the Lord. They have the Bible and they trust the Holy Spirit. What more is necessary? Surely that is all the first Christians had?

Such facile arguments trivialise the seriousness of the task. They ignore the fact that while God does at times work in unexpected ways, the first Christians, with a few notable exceptions, struggled in their attempts to share the gospel with people of other cultures and to establish a church in which Gentiles felt fully welcomed. They ignore the fact that God often spent decades preparing those who would play significant roles in the story of salvation. They ignore the fact that Paul was effective in reaching out to people of other races because he was familiar with their cultures and their literature.

The value of preparation

Perhaps one of the problems in our contemporary society is that we are impatient for results. We want to get on with the task in hand. That is certainly how I felt. Both Rosemary and I had felt called to overseas ministry. We had both studied theology. We had both qualified as teachers. We had spent three years in fulltime ministry in a church. We were ready to go overseas, but then our mission asked us to undertake a further year’s preparation for cross-cultural ministry. What was that about? Why did we need more training? That was my immediate reaction. But as we look back on that year we spent at All Nations Christian College, we do so with a huge sense of gratitude. It proved so valuable throughout our years of mission service.

We both greatly appreciated that time of preparation. It helped us to anticipate some of the challenges we would face as missionaries in Ethiopia. Those courses were so beneficial. It was helpful for me to have a basic knowledge of vehicle maintenance, especially since there was only one car mechanic that served two and a half million people in the province where we went to live. The carpentry course enabled me to build a swing and a slide for the children in our small garden. Our attempts at growing our own vegetables were less successful and, fortunately, we were never required to pull out each other’s teeth! We were grateful for the practical skills we acquired at All Nations, but we appreciated even more the teaching that helped us to understand, appreciate, and relate to the cultures of other people. It removed our cultural blinkers. It stopped us from assuming that everything British was best or that we would be welcomed in Africa with open arms, but rather we might be received with mistrust and suspicion as those who belonged to a former colonial power. These things are taken for granted in our modern world, where technology enables us to encounter and, hopefully, appreciate cultures from around the world. But fifty years ago, most of us in the West were not so enlightened.[5]

We were encouraged to read books on cultural awareness, warning us of mistakes that can be made and the offence that can be caused if we fail to understand and appreciate cultures different from our own. The staff shared stories of the continuing arrogance and cultural insensitivity of some Western missionaries even in the period after the Second World War when most former colonies were gaining their independence. Perhaps one of the most important lessons we learned at All Nations was that it was easy to look critically at the customs and traditions of others while being blind to the weaknesses and bias of our own culture. One lecturer told us the story of a little girl who went to France with her parents. As she sat at a restaurant waiting for her meal to be served, she observed the way the cutlery had been set out in front of her. “Mummy,” she declared, “they have put the spoon and fork the wrong way round.” She simply assumed that the way they did things at home in England was the right way and the way the French did things was wrong. It struck me at the time that, subconsciously, I had always assumed the way we did things in our country was correct and our culture was inevitably superior to that of others.[6]

I found Eugene Nida’s book Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions particularly helpful as he pointed out that prejudice is universal.[7] Everywhere in the world, people recognise the in-group to which they belong and the out-group, which means everyone else. They value their in-group because it gives them a sense of security and identity. They tend to look down on other groups as being inferior or even hostile. But we know as Christians that God has made every man, woman, and child in his image, and he has enriched our world through the multiplication of diverse cultures. I realised I needed to repent of my ethnocentricity and to learn to approach other cultures with greater respect and appreciation.

Patterns of preparation

While we recognise the value of the training we received, we realise that the way we were prepared might not be suitable for everyone. In some cases, it may not be possible for people to undertake a prolonged period of residential study and preparation. The need to remain active and up-to-date in a medical career, for example, may reduce the amount of time that can be spent in the study of the Bible, theology, and missiology. Yet, in spite of that pressure on their time, many medical professionals recognise the importance of thorough preparation before they embark on a career of ministry in another country. During one year at All Nations, no fewer than fourteen medical doctors undertook a fulltime residential course.

