The Mammoth in the Room

After homeschooling for most of my life, my parents and I searched for a school where I could find strong academics as well as a supportive spiritual environment where I could complete my education. Upon discovery of and admission to a school that met all our requirements, I worked in the Registrar and Admissions departments for about three years. I loved talking to applicants about our expanding programs and unique advantages. Later, I’d experience the joy of seeing many of them come as new students, helping them enroll in classes and showing them around the campus. But over the years I realized a trend: most students who came with the purpose of obtaining an education so that they could serve as missionaries overseas graduated with the purpose of settling down to a comfortable career in the States. 

This reality is notably distant from the vision our forefathers worked so hard to achieve: the vision that our schools would be places where the young would be equipped to take the gospel to the farthest corners of the globe and finish the work in their generation. Ellen White wrote that the “object of our schools and sanitariums is to advance the work of God, to make men and women stronger to battle against evil, to convert sinners to Christ.” She further delineated the purpose of these schools—what we could call the Institutional Learning Outcomes—“The youth sent to them [our schools] will quickly be prepared to engage in various lines of missionary work. Some will be trained to enter the field as missionary nurses, some as canvassers, and some as gospel ministers.”

I believe that this great discord between vision and reality is because we have been too focused on growing mammoth institutions rather than multiplying small missionary training centers. Large facilities and schools with accommodating physical amenities and prestigious academics do not prepare graduates for the privations common in the developing world. As a result, even if we complete short-term mission trips, we are not prepared to endure the hardships that come along with long-term mission service. 

The contrast between my comfortable little college campus and life overseas confounded me when I became a missionary in a Sub-Saharan African country. As I settled into my simple brick home upon arrival, I found that I wouldn’t be living alone—geckos, large spiders, and cockroaches also inhabited my little abode. Although a lack of refrigeration proved much challenge, I felt blessed to have access to clean water and electricity in a country where less than 10% of the population has such conveniences. However, when my fan stopped working and my drains started plugging up, I couldn’t just YouTube the solution and run to the local hardware store to find the necessary tools. There was rarely sufficient internet to watch a YouTube video and supplies were difficult—if not impossible—to find. Furthermore, I had no washer machine, drier, vacuum cleaner, microwave, blender, or Instapot. Cooking and housekeeping took so much more time and effort. Locally available beans were insect-eaten and still hard after cooking for several hours. I couldn’t blend up my favorite cashew sauce for veggies or roasts. During the rainy season, everything seemed to get moldy in an instant. In the dry season, dust abounded. It seemed like the challenges never ended. 

The reality of the importance of practical training for mission service finally sank in: A fellow worker had been taught a few mechanical, plumbing, electrical, woodworking, and sewing skills by her parents. Mammoth institutions often are not able to offer these kinds of training, as most members of the large teams required to care for its administration don’t have the time needed to facilitate— or the skills to teach—these classes. But access to these resources is often limited in the mission field. Even if trained doctors, teachers, or nurses are present, there are no plumbers, electricians, carpenters, or mechanics in these fields. If these technicians are available, they often must be closely supervised to ensure the desired results. In many cases, desires to have indoor plumbing or a functional vehicle must be fulfilled by the mission workers themselves. So it follows: If our schools want to equip missionaries, they must teach students to be creative problem solvers with a rudimentary understanding of practical skills. 

Yet it is not only the physical comfort of large institutions that impedes our graduates from choosing lives of mission service. Lack of spiritual maturity also precludes us from being successful missionaries. Being ‘spiritually mature’ doesn’t mean we understand every prophetic timeline of Daniel and Revelation or are able to write a dissertation on the nature of Christ. Rather, it means that we have that gold that is “tried in the fire”, a faith firmly founded on the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy which we can share with the world. This kind of faith can’t come merely from classroom learning, but instead needs personal Bible study and practical experience sharing one’s faith. If our graduates leave our schools with this kind of treasure, it will be worth so much more than any diploma or titles. 

If our schools want to equip missionaries, they must teach students to be creative problem solvers with a rudimentary understanding of practical skills.

In my college experience, the simple gospel became so enshrined by theological discussion that I struggled to share it with the poor and uneducated around me when I left the school—both in the U.S. and abroad. When I did begin my work overseas, I found that although Bibles and hymnals were available in the local languages, many people just struggling to survive couldn’t afford them. Most villagers couldn’t read, or if they could, they struggled to comprehend what they read. In trying to minister to them, I felt stripped of all the tools I had received during my college education. All, that is, except for those of critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and a solid Biblical understanding. 

Even my nursing education felt useless. Sure, I could start IVs and take vital signs, but nurses in this Central African country needed to diagnose the patient and prescribe appropriate treatment in addition to caring for a whole ward of twenty others. Overwhelmed by the needs at the local hospital, I chose to invest in mentoring students who attended an after-school program we held on our mission compound. I loved sharing the stories of Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, and Esau to children who had never heard them before. I felt my soul refreshed as I taught young people how to read and understand the Bible for themselves. 

But not all other missionary workers had the opportunity to witness the blessing of these ministries, health, educational, or otherwise. Many, for various reasons, chose not to stay. While I don’t want to judge the motives of any who have decided against long-term mission service, here in Central Africa we feel keenly the lack of long-term workers. Many are willing to send funds or come for a month at infrequent intervals, but the most urgent need I see around me is the need of hands and hearts willing to share the love of Christ with those who have never heard His story. 

So how can we effectively prepare our students to finish the work of God in this generation? We have been instructed that our schools “ . . . should be family schools, where every student will receive special help from his teachers as the members of the family should receive help in the home.” Furthermore, “Those teachers who have not a progressive religious experience, who are not learning daily lessons in the school of Christ, that they may be examples to the flock, but who accept their wages as the main consideration, are not fit for the solemn position they occupy.” In essence, it’s impossible for school administrators to be able to discern the spirituality of teachers if institutions are not small and family-like. Likewise, teachers cannot give special help to every student if they have so many that they struggle to remember all their names. 

Around us, we see many examples of institutions that have grown into the way of the world as they have sought to increase enrollment. Once upon a time, however, there was a little school that multiplied missionaries: “The class of education given at the Madison school is such as will be accounted a treasure of great value by those who take up missionary work in foreign fields . . . If many more in other schools were receiving a similar training, we as a people would be a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. The message would be quickly carried to every country, and souls now in darkness would be brought to the light.” One of Madison’s founders, E.A. Sutherland, shared one of the keys to their success in making missionaries: They didn’t focus on academia alone, but structured their entire curriculum to give students lessons in “in independent thought, in leadership, and in the power of initiative”.

The students not only received these lessons but successfully implemented them. Within the forty years following its establishment, graduates from Madison College had founded 52 other self-supporting establishments after the same model in the southeastern United States, not to mention in Central America and Africa. Although the college closed in 1964, many other schools and institutions around the world that were founded on its principles still serve their communities today. A few examples include Oklahoma Academy, Fountainview Academy, Weimar Academy and College, Ouachita Hills Academy and College, Kibidula (Tanzania), Ebenezer (Bolivia), and Be Well (Bangladesh). 

This is the vision that our pioneers had for our schools. They saw that if the educational work would be carried forward as God had directed it would, the three angels’ messages would quickly be carried to the ends of the earth, and the earth would soon be lighted with His glory. And I firmly believe that if our schools today will reorient their purpose from enlarging themselves to producing graduates who are equipped and motivated to take the gospel where it has never yet entered, we will see Jesus come in this generation.

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