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Overseas missionaries: not doing their homework

16 November 2018

Missionaries can now go overseas with hardly any training. Huw Spanner hears why this is a bad idea

Redcliffe College

Redcliffe College students at work

Redcliffe College students at work

WHEN Redcliffe College stopped taking undergraduate students in 2015, it was further evidence of the falling demand for training for overseas mission in Britain. The International Christian College in Glasgow had already closed its doors as a missionary training college, and, with a few exceptions, the Anglican theological colleges are no longer preparing people for overseas mission. Belfast Bible College, too, reports that “very few people nowadays come for missionary training.”

Redcliffe’s vice-principal and course leader for its MA in contemporary missiology, Dr Colin Edwards, says that the supply of foundational training has shrunk in the past five to ten years — but that has been in response to shrinking demand. It is not that fewer people are going forward to be missionaries, he believes, but that fewer are taking time out to be trained.

“Why that is happening is a big question. One answer is that many big churches are fielding their own mission teams, and are tending not to put them through Bible colleges but take them through their own maturing process.”

Martin Hickey, a missionary with Interserve, who is currently on secondment to All Nations Christian College as head of communications, suggests that the British Churches are less confident now about the idea of sending missionaries abroad. Of the 103 students currently resident at All Nations, just 42 are British. When he was a student at the college himself, in 1999-2001, “there were dozens more students here, and many of them were from the UK.”

Another significant factor, Dr Edwards says, is that “mission agencies are not attracting as many people as they used to”; so they are having to compete for candidates. This increase in competition is putting pressure on agencies to accept people with less training.

Four years ago, Redcliffe asked mission agencies how much training, ideally, they required their workers to have. “It varied between three months and a year; the average was about nine months,” Dr Edwards recalls. In reality, however, many current missionaries are being sent out with minimal training. “When we asked them: ‘How many of the people you have sent out in the past three years have actually done that?’ it was less than ten per cent.”

The director for candidates at OMF UK, Mike Jones, testifies to this. “People usually ask OMF what is the minimum training they need to do, because there’s a cost in terms of time and money and delay getting out to the work they want to do.” Susann Haehnel, who works for CMS as a member of its mission education team, says: “People feel like they’re more aware of what is going on around the world, and so maybe feel they don’t need as much training around that as people used to.”

Mr Hickey says: “Up until ten to 15 years ago, many British mission societies would insist on candidates’ having, perhaps, a minimum of a year’s training in Christian theology and cross-cultural studies before heading off for a long stint in another culture. Now . . . there is much more of a culture among millennials of things’ being done immediately. Unfortunately, they can cause havoc if they take their cultural baggage with them.”

The strategic development director at SIM UK, Tim McMahon, says: “The more positive view is that there is an expectation of ongoing learning in the field, although I don’t think that anyone has yet cracked what that looks like. I think we could see a future where training is integrated into people’s placements over a longer term. . . I can see a time coming when we plan training in situ, accessing online content where internet connectivity is adequate, and using in-country resources and people, [so it is] more integrated with the actual placement.”

John Baxter-Brown, the new chief executive of Global Connections, a UK network for mission agencies, says: “Over the past few decades, the world has become vastly more complicated. There are so many factors that have had a huge impact on how missionaries do their work, and what they do: the advent of the internet, globalisation, postmodernity, mass migration, and the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world, which includes extremes of Christianity as well as of Islam, Hinduism, and so on.

“Religions are rubbing up against one another much more frequently than they used to.

An OMF student undertakes language and culture study in Japan

“The demographics of those who are doing missionary work, too, have changed; so you have a lot more people from majority-world countries consciously doing mission. As a result, the training needs are a lot more varied than they once were. So it’s much harder for institutions to offer all the types of training that would properly equip somebody for the work they’re going to do.”

There are also more mission agencies now than there used to be, he says. “Many of them are small, with maybe only 15 people scattered around the world, and they do a variety of different work, and so the market has changed.”

But Mr Baxter-Brown also agrees that younger candidates are more impatient to get out on to the mission field. “People now tend to be activistic. Theological education, which tends to be contemplative, reflective, and academic, isn’t going to appeal to somebody who wants to ‘get out there and do something’.


