“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…“
-2 Timothy 3:16
We know this, but how prepared are today’s missionaries to wield God’s Word as a tool for effecting worldview change in the hearts and lives of the unreached? How equipped are the messengers, and how equipped are new believers in fledgling churches around the world?
When a church planting team first enters an unreached people group, the Word of God has no presence and no authority. This is the starting point: Point A. We want to plant thriving churches filled with believers who depend upon the Lord and allow His Word to govern their lives (like 2 Timothy 3:16). This is Point B. How does the church planting team help the people go from Point A to Point B?
To put it another way: if you’re ready to embrace the task of planting a church in another culture, and you want God’s Word to have its rightful place in that church, what should you do?
1. Get Bible Training First
Although the Bible is our primary textbook here, applicants are expected to arrive with a solid Bible education (see requirements). As students are being taught how to effectively communicate God’s Word into another culture, they are learning church planting methodology that is intended to be subservient to the authority of Scripture (literally “serving as a means to an end”). The methodology alone doesn’t produce a spirit-led, God-honouring church. Nor does it replace the need for diligent study of God’s Word. In classes where students practice cross-cultural Bible teaching, they must first understand how a particular biblical passage fits into the redemptive narrative of Scripture and then learn to teach this message clearly and coherently into a foreign worldview.
As you prepare for training, look for a Bible education that is loaded with focused Bible and theology coursework, all from a consistent literal historical-grammatical hermeneutic approach. We often like to recommend our U.S. affiliate-run Ethnos360 Bible Institute, which was established specifically to train future missionaries with a quality education in God’s Word.
With all the pressures of North American culture that seek to “disciple” us, growing in understanding of God’s Word in its entirety has never been more important. There is no other prerequisite that is as crucial for a long-term cross-cultural missionary!
2. Be Clear on the Gospel!
Throughout the training, our 8:00 am class hour is devoted to studying the Bible and undergirding the foundation that students already have. In their first semester, students learn the significance of “worldview” and how easy it is to inadvertently communicate a distorted version of God’s Word—particularly a diluted or inconsistent Gospel of Grace. At Ethnos Canada, we major on clear gospel teaching! As Paul fiercely warned the Galatian churches:
“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.”
-NIV, Galatians 2:21
Eternal salvation is by grace through faith, with no amount of works factored into the equation. Yet smuggling portions of the Law into our doctrine of salvation is common in North America. Have you ever been told that you must maintain certain behaviours, attitudes, or levels of commitment to gain, keep, or prove your justification before God? This simply isn’t the gospel!
If the missionary is shaky on the gospel, the unreached people group will be shaky indeed—especially since works-based theologies are much more compatible with animist worldviews, with their emphasis on performance to manipulate or appease spirits and deities. The Gospel of Grace, clearly communicated, doesn’t allow for this kind of syncretism.
Students are trained to communicate God’s Word, with the gospel made clear to ensure new believers are true believers—trusting in the finished work of Christ on their behalf, not in their own performance. A clear understanding of God’s Word, taught lovingly and clearly into their cultural framework, will protect new believers and churches from cults and false teaching, which always seek to undermine the gospel.
3. Teach the Bible “Foundationally”
Many missionaries arrive on the field passionate about the gospel—and rightly so! Perhaps it could come as a shock that future missionaries are trained not to begin teaching with verses like John 3:16.
Consider the context of the book of John. John wrote to an audience familiar with the Old Testament. They were likely a mixture of Jews, Gentile proselytes, and Gentiles who already knew of the God of the Bible. They may not have known much about Jesus yet, but they knew the revealed character of God from the Old Testament, so He needed no introduction in John 1:1. They would have understood that there was one God (assumed by John 1:1), that He was the Creator (assumed by John 1:3), that He good and not evil (assumed by John 1:3), and that He was Spirit (making John 1:14 so significant). By the time John 3:16 comes around, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, an expert in the Old Testament.
Unreached people groups, on the other hand, often have no concept of the God of the Bible. They’re not ready to understand the significance of this “God” having a “Son”, “loving the world”, and giving people “eternal life.” They may lack words for the crucial concepts of love, sin, eternal life, faith, and redemption—concepts that must be grasped in order to clearly understand the gospel. In short, they lack the foundation upon which the gospel rests. The best way to prepare them is to set the stage through intentional chronological and foundational teaching from Creation to the cross, addressing and breaking down worldview obstacles along the way.
4. Aim for a Maturing Church
There is a trend in modern missiology towards speed, efficiency, and hands-off evangelism and discipleship. As the thinking goes, the best “bang for your buck” is to get them a Bible, allow them to discover it themselves in small groups, and encourage those groups to replicate as quickly as possible in a spontaneous and thoroughly “indigenous” church planting movement. Just remove the missionary (especially the western missionary), who is seen as ineffective and even harmful to the local culture! In an attempt to avoid the paternalism of past generations—where missionaries admittedly did at times set up systems of unhealthy dependency—the pendulum is now swinging too far the other way. New “converts” are being deprived of solid Bible teaching, leaving them floundering in a hostile culture and vulnerable to false teaching and syncretism. As Normal Geisler put it:
“The cults thrive because Christians are lacking in biblical and theological understanding.”
We teach future missionaries to avoid paternalism and dependency, while encouraging new churches to develop biblically compatible indigenous forms of worship and Christian community. At the same time, however, the missionaries need to provide the model for solid and clear Bible teaching, consistent hermeneutics, and a commitment to evaluate our own culture through God’s Word (rather than the other way around). Whether the missionary is a native of Canada or Guinea is of secondary importance.
In church planting, it’s important to neither stay on too long nor to leave too early. Students are trained to look for key markers of maturity prior to leaving a new church plant on their own. Unsurprisingly, many of these indicators have to do with Scripture, such as the clarity of gospel understanding, the availability of God’s Word in the local language, the Bible’s evident authority in the lives of believers, and the establishment of biblically-qualified elders.
5. Start “Wielding” Now
Finally, if you want to be an effective messenger—if you want to plant a church that is dependent on the Word of God—start with yourself. Study His Word. Seek to rightly divide it. Fall in love with it all over again. Bask in His holiness, grace, and love communicated throughout the pages of history. Let His Word guide and correct you; let it be “a lamp for your feet and a light for your path.”