Sadly, educational requirements to become a missionary were minimal within New Tribes Mission (NTM) (now renamed Ethnos 360) when I was raised in the organization. I believe there were many other contemporary mission agencies that had similar standards. Within NTM, the requirements were to attend the NTM Bible Institute (NTBI), and short periods at a Language School and Boot Camp. I recently checked out the criteria on the NTBI website, and a high school diploma or GED is required to enroll. Despite being founded in 1955, NTBI is STILL not an accredited academic institution. According to their website,
"Ethnos360 Bible Institute is currently positioning itself towards accreditation. Once we meet the major requirements for accreditation, we will submit an application with TRACS – with whom we hope to attain accreditation."
There is no information on their website about any academic criteria for the instructors at NTBI, which friends of mine who attended also confirmed. While being educated is not necessary to being spiritual, professors in a given field should have requisite training in theology or related fields, particularly considering that NTBI says they teach all 66 books of the Bible and other thematic classes to prepare for missions. This raises SERIOUS questions for me. Who taught the professors what they are teaching? Do they know how to teach effectively? Is there any academic oversight? Whose interpretation of scripture is being taught? And, oh so many more questions! Essentially, uneducated missionaries were, and continue to teach the NTM version of Christianity and rules to other, presumably uneducated believers.
If you consider the widespread spiritual, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse that occurred within NTM over decades, it sounds more like a cult than what people imagine a mission agency to be. Ironically, NTM was far from the only mission agency run like a cult with the leaders assuming spiritual authority and direction in every aspect of missionaries and their children’s lives. Other agencies that had similar standards and rampant abuse include the Christian & Missionary Alliance, SIM, Presbyterian Church USA, Association of Baptists for World Evangelization, Wycliffe Bible Translators/SIL, SEND International (formerly Far Eastern Gospel Crusade), Resonate Global Missions (formerly Christian Reformed), The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), World Venture (Conservative Baptist), Serve Globally (Evangelical Covenant) Church Board of World Missions, and One Mission Society (formerly Oriental Mission Society).
I strongly believe that the lack of education, training in skilled labor, and employment experience in the “secular world” were critical aspects of narcissist leaders running these mission agencies, training others to “rule” like them, and exerting extensive control over the lives of the peon missionaries. In this environment, particularly white, male individuals could rise to places of prominence, accompanied by virtually no oversight in their exercise of power. This clearly is a recipe for abuse.
Countless Evangelical missionaries are uneducated individuals, living off donations of churches and other individuals. Within NTM, the highest goal for one’s child was to attend the NTM training and become a missionary. Those who had other plans were viewed with suspicion as if they were not as spiritual and maybe their parents did not raise them well. The result in some cases are generations of families living on the donations and support of others, with little accountability for their work, behavior, and “ministry.”
MK’s raised in developing countries would attend the NTM training in the US, live in a virtual Christian bubble, and become adult missionaries themselves. If you have not lived in a completely insular, controlled community, this is probably difficult to imagine. But you literally have American youth who are typically poorly socialized and educated from being raised at remote NTM boarding schools overseas, returning to a life similar to the one in which they were raised, all without understanding our experiencing life outside that controlled environment. For this and many other reasons, I consider NTM to be a “cultish” agency, if not defined fully as a cult.
As I heard on a podcast by Failed Missionary, international missions seems to attract individuals who have serious problems, don’t know how to function in the world, and find a solution by becoming a missionary. As a missionary, there often is little accountability. You don’t have to behave to professional standards of most employers, and can hide countless issues such as sex addiction, abuse, laziness, and much more.
Missions is a huge industry, projected to be $47 billion in mid-2020, according to the Global Christian Database.
Given the amount of money invested in missions annually, one would expect to see much more positive change in the world. Sadly, the results are really limited, and Christians seem eager to attribute it to “spiritual opposition.” rather than to ignorance, laziness, and incompetence. Ironically, Ecclesiastical Crime is the category listed just above Income of global foreign missions…topping it at a projected $53 billion! Let that sink in for a minute…the ENORMOUS quantity of money being donated by Christians that is often being wasted, having little impact, or being stolen. If you aspire to work in global missions or in development, I’d recommend ensuring you are working for a local agency or NGO, rather than an American or Western one that is determining what is necessary and how to achieve the mission. This takes humility, “checking” one’s white privilege, and listening to the experience and advice of the communities one seeks to serve. There is a lot of information available about the White Savior Complex, dependency within developing nations, and similar issues, written by nationals of developing countries. Don’t take my word for it, but DO your research and find out what nationals in any given country really desire and what they think is most effective to improve the lives of people in their community. There may be a place for you in that work, or you may discover that a given country would be better off without your “help.”
If you are a donor to missionaries, agencies, or international NGOs, I highly recommend you investigate the methodology being employed. Accreditation by the ECFA is easily attained by NGO’s that practice nepotism, payments of multiple family members, and many other financial transactions that are highly questionable. (Think Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Samaritan’s Purse). Having worked for a large Christian NGO and having partnered with numerous others, I saw first-hand, the wasteful spending and financial privileges granted to executives in some of these organizations. It was downright appalling! Donors must go beyond looking for a simple financial accreditation if they want their resources to have a lasting impact. If more donors were to take this approach, I believe we could mobilize our resources in a way that empowers individuals in developing countries in a way that honors their unique culture, perspective, and values, ultimately doing far more to improve their lives than "well-meaning" foreigners.