by Jim Reapsome
One of the unexpected turnarounds in foreign missions in recent years has been the striking renewal of missionary interest among young people. Five or six years ago students were being written off as far as missions were concerned.
One of the unexpected turnarounds in foreign missions in recent years has been the striking renewal of missionary interest among young people. Five or six years ago students were being written off as far as missions were concerned. They were involved in revolt against the establishment, and what could have been more establishment than the old image of missions as agents of reaction and imperialism?
Now, however, there is remarkable evidence of change. Summer missionary projects at many Christian colleges and Bible institutes are thriving. Mission boards are involving hundreds of young people in special short-term efforts during the summers. The whole idea of short-term service has captivated youths in their late college years.
Operation Mobilization and Youth With a Mission proved that young people could be enlisted and used effectively in specialized ministries. Not only has attendance at InterVarsity’s triennial missionary conventions at Urbana boomed, but after the last convention more than three times as many students signed missionary decision cards as at the previous convention.
What is interesting is that no one adopted a deliberate plan to change the student mood toward missions. There were no high-powered public relations programs, no TV commercials, and no ads in Playboy (as one religious order tried). In fact, it seemed that publicly many missions representatives were spending their time doing just the opposite: bewailing youth’s apparent uninterest and even antagonism toward missions. If you say that long enough, people will believe you.
It seems, as a matter of fact, that the renewal of interest in missions among young people has come about almost in spite of what the missions people were saying and doing. I well remember in the early days of this quarterly how we debated whether or not anything would ever come of shortterm service. Many executives were dead set against it.
What happened to bring about this change? Will the mood change just as swiftly again in the opposite direction? Sociologists are still trying to figure out what happened to the widely-heralded youth rebellion, the youth culture of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. They haven’t succeeded. Nor do I think anyone can point to a specific fact and say, "This is what caused the change in student attitudes toward missions.
That doesn’t mean we can’t try to identify some facts, however. For one thing, students weren’t the only ones to change. Imperceptibly to some, the mission boards and the churches began to change. They leaned a little more positively toward young people. Policies were changed. Metre emphasis was put on campus ministry. Materials were upgraded. More efficient and more personal follow-up procedures were initiated. Students began to get the message: Perhaps mission boards weren’t as stuffy and as reactionary as they once thought.
For another thing, when the whole youth scene blew up, a dot of young people were left in a daze. Where could they find meaning in life? How could they really change the world? What could they give themselves to? Were there any causes worth investing your life in?
Some observers said the young were getting more introspective, that religion was just another "bag" like drugs. But when the Jesus movement swept the land, a note of reality was struck among young and old alike. Jesus Christ himself was really powerful. He not only could clean up a person’s life, he could give a person a totally new direction in life.
Young people began to look for something to do. Were these Christens really serious about giving your life to do something about the excruciatingly difficult needs of people overseas?
Then, to use a cliche", the times changed. Young people began winging around the world in jet aircraft. Europe, Asia and Latin America were full of them. Some of them even wandered through North Africa and Afghanistan. Kids suddenly dot a world view, thanks to the jet age as well as television. There were real people "over there," people hurting, people we could help. They also saw mature Christians overseas; and to and behold, they saw missionaries struggling to do a job for God. They weren’t charging around in pith helmets after all!
This is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis, nor is it the time and place to congratulate ourselves on the fantastic job we have done. This sudden turnaround should perhaps tell us once again, what we have been saying these many years, that after all there is a Lord of the harvest who sends out his workers. We have at times preached this without the faintest hope that the Lord of the harvest would indeed change things so drastically that rebellious kids would be applying for missionary service.
Time and again missions spokesmen decried the lack of candidates. Can we now glimpse the truth that God will do his work when and how he wants to do it? Is it not now dime for rejoicing? Are we as thankful now for the new interest among young people as we were defeated by their apparent lack of interest a few years back?
Unfortunately, one of the things that turns kids off about missions is precisely a defeatist complex. The old "closing doors" appeal just doesn’t attract too many people looking for a place to invest their lives. Groups that have attracted young people generally have conveyed a positive image: a great job to do and a great God who will enable you to do it, in spite of your youth.
It could just be that the current wave of missionary interest among youths will even sweep some old-timers along with it. On one campus at least the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship group is trying to stir up missionary interest among the faculty. If they can do that, who knows what might happen? Christian colleges, Bible institutes and seminaries have long wondered how to keep missions at the heart of things. Perhaps the young can show us.
While we reap the benefits of this turnaround, let us not fail to remember our responsibilities and obligations to the young. They are looking to missions to deliver in terms of satisfying, challenging service. Since the pith helmets are gone, let’s also get rid of the relics of outworn attitudes and structures here and abroad that would stifle the fresh input of youth.
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