A review of M. David Sills, Reaching and Teaching: a Call to Great Commission Obedience, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010.

This book has sought to bring awareness to those who have been lulled into thinking that God wants us to simply reach them. He doesn’t. He wants us to reach and teach – reaching them with the saving gospel message and teaching them to observe everything that He has commanded. (220).

So ends Sills’ book.

He is critical of models that focus just on reaching ‘unreached’ and moving on quickly. He points to the problem of ‘nominal Christianity’ that is pandemic around the world. Sills states toward the end of chapter one, “Doctrinally sound New Testament Christianity is shrinking in size and influence.” (29) He links this to the neglect of teaching new converts.
The main point running through the book is that reaching without teaching is not obeying the Great Commission. Teaching must be joined to reaching. “There is no need to dichotomize reaching and teaching as if they are mutually exclusive efforts. The Lord has clearly included both in his instructions to His church.” (36)
Sills points out that missionaries do “form the theology of new believers. When missionaries can do little more than share a tract, the new believers often blend the few things they learn about Christ into their traditional religions and worldviews.”(37) Trying not to be theological is impossible. A vague understanding of the gospel opens the door for syncretism.
The book has 10 chapters:
  1. Teaching them: The Great Omission of the Great Commission
  2. Missionaries Training Nationals: How much is enough?
  3. The Bare Minimum: What Must We Teach?
  4. Missionaries and Nationals: Who Should Teach?
  5. Learning from Paul: Missiological Methods of the Apostle to the Gentiles
  6. Search Versus Harvest Theology: Reaching or Teaching?
  7. Techniques and Tools: The Greater Good, CPM, and What only God Can Do
  8. Equipping Disciples: Theological Education and the Missionary Task
  9. Primary Oral Learners: How Shall They Hear?
  10. Critical Contextualization: The Balance Between Too Far and Not Far Enough

Sills makes the case that missionaries must begin teaching right away. The goal is to have mature local believers who are able to join in training.

The solution is to continue to train leaders until you have trained people who not only understand for themselves, but they know how to train others to train others. . . . Don’t stop teaching until you have taught teachers; don’t stop training until you have trained trainers. (46)

The idea of “the bare minimum” has always seemed odd to me. Why do we want to settle for less? Yet when faced with a large task we often do what has to get done in order to complete the task. Sills’ bare minimum is not settling for less. He writes,

The bare minimum that missionaries should teach must result in trained leadership in the national church that is able to interpret the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15), understand basic Christian doctrines (1 Timothy 4:6), and teach them to others (1 Timothy 3:2). They must also meet the biblical qualifications of church leaders (1 Timothy 3:1-7) and know how to critically contextualize the gospel in their culture (1 Corinthians 9:22). Furthermore, they should have a general background of the history of Christianity so that with the knowledge of the errors and victories of the past they can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before . . . They must also be equipped in wise practices for church polity, administration, and practical ministry skills. How much is enough? They must be able to teach the Scriptures, sound doctrine, and godly living to those who follow; less that that is not enough. (64)

In chapter 4 Sills develops the position that both missionaries and nationals should teach. The missionary brings more extensive training. The national brings cultural understanding that a missionary will probably never master. The goal is that the national teacher will become an equal partner in the training process.

Sills is quite critical of approaches that take a “reach and leave” attitude. “The Bible never divorces the concepts of evangelism and discipleship as many do in our day. A holistic, biblical ministry incorporates both as two sides of a single coin.” (138) He also questions notions that completion of the Great commission will hasten the Lord’s return.

The author also discusses the concerns of oral cultures. “Oral cultures are face-to-face cultures and prefer a watch-and-do method of education.” (177) Earlier in the book he writes,

Theological education does not have to be formal; it may be very informal. Lifelong continuing education can include lay training courses, retreats, conferences, or even mentoring relationships. The form does not matter as long as it is culturally appropriate and that we remember that the most important component is training them to interpret and apply God’s Word faithfully and effectively. (166)

There are numerous models for theological education, leadership training, and pastoral preparation. Some are adaptations of generation-old training models found in the cultures of the world such as “watch-and-do” learning, the master-apprentice model, and on-the-job training. Missionaries should avoid the trap of thinking that they must train the nationals in the same way in which they received training. An understanding of the content is more important than the style of teaching used to convey it. (168)

Certainly if we read all of Matthew 28:18-20 we will readily agree that reaching and teaching are both part of our mission in the world. Even in the initial reaching, teaching must take place. Behind the false dichotomy between reaching and teaching is the false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship. These issues simply cannot be separated without doing serious damage to each. David Sills’ book is a helpful resource and reminder to read all of Matthew 28:18-20.

My next post will look at his book, Reaching and Teaching the Highland Quichuas: Ministering in Animistic Oral Contexts.

Gary J. Ridley, SEND U Missiologist