Should Missionaries Send their Prized Pupils Overseas to Train?

In the country where I minister (South Africa), it is common to talk with young men that have crossed the ocean to train for ministry. I do not doubt their good intentions, nor am I incredulous about his pastor’s benevolent and optimistic hopes.

The thinking is generally along these lines. “Africa (or Asia or South America) is severely lacking in solid teaching. The church is a mile wide and an inch deep. Our context is filled with thousands of pastors that are untrained theologically. It’s going to take many years (and several degrees) from a Western seminary to train a native pastor so that he can take that knowledge back to his people. Sure, it may take 6-10 years of training but it will be worth it in the end.”

There is some validity to these arguments. If you give a native pastor the “best training” and he returns with that training, not only will that help his countrymen, but should it happen to enough men, it could eliminate the need for foreign missionaries.

But I’m skeptical, sometimes bordering on downright doubtful. Here are a few reasons why.

Three Reasons This is Rarely a Good Idea

First is the cost of training and maintaining the prospective pastor. I read recently that it costs nearly $60,000 to bring one pastor from Africa to the US to study for a year. With that same amount of money, one could train dozens of pastors in their own context. But it’s not only the cost of education that is an issue.

After so many years of training in a wealthy setting, the student may believe he is entitled to receive the same amount of pay that his fellow students will receive in their Western churches. This, in almost every case, will be impossible for him to get in his native country. This means either he won’t return home or he’ll need to fix himself upon the payroll registers in Western churches. Thus, the church he pastors will never be reproducing but will always remain a missionary church plant.

Second is the unnecessary temptation. After years of Hebrew and Greek, and classes on pastoral administration and church worship, it’s time for the foreign disciple to return home. He’s lost a bit of his native accent. He’s married an American. He hasn’t spoken his native tongue consistently for years. Do you really think it will be easy for him to return home? Do you really think that when this wealthy nation offers him a position of ministry on their soil, he’ll quickly rebuff them? It’s not likely. And now we have a nation with hundreds of years of Christian heritage taking a man from a setting where the gospel is relatively new.

Paul did send his disciples away, but often for short periods and never for educational purposes. While the book of Acts is not normative, we should follow the book’s paradigms. Paul’s pattern in training young men for ministry was through observation and close one-on-one discipleship. Of the 100 or so names associated with the Apostle Paul, about 40 or so were considered his coworkers. Titus wasn’t just Paul’s student. He was a “fellow worker” (2 Cor. 8:23). This is a great way to train a disciple.

Third is the inferior kind of education. The foreign disciple has spent over half a decade studying in a context very different from his own. He’s taken dozens of classes addressing Western ethical issues but has not heard a single lecture on polygamy or witchcraft. Combine this with his new social standing  and superb education and it is now less likely he’s qualified to lead his own people.

Now it is true that if there are no pastors to train a man, he must go to where he can learn. And it is also true that it is much easier for a man to return to his homeland if he leaves, say, a B- setting and trains in a A+ setting than a man that leaves a D- context. Nonetheless, the best way to train disciples is still by living with them in their own context. These are the kinds of schools and teachers that succeed the most. Why supplant a native student superficially?

Answer to a Potential Objection

Suppose the pupil responds: “Who are you to decide what I can and cannot handle? Who are you to say that I cannot handle a Ferrari and must drive a Corolla? What gives you the right to take away the Rolex someone was gifting me and insist I wear a Timex?”

First, these arguments assume further education and more expensive education is better education. This is not always true. Perhaps rarely true. Don’t forget that Timothy’s Log Cabin, informal education with The Apostle was far better than the Ivy League education Paul got from Gamaliel (Ac. 22:3). Wouldn’t a godly minister in a South American context be able to better train a South American student? Nine times out of ten, yes.

Second, this argument acts as though it is unusual for a teacher to protect his disciple. In fact, the mentor does this all the time. “Be sure to steer clear of Susan. She’s not a good match for you.” Or, “You really need to focus more on gracious speech.” So why shouldn’t a missionary, who is charged to reprove, rebuke and exhort (2Tm. 4:2), not take the bull by the horns and say something like: “I think leaving this African setting and getting trained for six years on the East Coast is a really bad move”?

Conclusion

My answer to this question is not a dogmatic no. It’s more like a cautious “probably not”. There are more dangers than benefits of a missionary sending his prized pupil to train in the West. Pastors and missionaries should weigh the pros and cons very carefully before proceeding.

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