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Issues Facing Missions Today 10: The Seminary and the Loss of Mission

Issues Facing Missions Today 10: The Seminary and the Loss of Mission


The issue of the vibrancy of western ‘missions’—missiology and mission practice—in our day is a topic I took up in my first article in this series on ‘Issues Facing Missions Today.’  That blog posting has received about 1,000 hits and daily receives more still.  So it seems appropriate to revisit the issue from time to time.  To be sure, my first post was a sweeping statement in defense of the claim that the Church in the west is losing mission today--more needs to be said.

For those who found this interesting, engaging, or frustrating, perhaps two references will help.  One is an online video reflection on my post on ‘The Loss of Mission’ by Dr. Jon Shuler of the North American Mission Society (  The other resource is an article some may already have read:

Dana L. Robert, ‘Forty Years of North American Missiology: A Brief Review,’ International Bulletin of Missionary Research (Jan., 2014): 3-8.

In this posting, I want to begin by engaging Dana Robert briefly and then turn to focus on the seminary and the loss of mission.  She helpfully offers an historical perspective and addresses in various ways the role of academic study in missions, which relates to the present post on the seminary and the loss of mission.  She also offers an optimistic perspective where I offer something far more critical for mission study and practice.  She surveys the state of missiology in North America over the last forty years that begins with a description of years of crisis (1973-1988), moves to years of wider influence (1989-2000), and concludes with years of global awareness (2001-present).  Her survey attempts to hold together comments regarding missiology for Evangelicals, mainline churches, and Catholics—an attempted synthesis that I do not think possible or helpful.  Thus she offers an alternative perspective to my own, which is important for any serious readers of my views.

The Unbraided Strands of Seminary, Church, and Mission Agency

Dana Robert quotes R. Pierce Beaver, a mission historian, who said in 1968 that “the missiologist is called to be the pioneer and to blaze the trail. The missionary will not escape from his uncertainty until the missiologist points the way, and the church will not move ahead in mission unless the missiologist sounds a prophetic call” (p. 3).  This raises the question of the involvement of the seminary—she would also say the university—in defining the mission and its implementation for churches and mission agencies.  True, if we have by and large lost our focus in mission today, a studied focus on what our mission is and how we should go about it is important, and the seminary should be the place where that is articulated in cooperation with churches and mission agencies.  Indeed, I do affirm collaboration that does not presently exist between the Evangelical seminaries, churches, and mission societies.

There was a time, however, when the relationship was quite clear for the training institutions, the churches, and the mission agencies—at least in some contexts.  The churches sent students with profound senses of calling off to Bible Schools to get the training needed for pastoral and mission work, and then the denominational mission agency sent them off for a lifetime of service overseas.  (Today, drop-out rates in seminary can be high, and graduates frequently leave full-time ministry within five or so years.)  The relationship was almost seamless, the task was clear, and support for the mission was strong (even if missionaries lived on a pittance).  Today, the Bible Schools have, by and large, closed, seminaries offer two or three years of post-baccalaureate studies amounting to thousands of dollars of debt over six or seven years of study, and churches want to fund Uncle Joe’s daughter on a short-term mission to the church’s own overseas project over the trained, career missionary wanting to serve through a mission agency.  So, instead, mission agencies have dumbed down the requirements for service overseas to non-accredited study of a few weeks to a year.  This hurts the missionary, who is undertrained, as well as the nationals, and also short-cuts the seminary, which is too expensive and possibly not that helpful in any case because it is not really engaged in the training of missionaries.  The agency mainly fields missionary personnel—goal accomplished.

