Facilitating a New Student Volunteer Movement

by David Cashin

How seminaries and Christian colleges can strengthen the
Adopt-A-People Group program.

In the late twentieth century there was a considerable movement focusing on the unreached peoples of the world. “A church for every people by the year 2000” became, briefly, a by-word for this movement. That slogan was in many ways reminiscent of the slogan a century earlier of the Student Volunteer Movement: “The Evangelization of the World in this Generation.” One aspect that added an element of measurability to the task has been the Adopt-A-People Group program that seeks to bring together mission agencies and churches in programs to reach specific unreached peoples. For the purposes of this article I will focus on the adopt-a-people-group idea as it relates to “unreached people groups.” These are often defined as socio-linguistic cultural groups in which less than two percent of the population are evangelical believers.

This movement continues with great vigor, although perhaps less so from the Western world in recent years. Majority World mission agencies are taking greater and greater responsibility for this aspect of the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The purpose of this article is to look at certain efforts that need to be taken to strengthen the ongoing Adopt-A-People Group program among Christians both in the West and in the rest of the world. Specifically, I am going to address the role of seminaries and Bible and Christian colleges in this ongoing effort. Seminaries and Christian colleges as potential partners in the adopting of people groups is a topic that seems distinctly lacking in most of the literature that relates to this movement.

Problems Congregations Face in the Adoption Movement
Christian education centers. I find it interesting that in the thirty-six articles on adoption of people groups I have read, none mention the role of Christian centers of education. The typical topics discussed include churches, mission agencies, the process of adoption, and even conflicts arising between these two wings of the Christian movement. Alan Johnson mentions the problem of lack of expertise when churches adopt people groups without any reference to mission agencies: “The lack of expertise that single congregations have in the complexities of mission can mean not only ineffective ministry, but the possibility of costly mistakes in sensitive areas of the world” (2001, p. 123). Christian educational institutions, particularly if their faculty have mission experience, can play an important role in bringing this expertise to the often short-term efforts of churches. The relationship of educational institutions with mission agencies allows for a significant level of cooperation in the preparation of workers.  

What would motivate these institutions to move in this curricular direction? I am convinced this could come through a vision of involvement as an institution in the task to adopting unreached people groups. Schools that have lost their vision for missions might be inspired to regain it in this way. David Robinson, in his article on the Joshua Project, makes this comment about the Church in Korea: “Korean church leaders, meeting in Seoul this past May, committed to adopt at least 1,150 of the current list of 1,739 Joshua Project 2,000 peoples and to launch a church-planting movement in each one” (1996, 88). This was a laudable development; however, the question is, where were the dozens of Korean evangelical educational institutions in this vision? If the students are only seen as potential “recruits,” we miss the power that students and their institutions can bring to bear on this movement. This leads us to our second problem.

Mobilization. An area often addressed in these articles is the challenge of mobilization. The significant initial enthusiasm of a church for an unreached people group can fade over time, particularly if few or none of the members of the church are in long-term service to that people group. Stan Yoder addressed the problem regarding his church’s adoption of the Susu people group:  

We are excited about what God is doing in our church and through our church to take the gospel to the Susu people. Yet I still have one question in mind as I finish this story. We are ready to send a team; who is willing to go? Wait a minute! This seems almost backwards. Normally, missionaries are called and approved and then come looking for churches to support them. Instead, three churches are ready to send a team and must look for workers to go. (2008, 7)

The Adopt-A-People Group literature seems to mention students only briefly, with little emphasis on Christian educational institutions. Thus we find reference to “a burgeoning student movement began to spring up” in an article on the “major concepts” of this movement (Johnson 2001, 94). But there is nothing about the nature of these movements or their relation to Christian educational institutions. It seems resources such as David Howard’s 1970 InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Urbana talk, “Student Power in World Evangelization,” have found few replacements. One notable exception is Ryan Shaw’s Waking the Giant: The Resurging Student Missions Movement. This book is primarily concerned with mission mobilization at the grassroots level for a “Student Volunteer Movement 2.”

I am suggesting a new level of cooperation between institutions, as well as mobilizers. Seminaries and Bible colleges are centers of mobilization, where potential new workers are concentrated. These students are often highly motivated and can easily catch the vision for a specific unreached people group. Partnerships with seminaries and Bible colleges could be developed where a steady stream of new workers are sent out who keep the fires of interest burning in the churches.  This would also aid churches in the recognition of gifted members, release to that ministry, and followthrough in the area of continuing support.

