I recently stumbled upon an article provocatively entitled, “Stop Sending Missionaries.” The author argues that in our haste to fulfil the Great Commission we’re sending too many unqualified people who are doing more harm than good. In the words of Jesus’ parable, they are producing weeds, not wheat.
By unqualified he means without formal theological education and ordination.
We’ve already looked at the mistaken belief that the apostle Paul spent 3-10 years in theological reflection and preparation before setting out on his first missionary journey. Let’s take a look at this statement:
If you speak to an older generation of missionaries, you’ll find that in by-gone days Bible college was a requirement. If you read the biographies of guys like Adoniram Judson, you’ll find that ordination was required.
In Movements that Change the World I take a look at the formation of the evangelical missionary movement. 150 years after the Protestant Reformation there was still no concerted effort to take the gospel to the nations. So two young men decided to act. One was a potter and the other a carpenter.
When Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann set out to take the gospel to the West Indies in 1732, William Carey, the “father of Protestant missions,” had not yet been born. Hudson Taylor, missionary pioneer, would not arrive in China for another 150 years. Dober and Nitschmann were the first missionaries sent out by the Moravian Brethren; within twenty years Moravian missionaries were in the Arctic among the Eskimos, in southern Africa, among the Indians of North America, and in Suriname, Ceylon, China, India and Persia.
Dober and Nitschmann had little understanding of what life would be like in the West Indies. They had no mission agency to support them. They had no example to follow. As they walked toward the port, they had no idea that they were clearing the way for the birth of the Protestant missionary movement.
These two young men became the founders of the Christian movement among the slaves of the West Indies. By the time other Christian missionaries arrived, fifty years later, the Moravians had baptized 13,000 converts and planted churches on the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados and St. Kitts. The Moravians were the first Protestants to treat world missions as the responsibility of the whole church. Under Zinzendorf, the Moravians became an intense and highly mobile missionary movement. Within two decades the Moravians sent out more missionaries than all Protestants had sent out in the previous two hundred years. The rapid deployment of so many young missionaries around the world was remarkable.
The outreach was made possible by a relative lack of concern with training, finances or structure. All of these missionaries were laypeople, mostly peasant farmers and tradesmen. They were trained as evangelists, not academic theologians. They received enough money to get to the port. The missionaries then worked for their passage across the ocean. On the mission field, they took up whatever work would provide enough food and clothing. They had no formal theological education, and they received scant training in language acquisition and crosscultural ministry.
Once they set sail, they had no financial support and no organization to look after them; there was no guarantee of health care, only the likelihood that they would never see their homeland again.
Over the next 150 years, 2,158 Moravians volunteered to serve overseas in the most remote, unfavorable and neglected areas. This was something new in the expansion of Christianity: an entire Christian community—families as well as singles—devoted to world missions.
The impact of the Moravians did not end with their own achievements. They profoundly influenced both William Carey, known as the “father of Protestant missions,” and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. The Moravians prepared the way for the great Protestant missionary expansion of the nineteenth century in which Adoniram Judson made an important contribution.
It seems in bygone days the Moravians knew their Bible too well to be fooled into requiring formal theological education and ordination for their missionaries.