It is also the case that there are many different ways of preparing for cross-cultural ministry. A wide range of books are available on theology of mission, the practice of mission, cultural understanding, and cross-cultural communication. Several organisations offer correspondence courses, which may include online seminars and personal tuition. After our retirement in 2006, we had the opportunity to lead a group of six members of our local church in working through the Perspectives Course. They were a highly motivated and intelligent group, and over a period of fifteen months we read through almost all the material recommended in that course and we met each month to discuss what we had read. It was hard work, but the group enjoyed it and benefitted from it immensely. One couple then went to serve in Kenya with the Africa Inland Mission and are still there. Another couple became engaged while doing the course and, after marriage, went to serve in Senegal. One member of the group married an ordinand and the sixth member continued to serve as a very active but better-informed member of the church missionary committee.

It is possible today to earn a diploma or an MDiv online, though as someone has wisely commented, the kind of person who would do a three-year degree online is the kind of person who would probably try to do all their church ministry online. While some people learn through reading, others learn through doing. They can gain a great deal through involvement in ethnic communities or ministry among foreign students in their own country before they travel overseas. Others can benefit from short-term service overseas, where they begin to learn about the challenges of working in another culture. At All Nations, we observed that those who benefitted most from the course were those who had already worked for a time overseas. They had faced the challenges of cross-cultural life and witness, and were full of questions they wanted to think through. For some years, it became a virtual requirement for entry to the college that people had served overseas for a minimum of three months.

There are an increasing number of excellent colleges and training institutions around the world, and there can be great advantages of a period of study in the country in which one wishes to serve. It is possible today to spend a semester or even take a whole degree course overseas at a secular university. Someone who felt called to go to Japan as a missionary may be able to enrol in a Japanese university to obtain an English language-based degree at low or possibly no cost. They may be required to learn Japanese as part of the programme. Similarly, it may be possible for some to undertake biblical and theological studies in the country where they are hoping to serve. However, it is important to note that some colleges simply replicate Western theological programmes and do not have a strong focus on relating the Scriptures to their cultural context. I remember visiting one leading seminary in Asia that encouraged their post-graduate students to undertake research on obscure facets of medieval theology rather than address the critical issues facing the church in their own country.

There are a host of options available for those who wish to prepare for long-term service and ministry in a country and culture not their own. Potential missionary candidates may choose a combination of the possibilities listed above. However, after fifty years of involvement in missionary agencies and in the training of missionaries, I am more convinced than ever that nothing can provide the same level of integrated and holistic preparation for cross-cultural service as a year-long residential programme.

Consequences of inadequate preparation

If missionaries are sent out without adequate preparation, the consequences can be disastrous on themselves, their families, and their ministry. Many go out without being warned beforehand of the difficulties they may face. They are unable to speak the language. They have little understanding of the culture and the way things should be done. They may experience the pressures of isolation and hostility. They may see little response to their ministry. They may find it difficult to get used to the climate. They probably will succumb to local ailments. Sickness, fatigue, and discouragement may take their toll, and eventually those who set out with such high hopes may return home prematurely, dispirited, and disillusioned. In the worst cases, they may remain spiritual cripples for the rest of their lives, condemned by their own sense of failure.

The families of missionaries may also suffer unnecessarily during their time overseas if they are given insufficient pre-field training and orientation. Wives sometimes have no idea of what it will be like to run a home and raise a family in a foreign country. In many cases, they may never have been outside their own country or their own locality. When they arrive in their field of service, everything seems strange and unfamiliar. They cannot understand what people are saying. They cannot read the road signs or the labels in the shops. They dare not drive the car because of the state of the roads or the standard of local driving. Those with small children find it hard to find time for language study. Before they came, they may not have been sure that they wanted to be missionaries. Now they are sure that they don’t! A thorough programme of cross-cultural training will not remove all these problems, but it will help missionaries to prepare themselves and anticipate what may lie ahead. In some cases, a period of training may result in some couples not becoming missionaries at all. That may be a very important decision if it has become obvious that both do not share the same sense of call, or that one of them would not be able to cope with the stresses of missionary life.

The children of potential missionaries are equally important. Even quite small children can be helped to anticipate their new life and be prepared for the adventure that lies ahead. With older children, it is essential that their feelings and opinions are considered if the parents are contemplating becoming missionaries. Moving to another country and another culture will mean enormous changes for these young people. They also need adequate orientation.

