The International Missionary Training Network

Missionary work involves many skills in evangelism, interpersonal relations, cross-cultural communication, counselling, mentoring, networking and resource linking. Increasingly, too, you will need legitimate vocations or skills for visas, as well as in order to "ground" your ministry in daily life.

In chapter 2 of Establishing Ministry Training, Jonathan Lewis describes a process for churches and agencies to use to create a profile describing the spiritual, ministry and knowledge competencies needed for specific cross-cultural roles (see also the examples in Appendices B and C in that book). The process is called "Creating a Competency Profile", and can be done thoughtfully by any church or agency sending workers to anywhere in the world. The resulting Profile lists the various categories of competency needed by a prospective cross-cultural worker, and has proven useful in the design of training to meet the specific qualifications identified.

There are many ways to prepare for cross-cultural ministry - both formal, non-formal and informal. Choose the ways that suit you. Look for good spiritual and educational advice  on the different options so you can make a wise decision.

"Education" is about learning and broad preparation for the future, whatever form it takes. Educational approaches cover a spectrum from formal, through non-formal to non-formal. The distinctions between formal, non-formal and informal are not clear-cut.

  • Formal education ("schooling") is about a structured system of lectures, seminars usually face-to-face in a building, with rules and examinations leading to a qualification such as a degree. Some formal education is "accredited" - recognised by a government body or an publicly certified association. The attention of formal education is usually on the transmission of knowledge.
  • Non-formal education may be through correspondence courses, guided reading, apprenticehips, work with a mentor, or in many other ways. It takes place outside formal institutions and is often used in transmitting skills.
  • Informal education is learning which takes place in everyday life, learning on-the-job, discussions  with others from whom we can learn, and trial and error. It also includes self-initiated and self-directed learning projects in which adults engage on a regular basis. Much of the learning style of the Lord Jesus was informal - in personal conversations, parables and interaction with groups. Informal education can be very good at transforming people.

Table 1. Examples of types of learning activities. Some types of learning may overlap - for example both formal and non-formal education may use lectures

Example of learning activity Informal Non-formal Formal
Conversations of the Lord Jesus with His Disciples    
His teaching to the multitudes    
Letters of the Apostle Paul    
Ongoing Bible reading plan to cover the Bible each year to gain and maintain familiarity with the Bible  
Lead a house church, being trained by another pastor with fortnightly coaching sessions incorporating Bible passages and certificate level training materials.    
Correspondence courses    
Structured course of lectures at a university    

Take the initiative in seeking out the learning experiences which will be of most use to you. This may take more time than just doing formal courses, but you may be better prepared. Make whatever formal education you feel you need fit into your overall learning pathway. Make it fit your needs: do not let your needs be squeezed to fit the demands of the institution.

Factors to take into consideration on choosing formal, non-formal or informal preparation

  1. Whether you will need university accreditation for your studies - for example if you would like to pursue a doctorate later.
  2. Your learning style. Some people need the structure of formal education as it helps mastering knowledge. But formal learning does not suit everyone: some chafe under its rules and limits.
  3. Formal education is valuable for helping people learn the underpinnings of ideas and well connected bodies of knowledge. However, sometimes so much cognitive content is crammed into the curriculum that some students find that they cannot absorb it properly.
  4. Academic preparation is not the only factor in making a missionary effective. Though formal education can contribute to missionary preparation, the wrong kind of schooling or too much schooling can have a negative impact on well-intentioned servants who over-expect their formal education to make them dynamic and transformative cross-cultural workers. You also need hands-on experience and guidance.
  5. Missionary training must include ways which empower individuals to learn on their own - in a context of relationships.

