Training in Mission: What is the Best Training? Why Theology?
How do Study and Action Integrate?

by Mark D. Baker 

In my late teens I had the wonderful opportunity, primarily as a camp counselor, to be mentored and to learn by doing. Yet, I came to a point of needing other resources. At college I eagerly signed up for courses like “Youth Ministry” and “Leading Bible Studies.” I went back to camp with new insights and methods.

After graduation I headed to Honduras to teach social studies and develop a youth ministry at a bi-lingual school. I arrived with a well-thought-out approach to a ministry of evangelism and discipleship. Not that I thought I had learned all I needed to know. I frequently dialogued about ministry with the Honduran pastor of my church, and I read books on discipleship methods. I did not, however, see the need for formal theological training. I told myself I had the content down; I just needed to refine my methodology.

My methods worked well and produced a numerically successful ministry. Yet my neatly packaged gospel proved inadequate in dealing with questions that arose from day to day life in impoverished and war-torn Central America:  What is the Christian response to violence, beggars, destitute neighbors? How much money should I spend on myself? How much should I give away? I had grown up in a church that taught that the gifts of the Spirit had ceased, yet the Holy Spirit actively bestowed those same gifts in the church I attended. How could I explain this? Who was right? As I grappled for answers I began reading books with theological and ethical themes. The result was rich and life changing. There was, however,  a downside. I saw the shallowness and inadequacy of my theology, but I did not respond with humility. I self-righteously critiqued those who, from my perspective, had a theology and lifestyle as misguided as mine had been.

After four years I left Honduras and attended  a one-semester study program. I spent long hours reading and discussing issues that grew out of my Honduran experience, but the professors, and some of the authors we read helped me see how self-righteous I was. I realized how my efforts to live out the right theology enslaved me. I had been fearfully scrambling to label everything I read as correct or incorrect and then struggled to live up to what I included in my definition of true Christianity. Failure produced shame. The professors, however,  did not reject me for falling short. Instead, they led me to experience God’s grace in a new and profound way.

That semester launched me in new directions. I entered ministry on a university campus with a desire to communicate a gospel content and practice a methodology that would facilitate students experiencing God’s grace while at the same time take seriously issues of lifestyle and justice. I sought help for this mission by reading voraciously, theology books as well as ones on ministry skills and strategy. But I could only go so far alone. I needed to be part of a community of study and learning before continuing in ministry. After three years of ministry my wife and I went to seminary, the very thing I had previously considered unnecessary.

I made progress on the questions I brought with me ; and, like my earlier experiences in academic training, I also gained new insights and direction. Specifically I developed much stronger and sounder skills in biblical interpretation. I left with a commitment to use them and teach others to use them, not so much because they were “right” but because I saw their potential for enriching our study of the Bible and the life of the church.

When we returned to Honduras as missionaries my wife and I increasingly noticed how the God we were meeting in the Bible contrasted with many Hondurans’ concept of a distant, angry, accusing God. At every opportunity we sought to model better Bible study methods and through those methods introduce Hondurans to the God revealed by Jesus Christ.

In the middle of those six years of missionary service I spent four years studying for a Ph. D in Theology and Ethics. Once again issues from my experience in mission motivated and shaped my experience. I asked a Cultural Anthropology professor to help me understand how Hondurans had come to have such a distorted concept of God. The central questions of my dissertation grew out of work with churches in a poor Honduran neighborhood.

My experience leads me to view training for mission not as a formal academic experience that is completed and then applied in life. Training is an ongoing combination of experience, mentoring,  personal reading, and formal academic study. Each is crucial and deeply enriches the others as we participate in God’s global mission.

Title: Training in Mission: What is the Best Training? Why Theology?

by Mark Baker

Publication Information: Published in Witness Magazine
Bibliographic Reference: Baker, Mark. "Training in Mission: What is the Best Training? Why Theology?." 1999.
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