The brain drain takes many forms. This term refers to a phenomenon that occurs when the brightest and best individuals from one culture leave to be educated in another. This usually occurs because the recipient culture is more advanced, resulting in better educational opportunities. For decades, the flow of the brain drain has been from the developing nations in the global south to Ivy League ivory towers in the USA or to the hallowed halls of Oxford or Cambridge in Great Britain. I am not saying that the preparation and scholarship afforded in such institutions are bad things; rather they are often a great blessing. When international students receive such a stellar education and return home, they are better able to help their country and their people are blessed to have their own ministering among them. Yet sadly, many do not return home. In fact, increasingly, most do not return home. The pursuit of additional degrees or the American dream, when U.S. resident visas are granted, delay or derail the hope that they will return home.
The same brain drain dynamic occurs when missionaries offer pastoral training or seminary education in the capital cities of the nations where they serve. Many of the men who need theological and ministerial education must move to the city where the training is offered. Once there, they learn skills for survival in the city, adopt Western forms of dress, develop high levels of literacy for their studies, enroll their children in city schools, enjoy the benefits of modern medical care for their families, shop at grocery stores, and become very comfortable with city living. When they graduate, many have attained a level of education unmatched by over 95% of the people in the country. Why would they, and how could they return to the countryside, jungle, or mountains to live as subsistence farmers now that they can live as pastors in the city and get paid for preaching?
Brain drains happen in the West, too. A fascinating and encouraging movement has been growing among young evangelicals. There is a renewed zeal for sound theology, responsible exegesis of the Bible, expository preaching, and a devotional life patterned after the Puritans’ example. Young people by the thousands are attending conservative seminaries, expository preaching conferences, and are reading sound theological literature. The most interesting element of this to me has been the number of young people who tell me that they believe God is leading them to be missionary scholars. That may be a new term to you, but I assure you it is becoming commonplace. These young men and women are seeking to know God deeply and to make Him known internationally. God is stirring hearts to reach the nations. These young people are zealous for Truth and burdened for the nations.
However, when these same young men and women attend many of the conferences that claim to be a renewal of sound theology for our generation, they find these conferences being led by pastors, Bible scholars, and theologians. What is wrong with that? Nothing! As far as it goes. But where are the missionaries and missions speakers among them? When young people model their lives after these modern day heroes who promote one another's conferences and ministries, missions is left out of their plans and visions for ministry because there are no missions-minded models to follow on the platform, none among the contributors of articles, and none among those in the inner circle. Many young people leave these conferences struggling with God’s call on their life. Many times, the speakers may challenge them to consider missions, but it comes across as “do as I say, not as I do.” These young men and women look up to these leaders, admire what they have achieved, and aspire to similar ministries. The current slate of leaders are godly men—pastors, theologians, and Bible scholars, but not missionaries or missions scholars. It is amazing to me that the most eloquent Bible expositors and scholars who exegete so beautifully the missionary journeys of Paul have often never been on one themselves. They relate how Paul must have felt to preach where Christ had never been preached, to extend the reach of Christianity, and the zeal for establishing sound churches among pagan peoples, but they have not done so and have no plans to start. Missions is talked about, but not for any of the ones on the platform. They model a ministry that talks about the nations but does not walk among the nations.
One may hear an occasional sermon or read some teaching that encourages the work of missions, but always in the abstract. In actual practice, missions is something better suited for challenges and admonitions. Don’t misunderstand me, these men have lived lives that are worthy of emulation. We should indeed give honor where honor is due and learn from them. However, when none of them speaks for missions from experience and life investment, the resulting lesson is that missions is peripheral to serious ministry. When it comes down to actual practice, how serious are we about reaching the nations? Unbelievably, two of the leading evangelical publishers (one of which would arguably be the most popular publisher among the crowd of self-proclaimed missionary scholars, and the other could be) have recently remarked that they do not publish missions books. One stated the opinion that “no one buys missions books.” The other claimed that they had no missions audience, i.e. their readers are not interested in missions.