Table 2: Example of a learning pathway for a prospective missionary hoping to do church planting work in an unreached people group

No. Learning activity Example
1. Working alongside an experienced evangelist in your home area beginning new house churches, leading people to Christ and discipling them.  
2. Ongoing Bible reading plan to cover the Bible each year to gain and maintain familiarity with the Bible and obey the Lord. Guide
3. Spiritual gift inventory - online survey with input from pastor of the local church. Survey
4. Ongoing mentoring with a spiritual member of the church to make sure you are always obedient to God and full of the Holy Spirit.  
5. Lead a house church, being trained by another pastor with fortnightly coaching sessions incorporating Bible passages and certificate level training materials.  
6. Residential one week course for both man and wife on Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills - on relating well with other people in possibly difficult circumstances. Workshop
7. Experience in training leaders of new house churches on-the-job behind the scenes.  
8. Course on how to learn another language. Wycliffe
9. Beginning house churches among people of another culture living nearby.  
10. Accredited diploma level correspondence courses on the Old Testament and New Testament and New Testament Greek. Course
11. Ten week intensive course in a missionary training college on cross-cultural work, team-work, history of missions, contemporary missions scene, biblical basis for missions. 10 Week
12. Training in adapting your profession or business to work overseas.  
13. Training in relating to you local church and raising money for missionary work. Course
14. Ongoing learning with missionaries on the field.  
15. Online degree in missions. Degree

Bill Taylor and Steve Hoke have written a very useful book on this subject called Send Me! Your Journey to the Nations. You can download this in two parts: Send Me! Part 1 Send Me! Part 2 . On clicking on the words you will find a page that describes the resource and then a link at the bottom saying Click to view...  Cllick on this button. Working through this book will greatly benefit you.

The noted Brazilian adult educator, Paulo Freire, suggested that education is to liberate, not confine or enslave. This must be your perspective as you consider the possible learning options before you. 

Looking ahead to life-long learning should not be a mind-boggling trip. Rather, it should be a thoughtful and intentional journey into a lifetime of learning and development. We cannot prescribe a rigid curriculum for you. Each person’s preparation will be slightly different from the next person’s. It has to be customized to who you are - your background, training and gifts, who God has called you to be and do, your ministry burden and passion, longing and vision, and how the Spirit is leading your forward - so that you have your own individualized pathway for learning and your own mentors.

The components of a life-long learning model

Missionary Fred Holland identified four vital factors in life-long learning, illustrated by the railway tracks. Two parallel railroad tracks transport a person from where they are at present into the distant future.

Figure 1: Holland's Two Track Analogy

Holland tracks

  1. Ministry Experience. This is the first track. Adult learning is distinctive from childhood education in that adults bring their lifetime of relational and ministry experience with them into the educational or training encounter. They are no longer blank slates; they bring all they are and have done into that experience. The key, then, is how to tap into that past experience - to “mine” what they have learned experientially, not assuming they know nothing or little about the topic under investigation. In fact, adults are best motivated to learn when they select the topic, identity the resources and go after the specific issues they want to learn more about.
  2. Input. Before and on the field there are opportunities to gain additional knowledge and cognitive input rough reading, workshops and seminars and formal course work. However, knowledge is never a goal in itself: it is a tool that serves a higher goal - growth in being and doing. Increasingly, the internet has made a world of knowledge available at your fingertips via the web. But our greatest need is not just knowledge, it is knowledge applied to life and to ministry situations with biblical insight. That is biblical wisdom - applied truth.
  3. Dynamic Reflection. This integrates your life experience with new information and biblical insights so that experience can be properly understood and profited from. It is called dynamic because it involves questioning your experience in the light of the iniput and also questioning the cognitive input in the light of your experience. It means constantly thinking about our experiences, our feelings and our reactions, and analysing them all in order to learn from them. Without this reflection, the two tracks of ministry experience and input run parallel into the distant future and never meet. We need conscious effort to practically apply the concepts and principles we are learning to our situation and also test the concepts in the light of our experience.
    • Dynamic reflection can take place on one’s own in contemplative journaling and reflection. Reflection involves asking ourselves questions about what we did, what we feel about it, how we did it, why we did it, and what we learned from doing it. It also involves testing the input in the light of our experience: do the ideas ring true?
    • Many people find great insight when they are able to share in integrating seminars and discussions with others. These may be part of organised formal or non-formal learning packages, or non-formal learning communities that are designed to provide opportunities for people interested in learning about a selected topic. You could gather together with other missionaries to discuss and learn together what is working in whatever ministry you are engaged in. For maximum impact, Dynamic Reflection should be regular, planned and structured, such as in an interactive seminar - rather than accidental and unplanned. You do not need an outside expert to facilitate an integrating discussion, just someone who can help draw out the thoughts and learnings of others. Participants are helped to reflect on their experience through questions and answers and so are assisted in making the connections between the cognitive input with their practical experience. Mid-career people, for example, are often able to relate their current learnings to their previous experience. When these connections take place, you will hear "Aha's!" as the person gains a fresh insight in relation to their real live situation.
  4. Spiritual Formation. The two-tracks are not suspended in space nor are they laid carelessly on an open field. Lasting railroad routes are carefully established on a well-formed bedrock of gravel and crushed stone. This spiritual formation must be the foundation of all lifelong learning for effective ministry. The basis of all Christian growth and ministry is the deepening closeness to God, more Christ-llike characteristics in personality and everyday relationships. We cannot minister for a life-time on the initial steps of discipleship and theological education we gain at the beginning of our Christian life. You cannot "front-load" all you need to know for the complexity and seriousness of cross-cultural ministry before going to the field.

