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Equipped to learn

CMS Director of Training and Development David Williams has sought to strengthen cross-cultural mission training for CMS over the past 12 years. Here he explains the significance of our ongoing commitment to training, and why it begins long before a missionary arrives on location.

Back in 1799, CMS discovered the importance of training missionaries. Sadly, our forebears learned this lesson the hard way.

It took some time for CMS to raise up its first missionaries. No British candidates offered to serve, so CMS recruited German Lutherans who went to Sierra Leone. The first two missionaries were Melchior Renner and Peter Hartwig. They came to London for training, but the focus was mostly on learning English. Soon after arriving in Sierra Leone, Renner was appointed the colonial chaplain to the British Governor. Hartwig lost the plot completely and became a slave trader. Other German Lutherans followed Renner and Hartwig. CMS’s policy was to start schools for local children, who spoke the Susu language. Andrew Walls comments:

We have, therefore, the incongruous spectacle of a school for Susu children taught entirely in English, entirely by Germans. One or two of the boys did well; at least one came to England, piously lived, and, soon succumbing to the climate, serenely died, and became the subject of an edifying tract.[1]

As a response to these early problems, CMS decided to invest more thoughtfully in missionary training. In 1807, they employed Rev Thomas Scott, a well-known biblical commentator. Inevitably Scott had no experience in mission, but this didn’t stop him from trying to teach Susu and Arabic to his students as well as grounding them in the Scriptures.

Why is missionary training so important?

On a different continent, 220 years later, CMS continues to believe in the importance of training our missionaries. At the simplest level, this is because missionaries with no training can make terrible mistakes that ruin people’s lives, as Peter Hartwig demonstrates. This is not just a story from long ago. I heard of an Australian short-term development worker who felt emotionally overwhelmed by the poverty he experienced. He responded by raising money to launch an orphanage. The story has a tragic ending. Because of a series of cultural mistakes, the orphanage closed 18 months later in a catastrophe of crime and sexual violence.

Of course, CMS does not believe in missionary training only to avoid mistakes and catastrophes. We long to see the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed effectively in every context that we serve in. As Australian Christians, we believe that our own church ministers should be properly trained if they are to preach Christ and lead local churches. Exercising a gospel ministry across cultures is more complicated than serving in your home context. So, rightly, we expect that missionaries will need careful and specialist training.

As CMS missionaries share the good news of Jesus in different cultures, they need to be able to answer the questions that people are asking. These questions will be profoundly different to the questions that our Australian friends are asking. They flow out of a different worldview. But in order to learn another person’s worldview and proclaim the gospel faithfully to them, we need to be able to understand their culture and speak their language.

CMS places a high value on excellent language learning. You don’t have to speak Greek, Hebrew or English to follow Jesus Christ. The God of the Bible speaks your language. His Word can be translated into your mother tongue and your culture. Effective cross-cultural mission requires in-depth language learning, which doesn’t happen quickly. So this, in turn, means taking a long-term perspective on missionary service. And the evidence is clear: the more specialist cross-cultural training a missionary has, the more likely they are to survive and thrive in long-term mission.[2] We want the nations of our world to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, taught to them in their heart language in a way that they can understand. So we as CMS believe in the importance of excellent missionary training and preparation.

A closer look at CMS training

In the light of all this, what is involved in equipping CMS missionaries to serve on location? The process begins before St Andrew’s Hall, takes place in community at St Andrew’s Hall,  and continues after St Andrew’s Hall.

1.      Biblical foundations

Before attending St Andrew’s Hall, CMS expects all our missionaries to complete core theological education at Bible College. Our minimum expectation is the equivalent of one year full-time, although the majority of CMS missionaries have completed a theology degree. Studying at Bible college provides the core training in biblical studies, systematic theology and church history that puts in place a strong theological foundation for future mission.

2.      Missiological and cultural studies

At St Andrew’s Hall, we have the great privilege of equipping women and men who have this strong foundation in place. This means that we can focus specifically on specialist missiological and cultural studies. The single most important aim of St Andrew’s Hall is simple: we want to enable our missionaries to self-reflect and self-correct. In many of the contexts in which CMS missionaries serve, you can go on making the same mistake for 20 years and nobody will ever tell you. In order to keep growing in our cultural understanding, missionaries need to know themselves well; and they need to know how to learn another culture.

So at St Andrew’s Hall, we focus on missiology, anthropology, other religions, cross-cultural Bible teaching and practical skills relating to cultural transitions. We help our trainees think through the best way to learn language in their context. We equip them to manage challenges relating to poor security, living in contexts of poverty, bringing up your children in a different culture. But we also give attention to understanding ourselves well, building our skills in self-reflection, conflict resolution and in managing our own well-being.

3.      Involvement in genuine cross-cultural relationships

All these skills cannot be learned in a vacuum. So trainees at St Andrew’s Hall get involved in real cross-cultural relationships while they are living in Melbourne. St Andrew’s Hall asks them to attend a language other than English church – it is a humbling thing to sit through a church service where you don’t understand anything. But for most of our missionaries this is what the first couple of years on location is like. We also ask our trainees to make a friendship with someone from a different culture and religion in order to learn that person’s worldview.

4.      Learning in community

A key component of the St Andrew’s Hall training is the process of learning in community. Our trainees come as a cohort and go through mission preparation together. Often these groups stay in close contact with one another and support each other in the years of mission that lie ahead. It has been a joy to see how our heavenly Father consistently puts together groups of trainees who can encourage and equip each other for mission. The intense, residential nature of our training is a critical aspect of the effectiveness of our course.

5. Support while serving

After St Andrew’s Hall, we support new missionaries in their language learning for the first three years of service. We also provide learning support for all our gospel workers, to enable them to keep growing and learning as they serve in mission.


CMS wants to do everything we can to enable effective gospel ministry. Our investment in St Andrew’s Hall reflects our desire to see the good news of Jesus proclaimed to the ends of the earth. In 1964, a loyal generation of CMS supporters invested in the current property in Melbourne. Their vision has enabled over 50 years of missionary training and has resourced over 10,000 years of missionary service. The facilities at St Andrew’s Hall desperately need redeveloping. In the kindness of God, the redevelopment project is now under way and we are currently raising support, but we are praying for more people to help in this. It falls to us to be the generation that invests in the next 50 years of gospel mission.

It is good to remember that this is God’s work. It doesn’t depend on us. Despite the frailties and failures of the early CMS missionaries in Sierra Leone, God was powerfully at work. The capital city, Freetown, became a diaspora mission location that released thousands of African Christians into gospel ministry across West Africa. One of these was Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who became the first African Anglican Bishop in Nigeria. Today, the Anglican Church in Nigeria is the largest expression of evangelical Anglican faith in the world.

And Peter Hartwig, the missionary turned slave trader? Ten years after arriving in Sierra Leone, he turned back to the Lord Jesus and renewed contact with CMS – “penitent and very sick … his last months were spent in translating the Gospel of John into Susu.”[3] God can use our weaknesses and failures for his glory.


St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne, where all CMS missionaries train, is currently going through a long-overdue upgrade. Learn more and support this vital work here.



References cited:

Hay, Rob. Worth Keeping : Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention. Globalization of Mission Series. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2007.

Walls, Andrew F. Crossing Cultural Frontiers: Studies in the History of World Christianity. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2017.


[1] Andrew F. Walls, Crossing Cultural Frontiers: Studies in the History of World Christianity (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2017), 96.

[2] Rob Hay, Worth Keeping : Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention, Globalization of Mission Series (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2007).

[3] Walls, Crossing Cultural Frontiers: Studies in the History of World Christianity, 116.