“It depends on your role.”
In one sense the only requirement for a missionary is to witness to what God has done and is doing. One can do this without leaving the neighborhood, with biblical education, and without biblical education. Having said that, a good understanding of the Bible and of God’s mission in the Bible is a great foundation for any Christian witness. So, being part of a good church and maybe taking some theological training would certainly be beneficial.
If you’re thinking of going overseas, it really depends on what your role will be. Whatever you do, some language and culture training will be vital. Someone could be a pilot, a car mechanic, a linguist, or an accountant involved in mission work overseas. In these cases they don’t necessarily need any biblical training (although, like the person who stays at home, they may still benefit from it). Others directly involved in church planting, discipleship or Bible translation would certainly require more in-depth biblical education. In this case I would recommend talking with a mission organization about what you are hoping to do and see what training they would suggest for that particular role.
Answer from Mark, who has served with Wycliffe Bible Translators UK in Tanzania and the UK for seven years.
“Know your Bible well.”
What you do in missions will determine the requirements a mission agency gives you for biblical education, but no matter what you do, you need to know your Bible well. You may well be in a situation where your local church is a small group Bible study. The better you know your Bible, the more you can participate and teach others, even in informal settings.
The most important biblical knowledge you can get is how to use your Bible. If you know your Bible well, you will draw on it personally when you face difficult situations. You will be able to refer in your mind to specific passages of scripture, even if you are working in a different language. How does scripture speak to life? Where would you take a seeker to understand the character of God, the deity of Christ, the qualities of a believer? Can you completely integrate the biblical knowledge you have into everyday life?
Answer from Elizabeth, who has served with SEND International in multiple countries in Asia, for thirty-seven years.
“Study the Bible not just for knowledge, but so you can lead and teach.”
The amount of Bible education you need to be a missionary depends on what you will be doing, and which agency or field ministry you will be working with. That said, from my experience missionaries tend to need more than they typically think. Also, the type of Biblical education a missionary needs differs from simply learning the Bible for personal knowledge and application.
Many people going to the mission field today were NOT trained to be pastors or teachers. They may work in very needed ministries, like business, development or campus ministry. On the other hand, any “missionary” is a Christian leader. Regardless of the type of ministry a person is doing on the field, a primary purpose of their being there is to minister the Gospel.
Therefore, every missionary should have training not just in Bible knowledge, but in how to be a biblical leader and teacher. Knowing the Bible is not the same as being trained to apply the text and theology in a practical situation. And the cross-cultural situations missionaries deal with may seem much more complicated than what they face in their home culture.
Much can be gained from local church Bible studies or other informal education opportunities, as well as from formal studies, but in either case missionaries should ask how the training will equip them to lead and influence others.
Answer from Eric, who has served in missions for five years in the US and Singapore and currently serves with Joshua Project.
“Talk to a mission agency before you pursue more schooling.”
Before you commit yourself to years of education (and possibly debt), start talking to mission agencies and/or mission teams about how you could “fit” and what you need to do to prepare.
The agency I work with requires that all field workers have at least 30 credits of Bible classes or an equivalent. Those who do not already have this requirement met are asked to work on it during the time they are preparing to go, and continue until they have met or exceeded this goal.
If you haven’t had much cross-cultural experience and/or don’t have a clear sense of how and where you might best serve (with what kind of ministry), I’d encourage you to look for an opportunity to get overseas for a year or two. That may help clarify your sense of direction. Why not do that before you go too far down the road with more schooling?
Answer from Marti, who has served in mission mobilization since 1995, most recently with Pioneers.