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I Understand
Volume 7.1 / What Does "Untrained" Mean?


What Does "Untrained" Mean?

Darren M. Carlson

We are back! After a two-year hiatus caused by a lack of conferences and a seeming pause in research and articles, we are happy to present another issue of The Journal of Global Christianity. I trust this issue finds you well, even as our attention has traded a pandemic for a war. The past two years have had varied impacts on each of us. I met with a pastor in southern India who had buried hundreds of pastors in his denomination. Just recently I was talking to refugees from the Middle East who did not trust the European Union to give them medical care that would not harm them—their suspicion ran deep. And here in the United States, mission organizations have been changing or dropping their long-standing vaccine requirements and grappling with whether to require a vaccine that will most-likely need ongoing boosters to be effective. Lord, help us!

A friend of mine is an Afghan pastor. He had lived as a refugee in Iran before moving his family to Turkey and eventually Athens, Greece. He received non-formal training from several organizations and now pastors a church made up primarily of Afghans. His work is a miracle of God. As we were talking about resources for the Afghan Church, he turned to me and said, "Afghan churches now have workers. We don't have teachers."

There are multiple visions for how to help pastors of the global church receive training. Out of the Reformation, pastors were trained by scholar-pastors. Some denominations relied on catechisms to train the leaders of the church. But as the years passed, specialization took hold, and many seminary professors today have not been pastors. By the late twentieth century, there was a massive push by Western leaders to get "real degrees" from internationally-recognized schools—Princeton, Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, Aberdeen, St. Andrews, and more. Just read the biographies of the now-retiring generation of seminary professors. And now, some evangelical institutions have terminal-degree programs that are equal in rigor and strength. We have centralized the power of training in seminaries filled with godly, academically minded men and women who desire to train the next generation of leaders. It is a privilege for those of financial means, who work within economies that can support Christian workers "full-time."

That option is not widely available outside of about ten countries. Some have responded by creating two-to-three-week training sessions and deeming the trainees equipped for ministry. The need is for speed. And who can blame anyone for thinking this way? The Holy Spirit has blown across Asia, Africa and South America creating a wonderful logistical nightmare. There is no way to catch up if we think pastoral training requires three to five years of school, followed by internships, followed by post-seminary training, followed by a job. After a church in the United States instituted a five-year training plan for potential missionaries, a friend complained that the Western model for training anyone is like throwing people into cement and not letting them do anything.

Then of course there are all the online resources, pioneered by wonderful groups like Third Millennium Ministries and BiblicalTraining.org. Third Mill advertises themselves as "free seminary education." Other seminaries have offered courses for free and translated their material into multiple languages in the hopes of giving students around the world lots of resources. On top of this, popular sites like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God attract millions of hits from around the world, refining and challenging the thinking of literate pastors around the world, even if most of the articles target Western readers. And then there are specialized organizations that teach in-person. Training Leaders International, Word Partners, Langham Partners, Simeon Trust and more, all offer training. So why have we not moved the needle over the last twenty years, such that the same number of pastors are still classified as "untrained"?

When we in the West speak of pastors "lacking training," we mean pastors who have not received a formal degree from an officially recognized theological degree program. We conceive of training the way we think of academic training, requiring schooling more than professional training with apprenticeships. Some have estimated only 5% of all pastors in all Christian traditions have completed this kind of training. So, when organizations say over 90% of pastors have received no training, what they mean is that they have not graduated from an accredited seminary.

It is not controversial to say that the explosive growth of the global church has led to the decentralization of the Christian Faith, primarily driven by the translation of Scripture in the vernacular languages of multiple people groups. Lamin Sanneh notes that the spread of Christianity has bound people to their own local language, which in turn has led to a level of independence of churches and cultures from relying on English or French.[1] Missionaries are now increasingly going from everywhere to everywhere, making decisions apart from cultures that originally brought them the gospel. The start of the Reformation, which placed an emphasis on worship services in the vernacular rather than Latin and argued that all people should have access to God's Word, began a process that was later spread globally by Protestant and Moravian missionaries. Wycliffe Bible Translators has been instrumental in the decentralization of Christianity, and as of now the whole Bible had been translated into 717 languages, and 2,899 languages have active translation work.[2]

Although the global church has surpassed Western evangelicals numerically, the degrees seen as most prestigious are from the formal theological training centers in the West. Scholars can buy books and live in homes that can hold them. Students have had enough education to read at levels that allow them to interact with saints across the centuries. They can even buy books and keep them, which is no small thing. And perhaps the most striking difference, students in the West can go to school full-time, which gives them more opportunity to think deeply about what they are learning. Out of a desire to raise up trained leaders for majority-world churches, the US and UK have organizations that provide scholarships to non-Western leaders to bring them into these institutions in the hopes they will go back home when trained. Other organizations try to provide scholarships for students to go to Bible colleges or seminaries in their home country. These are some of the many ways those of us who have received so much formal training try to steward everything we have learned.

