Why Prefield Missionary Training is Vital for Reaching Unreached People Groups

Missionaries who desire to go to the most difficult places must be willing to undergo the most difficult preparation.

This year’s Radius class is nearly three months into their nine months of training and what a joy it is to see them growing so well in what they are learning.

The most common refrain our staff hears from students these days is, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” That in a nutshell encapsulates this article. Oh to have the pastors, the missions pastors, the evangelical leaders “know what they currently don’t know” regarding the challenges of reaching unreached people (language) groups.

I have previously tried to make the case in a few articles that the remaining language groups who have no gospel witness, no disciples, and no church are not random. They are in exceedingly difficult places, and the ambassadors who go to these locations need to be sufficiently equipped. If missionaries are wanting to work in gateway languages (Mandarin, Bahasa, Turkish, Arabic, etc.), use translators, or not plant churches, then we are not talking about the same thing. But, if we are talking about planting churches among the last unreached language groups that exist in this world, there should be—there must be—a higher standard of preparation.

I worry that the Protestant Evangelical church is sending Ultralight pilots to the most challenging places on the face of the earth and can’t figure out why the results are so bad.

Today, in much of the world, you can purchase and fly a certain class of aircraft with no license whatsoever. These aircraft are usually called Ultralights—typically small, lightweight, slow, and easy to operate. For those who are looking for a cheaper alternative that gets them into the air, Ultralights are a great choice. To fly in the military, however, it will take at least six years until you are authorized to pilot a fighter jet. The responsibility and consequences are much higher, and consequently, the training is mandatory, stringent, and serious.

I worry that the Protestant Evangelical church is sending Ultralight pilots to the most challenging places on the face of the earth and can’t figure out why the results are so bad. Allow me to propose three reasons why serious pre-field training is not only necessary but also responsible for churches and aspiring cross-cultural church planters.

1. Not everyone is cut out to be a cross-cultural church planter

In researching some military aviation statistics for this article, I was reminded that the military doesn’t take everybody who is willing or excited about aviation. There are upper and lower age limits, education benchmarks, health standards, and competencies that must be mastered. But none of these surprises anyone remotely familiar with military aviation. Of course, what else would we expect of those entrusted with such a grave responsibility?

This is where the similarity to frontline missions starts to go sideways. Those with “willing hearts” who love the Lord Jesus sometimes shouldn’t go into missions.1 Many who are burdened for the unreached are lacking in some critical area that will bring them down later in their ministry. Only through serious prefield training and vetting do we find those things out. And when we find those things out, let’s praise God! It is far better for the home church, for the teammates on the field, and most of all for the individual to find out before they head overseas that this might not be for them. Our service to the cause of Christ, and to his people, when we save someone from the pain of prematurely leaving the field (and the fallout involved with it) is easily worth the extra nine months2 it takes to uncover.

Not every Christian who wants to be a missionary is cut out to be a cross-cultural church planter, and that’s perfectly fine and even expected. In our zeal to see the Great Commission accomplished let’s make sure we send those who are trained, vetted, and equipped for the unique challenges they will be facing.

2. The differences between pre-field and on-field are significant

One platitude I often hear regarding training is “They’ll get it over there.” Whether it’s training on how to learn a language or understanding the methodology of a certain missions agency, a lot is being pushed onto the plate of “over there.” The problem is that once you’re “over there” the stress level increases exponentially, qualified trainers with time to train are in short supply, and the pressure to produce results is quite strong.

One of the more interesting things that is coming out in missions today is how many missionaries from good churches, good Bible schools, and good seminaries are getting sucked into pragmatic speed-based methodologies (DMM, CPM, 4-fields, Insider Movements, etc.). When the theological/methodological autopsies (remember all missions methodologies are just the outworking of theologies) are conducted, it comes down to two main factors: (1) before they left they had not been explicitly taught the methodologies they would most likely encounter (good and bad); and (2) their methodological training was done by on-field practitioners who convinced them of some version of “that’s the way it’s done over here.” Not wanting to be a problem, or hearing and seeing that they were in the dramatic minority, they acquiesced.

Whether it’s training on how to learn a language or understanding the methodology of a certain missions agency, a lot is being pushed onto the plate of “over there.”

J.C. Ryle in his masterful book Holiness says of those looking to the past as a guide to the future, “He that is forewarned is forearmed.”3 Good prefield training needs to involve some type of inoculation for our frontline church planters if they are to recognize errors and pitfalls that have tripped up so many. Terms that sound innocuous or even good (Obedience-Based Discipleship, Discovery Bible Studies, Prayer Walks, Shema Statements, Oikos, Person of Peace, contextualization), need to be explicated and their biblical basis examined. Not all that occurs overseas in the name of Christ is good. Some is good, some is weak, some is neutral, and some is bad. Our members should know the categories, terms, and biblical arguments for each before they enter that world.

3. Special skills and abilities require specialized training

An encouraging development in the world of missions is that more and more churches are taking back the responsibility of their members involved in missions. Parachurch organizations (and I include Radius here too) have their place, but may it never be said that they take the place of the local church. The command of the Great Commission is given to the church, and to no other.

That being said, I have yet to find a church that has the experience and skill to teach phonetics, applied anthropology, how to raise normal MKs, cross-cultural pre-evangelism, linguistics, high-stress marriage and parenting, theology of suffering, or business through NGOs in closed-access countries. Special skills require specialized training and in order to gain access and conduct ministry among the last unreached language groups of the world, specialized skills WILL be required.

Beyond these necessary skills, certain intangibles need to be observed and measured. Good pre-field missionary training should be able to evaluate someone’s work ethic, ability to work on a team, robustness of marriage/singleness, discipline level, and ability to endure. The point is not to give a thumbs up or down on these areas, but to let the home church know how their candidate measures in these key areas and to let them make the decision about their member’s suitability for the task. Good pre-field training works in conjunction with the home church, never usurping the church’s God-given role, but aiding it in specialized ways.

Only by God’s grace will the Great Commission be accomplished. But churches can multiply their effectiveness in reaching those last places by utilizing pre-field training and vetting for those who seek to reach the most difficult locations left today.

1. This is a great article on why not everyone is a missionary. https://founders.org/2020/08/11/i-disagree-with-spurgeon/

2. This is using the time frame that Radius has developed to adequately train UUPG workers

3. J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots, (Banner of Truth, 2014), pg. 207

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Radius Report October 28, 2020. Used with permission.