IF CANDIDATES are impatient to get out, they may also be impatient to get back. At OMF, Mr Jones says, “we’re finding that a lot of the younger people just want to try [overseas mission] out for two or three years, to see if they can hack it in Thailand or Japan; they don’t see it as a lifetime career.”

Sandra Michie, whose autobiography God’s Patchwork has just been published by Instant Apostle, spent 25 years in a remote part of Zambia as a missionary nurse with the Brethren agency Echoes of Service (now Echoes International). After training as a nurse and a midwife, she went to Capernwray Bible School, in Lancashire, for an “intensive” six-month Bible-based training course. She had no training in cross-cultural awareness, but now considers that that is essential preparation for missionary work in another country.

“When I went out in 1965, I think that missionaries felt they were going to teach the people. Some older white missionaries still have the attitude ‘I know best.’ But, if you don’t go to serve people, not lord it over them, you might as well not go at all.”

She is concerned that, in all the emphasis on training, the candidate’s own “relationship with Jesus, and also a love for God’s word” should not be lost. “Academic training has value, but it can take over and detract from a personal relationship with Jesus that makes the difference.”

Her other concern is about “a willingness to stick to the task. . . There often isn’t the readiness to take the hardness, which is still there in mission, in many ways, though things are easier in some ways. Many people now don’t want to commit themselves for very long. I think short-term mission has value, but it has very real limitations as well.”

Sheila Leech, whose autobiography God Knows What I’m Doing Here was published last year by Authentic Media, agrees. Ms Leech has worked for 25 years with Reach Beyond as a missionary nurse. Her four-year training at East Birmingham School of Nursing was followed by three years at the Birmingham Bible Institute (now Birmingham Christian College).

She questions the value of two-year placements. “In two years, you have barely learnt language and culture, and it’s also difficult to build meaningful relationships with colleagues and make a significant impact.”

Mr Baxter-Brown says: “Fewer people are coming forward to say: ‘I want to devote my life to serving Christ in a cross-cultural context.’ I can understand what is driving the growth in short-term mission; I can understand why somebody might say, ‘I’ll give it a few years, but then I want to come home and have a family and a career.’

“But I find it very sad that we, as a Christian community in the UK, have stepped back from our responsibility towards global mission. I think we need to step up to the plate again.” Many missionaries will serve multiple terms, but fewer are undertaking training with a sense that global mission is their life-calling.


WHATEVER factors are in play, Mr Hickey believes that All Nations Christian College now has “a virtual monopoly in Britain” in supplying undergraduate mission-training that is specifically cross-cultural.

Its undergraduate programme, validated by the Open University, offers a one-year certificate, a two-year diploma, and a two- or three-year honours degree in biblical and inter-cultural studies. It also offers six OU-validated Master’s degrees: in contextual theology; missiology; global ecclesiology; multicultural church in practice; transformational leadership; and transformational development.

istockA missionary doctor at work

The college also runs a series of non-graduate courses covering the basics of cross-cultural mission, including a ten-week programme, En Route; a 13-week online version, Explore; a five-day residential, or a 20-hour online course, Express.

“What we offer is training for the whole person,” Mr Hickey says. “It’s not just about the intellect, it’s about spiritual disciplines; the development of interpersonal skills; teamwork; the understanding of emotional, personal, and relational functioning. Our students all take part in the life of a local church, or some kind of community project, and they’re also expected to muck in with chores and maintenance jobs around the college.

“This is often a chapter in people’s lives where they learn a lot about themselves. Many of our graduates say that they feel a bit like they’ve been taken to pieces and then put back together. It’s very important to be prepared in that way. People talk about ‘culture shock’ for a reason: it’s not an easy thing to go overseas and operate in a place where things are done very differently.

“Often, things can look the same, but under the surface they’re not the same at all. You can be under a lot of pressure that you may not even be aware of.”

