My wife and I are days away from beginning our work in Southeast Asia. Our mission is simple, yet daunting: we hope to plant a church amongst an unreached and unengaged people group.
We’ve been preparing for this for seven years. When I felt drawn to church planting amongst the unreached, I was zealous and eager. If it were up to me, I would have been on the field in just a few short months. I realize now it would have been foolish of me to go so quickly. I would have fizzled out due to an unrealistic and incomplete understanding of what it means to reach an unreached people group for Christ. I’m extremely grateful for the men and women who have trained us to be well-equipped for the task.
I suspect I’m not alone in this. Every aspiring missionary should be patiently equipped in order to meet their long-term goals.
More Than Theological Training
When I first felt a desire for missions, I was a new believer. So obviously I needed to become more theologically grounded in the faith I wanted to proclaim. For me, this meant going to seminary and getting an MDiv. While seminary isn’t necessary for everyone who hopes to go to the mission field, some type of theological training is. If we expect a church planter moving across the city to know his Bible well, then we should expect the same from a church planter moving across the globe.
Of course, theological training isn’t everything. Cross-cultural church planting, especially amongst unreached people groups, demands a set of tools that most seminaries aren’t designed to offer.
Some people don’t believe extensive training is necessary for this task. That’s generally because they don’t have a robust understanding of what it entails, or they have a completely different definition of what a church is. But once the task is understood, the need for training becomes obvious. So, what does it take?
First, we must consider that unreached peoples are unreached for a reason. The primary barrier to access is language. Entire people groups are cut off from the gospel because they don’t speak a language that has Scripture, churches, or any gospel-centered materials. This means the frontier church planter will need to learn at least one language. I say “at least” because most of the unengaged peoples speak languages that are not the majority language of their respective countries. So a missionary will sometimes need to learn two languages in order to speak in the heart language of a people so that he can share the gospel clearly, as he ought (Col. 4:4). Oh, and in most of these places, there is no language school.
Second, these languages are often unwritten as most unreached people groups have oral cultures. For a church to last, it needs the Bible in the people’s heart language. So if a language has never been written before, the church planting team will need to reduce the language to writing, and then teach the people how to read and write. This process is known as literacy, and it demands patience.
Third, there needs to be a translation of the Bible in the people’s own language. This task requires a thorough understanding of the people’s language and culture, as well as of translation issues and biblical exegesis.
Fourth, in order to share the biblical narrative clearly, the church planter will need to be intimately aware of the cultural and religious realities of their people, so as to confront the people’s worldview. This is what is called contextualization. Much ink has been spilled on this topic. I’ll simply offer one principle: bad contextualization makes the gospel more palatable at the cost of biblical truth, while good contextualization makes the gospel more clear for the sake of biblical truth.
Fifth, church planters need to be prepared to suffer well. The process of learning a language, planting a church, translating the Bible, and raising up elders will take years, if not decades, of labor in hard-to-live places. Frontier church planters will face unique bouts of suffering. Illness, climate adjustment, struggles to communicate, opposition from the government, and spiritual resistance should be expected. This is how Christ builds his church. Therefore, the frontier church planter needs to have a robust theology of suffering before he or she enters the field.
A Training Solution
I’ve been in the “missions world” for about nine years. I’ve been to many conferences, interacted with many organizations, and networked with many missionaries and mobilizers. Yet I know of no better place to train for the task than Radius International.
Radius offers a 10 month training program in Mexico, where students are taken through a rigorous curriculum specifically aimed at training frontier church planters to reach the least reached of the least reached. The program includes training in culture and language acquisition, linguistics, literacy, an introduction to translation, church planting, storytelling and evangelism, practical ecclesiology, team dynamics, business and creative access, theology of suffering, and spiritual disciplines.
Radius staff work in conjunction with local churches to train and evaluate candidates before they leave, and provide the candidates with intimate accountability through small groups and one-on-one discipleship. My wife and I can’t imagine heading to Southeast Asia without the training we received at Radius.
One Last Consideration
Whether you’re a pastor, church member, or aspiring missionary, I want to end with one final encouragement. As you examine the preparedness of missionary couples, consider both the husband and the wife. One of the many blessings we experienced during our time at Radius, was that the training was for both of us. My wife learned in more detail where she fits into the task, and this gave her a greater degree of “buy in” and confidence. She needs the tools mentioned above just as much as I do because if she succeeds, we both do.