Short and long-term goals. Another area concerns the combination of short and long-term goals. The short-term mission movement is often criticized for its lack of long-term goals and strategy. Daniel Rickett has noted the many problems associated with the short-term mission movement (2008, 44-45).  The key principle which he developed for redeeming the short-term mission movement is, “Short visits are part of a multi-year series of engagements. Short-term visits should never stand alone.”  In many cases, the long-term goal seems more to develop individuals from the church rather than actually impacting the nations for Christ.

Stan Yoder notes this problem in the area of prayer: “I estimate that over ninety percent of our supporting churches pray only for us, and over a period of time have forgotten all about the Yalunka people” (1995, 7). He goes on to explain that most churches see sending missionaries as an end in itself and do not see the ultimate goal of reaching the people group. He calls for churches to focus more on the people group and the long-term goal than the missionaries themselves.

Adoption of people groups, like the adoption of children, is a long-term task that is often much more difficult than is initially appreciated. Christian educational institutions are well placed to combine short and long-term goals as this is part of a program to train workers for long-term service. There is great potential to see their mobilizers coming back again and again to the churches involved to keep their vision for the specific people group alive. The short-term teams have a goal of long-term relationship with the unreached group.

Training. The issue of training is another area of concern. Alan Johnson mentions one of the great weaknesses in the AD 2000 and Beyond movement being its neglect of the mission agencies. He states, “A single sentence near the end of the brochure counsels that good missionary training is important and advises contacting a mission agency. The trend towards amateurization and the bypassing of mission agencies goes hand in hand” (2001, p. 92). But Christian educational institutions should also be involved in this training process as more than just equippers, but also as those who are directly involved in the field development. They also bring the potential of extensive mobilization to the table.

Church, School, and Missions
Mission agencies also bring significant strengths to this triad of church, school, and missions. Missions tend to hold on to the vision and commitment to a people group better than the other institutions—after all, that is their business. Church leaders change, mission professors retire, and often the vision is lost. What I want to suggest is a new triad of church, school, and missions in adopting unreached people groups in partnership with each other. I want to show how a careful structuring of such a “partnership triad” can overcome these weaknesses and provide a significant new impetus to reaching the nations for Christ.

It should also be noted that churches are increasingly communicating directly with the fields. The role of field leadership in mobilization is increasing through the connectivity of the Internet. From a positive perspective this is going to deepen the church’s connection to worldwide mission and strengthen its relationships to field personnel. The potential challenge is churches bypassing the structures of missions entirely. Samuel Metcalf addressed the danger in this when he noted that the lesson of history is that when the mission structure is surplanted, “the missionary effort is eventually impaired and may even die” (1993, 146). Darrell Dorr puts the challenge this way: “Generally speaking, a church shouldn’t adopt a people group on its own, independent of a relationship with a sending agency” (1995, 13). Partnership with the educational institution should be added to this paradigm.

A Case Study from Columbia International University (CIU)
In the spring of 2003 Steve Niphakis of OMF International approached me with a new idea for partnership with our school. It was an idea that had already been tried with Gordon Conwell with some good success. Niphakis challenged our seminary to consider adopting a people group for which OMF desired initiating outreach. The group, which numbered in the several millions, had fewer than ten known believers at the time. The plan was to incorporate short-term teams in the long-term strategy of the field team.

Teams were to be sent out on a yearly basis for a period of four to eight weeks, usually in the summer. Students would engage in language and culture learning, gradually building up a set of cultural observations passed down from team to team in the form of an ongoing ethnography. OMF provided a field supervisor who advised and guided the teams in the country. Later, teams would focus on platforms, as well as strategies, for long-term service. By exposing numerous students to this challenge, the hope was that many would decide to return for long-term service.

Returning teams were expected to continue the following year in recruiting the next year’s team and to engage in mobilization activities in local churches. Some were sent to a major mobilization conference in the U.S. for the country where this people group was located.

Key Factors for Seminaries and Christian Schools
Three factors seem to be crucial in implementing this kind of a strategy in a Christian school or seminary environment: (1) the role of the faculty advisor, (2) the role of the student team leader, and (3) the role of concerted prayer on the team.

The faculty advisor. The faculty advisor’s role concerns continuity. Students rapidly come and go, particularly in seminaries. There needs to be a faculty leader who owns the vision and creates continuity during transitions from one summer team to the next. He or she is responsible for initially placing this challenge before the student body.