Redcliffe College now specialises in teaching at Master’s level. “It’s continuing professional development for lay people who are in missional situations, whether in Birmingham or in Bangladesh,” Dr Edwards says. “The niche we have recently moved into is what is called ‘blended learning’: it’s done mostly at a distance, with some face-to-face, but we no longer have a residential component.”

It has courses focusing on three different areas relating to mission. “The first is: How do you lead in cross-cultural situations in times of rapid change? The second is: How do you look after your missions team? That covers everything from family issues, to cultural change, to hostage situations. The third is contemporary missiology, where people can really research their own particular situation. Much of our emphasis is on how to reflect on your own practice and learn from it.”

Residential interaction — “where they are rubbing shoulders with us and with each other, sharing meals, and so on” — takes place when students attend for blocs of intensive teaching, or attend its three-week summer school. It also runs similar “intensives” in Oceania: in Sydney one year, and in Hamilton, New Zealand, the next; and it is about to start them in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Its faculty is made up of former missionaries from around the world.

THE Anglican mission agency CMS trains all its short- and long-term missionaries itself. “One of the reasons we do it in-house is to build relationships and help people to understand who we are as a community that carries the CMS DNA. A lot of that doesn’t get taught, it gets caught: you absorb it by being around CMS people,” Miss Haehnel says.

For those going overseas long-term (CMS ask for a minimum three-year commitment), there is a residential training course, usually three months long, based at CMS House in Oxford.

Candidates live together, in a shared house as part of their preparation, and one day a week is spent on a module of its pioneer-leadership course, so that they mix with others exploring mission in the UK. Two days a week are spent in lectures, “looking at a range of different things, from their own learning style to communication and security”; a day is given to their own study on a topic relevant to the context that they’re going to; and a morning is dedicated to mission spirituality, “which is concerned with their own faith as individuals, and as a community”, Miss Haehnel says.

The People Care Co-ordinator at Interserve Great Britain and Ireland, Dawn Macaulay, says that training for its mission partners “depends on their previous experience and which country they are going to, and for how long”. Many undertake theological study, as well as a short course such as All Nations’ En Route. “If necessary, they also do language study, either before they go overseas or for the first year of their placement, alongside more general cultural learning.”

SIM UK tailors its training for those interested in long-term placements. “When anyone applies, we have a number of meetings with them — some of them quite long — and, if we see any obvious gaps, we identify how they can be filled by the available training courses. We run some in-house, such as for trauma healing, which is critically important for those who are going to be working among refugees and migrants.”

Reach Beyond has recently devised a “Community Health, Intercultural Learning Initiative” (CHILI), which provides up to six months’ training in a cross-cultural setting in Ecuador, covering everything from the theology of mission, evangelism, and disciple-making to practical skills such as carpentry, welding, and car maintenance. Each group of trainees is then sent together to spend 18 months with an “unreached people group”.

The aim is to prepare a short-term team as thoroughly as possible, and then give them a task that is measurable and lasting, and will encourage them to consider longer-term service. The feedback, both from and about the first cohort, has been good, Ms Leech says.

Mr Jones says that OMF UK looks for candidates who have specific mission training. “For ‘associates’ who go out for two to three years, it’s enough if they have done something like En Route,” he says. “For someone who’s going long-term into a ‘frontline’ ministry placement doing church-planting, we generally require at least two years at mission training college. All Nations, Moorlands College, and Oak Hill are all good. One of the keys is having mission practitioners as lecturers.

“For a missional businessperson who wants to contribute to God’s Kingdom in the place where they’re going, but is not going to be preaching or pastoring full-time, we’d say a minimum of a year. We see it as really important that all our workers, even in what would be considered support roles, have some training in cross-cultural ministry.”

OMF UK runs a week-long residential course, “to make sure our candidates are on the same page as us” Mr Jones says, and to cover things such as “how to stay spiritually and physically fit”, and how to develop good partnerships with supporters. “Everyone then does a three-week orientation course at our centre in Singapore, and, once they arrive on the field, they enter what we call our ‘Daniel Programme’, which is time set aside for learning language and culture and exploring what their ministry might be.”

In Japan, for example, there is a 26-month programme that new workers go through in Sapporo, before they enter into full-time ministry.

