Missions Training. A Weariness to the Bones?

So what is the right amount of training for a missionary? Here in the Philippines, I see many people go off on missions (or come here on missions) with little to no training. This is especially true of bi-vocational missionaries or self-funded

Critical Thinking Skills
Critical Thinking.  Image by Enokson via Flickr

missionaries. In some cases people go on missions with an adequate amount of training, but bad quality training. I have seen missionaries come here to the Philippines that appear to have been trained by old-time compound style missionaries 40 years ago (build buildings, be the big boss).  I don’t want to totally disrespect inadequate training. My wife and I came here with essentially no formal training… but we got our formal training in the field. Worked for us.

But while inadequate training is bad… can too much training also be bad?

I have seen some missionaries (many that I think highly of actually) who seem to be constantly going to seminars, retreats, conferences, and formal structured training. When do things drift from too little training to too much training.

First question would be: Are there negative aspects to too much training?  I would suggest a few possibilities:

1.  Obviously, training programs disconnect one from ministry. That is not necessarily bad… everyone needs some refreshing and relearning. However, if it happens too often, it can distract from ministry rather than enhance ministry.

2.  Learning from formal education may mean that learning from actual mission work is damaged or minimized. I have seen groups that do so much training that people have left because they don’t get around to actually working. An obvious problem here is the risk of indoctrination rather than integration (we will get to that later).

3.  There is a risk of “group think.” Training is often done by the same people who work from the same philosophy. Evangelical missionaries may not get a very wide perspective in methodology. They may get all of their training from Fuller (directly or indirectly). They may lack viewpoints in the missional church movement, christian community development, social ministry/social justice, to say nothing of 2/3 world or Catholic missions.

4.  Too much missions (academic) training prior to missions practice may make it difficult to interpret experience well. We create a “Bed of Procrustes.” I have seen this happen. A person is trained in a system or methodology. When good things happen, it is because of the system. When bad things happen, it is in spite of the system. It is hard to step back and question what was foundational to the missionary.

This is not a trivial concern. When I first arrived in the Philippines I started taking Missions classes. A lot of the missions classes were consistent with “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.” The Intro to Missiology class heavily utilized Perspectives and the Intro class built the structure upon which the other missions classes worked. When I started, it was “the truth.” I was actually surprised to learn that my main Missions professor had some issues with Perspectives. How could one question it? But as I did mission work and moved on with training, things changed. I actually was asked to teach Perspectives at a seminary and was a bit surprised as I reviewed things that I no longer agreed  with some of the perspectives in Perspectives. But not only that, I found myself disagreeing on some pretty fundamental things like “What is Christian Missions” and “What is a Missionary.” Now don’t get me wrong. Perspectives is a great read with a lot of good info. The fact that I may have problems with it does not mean it is bad (and it does not mean I am correct). The point is that I was blessed with an education that allowed for critical thinking and balanced with practical mission work. Even if I am wrong, at least I know I need to question both my training and my experiences.

Consider a classic Venn Diagram. Consider one circle to be Academic Training. One circle is Missions Practice. The final circle is Critical Thinking. Yes, I know these are not exactly parallel items but work with me for the moment.

Consider the overlaps. Region C is the overlap of Practice and Critical Thinking without Academic Training. This is Self-training. Nothing wrong with self-training. I have known some excellent missionaries that have been mostly self-taught. They effectively critique their own ministries (and those they see around them) and learn. Region B is the overlap of Academic Training and  Critical Thinking without Practice. This is essentially Intellectualism. I recall a great parable where evangelism is represented as fishing. People were reading books about fishing, attending conferences about fishing, developing complex theories about fishing… but not actually fishing. (I was thinking the story was by Joseph Bayly, but I could be wrong… having trouble verifying.) Region A is the overlap of Practice and Academic training without Critical Thinking. One could think of this as Indoctrination. Some trainers like this because they are emotionally invested in their views and methods. Analysis and innovation on the part of the trainees is not welcome.

Region D, obviously, I think is the best.

So what does that mean as far as how much training is too much?  I don’t know… but I guess my thoughts for now are:

1.  Training that seems to be an end, not a means is bad. Training should make a person a more effective missionary, not a more effective trainee.

2.  Training should develop self-learning. Training that creates an intellectual dependency or discourages critical evaluation and innovation has no value.

3.  Training that is far removed from the field/culture of service will go bad after awhile. Ideally, training is integrated with field work… or at least happening at the same time.

4.  Training programs that are not open to being tested by alternatives or by experiences is not of value either.

Let me give an example on the final point. My wife and I were primarily involved in medical mission work in the Philippines. We decided to attend a week-long training called Training of Trainers for CHE (Community Health Evangelism). One of the basic arguments of CHE has been that medical missions are not useful. We took that training to heart in our own work. We certainly saw that there were problems with medical missions. There was a tendency to have little long-term value. However, we also had seen some instances where medical missions appeared to have long-term value. This led us to critically evaluate our work and make changes to be more effective. Interestingly enough, we weren’t the only ones to reevaluate. CHE (Lifewind) has been looking into how to utilize medical missions. Presumably they have seen the possibility (under the right conditions) to utilize medical and other short-term missions. Besides, since short-term missions aren’t going away any time soon, it only makes sense to investigate how best to keep them from being wasted.

This is critical thinking, learning, and integration in missions. It is a good thing, requiring an adequate amount of academic training, practical ministry, and critical thinking.

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