Overall missionary attrition may not be sky rocketing, but it sure seems like it. Every time I turn around, there is someone else packing up and going home.
Some attrition is normal as people enter different stages of life, and family or ministry circumstances / callings change.
But some attrition is unfortunate and preventable.
Although it is sometimes the missionaries themselves who have issues, other times it is their mission agency and/or supporting church(es) who have failed them. And in the messiness of real life, sometimes it is a combination of both missionary and agency, of uncontrollable and controllable factors.
In the past, I have written some positive posts about language study, the importance of friends, pre-field training, etc. But in the current post, I want to approach missionary attrition a bit more negatively, in hopes that a bit of cynicism might help us consider how to prevent attrition. So, without any further ado, here are 10 ways that mission agencies, churches, and others (including missionaries themselves) can speed up unanticipated departures from the mission field.
Dear Friends & Family,
We have been told that one of the reasons for missionaries to take home assignment is rest and refreshment. The only problem is that our family is not very good at resting.From early in the morning until bedtime, four year old Joshua is zipping around the house in a flurry of activity and non-stop chatter. Baby Caitlin tries to copy big brother. Where do they get this from? Hard to say because Mom and Dad are equally active in their own way.At the beginning of February, Karl began studies at Talbot School of Theology, part of Biola University. He is studying for a Masters of Theology (Th.M) which is one year of post-graduate work beyond the M.Div. The plan is to graduate in December 2011, after which we will return to Thailand. The purpose of doing a Th.M is twofold. First, I want to equip myself to better respond to trends and questions of theology, culture, and strategy on the mission field. Secondly, a Th.M will help prepare me to teach at both the bachelors and masters degree level in a Bible college or seminary in Thailand. Upon our return to Thailand, there is a very strong possibility that we will be based in Bangkok and I will teach church history part-time at a seminary there. At the moment though, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the work and am still looking for a thesis advisor. Please pray that either I can find a professor willing to supervise my thesis or it becomes clear that I should pursue a non-thesis track. I need to figure this out ASAP.
This past May marked the end of my first year of teaching seminary in Thailand, so I thought it would be a good time to step back and reflect, and to dispel a persistent misconception.And if anyone reading this is considering teaching seminary classes in a second-language, perhaps this brief account of my experience might give them some idea of what they would be in for.
When other foreigners learn that I teach seminary in Thailand, and that I teach it in Thai (not English), they are often very impressed.Overly impressed, I would say. The reality is much less impressive and I feel much less competent and qualified than many seem to think I am.
It is often said that missionaries destroy native cultures. In light of that claim, I find it very significant that Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi takes a positive view of missionaries in her country. In fact, she spends quite a bit of time in the following video singing the praises of Adoniram JudsonIn sum, she says that American missionaries (especially Judson) did a lot of good for Burma in terms of education, medicine and preserving Burmese culture. Judson wrote the first Burmese-English dictionary, and the first college in Burma was named Judson College. The difference between Baptist and Catholic schools in Burma is that American Baptists sought to preserve Burmese culture in their schools. Students wore Burmese dress, retained their Burmese names, and the schools preserved Burmese manners so that their graduates were considered proper, well educated, and aware of Burmese manners of courtesy. In addition to education, missionaries helped Burma in the area of medicine, in particular she mentions a Seventh Day Adventist Hospital as the best and most well-known after Burma gained independence.
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I don’t know of any plans to translate Rob Bell’s new book on hell into Thai. But if it was translated, I doubt it would sell very well. I haven’t read his book so this is not a commentary on what Bell does or does not espouse. But this IS a commentary on how culture shapes our perception of what’s important. The burning issues facing the American church are not necessarily so important in other parts of the world.
While the American church faces the challenges of postmodernity, secularism, and doubt, the church in Thailand does not. The vast majority of Thai Christians and churches affirm the reality of heaven and hell, and the reality of God’s supernatural intervention in the affairs of life. Even Thai Buddhists, who make up 95% of the population of Thailand, believe in heaven and hell. Granted, they have a different understanding of these terms, but most would acknowledge their reality because Buddhism affirms them as well. So, a book addressed to a culture which views heaven and hell with skepticism would likely sit on the shelf in Thailand, gathering dust.