“Some people can spend the whole of their term as ‘associates’ just doing that; but sometimes it’s pared down to a year. We find that, really, it’s only on their second or third four-year term that our workers start to be effective in their ministry.”

* Some names have been changed


A school trip to India led Azaria Spencer to explore a calling to overseas mission

Azaria Spencer, a CMS missionaryAS A pupil at Bradford Christian School, Azaria Spencer was 16 when she went on her first overseas mission trip to the slums of Mumbai.

“They selected students who they felt were mature enough to cope with it. We prepared well, and got a lot of prayer support. [Although] I thought I was prepared for what I would see in India, it really did change me. I was definitely not the same person when I came back. I couldn’t just go back to living a comfortable life in England.”

She subsequently went on a number of other short-term mission trips, including with a small charity in Mumbai, with Amigos Worldwide, and with Comfort Rwanda and Congo.

Now aged 26, she has been working for 14 months in Guatemala City as a CMS mission partner with a charity, Street Kids Direct. She is committed to two terms of three years, “but this is probably going to be my life, at least for the foreseeable future.”

She underwent CMS’s residential three-month training in Oxford, but had already undertaken a BA in Theology for Ministry at St John’s College, Nottingham. She was a member of the college’s last cohort of full-time residential students.

“The training was obviously directed more towards ordained ministry, but they tailored my course so that I could focus some of my papers and placements on overseas mission. I actually spent two months in Uganda as part of my degree.

“The training I had from CMS was more intensive and more focused. We did everything from the theology of overseas missions to how to write link letters for your supporting churches. We had courses in first aid, and talked about language difficulties. They really try to prepare you for every aspect of life overseas.

“If I’m honest, no amount of training could ever fully prepare you for something like overseas mission, because it will throw challenges at you that you never expected. That said, I would say that the CMS training is pretty all-encompassing.”


Katie and Steve Machell are missionaries with Mission Aviation Fellowship. Their training route towards missionary work was essential for what they have encountered on the field

Steve and Katie Machell, Missionary Aviation Fellowship missionariesWHEN Katie and Steve Machell graduated from All Nations, in 2001, he had acquired a BA in biblical and intercultural studies (in addition to a degree in physics and electronics from Reading University); Mrs Machell had added a diploma to her theology degree from Durham.

Before their studies there, they had been working respectively as an intellectual-property lawyer and a midwife, and had married after meeting at an Africa Inland Mission (AIM) event, after they had both been on separate gap-years with AIM.

When they went to All Nations, they were thinking of merely taking a career break from their jobs in the UK with AIM, “but that isn’t how things turned out.” They served with AIM after All Nations, but then went on to join the Mission Aviation Fellowship in 2011, after Mr Machell gained a commercial flying licence. Mrs Machell works in communications for MAF.

What informed their decision to go to All Nations? “The feeling was that, no matter what you were going to do as a missionary, you needed a strong theological base,” Mrs Machell says. She quotes an old Chinese adage: “‘The more we sweat in training, the less we bleed in battle.’ You can’t just say, ‘I’m a missionary,’ and get on a plane and go and live in another country; you have to have thought about how that will work itself out.

“Missiological theory has moved on, and you can access so much of people’s first-hand mission experience online — and I would hope that mission training these days is up to date in that sense. But pastoral care and things like dealing with culture shock, which is something people who’ve had no training can really come unstuck on, those things don’t change.”

Mr Machell says: “In my head, I understood that my particular understanding of Christianity as a middle-class British Anglican is not normative; but, in my heart, I believed it was.

“Living and studying with 30 different nationalities, who all had their own idea of what’s normal, going to tutor groups every week, and discussing topical issues and case studies, really helped me to understand that I haven’t got all the answers — and, in fact, I’m just discovering the questions. You can’t really get that out of a book, or online, you’ve got to live it.

“In a sense, those two years of training were like going through the wilderness and coming out on the other side and being able to say: ‘Yes, we have been set apart, we have been prepared, and now we’re ready to go.’”

Mrs Machell concludes: “I don’t think we have come across anything on the field that we hadn’t thought and talked about in some way at college.”

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