The Seminary Curriculum and Missions

Seminaries also focussed their mission studies departments in certain ways that one might question.  We might ask, ‘What is missiology?’  It is a discipline that will combine a variety of studies, but which ones, and with what emphasis?  In this paragraph alone I could make myself a target of not a few missiologists, so let me tread as lightly as I can.  First, let me say that a great variety of mission studies can be valuable to the Church.  Yet, second, I would like to suggest that most missionaries do not need to focus their studies on missiology—without at all implying that missiological studies are irrelevant.  The training of missionaries does not necessarily involve increasing the enrollment of students in degrees focussed on missiology.  This would be like teachers focusing their studies on education rather than what they are teaching.  If I am to become a mathematics teacher, I don’t need a whole degree in education so much as advanced study in mathematics itself, with several courses in teaching method to boot.  What is needed in missions is not experts in missiology but experts in Old Testament studies, New Testament studies, theology, Church history, and the particular ministerial fields such as evangelism, church planting, Christian education, and so forth.

Another challenge for mission studies in the Evangelical seminary is to place the emphasis in the right place in the curriculum.  Mission studies in the seminary should, in my view, dominate the curriculum, but not at all in regard to its present course offerings.  It should dominate the curriculum in terms of focusing everyone on why the seminary itself exists: for the sake of fulfilling the mission of the Church until Christ returns.  We can forget that, in our little academic cubicles that allow us to receive accolades in the Society of Biblical Literature or the American Academy of Religion or the American Society of Misisology and not worry too much about what the Church needs to fulfill its mission.  But what is needed is not more courses in missions but a missional focus in Old Testament, New Testament, theology, Church history, and ministerial studies. For example, I applaud recent interest among some Biblical scholars in missional emphases in Biblical studies, such as I. Howard Marshall, Chris Wright, Eckhard Schnabel, Andreas K√∂stenberger, P. T. O’Brien.

Funding and Costs for Missionaries, Churches, and Seminaries

The primary problem that seminaries face, however, is not on what the mission departments teach but on the cost of a seminary education for a missionary in time and money.  The obvious solution to this conundrum is for missionaries to be trained overseas, where costs are lower and where they are learning languages and culture alongside everything else and under the guidance of the mission agency.  If North American seminaries want to be involved in this ministerial training—and they should be—they will need to do so by teaming up with qualified seminaries (or study centres) overseas (there are not many of these), probably also using quality and cost-effective online educational resources.  They will also need to offer a bachelor’s degree instead of only master’s degrees, since not all missionaries need M.A. degrees.  Mission agencies, for their part, need to see the first term of missionary service more in terms of training than ministry.  Churches, therefore, have to be willing to fund the training of missionaries.

Also, seminaries, like mission agencies, need to find a way not to have their mission dominated by the agendas of rich churches that take over the tasks of ministerial training and mission work.  This will require agencies working more closely with churches and both working with seminaries so that there is enough trust between them to be constructively critical of one another as well as to work together towards common goals.  The point I am trying to make is one made by Dana Robert in a short paragraph—one worth expanding into a book:

The context of globalization, including advanced communication technologies, has led to a massive democratization or deprofessionalization of mission work.  Short-term mission projects involving millions of people and millions of dollars, cross-cultural outreach from local congregations, proliferation of ‘global’ faith-based organizations (FBOs), and migration have become so extensive that the missionary is being redefined in North America.  What should be the trajectory for mission studies in an age when globe-trotting amateurs vastly outnumber career missionaries? (6).

Whereas she points to globalization and the internet in particular in this comment, I would also highlight the role of local churches in the democratization or deprofessionalization of mission work.  We might add to this the crisis of Biblical illiteracy in many churches.  This matter, too, calls for a greater partnership of the seminaries, churches, and mission agencies in framing and accomplishing the mission of the Church.  Seminaries have to get more involved in helping churches and mission agencies educate all believers, not just a professional clergy, they have to reduce costs, and they have to find their presence both online and overseas if they want to be a part of the Church’s mission overseas.

