I have served in Thailand as a missionary for about ten years, of which the last four have been spent in Bangkok, teaching church history and missions at a seminary, assisting a Thai Christian book publisher, and helping lead a new church plant. Before that I was involved in small town church planting and evangelism in Central Thailand. I used to be a full-time church planter, but now I spend more time teaching (or preparing to teach) at the seminary than I do in direct church planting and evangelism.
Some people may read the above and conclude that I am no longer doing “real” missionary work or that I have opted for a comfy role in teaching the converted rather than reaching the lost. In a country that is less than one percent Christian, I can see how people might think that.
“Don’t people just need Jesus?” some might ask. “Shouldn’t missionaries be focused on church planting?” Those are great questions. Yes, church planting should be a priority. I am glad to be part of a missionary organization that is focused on church planting. Reaching the lost through new church planting is a front-line activity. But to answer the first question, “Yes, people just need Jesus but they need a lot more than just a Gospel outline or a six week course for new believers.”
As people become Christians, grow in faith, and lead their churches in evangelism and church planting, how do we help those Christians and churches to maintain long-term healthy, sustainable growth? How do we help rising Christian leaders to have the depth and breadth of faith and knowledge to shepherd the flock and guard it against false teaching and false teachers that are spreading like wildfire in the contemporary church? How do we help Christians to know Jesus deeply and joyfully, so they can withstand the attacks of the evil one and help other to do the same? One part of the solution is theological education, both formal and informal, at various levels.
For most Christians, their theological education is informal and church-based, as it should be. They grow in their faith through Sunday worship, preaching, small group Bible study, worship songs, chatting with friends, prayer, and fellowship with other believers. In a church that is led well by leaders who have a mature knowledge of God and his Word, that can be a life-giving experience that leads to growing, healthy churches. But if those leaders are lacking, the church can be like a ship adrift in a storm. Believers are tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine or strong personality that comes to bear upon the church community.
As a supplement to informal church-based theological education, formal theological education helps local leaders go beyond the training available to them locally. Formal theological education, either in the classroom or online, equips church leaders who will, in turn, ground local believers and local churches in the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. Church planting is essential but we need to use all means possible to equip those churches to endure and grow in a healthy direction.
What does theological education have to do with church planting? Theological education is a ministry that supports and serves the cause of church planting. The majority of missionaries may not be teaching seminary courses, but missionaries involved in formal theological education can play an important role in helping the churches that other missionaries plant to stay planted, and to grow into strong, life-giving trees that will stand the test of time, bear healthy fruit, and spread their good seed elsewhere.