If that is really true, then I am confused. Are you? Southern Seminary is hosting this week its first Great Commission Lecture Series. Dr. David Platt, pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham. AL, has been challenging our faculty and students with God’s desire for the nations that all disciples should share. Although we do not regularly have chapel on Wednesday mornings, Dr. Platt spoke at the free hour Wednesday morning. Not only was the hall packed with workers putting out extra chairs, there were people standing around the walls during the entire hour. This is increasingly the reality among the brightest and best. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like young people care about missions.
Are you wondering what all of this has to do with the brain drain? It works like this. The brightest and best aspire to follow and emulate these godly teachers, preachers, Bible scholars, and theologians who unfortunately do not model missions as a worthy life investment. As much as young people want it to, missions does not seem to fit into any responsible, biblical expression of ministry because none of the leaders or inner circle members is missions focused in anything but talk. After a time of confused struggling, young people pack away their passion for missions as misguided zeal. Too often missions is relegated to a lesser form of ministry for the lesser gifted among us—(I mean, after all, if the missiological thinkers, speakers, and practitioners were as bright and gifted, they would be in the inner circle, right?). No one ever intends for the brain drain to happen, but it is always a waste when it does.
However, as always, God is shining a ray of hope. The most brilliant man I have ever personally met, Dr. Al Mohler, a man with sufficient responsibilities and health concerns to beg off any mission trip, is leading the challenge among his colleagues. He began this academic year with a strong challenge to embrace what he has termed a “year of living dangerously.” He has committed to go on at least one mission trip this year and has challenged us all to do the same. He reminded the congregation in convocation that the majority of them are free to do things now that they may not be free to do later. He has not stood in the pulpit this semester without challenging us to consider a missions commitment. Another man who is stepping up to the plate is my Dean, Chuck Lawless. He has just accepted the role of Global Consultant for Theological Education for the International Mission Board of the SBC. This role will require him to rearrange and reprioritize virtually every aspect of his life and ministry, but advancing the kingdom matters to him. Other professors among us are also sacrificing family time, writing opportunities, and personal plans to lead trips, teach internationally, and train pastors who are buried in obscurity in the uttermost parts of the world.
The evangelical stars among us in the circles that I am referring to are not dripping with diamonds or sitting in gold chairs with mauve hair and plastic smiles. They are not emerging or diverging. They are sound exegetes of the inerrant, infallible Word of God and they are some of the best teachers, preachers, and theologians the church has ever known. But, still 1/3 of the world has never heard the gospel and tens of thousands who have never heard Jesus’ name die and go into an eternal hell daily. In far too many lands, God is not worshiped and His Word is not taught. It is time for conferences to take the next step to challenge men and women, and to do this by example. It is time for publishers to look beyond the profit margin that grows as readers get more of what they have and read what they already know. It is time for young would-be missionary scholars to find models among their heroes, models to emulate, learn from, and live or die with on the field.
Imagine a world where God stirs a young heart with a passion for Truth, zeal to reach the nations for Christ’s sake, and a desire to be as educated as possible. This young person sees a group of teachers, preachers, authors, pastors, and leaders who share this zeal and passion. As he learns, grows, and fellowships with other like-minded believers, one element is missing. For a lack of any model to follow, missions becomes amorphous and intangible. Reaching the nations is mentioned in the same breath as feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed, and helping the persecuted church—who are they and how does that really happen?. Missions is accepted in principle and lauded as something nice, warm and fuzzy. However, it never seems to show up in reality on the platform with flesh and bone. The best sources of sound literature will not offer anything challenging or engaging about missions until sufficient profit can be guaranteed. The conference platforms are bereft of missions-minded models to follow. Then, the concept of missionary scholar begins to seem like puppy love, an idealistic construct of the naïve young believer. The plug is pulled, when the water starts to swirl, the future’s ministers grab for like-minded models with skin on, and the rest goes down the drain. That is our world and the reality of the missiological brain drain.
There is something for us to do. For those of us who are burdened for the nations, have a high view of Scripture, love the conferences, listen to the preachers, and read what we can find. We need to find and use our voices. It is not enough to swallow what is spoonfed to us. Good stewardship of the lives and opportunities that God gives requires that we speak up and let these forces know that we want to hear godly missiologists, missionaries, and missions mobilizers who share our views on doctrine and Scripture. Jesus and Paul taught their hearers in their day about the need and command to disciple the nations. Who will teach us today? Demand the hard truth and clear teachers of it.