Current research and practice strongly suggest that the ideal way to keep learning is to look for “just-in-time” learning that will equip you to accomplish your next task. An ideal scenario is "safe-place" learning group of like-minded men and women exploring a particular subject, facilitated by someone expert in that subject. So do not expect a course in church-planting in a Bible college seminary to complete your training for that critical task. Rather, look to join a church planting network, guided by an experienced church planter engaged in cell church planting as you are stepping into that task. Find a group of missionaries starting up house groups to join for study and discussion around what you are learning. Similarly, a course in group dynamics will not guarantee that you’ll be an effective team member. Or, start a cluster group of missionaries who are grappling with reaching out to Muslim neighbors. Look for a distance-education module or webinar on a topic of particular interest, whether that be leading multicultural teams or supervising dispersed teams.

Your learning train will stay on schedule when the two-tracks of your professional learning are based on a thoughtful design which integrates all four elements. Without a firm foundation, the train will derail. The bedrock of all we do is spiritual formation, not knowledge, techniques or competency. It is the Spirit empowering what we know and who we are. Personalize your long-term growth and development plan with this learning analogy in mind.

A Rich Phase

Whatever avenue of training or study you choose, it can be a rich phase of your life. It is a time when lifelong friends are made and life partners are often found. With God's help you will be able to test your calling and refine the direction of your life. But don’t get comfortable in your stage of preparation: it is a training ground for what is ahead.

Steps Moving Forward

  1. In prayer to the Lord and with advice from your church and experienced missionaries, choose a training path that will be best for you.
  2. Pray for the Lord's guidance in preparing for missionary work and in carrying out the following tasks.
  3. Using the guidance in chapter 2 and Appendices B and C of the book Establishing Ministry Training, develop a profile and a set of competencies appropriate to your missionary work.
  4. Determine the core of foundational knowledge that you will need. (Be cautious of over-loading yourself with a knowledge-heavy pre-field training emphasis that can lead to front-end loading too much theological education - that may not be well digested or contextualized to the realities of the varied cultural audiences missionaries encounter.)
  5. The recent emergence of the greatly simplified approach to sharing Jesus that is so central to Church Planting MovementsT4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution, Steve Smith and Ying Kai, WigTake Resources, 2011; or Disciple-Making Movements (David Garrison, WigTake Resources, 2004) suggests that an intimate relationship with God and a winsome love for people is far more important than how many years of theological training missionaries have. In coming alongside rural or urban peoples who have never heard of Jesus, it is not the amount of biblical knowledge that one has that is critical, but whether the discipler has sufficient familiarity with Scripture so that he or she can teach, rebuke, correct and train new believers (II Timothy 2:15; 3:16).
  6. Consult with your church and mission organization leaders to assess your current level of biblical and theological knowledge and then determine what additional study might be most helpful.
  7. Write a Training Path for your work - similar to that above in Table 2.