Too many families have suffered because they were given insufficient preparation for missionary service; too many marriages have ended in divorce; too many wives have suffered breakdown or depression; too many children carry scars of bitterness because no one ever cared about their feelings. The burden of responsibility for providing adequate preparation rests with the churches and mission agencies that send them out.

Receiving churches also suffer adversely if missionaries are not trained properly for cross-cultural ministry. As one African church leader said to me:

These missionaries do not understand our culture. They are not interested in what we think or the way we do things. They simply want to do things the way they do them in their own countries.

Another African Christian said that he had given up trying to get some missionaries to listen to his views at all. “They’ve got their own ideas and nothing that we do or say will make them change their minds.” He then went on to comment on the innumerable evangelistic strategies that are flooding into Africa from the West. He described them as evangelical toxic waste and went on to say: “These Christians do not bother to understand our culture, but they come to tell us how to evangelize our people!”

Both Western and non-Western missionaries need to develop a sensitive appreciation for other cultures. When they fail to do so, they are demonstrating the same colonial attitude that characterised some missionary endeavors in the past. When they impose their patterns of evangelism or church order on another people, they are guilty of ecclesiastical imperialism. It is not only the missionaries who suffer if they are given inadequate preparation for cross-cultural service, the people to whom they are sent also suffer.[8]

Critical areas of preparation

What then are the critical areas in which missionary candidates need to be thoroughly prepared and equipped? What is written here is necessarily selective as a single article cannot provide a comprehensive survey of everything that should be included in that process of preparation.

The spiritual life

Mission is no place for the faint hearted or the walking wounded. We must not send out people who are spiritual babies, let alone those who are spiritual cripples. We need people who can survive on their own spiritually in a lonely or hostile environment. They cannot presume that there will be a lively church and, if there is, they may not be able to understand the sermon. The music may be entirely different and they may not be able to join in the singing. They cannot presume there will be a dynamic small group where they can be encouraged every week. They may have little fellowship or means of spiritual nourishment. The critical question is: will they be able to cope? Have they learned to feed themselves from the word of God? Do they have sufficient knowledge of the Scriptures that they can not only sustain their own walk with God but also teach and minister to others?

In Mark 3:14, we read that Jesus called the twelve apostles to be with him. He wanted them to spend time with him, to learn from him, to observe his life and his example. Only after they had established their relationship with him did he send them out. In the same way, the basis for involvement in ministry must be a personal relationship with the One in whose name we go, a relationship that is developing as we respond to all the means of grace that God has made available to us.

The Cape Town Commitment, which was published after the Third Lausanne Congress, devoted three pages to a discussion of spiritual leadership—“Christ-centred leaders.” It pointed out that some leadership programmes focus on “packaged knowledge, techniques and skills to the neglect of godly character.” It went on to recommend that authentic Christian leaders must have a “servant heart, humility, integrity, purity, lack of greed, prayerfulness, dependence on God’s Spirit and a deep love for people.”[9]

Similar criteria should surely be applied to all those who seek to be ministers of the gospel. If the missionary candidate has no established and secure relationship with their Saviour, they will hardly be able to convince others to put their faith in him. If they are not living in dependence on God and the power of his Holy Spirit, they will be severely limited in their attempts to serve the community to whom they go. If there is no dynamic personal faith, no evidence of a personal relationship with God, the words that they share will sound hollow and unconvincing. As one friend of mine, who was working in Bangladesh, said: “If people do not see Jesus in me, I might as well go home.”

Character development

Throughout the New Testament, there is a strong emphasis on the character of those who preach the gospel and minister within the church. The qualities of an elder or deacon, described in the Pastoral Epistles, focus not on academic ability or ministerial gifts (except that of the ability to teach), but on character and the spiritual life. When seven deacons were appointed in Acts 6, they were chosen not because they had great administrative gifts or accounting ability, but because they were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. When the church at Antioch heard the voice of God telling them to send out Saul and Barnabas, the elders of the church knew these two men were well suited for the task to which they were being called. Saul had proved his courage and zeal to preach the gospel. Barnabas was known as a good man who was able to encourage others. They were both regarded as trustworthy and had been given the responsibility of taking gifts of money from Antioch to the church in Jerusalem.

