Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Should Missionaries Preach who are not Theologically Trained?

By Anthony:

I write this post mostly for other missionaries and especially for short term missionaries who come to East Africa.  There are a lot of Christians in East Africa and so it is very likely that as missionaries come and visit churches, they will be frequently invited to preach.  How should they handle this request?  I have noticed that a lot of missionaries go ahead and preach often.  I write this post to give a few cautions so that missionaries will reconsider saying "yes" to such requests.  I write in love with the hope that we as missionaries can discuss tough issues like this and learn together how to best do ministry.

My own opinion is that it's generally not a good idea for Western missionaries to preach in East Africa unless they also preach in their home countries or unless they are theologically trained.  I’m not going to spend my time being legalistic or judging other missionaries who preach in this way.  I'm just going to share a few cautions and start the discussion about it.  I'm very open to learning new perspectives from others who disagree with me.  Also, I want to be open about my bias.  I am an ordained pastor, from the Christian Reformed Church of North America.  So I preach all the time in East Africa.  I'll write my points below out of my experiences in Uganda and Kenya.

My reasons for caution:

1. While it is true that in some East African denominations non-ordained people can preach, it is not true that those churches let “just anybody” preach.  People need to either have had some training, or they have to be well known over years, so the church knows that their testimony is solid and that they are knowledgeable enough about God’s Word to preach.  If a missionary is not well known by the church, and is simply a new visitor, that missionary may want to reconsider saying "yes." 

2. When a missionary has not prepared a sermon ahead of time and is suddenly asked to preach right before the church service, they should consider saying, "No."  It might actually be better for there to be one Sunday with no preaching (and instead just some Scripture read) than to encourage the bad pattern and mindset that it is okay to preach sermons on the fly with no preparation.  I have said "no" in these cases for that reason, even though I had sermons ready in my head.  Ugandan Pentecostal pastors told me they are often asked spontaneously to preach and they also are advising other pastors to start saying "no" more often to set a good example. 

3. Unfortunately, perhaps because of racism in history, many East Africans assume that just because Western missionaries have white skin that they are superior, not only economically, but in their spiritual lives.  This causes some East Africans to think that Western missionaries are all able to preach.  And sometimes, Western missionaries themselves have this attitude of spiritual paternalism, feeling that they are more spiritually mature by virtue of their level of education or their nationality (we are all guilty of this to some extent, myself included).  If missionaries want to go against these false assumptions of spiritual superiority, and affirm that Africans have equal worth and dignity, one good method is to humbly say "no" to preaching, especially if the missionary knows they do not have the gift of preaching or the appropriate biblical knowledge/training.

4. Too many East Africans assume that any missionaries that come have been trained beforehand to preach.  This is simply not the case, and I’ve talked to Ugandans who tell me they have been severely disappointed at times by missionaries who preach instead of saying "no thanks," even though they don't have the ability or knowledge to preach well.

5. Many missionaries are in East Africa in the first place because of the need for teaching and discipleship.  This is something missionaries are offering because sadly there is a lot of bad preaching and a lot of places without good knowledge of God’s Word.  But this is all the more reason that there should be stronger and stronger restrictions on who is allowed to preach in churches.  There is some positive growth in this direction.  Churches are thankfully becoming more strict and wanting only people who have been theologically trained to preach.  When missionaries who are not theologically trained jump at the chance to preach, they could unintentionally be undermining this positive trend.  In essence they could be affirming the bad practice that just anybody can preach whether they are trained or not.  They could be accidentally communicating that theological training is only important for Africans, but not for wazungu (foreigners) – in other words, theological training is not really important.  This is the OPPOSITE of what many missionaries like me are trying to accomplish.

6. Missionaries need to be careful that they as foreigners are not used as advertisements for a church.  It is entirely possible, and happens often, that churches will enjoy foreign visitors for the sake of making that church look important, or making that church look like there might be money coming into it.  This is not usually the motivation behind invitations for missionaries to preach.  But even if this is the motivation behind only 5% of the invitations, missionaries should be aware of this and be cautious.

7. Finally, a good general rule for short term missionaries, and even long term missionaries is this – Don’t do in the other country what you wouldn’t be able to do at home.  If a missionary has no carpentry skills in the United Sates, they should probably not plan to lead a carpentry project on a short term missions trip in East Africa.  If a missionary does not preach at their church in their home country, they should probably not plan to preach at a church in East Africa.  It is condescending to African people for a missionary to think they are not skilled/prepared enough to preach in their home country, but that they are skilled/prepared enough to preach in Africa.  This may apply to other activities missionaries do as well.

Like I said, I do preach all the time in East Africa.  And I do believe this issue is complicated.  I'm only presenting one side of the argument.  If you are not ordained in your home country, but you are skilled and knowledgeable to preach, I’m not going to criticize you.  These things take wisdom and there are no easy answers.  And sometimes, simply because you have been discipled your whole life, even without theological training, you are still more equipped to preach than many an African pastor.  That’s a sad reality that I admit.  But let's at least consider these cautions and discuss them together.  Thank you for hearing me out on this tough issue.


  1. Great post Anthony. The cautions you give are spot on, especially since we are partnering in Gospel ministry with our African brothers and sisters. Say no to preach is great for modeling the for careful and prayerful study and preparation to preach. This can only strengthen the worth of the Word of God preached in the church and outside, which models for members of the body of Christ the need to diligently study the Scriptures for themselves. Thanks again for the post Anthony.

  2. Thanks John, I appreciate the encouragement and comment! Hope all is going well for your family and for Raymond CRC! Pass on our greetings

  3. Great points, Anthony.

    Another point might be that not all denominations have the same understanding of certain particular issues in scripture. The last thing that a visiting missionary would want to do is to accidentally be a source of division of conflict in the body of believers because of a thoughtless statement that might be supported by his own denominational views but not the views of the church's denomination.

  4. Thanks Bill for the encouragement

  5. Each of your points (and William's, above) makes great sense. I appreciate your candidness and courage in bringing up the topic.