Guest Post by Pastor Mike Johnson from Ridgeview Bible Church
Much has been said and written of late on the importance of the pastor-theologian. And I am glad for that. But far less has been said about the missionary-theologian. That hyphenated term might even sound strange to you. Is there such a thing as a missionary-theologian? Or should there be? I think so, and with this blog I will set out to show the importance of the missionary-theologian and hopefully encourage some missionaries to aspire to that.
To be clear, by ‘missionaries’ I mean church-planting “frontier” missionaries; those engaging least-reach and un-reached people groups with the intent of establishing a healthy church. Should those kinds of missionaries be theologians too, or is that simply too much to ask?
A church-planting missionary is already expected to know a great deal. He or she must usually learn two languages (the trade language and the target ethnic language) and know those cultures well. That, all by itself, is a daunting task, often requiring years or painstaking study. On top of that, they also must know how to teach literacy, understand Bible-translation philosophy, know church-planting techniques and NT church principles. They might also need to know a trade or how to run a business in order to stay long-term in the target country.
We expect a lot from a missionary. So should he or she also be a theologian? I think so, and for several reasons. But I will give you only three.
First, a missionary must be a theologian because there are no seminaries among unreached people groups.
We go there to establish a church, and that church will need teachers and pastors – generations of them. The spiritual and theological needs of a church in a newly-reached people group are not different from those of churches in the West. We have to assume that they have (or will have) all the questions we have about God and life with him and this world. One day it will be up to indigenous pastors and teachers to walk people through those questions. So who will train those pastors to meet those needs? That would be the job of missionaries.
It should be obvious, then, that it would be detrimental to the long-term health of a church to poorly train those pastors. So missionaries must put on their theologian hats and do the work that seminary professors do here in the West. And for that, they must themselves be theologians.
Second, a missionary must be a theologian because church-planting itself requires serious theology.
What is the church? What is the purpose of the church? What is the gospel, and why is it so crucial, so exclusive and so bloody? What is faith? These are not peripheral questions and they are highly theological. A missionary well-versed in culture and language acquisition and translation technique but with little or no understanding of how to do theology well will stumble hard when those questions come front and center. And they will.
Third, and most general, a missionary must be a theologian because they are Christians who love God (at least they should be!).
Theology is, at its core, the knowledge of God. We do theology to know God, and it makes little sense to say we love God but have a small desire to know him. Those who are called to the front lines of the advance of Christianity must be people with a deep desire to know the God they proclaim. They must be theologians.
So what must a missionary do in order to also be a theologian? I am not suggesting with this blog that every missionary should also expand his or her theological training to equal that of a pastor or a professional theologian in the academy. We simply have a finite amount of time, and we have to balance our training time with the work we will then do with that training. And as mentioned, the missionary must also have many other skills that a pastor in the West does not need (how many pastors in the West need basic medical-aid training?). It takes time to learn those skills, so I think the norm now of two years of Bible training is appropriate, in addition to the specialized ministry training missionaries must also receive.
More than formal training, I think a culture and a mindset is what is needed to form missionary-theologians. Missionaries must realize the importance of engaging in theology. I have seen many a missionary who thought theology an unimportant or irrelevant subject. We must help every missionary see the folly and wrong-headedness of that! A missionary must embark upon a life-long journey of reading and learning deep theology. Bible colleges must equip prospective missionaries not only with knowledge and doctrine, but with the tools necessary to continue learning theology throughout their ministries. Pastors and sending churches should help missionaries become theologians, by both encouraging such a mindset and pursuit and equipping the missionaries with the books and resources they need to continue learning and growing in theology.
We need missionaries; that much is certain. There is much to do to evangelize the remaining unreached and least-reached people groups of the world. And I am convinced that those missionaries should be missionary-theologians. So I make this case with the hope of encouraging many prospective missionaries to earnestly pursue theology, for the glory of God among the nations.
And, I have to say that I’m impressed with myself! I made it through this entire blog without mentioning that the greatest missionary in church history was also one of the church’s preeminent theologians. We could do much worse than to follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul.