We Need A Change in Missionaries
We need a change. We need in change how we qualify missionaries. Let me be clear: the way we have prepared missionaries in the past is no longer useful.
Most of us are familiar with missionaries in America who have been sent to begin a new mission to “people like us.” Mostly, these are pastors, who have graduated from a four year post graduate school. They are very proficient in academics. Whether they have the ability to begin a new mission from scratch is debatable. In most cases that is not what they signed up for. Most, like me, went to seminary to be the leader of an existing church. Today we are seeing missionaries come to America from outside this country, and they come with different skill sets.
The Lord is giving the church in America an infusion of new spiritual strength: missionaries of strong faith and great courage. Missionaries like Kai Lee.
Kai Lee spent his early childhood in the mountain jungles of Laos. A member of the Hmong tribe, Khai’s family fought on the side of America in the Vietnam war. Many friends and family members died fighting for the United States. His older brother fought the Vietnamese Communists, and survived the war. For this reason Kai’s brother was allowed to immigrate to America, which enabled Kai and his mother to settle in Fresno, California.
After high school, the young refugee held several jobs, until he was hired by the US Postal Service – he has worked for the Post Office long enough that he is now ready to retire. But he will not stop working.
Kai Lee stayed at home, volunteered in his church, evangelizing the thousands of Hmong coming to the Fresno area. He studied theology via distance education. He completed the requirements to be ordained through the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology at Concordia Seminary; he did not get an advanced degree; he is a bi-vocational missionary to America.
What is important is that Rev. Lee never left Fresno to go to a far away seminary for the typical four years. If he had left, he would have lost his job with the Post Office, and the mission he was leading would have folded. Instead, Kai Lee was able to stay in Fresno and complete the four year program.
The congregation worships one hundred on Sundays, This Easter he baptized ten new Christians. His church has Hmong, Laotian and other SE Asian members.
If you attend a traditional seminary you receive (mostly) generic preparation, to be the pastor of a church. That is how things are done in a Christian culturet. Seminary on a mission field is different. On a mission field local leaders need to be identified, formed and equipped for the culture of the people they will serve. I learned this from an African American congregation in Detroit, Michigan.
Years ago I was involved in helping a mainstream White congregation in the city sell its building. The once active congregation had dwindled to less than twenty five worshipers, not enough to afford the upkeep of the building. A growing African American congregation purchased the white church’s building. As I spoke with the pastor he told me he had a full time job at the Post Office. He explained to me something I had not known about Black churches.
New churches in the African American community generally were started by a Black pastor, not a denomination. The first thing the pastor of the planned church would do was to meet with each of the pastors already in ministry in the city, to ask for their advice, and support. Where was the best area to begin? What should they look out for? Would they be willing to encourage any of their members to join the new mission? Would they help fund the start up? Only those with the faith to take risks and the ability to start something new from scratch could do this.
Of course all the early Christian missionaries were bi-vocational. They had a calling that surpassed the need for a title or a regular salary. Kai Lee began the mission before he was ordained. He had been recognized by the people of Peace Lutheran in Fresno as someone who had the gifts necessary to begin a mission field. He was someone they were willing to support.
Have we professionalized the calling of “missionary” so much that we have excluded those whose academic ability may not be at a graduate level, but who have the ability to bring many to faith in Jesus? I think so. I think we need a change in the type of person we call to the mission field, and a change in how we prepare them for ministry. I also believe it is a change only some in the American Church are ready for.