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Less is not more. Theological education and mission attrition

3 February 2021

David Baldwin

Cultural & Mission Lecturer

Oak Hill


Is it just me, or do missionaries often seem to be in a breathless hurry? 

Thankfully, students at Oak Hill with a heart for global mission don’t seem to be dashing off to “save the world” just yet. To be honest, I try to keep them here as long as possible. Why? 

It’s not just because I like them, though I do. Nor is it because the whole College community benefits from their global perspectives and awkward cross-cultural questions, though that’s also true. It’s because of two eye-watering statistics:

  • 7,650 cross-cultural mission workers limp home defeated every single year. 
  • And over 70% of these losses were preventable.  

Such statistics aren’t just plucked from the air, they emerge from two rigorous studies begun in the 1990s: the ReMAP studies (Reducing Missionary Attrition Project). ReMAP I (1997) and ReMAP II (2007) don’t make for pretty reading; missionary attrition figures are high, very high, and the impact on global mission is significant. The title of William Taylor’s seminal ReMAP summary says it all; missionaries are ‘too valuable to lose.’1

So why does that mean I want to keep them here for as long as I can? Well, researchers note many factors that increase missionary retention. Their ongoing pastoral support and healthy relationships within their teams are key. But, as you might have guessed by now, so too is thorough theological training. Detlef Bloecher comments on the mission agency data: 

High retaining agencies expect twice as much theological training from their missionary candidates and three times as much formal missiological training, on average, then low retaining agencies.”2

That’s good news. It means that if a missionary in a hurry can be persuaded to study here for 1 year, 2 years, or even 3 years and dare I say 4, then the stats suggest that they will be more resilient in cross-cultural ministry.

It’s not hard to see why. Put simply: life is tough, ministry is very tough, cross-cultural ministry is very tough work in an unfamiliar setting, which can be even tougher. Only trees with deep roots, firmly planted and established by living waters will survive the droughts that inevitably come (Ps 1:1-3, Jer 17:7-8, Eph 3:17-19). Without wanting to blow the Oak Hill trumpet too much, mission agency leaders have told us that they like Oak Hill graduates for these precise reasons. Old Oaks3 have been helped to send down deep roots into the things of God through rigorous theological and missiological reflection in the word of God.

Specific mission studies are important, for sure. You need to know what contextualisation means and to reflect on the history of missions and contemporary global trends. And so, we offer a range of modules helping our students to do just that.  But broader theological studies are also vital, even if they might not look relevant. To take one example, it might not be immediately obvious how studying the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD will make you thrive more as a missionary in 2021, but somehow it does. The debates and distinctions of church history model theological reflection. They help us put down roots into centuries of engagement with the Scriptures, allowing us to examine our own cultural presuppositions and to ask how Scripture speaks in new contexts.

Personally, remembering tough times serving in Ethiopia, I was more than a little glad that my sending church had encouraged me to do three extra years at Bible college. There were times when we needed to draw on every ounce of training our church had encouraged us to invest in. You see, I had been one of those missionaries in a hurry …. rushing off to “save the world.” 

Editor’s Note:  This first appeared in the News & Blog of Oak Hill College where the author teaches Cultural & Mission Studies.  Mr Baldwin served as a missionary in Ethiopia for 11 years.