Appendix: Formal Learning Options for Cross-Cultural Service 

Four basic formal schooling options are described below. Missionary candidates will need some assistance in matching the educational mode to their needs, goals, resources, personality, and learning style.

Undergraduate Options
  1. Bible schools and colleges. Bible colleges seek to develop Christian leaders who are mature in character and equipped with biblical knowledge. They have had a strong record of turning out men and women who serve as pastors, teachers, missionaries, and leaders in Christian ministry. Over 60 percent of today’s evangelical missionaries received some Bible college training.*

    A large part of the curriculum is devoted to biblical studies. You will learn to study and teach the Bible, how to preach, and how to participate and lead in Christian service. You will be tutored in practical areas like sharing your faith, planting churches, and nurturing young Christians. You will also find an emphasis on deep spiritual life and on your identity as part of a community of students and faculty committed to loving and serving God.

  2. Christian liberal arts colleges and universities. Christian liberal arts colleges specialize in general education programs, seeking to give students a basic grasp of all the academic disciplines from a distinctively Christ-centered perspective. The curriculum is based on the conviction that “all truth is God’s truth. It links the study of God’s creation with the study of God’s revelation, helping you to develop a biblical worldview. Studying at a Christian college allows you to integrate biblical training with your academic field of study.

    We live in a fragmented society that desperately needs an integrated view of life - a view that connects the fragments and offers meaning to life. Nowhere is this more important than in Christian ministry. No matter what their job description, unless believers possess an integrated, God-centered view of the world, they will have little to offer people of differing cultures. This is the special strength of the Christian liberal arts college or university.

  3. Secular colleges and universities. Secular colleges and universities (run by the government or privaltely) offer superb facilities, diverse academic majors, large research libraries, and a wide range of faculty specialization. Tuition may also cost less than private higher education. Active campus ministry organizations can enrich classroom study with discipleship, mentoring, and outreach opportunities.

    In North America and the UK you have a menu of hundreds of these tertiary-level schools. They may be situated in a rural area or right in the inner city; they range in size from very small to medium to gigantic. Many countries, except the U.S.A., have a state funded universities.

    Graduate Courses
  4. Christian graduate schools and seminaries. Christian graduate schools are primarily concerned with biblical study and professional training for areas of Christian ministry. Graduate schools equip you with a specialty at a professional level. You can hone your professional skills in journalism, cross-cultural studies, health care, TESL, and so on. Seminaries offer pastoral preparation in areas such as missions, theology, spirituality, preaching, Christian education, and church planting. Adequate professional training has become increasingly crucial for prospective long-term missionary candidates. Some believe seminary training is mandatory for the cross-cultural church planter. But the most critical issue is whether one can develop the character qualities and practical ministry skills demanded in the cross-cultural setting.

    Each seminary has its own distinctive style and emphasis. Some are known for training gifted preachers. Others are known for their counselling or mission programs. Still others specialize in urban ministry or international studies. A seminary and its faculty will have a powerful impact on you and on the shape of your theological persuasions. If you attend one, select a seminary that is compatible with your particular calling and gifting.

