You dismiss the congregation and step away from the pulpit. You lock eyes with a couple making a beeline for the front. This has happened many times, so you immediately prepare to hear criticism, receive appreciation, or even respond to gospel interest.
But this couple’s concern isn’t one you’ve anticipated. After they thank you for the message, they blurt out, “Pastor, the Lord is leading us into missions. Can you help us?”
What’s your first thought? Many pastors consider their already full plates and conclude training missionaries is too much work. They also might assume it’s outside their wheelhouse. Typically, pastors will outsource specialized missionary training for their church members to seminaries or mission organizations.
But I believe pastors and local churches are the most important trainers of potential missionaries. After all, it’s the church—not another agency—that sends missionaries (Acts 13:1–5). And the good news is that there are at least five things pastors are already doing that can be leveraged for missionary preparation.
1. Engage in Cultural Assessment
Most pastors regularly engage in some level of cultural assessment and cultural apologetics through their preaching. As they exegete the Scriptures, they confront the worldly narratives surrounding their congregations. If pastors train their people to thoughtfully consider how the gospel relates to the worldview promoted by society, media, and the local community, they’re already doing contextualization.
Pastor, as you do this, you’re training reflexes in those who would engage that process in a culture much different than ours. Instead of feeling burdened to begin a new missionary training course, consider bringing missionary candidates to join in sermon preparation meetings to demonstrate and discuss how you see the week’s passage connecting with and confronting the surrounding culture.
2. Teach Skills in Biblical Interpretation
When pastors teach the Bible, they have two options. They can use their expertise and training to demonstrate why the church is dependent on them to understand the Bible. Or they can teach others how to read and apply Scripture for themselves, taking the time to show their work and how exegesis connects to application.
Pastor, take the latter approach. As missionary candidates emerge from within your congregation, consider allowing them some teaching opportunities as well. Then you can observe them and give feedback as they hone their skills. In doing so, you can train potential missionary candidates in the most important skill they’ll need for the missionary task: understanding and applying the Scriptures while helping others to do the same.
3. Train Disciple Makers
The church is given the task of making disciples by helping believers learn the Word of God, heed its instructions, and apply its teachings to every aspect of life (Matthew 28:18–20). If pastors are training disciples to become disciple makers, they’re already preparing missionary candidates for the core missionary task.
Again, pastor, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to accommodate missionary training. Instead, you can observe how missionary candidates are already involved in disciple-making ministry. Or you can invite them to join you in the discipling relationships you already have. This will allow you to observe their skills and inform their approach.
While the circumstances of life abroad will likely change the shape and format of discipleship in that context, the sources of Christian discipleship, its purpose, and its tenets will remain constant no matter the culture.
4. Model Healthy Ecclesiology
Ever since “colonialism” became a dirty word, the idea of imposing a “Western church” on a culture has been the great bogeyman of missions. Of course, we shouldn’t be committed to pews and potlucks or other purely Western forms, but missionaries also shouldn’t throw out our theological convictions about the nature of the church. One of the best things pastors can do to prepare missionary candidates is to help them see the essence of the church behind its forms. No matter the context, the core of what the church is and does should remain the same. Therefore, missionaries need a healthy ecclesiology.
Pastor, to help with this, consider occasionally inviting missionary candidates to sit in on elder meetings, allowing them to observe discussions surrounding the various ministries and programs of the church. You’ll also want to show them how these practices emerge from biblical convictions about things such as church membership, the role of elders and deacons, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline.
5. Conduct Missionary Assessment
Most churches and their pastors have developed patterns and procedures for assessing a person’s readiness for ministry. They evaluate those who serve as volunteers or staff, as Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, deacons, or elders. Along the way, most churches have also developed ways to assess character and to equip these leaders with specific competencies. Missionaries should be no different. A missionary is simply someone sent to another context and culture to serve as a teacher and exemplar of biblical truth.
Like other workers, missionaries should be qualified to serve in the role for which you’re sending them. Pastor, I’d propose the same measure you use to assess potential deacons could be applied to missionary candidates. But you’ll also want to consider equipping them with theologically rich resources for missionary work, with books such as Andy Johnson’s Missions, Elliot Clark’s Mission Affirmed, and World Mission edited by Scott N. Callaham and Will Brooks.
Missions Is Your Wheelhouse
Pastor, please don’t believe the lie that missionary preparation is outside your area of expertise. Members of your congregation also shouldn’t assume they need to go outside the church in order to access some basic training related to the missionary task. While cultural anthropology, language acquisition, and cross-cultural communication are skills they’ll need to learn, the greatest need for missionaries is to be strong disciples who are equipped to make disciples wherever they are.
Investing in your missionaries now will allow you to shape their theology and practice before they leave. It also develops relationships that will deepen your ability to minister caringly to them when they’re on the field. Pastor, if you’re raising up faithful disciple makers in the church, then missionary training is in your wheelhouse.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition on January 17, 2023. Used with permission.