Why Don’t Theologians and Missionaries Talk?

Why Don’t Theologians and Missionaries Talk? October 11, 2022

Everyone is familiar with the perceived chasm that can exist between pastors and laypersons. Specifically, many congregants feel like their pastors’ teaching can be too heady or abstract, not touching on the day-in-day-out realities of life.

Believe it or not, the disconnect between theologians and missionaries can be even greater. How so? For one thing, it’s rather uncommon for theologians and biblical scholars to read up on books and articles written by missiologists and missionaries.

Likewise, missions writers hardly ever seriously interact with exegetical or technical issues related to biblical interpretation and theology. More often, authors simply assert particular theological positions as they go along advocating their argument concerning some facet of missions. I’ve heard more than a few theologians and missiologists joke about how neither group reads what the other camp has to say.

The chasm between theology and missions

Why is that? There are several contributing reasons.

1. Specialization

On the academic side, upper-level students are encouraged to become hyper-specialized in whatever field they’re learning. That’s not entirely bad, as we need people who dedicate their efforts to discern details and address specialized issues. Problems, however, arise when they are discouraged from becoming generalists and/or seeking more inter-disciplinary approaches to research.

2. Recruiting

Nowadays, it seems anyone can become a missionary. By this, I mean that organizations have extremely low expectations of their applicants and mission workers. No theological training? No problem. “Mo’ bodies means mo’ better” is the mindset of many mission agencies.

I’ve said it many times: missionaries are the most undertrained people in the ministry world. In most churches in America, lead pastors are expected to have some type of formal theological training. For many, it’s unthinkable not to have a seminary-trained pastor.

But missionaries? The training standards have plummeted precipitously in the past few decades. And unlike various other important professions, missionaries are not expected to undergo continuing education while on the field.

Think about it–– missionaries have to do all the kinds of things that pastors need to do but do them in another country when with divergent cultural and religious backgrounds (and in another language). While organizations lower their standards because they want as many missionaries as possible to overseas, I can’t help but feel like this apathy towards missionary training is a bit patronizing towards the people they’re going to serve.

3. Training

I’ll briefly touch on one more aspect of training. Seminaries routinely teach missionaries how to be anthropologists. The curriculum will have some basic theology, but students are rarely equipped to appreciate the intricacies of theological and biblical studies.

On the other hand, biblical scholars are trained to focus just on the original cultural context of the Bible. Theologians often spend much of their time studying historical thinkers. Both miss the potential contributions to their work found in contemporary cultures.

What can we do?

Of course, I’m speaking in broad terms about tendencies that I’ve seen. Exceptions exist. But rather than simply accept that this phenomenon exists, why not take practical action steps to solve the problem?

There is no single “fix” that will do the trick. Part of the solution will be to take measures that counter some of what I’ve noted above. In addition, we need a forward-looking vision and imagination to see what such an integrated approach might look like.

What is your experience? Have you seen similar trends? What other reasons have I not mentioned?


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Photo Credit: Colin Park / View into chasm known as Huntsman Leap / CC BY-SA 2.0

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