Finally, the seminary has to free itself from fund-raising through tuition from foreign students and through scholarships for foreign students if it wants to engage the mission of the Church abroad.  Western education in general has become increasingly expensive, and from small colleges to well-known universities one means of survival has been money coming from foreign students.  However, as any missionary will quickly say, ‘Please do not send students to America to study, and do not even send them to the UK or Europe.’  Why not?  First, study in the west often means immigration to the west.  Second, ministry training in the west can credential a person beyond his or her worth without the approval of wise elders in his or her own country. Indeed, ministerial education needs to be contextual: one needs to apply this or that text, this or that theological topic, or this or that discussion to a specific context.  Of what value is it for a national to learn this for a western context rather than his or her own context?  This does not mean that western seminaries should only engage their own contexts.  There is room for them to engage in education abroad, but humbly and through partnerships and in ways that drive costs down rather than up.  While this requires a much deeper discussion, my own inclination is to suggest that western seminaries work with overseas study centres and seminaries that include mission agencies and nationals to offer educational opportunities that can be accredited oversees (a complicated partnership).  The purposes of this engagement would especially include self-enrichment for the western seminary, the assurance of quality in some educational areas abroad, and the training of missionaries in overseas contexts.  The national educational institution and churches and the study centre would add other helpful educational components in education to what the western seminary could offer, especially ministry formation.  All this raises important discussions about funding for seminaries, churches, and mission agencies.

The Seminary, the Church, and the Formation of Christian Identity and Tradition for Missions

The seminary has the potential of helping Christians and churches shape Christian identity.  A number of mission agencies have very broad Christian identities and do little to help shape these.  A clear understanding of tradition and Christian identity is important for anyone, but especially for those involved in ministry and for persons engaged in cross-cultural ministry.  Send a student to a seminary of a particular theological persuasion, and he or she will more likely than not come out with that theological persuasion.  This is a warning as much as something to pursue (education is formation).  What, though, is happening in churches more and more today is that persons are not being shaped very much into a tradition.  People sit very loosely with respect to traditions and, while this can be good, it is also a problem.  It can be good if the tradition is too ‘tight’ or, frankly, wrong—and I will let that comment sit as it is.  I far prefer broadly Evangelical than narrowly traditional segmentations of the Church—yet a clear Evangelical identity may still be possible before the term becomes too broadly used.  We are facing a challenge unlike that perhaps ever known in Evangelicalism.  To our left, the mainline denominations are rejecting tradition or living off its crumbs while wasting away year by year.  Our own churches, however, often fail to shape Christian identity very much.  Gone are the denominational Sunday School materials, gone often are the classes for confirmation or membership that teach very much, gone are the regularly sung and learned songs that shape the theology of worshipers (in favour of the latest songs never really learned and never really theologically deep), and gone are the elements of a worship service other than a few such songs and a sermon.  Sermons at best interpret short texts and apply them to life and at worst discard the meaning of the text and focus the message on the minister and his or her life journey.  (Beware the preacher who needs nothing but a stool on the platform!)  What we need are sermons that shape hearers’ identity through a storied existence found in Scripture, a living within the Bible’s narrative of faith, life, worship, and mission.  This goes beyond expository preaching and calls for Biblical theological preaching.  Overall, churches play less and less a role in shaping Christian identity beyond their often loose community and minimal practices.  However, the more churches reengage with the right seminary, the more individuals will own a robustly orthodox, Evangelical identity that is relevant for the Church and its mission.  This leaves lots of room for an indigenous presentation of Christian life in other contexts.  That is not the danger.  Rather, the danger in our day is of missionaries who do not even know their own Christian tradition who are trying to engage in contextual ministry with nationals who are deeply embedded in their own, non-Christian traditions.


There is ample room for the western seminary to be engaged with churches in foreign missions.  Indeed, greater seminary involvement would be very helpful in a number of ways, including in the formation of Christian identity and tradition.  Yet this does not mean getting more students into mission programs, training missionaries with only Masters Degrees in the west, bringing foreign students to study in the west, or offering full programs of study abroad apart from partnering with mission agencies and national educational programs.  A partnership between seminaries, churches, and mission agencies requires new thinking about costs and funding, a commitment to contextual theological education, and some further thinking about curricular implications for a missional focus of the seminary.  The strands of seminary, Church, and mission agency could be that much stronger were they braided together in a new vision for mission in our day.