As you read prayer requests from sites like Operation World, you repeatedly find the request to help untrained pastors. But why do we keep calling them untrained? Is it because Western missionaries have given categories to the people who are sending in the prayer requests? Probably. Is it because the solution to the rampant spread of the prosperity gospel among so many pastors is more training? Most likely. Can pastors who can't read ever be trained? What if only the New Testament or even only parts of the New Testament are available in their language? The problems cascade upon themselves.

Western evangelicals are teaching the global church that a pastor needs a degree before he is "trained." We reinforce this when a strong and capable leader who has made connections with the right people is identified, and then sent to the United States, Netherlands, or the UK for pastoral training. The evangelical schools are good, the training is sometimes transformative, and occasionally they return to their home countries, hopefully equipped for ministry. May many more be trained this way.

Knowing church history certainly helps people know the story God is weaving and their place in it. I remember being among pastors who had never heard of the Reformation. Missiology helps people think through various strategies. I was once training pastors in Myanmar, who didn't know they were in the 10-40 window. And of course, classes in exegesis are certainly valuable, as students are shaped to read God's word. It's not easy to preach God's Word in a way that is faithful and communicates within the culture of the people listening.

But this kind of training is more the exception than the rule. It is out of reach of over 90% of pastors in the world. But that doesn't mean pastors around the world are not being trained! May I suggest that the number of "untrained" pastors is much lower than we think.

As I have spent the last thirteen years trying to meet the need of untrained pastors, calling so many pastors "untrained" has begun to bother me. Just consider Third Millennium Ministries' tagline, "Every Christian Deserves a Well-Trained Pastor." None of the pastors who go through their online program ever move into the "trained" category. My own organization calls people who have gone through non-formal training "graduates." "Untrained" feels like a catch phrase for someone whom we would never hire at our church or someone who embraces the prosperity gospel. Maybe it would be better to say that they are "under-trained," but even then, that is only if we in the West define training as what we have received. Let me provide two examples to prove my point.

Take an Iranian pastor I know. Until this year, when he enrolled in an online course at a Western Seminary, he had had no formal theological education. Setting aside whether an online course being taken halfway around the world is "training," this pastor had been discipled by a lot of different people and had received non-formal training from multiple organizations. By Western standards he is not counted as a "trained pastor," yet he has a ministry with an impact well beyond anything I have ever done. He teaches the Bible faithfully. He understands basic exegesis. He leads Muslims to Christ all the time. Is he trained? Not by our current definitions.

My second example is not a person but groups of people. One of the issues Training Leaders International faces is that, when we come into an area, we try to understand what kind of "training" the pastors have had. No one says, "None." Trainees have attended seminars or been apprenticed to another pastor. We also often find that many pastors have attended training sessions under multiple Western organizations. Yet, all of us speak of these pastors as untrained. Certainly, our terminology is wrong.

This is not to say formal theological training is bad. It is certainly good! I have benefited from my professors—Yarbrough, Carson, Harris, Vanhoozer, Woodbridge, Magary, Beaumont. These names mean something to me and many others. But to personalize things, I have often said that the global church is struggling with false teaching primarily because of a lack of training. They don't have professors in their home cultures like the ones listed above. But then I look at Western countries where opportunities for formal theological education exist in abundance, and false teaching is equally a problem here. Yet we don't say that these pastors are "untrained," despite their theological errors. And we don't necessarily say more training is the solution. Something is wrong with how we understand what it means to be theologically trained outside of our home country.

All this to say, we need to adjust how we conceive what counts as "trained." If not, there will always be 90% of pastors who have no "training." It's great for fundraising letters. It's just not accurate.

[1] Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989).

[2] Wycliffe Bible Translators, https://www.wycliffe.org.uk/about/our-impact/ (Accessed March 21, 2022).