Today, in much of the world, you can purchase and fly a certain class of aircraft with no license whatsoever. We usually call these aircraft Ultralights—typically small, lightweight, slow, and easy to operate. For those who are looking for a cheaper alternative that gets them into the air, Ultralights are a great choice. To fly in the military, the authorization process takes at least six years in order to pilot a fighter jet. The responsibility and consequences are much higher. Consequently, the training is mandatory, stringent, and serious.
I worry that the Protestant evangelical church is sending Ultralight pilots to the most challenging places on the earth. They can’t figure out why the results are so bad. Allow me to propose three reasons why serious pre-field training is not only necessary but also responsible for churches and aspiring cross-cultural church planters.
Cross-cultural church planting is not for everyone.
My research on military aviation statistics for this article reminded me that the military doesn’t take everybody who is willing or excited about aviation. There are upper and lower age limits, education benchmarks, health standards, and competencies that must be mastered. But none of these surprises anyone remotely familiar with military aviation. Of course, what else would we expect of those entrusted with such a grave responsibility?
This is where the similarity to frontline missions starts to go sideways. Those with “willing hearts” who love the Lord Jesus sometimes shouldn’t go into missions. Many who carry a burden for the unreached, lack in some critical area. This lacking will bring them down later in their ministry. Only through serious pre-field training and vetting do we find those things out. And when we find those things out, let’s praise God! It is far better for the home church, for the teammates on the field, and most of all for the individual to find out before they head overseas that this might not be for them. Our service to the cause of Christ, and to his people, when we save someone from the pain of prematurely leaving the field (and the fallout involved with it) is easily worth the extra 9 months it takes to uncover.
Cross-cultural church planting is not for every Christian who wants to be a missionary. That’s perfectly fine and even expected. In our zeal to accomplish the Great Commission, let’s make sure we send those who are trained, vetted, and equipped for the unique challenges they will be facing.
The differences between pre-field and on-field are significant.
One platitude I often hear regarding training is “They’ll get it over there.” Whether it’s training on a language or understanding the methodology of a certain missions agency, a lot is being pushed onto the plate of “over there.” The problem is that once you’re “over there” the stress level increases exponentially. Qualified trainers with time to train are in short supply and the pressure to produce results is quite strong.
These days, pragmatic speed-based methods of missionary training (DMM, CPM, 4-fields, Insider Movements, etc.) are sucking in many missionaries from good churches, good Bible schools, and good seminaries. When we conduct theological/methodological autopsies (remember all missions methodologies are just the outworking of theologies) it comes down to two main factors. One: They didn’t explicitly teach the methodologies the missionaries would most likely encounter (good and bad) before they left. Two: on-field practitioners conducted the missionaries’ methodological training. They convinced them of some version of “that’s the way it’s done over here.” Not wanting to be a problem and seeing that they were in the dramatic minority, they acquiesced.
J.C. Ryle in his masterful book Holiness says of those looking to the past as a guide to the future, “He that is forewarned is forearmed.” Good pre-field training needs to involve some type of inoculation for our frontline church planters if they are to recognize errors and pitfalls that have tripped up so many. They should expect terms that sound innocuous or even good (Obedience Based Discipleship, Discover Bible Studies, Prayer Walks, Shema Statements, Oikos, Person of Peace, Contextualization) and examine their biblical basis. Not all that occurs overseas in the name of Christ is good. Some are good, some are weak, some are neutral, and some are bad. Our members should know the categories, terms, and biblical arguments for each before they enter that world.
Special skills and abilities require specialized training.
More churches are taking back the responsibility of their members involved in missions. This is an encouraging development in the world of missions. Parachurch organizations (and I include Radius here too) have their place. But they can’t take the place of the local church. The command of the Great Commission belongs to the church, and to no other. Therefore, the church has the task of missionary training.
That being said, I have yet to find a church that has the experience and skill to teach phonetics, applied anthropology, how to raise normal MKs, cross-cultural pre-evangelism, linguistics, high-stress marriage and parenting, theology of suffering, or business through NGOs in closed-access countries. Special skills require specialized training. We will need these skills, in order to gain access and conduct ministry among the last unreached groups.
Beyond these necessary skills, we should observe and measured certain intangibles. Good pre-field missionary training should be able to evaluate someone’s work ethic, ability to work on a team, robustness of marriage/singleness, discipline level, and ability to endure. The point is not to give a thumbs up or down on these areas. Rather, let the home church know how their candidate measures in these key areas. Then let them make the decision about their member’s suitability for the task. Good pre-field training works in conjunction with the home church, never usurping the church’s God-given role, but aiding it in specialized ways.
We will accomplish the Great Commission, only by God’s grace. Churches can multiply their effectiveness in reaching those last places by utilizing pre-field missionary training and vetting those who seek to reach the most difficult locations left today.
Learn more about Radius and its efforts for missionary training for the sake of reaching unreached people groups.
 This is a great article on why not everyone is a missionary: https://founders.org/2020/08/11/i-disagree-with-spurgeon/.
 This is using the time frame that Radius has developed to adequately train UUPG workers.
 J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Banner of Truth, 2014), 207.