Since the New Testament Epistles lay such an emphasis on the character of those who are ministers of the gospel, it should also be a priority in any programme that seeks to equip men and women for ministry.

The local church makes an enormous contribution to the spiritual growth and development of the missionary candidate. That is where they are converted and grow in maturity, where they progress in their understanding of the faith, where they first enjoy fellowship with other Christians and begin to understand the nature of the church. This is where they take their first faltering steps in Christian ministry and service. The members of the local church not only help the individual to grow in their Christian faith and practice, they are also in a better position than anyone to assess the suitability of the candidate for future ministry or missionary work.

However, in most churches, especially those with large congregations, it is not possible for the pastors or church leaders to know each individual in depth. They may be aware of their strengths and gifts, but they may not have recognised other facets of their personality or weaknesses in their character.

Many who offer for missionary service carry some personal emotional baggage from the past, for example: dysfunctional backgrounds, experience of abuse, and problems with guilt or bitterness. Unless they receive help in these areas, there may be problems later with serious consequences for the individual and their ministry.

Leaving one’s own cultural milieu and moving into a different cultural context involves much loss and change. A critical question for any training programme is how candidates will react to these challenges and how they can be prepared to handle them.

Preparation for missionary service must address these issues and provide the context in which candidates can grow in self-awareness, work through personal issues, find pastoral help, and develop a more Christ-like character.

Self-awareness and humility

Some missionary candidates have an exalted picture of themselves and what they are going to achieve. They have unrealistic ideas about their gifts and abilities. They need to realise “that they will not be the inestimable and highly important asset and gift to the church to which they go that they and their congregation had fondly imagined.”[10] They need to follow the Pauline injunction not to think of themselves more highly than they ought, but to see themselves from God’s perspective (Rom 12:3).

In the past, there was a tendency among some missionaries to feel a sense of superiority towards people of other ethnic groups. The report of the Commission on Missionary Training from the Edinburgh conference stated:

The white man so instinctively feels that he is lord of creation, that it is hard for him, no matter how Christian he may be, to get over the idea that men of a different colour are his inferiors. He is apt to be brusque and peremptory. He is always in a hurry and impatient of delays.[11]

An African pastor said to a group of Western missionary candidates: “If you come to Africa, do not come as if you were the fourth member of the Trinity.” But white people are not the only ones who can feel a sense of racial superiority. Many people of different nationalities feel that they are superior to other people, and they exhibit their ethnocentricity in things they say and attitudes they adopt.

In the great mission conferences of the twentieth century, the need for partnership in the missionary endeavour was expressed repeatedly. Edinburgh (1910) declared: “The missionary should be encouraged constantly to seek counsel from the officers and leaders of the national church.”[12] At the conference of the International Missionary Council held in Tambaram (1938), it was stated: “Missionaries had to be willing to work under the direction of national leaders. They had to be free from any sense of racial, cultural, spiritual superiority and denominational narrowness.”[13]

Perhaps little has changed. In his book Cross-cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer describes how, during his travels to many parts of the world, he often asked local Christians how they perceive the missionaries who have come to work among them. “What could missionaries do to more effectively minister the gospel of Christ in your culture?” he asked. The answers he received surprised him. He writes:

Many said that they valued the missionary presence and the love they felt for them. But many said, with hesitation but conviction, “Missionaries could more effectively minister the gospel of Christ if they did not think they were so superior to us.”[14]

Still, in much missionary work today, whether the workers come from Asia or the West, there is the desire to be in control, to want to introduce new programmes, to tell the local people what they need and what they ought to do, and to impose on them new ways of doing things, new patterns of worship, and new styles of church leadership. This is just another form of imperialism, which militates against the growth of a healthy, mature national church.

Students need to understand their own culture and its influence on them. They need to be warned against assuming that their cultural way of doing things is normative and superior to other patterns of behaviour. In addition, they need to be prepared for culture shock and be encouraged to become bi-cultural people capable of appreciating another culture as much as their own.