Deficiencies of a Purely Academic Approach

  1. In the past 100 years in the USA, for example, a purely formal education approach to ministerial training (read “seminaries”) and missionary training, has tended to put a distance between the graduate and the very people they are preparing to serve. Some might say that the formal education model is not inherently defective, rather it is that some traditional theological institutions have simply not:
    1. applied what we already know about how people learn best
    2. contextualized learning to the real world
    3. appropriately integrated technology into the academy.
  2. However, there have been numerous dissertations, articles and books over the past 20 years critiquing the current higher education or graduate school approach to ministry training. These evaluations have typically included the following key points:
    1. Students tend to learn and adopt a vocabulary that is somewhat foreign to most church members and the peoples to which missionaries will be ministering around the world.
    2. Students tend to graduate with a programmatic orientation to ministry and missions, mistakenly thinking that models they studied in a college can be easily transferred in global settings.
    3. Schooling tends to desensitize prospective pastors and missionaries to the heart and felt needs of their parishioners and nationals. Knowledge becomes more important than relationship.
    4. More time is focused on knowledge acquisition rather than on spiritual heart formation, Body Life, ministry skills relating to other people, or actual ministry in local church or mission settings.
    5. Schooling tends to use a left-brained knowledge-based approach to life and living that is foreign to most parishioners and nationals in most countries of the world.
    6. Schooling can tend to orient graduates toward thinking that what most other people need is more knowledge (like themselves), rather than equipping them with a question-asking and problem-posing orientation to people in community.  Missionaries thus tend to arrive with pre-conceived ideas of what solutions will work, in setting they know little about.
    7. Schooling does a poor job of equipping cross-cultural workers to be natural contextualizers of Scripture, theology and their missiological methods. Missionaries tend to arrive with a "fix-it" mentality, eager to share effective programs and ideas from their home culture, without understanding the intricacies of contextualization to the local context.
    8. Classroom learning is a poor place to learn relational skills and emotional intelligence.


Robert Banks, Re-envisioning Theological Education.

Ruth Beechick. A Biblical Psychology of Learning: How Your Mind Works. Accent Books, 1982.

Jay Conger, Learning to Lead. Jossey-Bass, 1992.

Harvie Conn, “Theological Education: Looking for New Models,” Eternal Word and Changing Worlds, pp. 113-115.

Harvie M. Conn, “Teaching Missions in the Third World: The Cultural Problems,” in Harvie M. Conn and Samuel F. Rowen, Missions and Theological Education in World Perspective (Farmington, MI: Associates of Urbanas, 1984), pp. 249-279.

David S. Dockery and David P. Gushee (ed.), The Future of Christian Higher Education, pp. 4-5.

Robert W. Ferris. Renewal in Theological Education. Wheaton, IL: A BGC Monograph, Billy Graham Center, 1990.

_____. (ed), Establishing Ministry Training: A Manual for Program Developers. WEA: William Carey, 1995.

“Five Marks of an Effective Seminary: How to Evaluate Theological Education,” Christianity Today, (October 3, 1994), p. 82.

Howard G. Hendricks. Teaching to Change Lives. Multnomah Press, 1987.

Klaus Issler and Ronald Habermas. How We Learn. Baker Books, 1994.

Manifesto on the Renewal of Evangelical Theological Education, published in Theological Education Today (April-June, 1984), pp. 1-6 and in Evangelical Review of Theology (April, 1984), pp. 136-143.

Larry J. McKinney. “Evangelical Theological Education: Implementing Our Own Agenda. Presented 20 Aug 2003 at the ICETE International Consultation for Theological Educators High Wycombe, UK. Includes an extensive bibliography with numerous citations from the most recent research studies on the effectiveness of both formal education and theological education approaches.

Lois McKinney, “Why Renewal is Needed in Theological Education,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly (April, 1982), p. 91.

Robert W. Pazmino. God our Teacher: Theological Basics in Christian Education. Baker Academic, 2001.

Anil D. Solansky, “A Critical Evaluation of Theological Education in Residential Training,” Evangelical Review of Theology (Vol. II, No. 1, April, 1978), p. 133.

Les L. Steele. On the Way: A Practical Theology of Christian Formation. Baker Books, 1990.

Jane Vella. Learning to Listen,, Learning to Teach. Jossey-Bass, 1994.