Many times it is assumed that theological education around the globe can be done basically the same way everywhere, namely the way it is done in the West. But in many cases, a cut-and-paste approach to theological education and pastoral training isn’t nearly as effective as some would like to think that it is.
To get some more insight into the nature and challenges of theological education in Asia (and Thailand in particular), I recently interviewed Daniel Kim, director of Chiang Mai Theological Seminary and a missionary church planter in Thailand with OMF International.KD: Could you share briefly about your background, and how you came to be involved in theological education in Thailand?
DK: Korea is my physical birth place. U.S.A. is my spiritual birth place. And Thailand is my missional place. My life has been an exciting journey like the life of Daniel in the OT. I am a trilingual and multicultural person.
There are few things more frustrating to students than busy work. Plowing through assignment after assignment, the distinct feeling that all of one’s hard work is pointless gnaws away at the soul, inoculating students to the possibility of actual learning.As a foreign English teacher in Thailand, I discovered that many Thai people have developed a mental block that prevented them from truly learning English. This block had developed over the course of many years as they were run through an “English as a Foreign Language” curriculum that really amounted to busy work. But they suffered not just a day or two of busy work when the real teacher was out sick. This was years of busy work. And now many were convinced that they simply couldn’t learn a foreign language. “I studied English for ten years, and I still can’t say anything more than ‘Hello’” is a common refrain.
In response to my recent post on "Do You Need a Bible Degree to be a Long Term Missionary?", I received the following testimony of a theological student who found his training to be surprisingly relevant on a trip to the Muslim world. For those who are considering doing missions in the Muslim World (or elsewhere), and wondering whether their Western course of theological studies will really help them, Chris' experience should be a helpful encouragement:
"In June 2009, after one year of academic study on the "Theology and World Mission Course" at Oak Hill Theological College, London, I jetted off to a Muslim-majority country for a summer of overseas gospel ministry. As I sat on the 13-hour flight, it was easy to imagine the potential payback of classes I'd taken on Mark's Gospel and the Pentateuch. But, what of the other subjects: abstract, academic and arduous? Would trinitarian theology, critical modern scholarship, Hebrew and Greek pull their weight as well? Or would they turn out to be no more than expensive excess baggage?
Because the need for people to hear the Gospel on the mission field is so urgent, it is sometimes claimed that doing a lot of Biblical studies or earning a degree in Bible is not necessary to be a long-term missionary. “People just need the basic Gospel, and you don’t need a degree for that”, it has been said. There is a lot of truth to that statement. However, once someone becomes a Christian, you need to disciple them. And you’ll need to help new believers form themselves into a church community. And to do that, a missionary is going to need to know a LOT more than just a basic Gospel outline.
At one point in the history of missions, it was rather difficult to get approved for missionary service unless you were an ordained pastor (or married to one). There were exceptions, of course, for those who were going to serve as school teachers, doctors, and other types of ministries that did not primarily involve Bible teaching. However, where we find ourselves today, in many cases, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Churches and mission organizations vary in their requirements, from very stringent to very lax, but since I got involved with missions about twelve years ago on a short-term trip to Poland, I have heard many times over, from various places, something along the following lines, “If you love Jesus and are willing, then you’re ready to be a missionary.” Granted, loving Jesus and being willing are very important but is that all that is needed? I was reading the book of Ezra today and came across this verse:“For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)
A young man from one of our supporting churches recently emailed with the following question, "I was wondering if you have ever heard of anyone using music education as a platform for missions. If someone wanted to do something like that, how might they get started?" I imagine that there are lots of Christians out there who are interested in missions but not quite sure if their interests and skills are usable on the mission field and if so, how. So I thought I would post our answer to his question in hopes that others who are wondering about getting involved in missions, particularly in the area of music, would be benefited."There are lots of ways to use music education in missions. Formally, you can get a job teaching music education in a school, either in the local language or more likely in English. In a number of countries, there are schools that want to offer an international track where local students have all their classes in English, including various subject matter like science, math, music and so forth. Of course, there are also international schools, both secular and Christian where one can also be a music teacher. The requirements to teach in the Christian (MK) schools are probably lower than the secular ones. Getting a job as a music teacher in a school is something that