Missiological reflection

According to Dr. Tai Woong Lee, Director of Global Ministries Study Center, a leading missionary training institute in Korea, a high priority in any missionary training programme is to encourage the trainees to develop their own theology of mission.

Initially, students may study the biblical basis of mission, tracing the biblical vision for the nations of the world from the early chapters of Genesis to the eschatological climax in Revelation. Topics might include the universality of the Abrahamic covenant, the role of Israel as a light to the nations, and the distinctive missiological perspectives of the different New Testament writers. Students could also be required to read classic missionary texts like Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? [15]

Missionary candidates must also learn lessons from the past. They are not the first Christians to go out into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ. For two thousand years, others have gone out before them, showing great courage and determination. If the new generation of missionaries will learn from their predecessors, they will be able to emulate their example and avoid their mistakes.

Students need to explore major areas of debate in the modern missiological scene and examine how Christians from differing traditions have developed their understanding of mission. They need to address issues like the nature of mission; its motives and aim; general revelation; the theology of religion; salvation and its socio-political implications; dialogue and proclamation; witness and proselytism; syncretism and accommodation.

Those who feel called to minister in Asia should read books by theologians from Asia as well as the West. The choice will depend, of course, on where they intend to serve, but helpful examples might include: Mangoes or Bananas? by Hwa Yung; Water Buffalo Theology by Kosuke Koyama; and The Message of Mission by Vinoth Ramachandra (with Howard Peskett).[16]

Cross-cultural hermeneutics

The more I travelled the more I became aware that Christians in other countries read the Bible differently from the way I do. They notice things I don’t notice. They become excited about things I considered irrelevant. They understand things that are a complete mystery to me.

When I was preaching on the call of Abraham in Tanzania, I spoke about God’s call, God’s demands, God’s promise, and Abraham’s response. I thought I had been reasonably faithful to the text, but afterwards the Anglican bishop rebuked me for leaving out one of the most important parts of the passage. “What was that?” I asked. The bishop replied: “You said nothing about the curse. God promised to curse everyone who cursed Abraham. In Africa curses are very important.” He was right. In many cultures, curses are treated very seriously and the Bible talks a great deal about curses. In fact, there are over 200 references to curses in Scripture, but I have never heard a sermon on the curses of the Bible! Yet here is an important facet of biblical teaching. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (Gal 3:13). Jesus also delivers us from all those who would harm us with their curses, for he has triumphed over all the forces of evil (Col 2:15).

In many parts of the world, people follow a lifestyle that bears many similarities to that of the ancient Near East. The way of life of the Falasha in Ethiopia, among whom we worked for three years, was remarkably similar to the agrarian society of first-century Palestine. The same is true in many other parts of the world. People from such backgrounds find it much easier to understand and relate to stories and customs found in the Bible that the Westerner finds strange or incomprehensible. Sacrifice is widely practised among many traditional societies. Ideas of kingship and covenant are common in Africa. Genealogies have a great significance in nomadic societies, for your genealogy determines your identity and role in society. Dreams are taken seriously in many cultures and are often assumed to be messages from the spirit world.

It is critical that students grapple with issues of contextualisation and learn to discern how Christian truth can be expressed within a given context. How far can ideas, illustrations, or religious practices be adapted from the recipient culture without running the risk of syncretism? The writings of people like S. B. Bevans and Paul Hiebert provide useful guidelines to different approaches that are followed in contextualisation.[17]

Understanding the contemporary world

Things have changed a great deal in the past fifty years. Ease of international travel and the rapid development of communications technology have made a huge difference to our understanding of the world. Yet those who feel called to go and serve in another country often have only a superficial understanding of the changes taking place in our world and even less awareness of the religious, social, political, and economic trends within the society where they are expecting to work.

Questions need to be addressed about the impact of urbanisation and globalisation. Who has benefited from the global market? Who has become richer? Who has suffered through the process of globalisation? What new job opportunities does the global market afford to Christian professionals or English teachers? What social and ethical problems result from the rapid migration to the cities? What issues does this raise for the church? Is the national church addressing these issues?

