I was recently asked to comment on the need for seminary if one is considering becoming a missionary. The question was spurred by short video by Ligon Duncan posted on Vimeo that was promoting the Cross Conference. In the video, Duncan states that the best missionaries he knows were prepared by being involved in a local church and by going to seminary.
Involvement in a “Bible believing local church” pretty much goes without saying. Amen to that. Seminary? Now that’s a another can of worms.
I went to seminary and received two degrees. I am no enemy of seminaries. However, the best missionaries I have met were not marked by seminary attendance. I would guess that Duncan’s experience is flavored by his involvement with denominational missions (most denominational agencies require seminary).
Seminary has the potential to be harmful to missionary service in a number of ways. Debt is an obvious one. There are very few seminary graduates who have avoided debt as they obtained their degrees. In my case, generous scholarships made it possible for me to complete seminary while I worked full time. These opportunities are few and far between. Another problem is time. Taking three to five years to study is a huge investment if there isn’t a direct connection to how that time spent affects the missionary outcome. In three to five years people change. My experience has been that many who go into seminary planning on missions decide to go into the pastorate instead because seminary is about pastoring. Others have kids and decide they can’t go overseas as a result of a growing family. Still others just plain forget their original intention. Seminary can derail a person’s vision for cross-cultural ministry.
I would warn you that the ecclesiology taught in most seminaries has little to do with church planting globally and much to do with a Western, institutionalized version of the church. If you want to be a missionary, be careful not to let that sort of ecclesiology invade your philosophy of ministry. Instead, teach yourself to see the church in the way that the first century movement saw the church. This is much more like the missionary experience and model that you will be utilizing on the field.
The seminary system was not designed for missionary preparation. It was designed for institutional church leadership. There are many assumptions in the seminary system that don’t apply well on the mission field. For example, the idea that you, as a Western missionary, must be prepared to preach sermons is rather outdated. You will not be the pastor-preacher. If you are, you are most likely doing something wrong. Your role as a missionary, in most cases, will be to support the work of indigenous people who will be ones doing the pastoring and preaching (if there is any preaching at all!).
If your role will be to lead or train in an overseas seminary than you should get a seminary degree. I am not sure this really qualifies as missionary work (see Deyoung’s article on this) but it is an example of why seminary might be a good idea. If you feel the need to understand the history of Calvanist thought or really want to develop your own theological works in a new language group than seminary might be a good idea. There are a lot of great reasons to go to seminary (including the sense that God is calling you to do it) but only in specific cases would I say seminary is necessary for missionary service .
Also, it’s important to remember that business skills, teaching and a host of other types of services are often desperately needed where missionaries are working. Serving the people might require a professional skill that you won’t get in seminary.
For most who want to serve cross-culturally I would suggest some core courses. Systematic theology, hermeneutics, Old & New Testament survey courses are probably the bare minimums. These can be taken for credit if you think you might one day want to go to seminary. These courses will get you started in the right direction and you can build off of them as you gain experience cross-culturally.
The best preparation is to do church planting cross-culturally, on a team, planting house churches. You can do this in just about any major city in the USA. The single best program I know of is New York City Immerse. There are others.
So, I rarely suggest that people go to seminary to become missionaries. Take a few courses and get practical, hands-on training instead. Better yet, combine these with a professional skill that serves the culture in which you will be living.