The heart language of those who lead the global church in 2118 will almost certainly not be English.
The face of the church has changed dramatically in the last century. In 1900, 90% of all Christians in the world lived in the West. Today, 75% of all Christians live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the last one hundred years, the sovereign Spirit has been sweeping south and east. As someone said, new songs in old languages are rising in praise of the Lord Jesus. People have tasted his mercy, and they know that it is good.
We are alive and here, not merely to watch, but to have a hand in such a heavy harvest. That’s the good news. The best news is that this will continue (with the customary inflight turbulence) until people redeemed from every nation, tribe, and tongue are weaving their worship together before the throne.
Where Hard Progress Happens
But all good stories have a middle — where the hard stuff happens. It’s been a banner year down at the nursery, but there is the question of feeding. Imagine if every woman in your city birthed nothing but octuplets, and the baby formula factory got bombed. The wet nurse is flying in from Albuquerque. She means well, but she’s only one woman greeted by thousands of rooting mouths.
“The heart language of those who lead the global church in 2118 will almost certainly not be English.”
Twenty years ago, I was that wet nurse. After graduation from seminary and ordination for ministry, I set out with my family to help start and staff a pastoral training school to equip men in rural South Africa. After my work there, I returned to the States where I pastored and planted churches for fifteen years. But when Training Leaders International invited me to return to the work of planting and nurturing pastoral training schools for the global church, I could not resist. Returning to the work after a twenty-year hiatus, I saw the need was only more acute. The nursery was packed in the nineties, but today it is positively bursting.
Biblical and theological training in these places around the world is in a desperate state. Evangelism has far outpaced discipleship. The pastors of this growing church give everything they have for her, but they do not have much. 85% have no formal biblical or theological training. The babies are squalling, but the breasts are dry. In place of milk, national pastors grab whatever is at hand to placate the little ones. Unfortunately, there are two things you can find anywhere on this globe: Coca-Cola and the prosperity gospel.
Say what you will about Coke, the prosperity gospel is sweet on the tongue, but poison in the tummy. And infants are never terribly discerning — especially when starving. As a result, malnutrition and illness threaten new believers in the global church. We should exult over the growth of the global church, and yet we should also be alarmed at her fragility. Ultimately, the task of training new leaders belongs to the local church. But the global church is simply swamped — and in need of help.
What They Really Need
In an age of breathtaking technological advances, there are many ways we can train pastors in the developing world. We can board planes that transcend oceans in hours, sending live teachers to train pastors in weeklong modules. If we are serving tech-savvy students, we can hold live synchronous video classes with students from the five continents inside virtual classrooms. We can create beautiful and arresting teaching videos that deliver high quality instruction that our brothers and sisters in hard-to-reach crevices of the planet can access at their convenience. It would be foolish to disparage any of these opportunities when the need is so desperate.
“Evangelism has far outpaced discipleship. 85% of these pastors have no formal biblical or theological training.”
But the very best pastoral training is given in the context of relationships. The word of God is milk, and its truth is mediated through people. God did not lower a completed Bible from heaven; he sent his Son to pitch his tent among us. Paul was able to call his disciples to imitate him (see 1 Corinthians 4:16; Philippians 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:7), and Peter calls leaders to lead by example (1 Peter 5:3).
Imitation almost always requires proximity. To the extent pastoral training veers from life-on-life, day-to-day, warts-and-all proximity — to that extent it will always be less effective. Because modules only allow for intermittent contact, they are not as effective as residential faculty. Nevertheless, Paul, whose time in Thessalonica was a mere three weeks, was unashamed to liken himself to a nursing mother, reminding them that “we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). What fruit those three weeks bore! Module-length classes can accomplish much for God’s kingdom.
Modules are also always limited in impact. Un-incarnated truth is not sticky truth. When the pressure is on, we return to what we know — what was modeled for us. For many in the global church, muscle memory takes them back to the prosperity gospel. So pastoral training requires proximity between teachers and students, and it requires modeling in the context of a local church.
Why We Do Not Go
Which brings us back to our middle — where the hard stuff happens. In the majority world, we have a sea of new believers needing to be taught the word and discipled. This is the task of pastors. But their pastors themselves need training. At this precise moment of crisis in the global church, the West has a glut of supply. We have thousands of men with outstanding but underutilized biblical training — many of them doing literally no formal teaching.
Granted, not all should go. Some potential teachers do not meet the character qualifications. Others are not gifted to teach cross-culturally. Still others need to remain in the West for solid reasons, like receiving specialized medical care, being caregivers for others, or any number of other legitimate reasons.
But not all reasons for sitting out are legitimate. In the parable of the talents, Jesus rejected a fear of failure as an excuse for inactivity (Matthew 25:24–28). Paul attributes Demas’s desertion to a love for the world (2 Timothy 4:10). And Moses, famously, argued that he was not a good public speaker (Exodus 4:10). In each of these cases, God condemns the excuses of these otherwise gifted men.
What Can You Do?
There are perhaps many readers — Christian plumbers and ballerinas, investment bankers and homeschool moms — who know that pastoral training in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is not just the problem of pastoral educators. It is the whole church’s problem, and they own it. If this describes you, let me commend two ways you can help.
“At this precise moment of crisis in the global church, the West has a glut of supply.”
As Jesus traveled through the countryside and villages of Palestine, preaching and healing, he was struck by the state of the people, who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:36–38). So first, pray earnestly, and do not give up. Pray specifically for laborers who can help us train shepherds for these dear sheep.
But secondly, perhaps you know someone who is skilled to do the work of pastoral training, and he simply needs some encouragement and an opportunity. If you can help with the encouragement, we (and other ministries like ours) can help with the opportunities.
Dying for Future Leaders
Today one of the biggest obstacles to theological education abroad is a reluctance to humble oneself and step out into discomfort — and yes, sometimes even into danger — for the health of the global church. If every generation is invited to share in Christ’s sufferings, are we missing our moment? Leaving one’s comfort zone is positively inconvenient at times, but what a privilege, to be inconvenienced and discomfited for one another!
Especially when God uses our sacrifice and inconvenience to train leaders for the global body of Christ in 2118 and beyond.