What has been the impact of the rapid development of information technology? What new challenges and opportunities does it bring to the Christian church? What temptations does it bring also? How does IT impact missionary endeavour, the spread of the gospel, and the place of religious dialogue and Christian apologetic?

A further consequence of the process of globalisation is seen in what Thomas Friedman at the end of the twentieth century described as the homogenising of culture.[18] This was most clearly evidenced in the younger generation wherever they lived: dancing to the same music, wearing the same clothes, watching the same movies, playing the same video games, admiring the same heroes. Friedman pointed out that globalisation had its own dominant culture, which is essentially Western. “Culturally speaking,” he wrote, “globalization is largely, though not entirely, the spread of Americanization . . . on a global scale.” We need to ask what issues globalisation raises for the church and how far the church is caught up in this process.

Os Guinness observed that nothing had weakened the church in the West more than modernity.[19] It was the Christian church that contributed to the rise of the modern world, but the modern world, in its turn, has undermined the Christian church. The challenge that has come to the church in other parts of the world is how to contextualise the gospel in their particular context. Whether missionaries are sent out from the West or other parts of the world, they must understand the impact of modernity on society and be equipped to proclaim the Christian message in an appropriate and relevant way.

Preparing to face opposition and persecution

Jesus warned his disciples that they must be prepared to suffer for the cause of the gospel. When he sent out seventy disciples, he told them: “I send you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). When he spoke to the apostles at the last supper, he made it very clear that they would face opposition and rejection. “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18).

Today, in many countries of the world, Christians face opposition and persecution. Pastors are put in prison and churches burned down. Those who proclaim their faith face both prejudice and discrimination. Missionaries must not only be prepared to evangelise and plant churches. They must also be prepared to face criticism and rejection, and to help new converts and local leaders to face opposition and persecution.

Margaretha Adiwardana, a Brazilian mission leader born in Indonesia, researched the phenomenon of missionary attrition for a master’s degree. She observed that the prevalent culture in Brazil shaping the lives of these young missionaries discouraged an attitude of perseverance. It did not prepare them for future disappointment or discouragement. She proposed a holistic training programme that addressed this issue and would enable Brazilian missionaries to persevere in situations of adversity.[20]

The need to prevent unnecessary attrition

We have already noted the high rate of missionary attrition among Latin American missionaries during the last decades of the twentieth century. In 1993, participants in a Brazilian national mission conference were shocked at the report given by a respected mission leader that “75% of Brazil’s cross-cultural missionaries quit their posts during their initial five-year term of service or don’t return after their first furlough.”[21] In the following year, the WEF Missions Commission decided to undertake a global study on missionary attrition. In 1997, the results of that research, conducted among the fourteen most prominent sending nations, was published. It identified inadequate pre-field training as one of the primary causes for missionary attrition.[22]

While we long to see the good news of Jesus spread throughout the world, it is imperative that we do not send out missionary candidates who are ill-prepared. We must avoid repeating the mistakes identified both at Edinburgh 1910 and in the 1997 WEFMC report. We need to address issues of spiritual maturity, character, self-awareness, cultural sensitivity, humility, biblical knowledge, and missiological understanding. We need to send out those who understand something of the challenges they face and are equipped to cope with the challenges of culture and witness. If we do not learn from the lessons of the past, and if we fail to provide adequate preparation for those we send out, and if they return home broken and disillusioned, the fault will lie not with them but with the churches and mission agencies who sent them.



Excerpt from The Cape Town Commitment

3. Christ-centred leaders

The rapid growth of the Church in so many places remains shallow and vulnerable, partly because of the lack of discipled leaders, and partly because so many use their positions for worldly power, arrogant status or personal enrichment. As a result, God’s people suffer, Christ is dishonoured, and gospel mission is undermined. ‘Leadership training’ is the commonly-proposed priority solution. Indeed, leadership training programmes of all kinds have multiplied, but the problem remains, for two probable reasons.

First, training leaders to be godly and Christlike is the wrong way round. Biblically, only those whose lives already display basic qualities of mature discipleship should be appointed to leadership in the first place.80 If, today, we are faced with many people in leadership who have scarcely been discipled, then there is no option but to include such basic discipling in their leadership development. Arguably the scale of un-Christlike and worldly leadership in the global Church today is glaring evidence of generations of reductionist evangelism, neglected discipling and shallow growth. The answer to leadership failure is not just more leadership training but better discipleship training. Leaders must first be disciples of Christ himself.

