by Jim Reapsome
We are riding the crest of a megashift in missions, away from full-time missionary vocations and toward a grab-bag assortment of other part-time vocations.
We are riding the crest of a megashift in missions, away from full-time missionary vocations and toward a grab-bag assortment of other part-time vocations. Reasons for this megashift are not hard to find. Like the joining of the Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and Arkansas rivers to make the mighty Mississippi, a number of streams are now sweeping through the territory once firmly held by mission agencies until about 1970.
Researchers have, in effect, given up trying to track the short-term missions phenomenon. It used to be fairly easy to count short-termers, because the mission agencies sent them out. So what started as a trickle of 3,500 in 1973 reached a cascade of nearly 331,000 by 1988, almost half of the total U.S. missionary force.
More and more churches and schools are sending out their own short-term teams, so one can only guess at their numbers. The latest estimate puts the total over 100,000.
Most obviously, the potential full-time missionary population has changed. Rather than describe all the differences in people born between 1946 and 1964, I’ll fall back on the popular term and call them "baby boomers." (Those born after 1964 are now called "baby busters.") For good or ill, they are a different breed of cat and they do not sign up for mission vocations the way their ancestors did. This is not the place either to bewail or applaud the boomers and busters. We must accept them: we can’t change them; so let’s get on with our mission task in light of this megashift.
If one stream pouring over the land is a sociological phenomenon, other rivers have sprung up right in our own mission offices. We have contributed to the megashift away from full-time missionary vocations by shouting loudly, like so many TV pitchment, that doors are closing, tentmaking is the wave of the future and short-term work is fun, exciting, and you might even like it.
We sold this vision of missions, and the people believed us. Why should we be surprised if our ranks of full-time workers are slowly depleating. We are the father of the child.
On top of everything else, another mighty stream came along, proclaiming far and wide that missionaries aren’t needed anyway, because they are too expensive and the cheaper workers from Asia, Africa and Latin American can do a better job. How’s that for a smack on the chops of full-time missionary vocations?
Some overseas observers claim that fewer is better when it comes to full-time, permanent workers. Too many of them, they fear, are underproductive, stay too long in one place and position and stifle the cchurches one way or another.
On the other hand, however, comes a call something like this: No, don’t stop sending full-time professionals, but send those who can help us do special things, like teachers, doctors, theological professors, communications experts, agriculturalists, and so on. Still others claim that only those missionaries who pour their lives into a cross-cultural situation can really plant the church in unreached territory, urban or rural.
All of these streams claim highly articulate proponents. The number of tentmakers and short-term workers seems sure to keep on climbing. More and more churches seem intrigued by the idea of buying more missionary power with fewer missionary bucks.
Whatever the prognosis, it’s time we stop pretending that it’s business as usual in world missions. We can’t keep on promoting, recruiting and raising money as if the ideal missionary model is the post World War II recruit who signed up for life. Our home offices may have to adopt new attitudes better suited to tomorrow’s missionaries and then come up with some new strategies and structures.
Younger people are asking tough questions about careers in missions. Some of them think they have "paid their dues" to world missions by spending two weeks on a work project. Others are seriously considering God’s will about major vocational changes, but they are not sure the agencies are awaree of how the world has changed.
One staggering implication of this megashift is that we have to get beyond looking at ourselves as the only players in the game. The rising tide of missionaries outside North America forces us to work out new paths of partnership with the church around the world. Whatever tomorrow’s missionaries will look like, they will have to go into the trenches not as white knights from the West, but as humble hod carriers stripped to the waist, drenched in the sweat of servanthood.
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