Second, some leadership training programmes focus on packaged knowledge, techniques and skills to the neglect of godly character. By contrast, authentic Christian leaders must be like Christ in having a servant heart, humility, integrity, purity, lack of greed, prayerfulness, dependence on God’s Spirit, and a deep love for people. Furthermore, some leadership training programmes lack specific training in the one key skill that Paul includes in his list of qualifications – ability to teach God’s Word to God’s people. Yet Bible teaching is the paramount means of disciple-making and the most serious deficiency in contemporary Church leaders.

A) We long to see greatly intensified efforts in disciple-making, through the long-term work of teaching and nurturing new believers, so that those whom God calls and gives to the Church as leaders are qualified according to biblical criteria of maturity and servanthood.

B) We renew our commitment to pray for our leaders. We long that God would multiply, protect and encourage leaders who are biblically faithful and obedient. We pray that God would rebuke, remove, or bring to repentance leaders who dishonour his name and discredit the gospel. And we pray that God would raise up a new generation of discipled servant-leaders whose passion is above all else to know Christ and be like him.

C) Those of us who are in Christian leadership need to recognize our vulnerability and accept the gift of accountability within the body of Christ. We commend the practice of submitting to an accountability group.

D) We strongly encourage seminaries, and all those who deliver leadership training programmes, to focus more on spiritual and character formation, not only on imparting knowledge or grading performance, and we heartily rejoice in those that already do so as part of comprehensive ‘whole person’ leadership development.

80 1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:6–9; 1 Peter 5:1–3

The Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 55–57.


[1] World Missionary Conference, Report of Commission V: The Preparation of Missionaries (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson, and Ferrier and New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910).

[2] World Missionary Conference, Report of Commission V, 41.

[3] World Missionary Conference, Report of Commission V, 43.

[4] World Missionary Conference, Report of Commission V, 46.

[5] David and Rosemary Harley, Together in Mission: From All Nations to All Nations (London: Monarch, 2022), 41.

[6] Harley and Harley, Together in Mission, 42.

[7] Eugene A. Nida, Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions (New York: Harper, 1954; Pasadena: William Carey, 1975).

[8] David Harley, Preparing to Serve: Training for Cross-cultural Mission (Pasadena: William Carey, 1995), 8–9.

[9]The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (The Lausanne Movement, 2013), 55–57.

[10] Gwenyth Hubble, “Reasons for Missionary Training,” IRM 52(1963): 263. Gwenyth Hubble served for many years as principal of a missionary training centre in Britain.

[11] World Missionary Conference, Report on Commission V, 103.

[12] World Missionary Conference, Report on Commission V, 102.

[13] International Missionary Council, The World Mission of the Church: Findings and Recommendations of the IMC, Tambaram, Madras, India, December 12th to 29th, 1938 (New York: Missionary Council, 1938), 83.

[14] Duane Elmer, Cross-cultural Servanthood (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 15.

[15] Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (London: World Dominion, 1956; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).

[16] Hwa Yung, Mangoes or Bananas? The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology (Oxford: Regnum, 1997); Kosuke Koyama, Water Buffalo Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1974); Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra, The Message of Mission: The Glory of Christ in All Time and Space, The Bible Speaks Today: Bible Themes (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003).

[17] Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Faith and Cultures (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002). Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986).

[18] Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 8.

[19] Os Guinness, “Mission Modernity,” in Mission as Transformation: A Theology of the Whole Gospel,ed. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden (Carlisle: Regnum, 1999), 293.

[20] Margaretha Adiwardana, “Training Missionaries to Persevere: Wholistic Preparation for Situations of Adversity” (MTh thesis, Discipleship Training Centre, Singapore, 1999).

[21] Jonathan Lewis, “Designing the ReMAP Project,” in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, ed. William D. Taylor (Pasadena: William Carey, 1997), 77.

[22] William D. Taylor, ed., Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition (Pasadena: William Carey, 1997).

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