In my case, this involves sharing this challenge each year during orientation with all incoming students, and collecting names and contact information for those who are interested. Part of this task also involves keeping the adoption pledge of our seminary toward this people group regularly before the student body. It is also the advisor’s role to select a team leader each year and to work closely with the emerging team in the matter of prayer, preparation, and final approval of participants. At CIU, the program is connected to the internship requirement for our intercultural studies degree program, and it is natural for the professor in charge of such internships to lead this program. The administration of CIU has provided support for this program by including these efforts in the professor’s workload. This is most likely a critical factor for any professor’s effective involvement in such a program.

One of the benefits of this program for the professor was the opportunity for ongoing relationship with former students on the field. As I wrote this I was on location with some of my alumni in long-term service to this people group. OMF graciously provided funding for my wife and me to visit to encourage both that year’s team and the long-term workers, and also to rejuvenate my own vision for this work. Needless to say, some of my closest relationships with students have been forged in this context.

The student team leader. The second critical factor relates to the student leader. Students make the best mobilizers among students. It is critical to find a mature student who is able to motivate others by placing the challenge before the student body. The previous year’s team leader can also help with this. During the fall semester lunches or dinners are held for a more intimate presentation and to invite students to pray. Commitments for the next summer team need to be in place before December of the previous year to allow students to raise prayer and financial support at home over Christmas. Team members are also involved in mobilization through literature and audio-visual presentations they have created.

Prayer. The most important task of the fall semester relates to the third key factor: the establishment of a weekly student-led prayer meeting for the unreached people group. Nothing happens without prayer. It is in these prayer meetings that a sense of team-ness is established and the urgency of the task is carried forward. This is also a time for mentoring potential candidates. We have, on several occasions, turned students away from the short-term trip because of issues of stability and maturity. It is in prayer that God gives clarity of purpose and make-up of the team.

Key Factors for Mission Agencies and Churches
The structure OMF has provided for this work has been essential. The field team identified the people group and set reaching this group as an organizational priority for their agency. Niphakis has been a critical challenger and supporter of the development of this strategy at the seminary. OMF has also provided the field supervisors and orientation necessary to the team’s initial success. After five years and twenty-five students’ involvement with the teams, nine alumni are now serving long-term with OMF with five shortly to be in place in this people group. The strategy shows great potential as a mobilization tool for mission agencies.

If there is one weak area in this partnership triad, it is the relationship to the local church.  Each member of the team is required to raise support, and one of my roles as advisor has been to ensure that all students are deeply involved in ministry in the local church of their choice. We have relationships with some of these churches in the areas of ethnography and developing outreach in the Columbia area. Local churches are also heavily involved in the mobilization organization I mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, we are still struggling with the question of how to incorporate the local church more effectively in this process.

Bruce Camp has discussed the paradigm shift going on in North American churches as they move from a paradigm of supporting the task, to becoming senders themselves, to the final paradigm of the “synergistic (owning) paradigm” (1994, 133-138). In this final category one may mention the P.E.A.C.E. program developed by Rick Warren.

The Saddleback movement has sought to engage its small groups in direct mission to nations either unreached or undeveloped. These efforts have great potential to tie the churches more directly to the task of the unreached peoples. The “owning” paradigm implies much greater commitment to nations and peoples that transcends commitment to individual missionary staff. The key, I believe, is to discern how these churches may best partner with agencies and schools to ensure that the task is not flash-in-the-pan, but long-term church planting to the nations.

Steve Moore also discusses issues related to the adoption of unreached people groups by churches in his article, “From Adoption to Engagement” (1995, 29-30). He points out the lack of resources many churches have to fully engage a people group, as well as the need for a “people group networker” who can help to spread the vision and mobilize others to the task. This function is often best fulfilled by students. Our former team members have produced numerous booklets, calendars, prayer guides, and relational linkages that have spread the vision of our people group around the world. Churches could benefit immensely by tying into the network of enthusiastic students who are spreading the vision.

A Challenge and Vision for the Future
Christian schools and seminaries are a natural mobilization ground for new workers.  This process can be greatly augmented by giving these institutions a direct connection to the actual task of reaching unreached people groups. If all of the Christian schools and seminaries in North America were to adopt just one unreached people group (and choose by priority of population), that would provide coverage of well over half of the completely unreached people groups on our planet. Were this vision to incorporate all the similar institutions of the majority Christian world, we could have workers in place to every significant unreached people group within a short time. You might call this a new “student volunteer movement.” Imagine if this vision were caught by the Christian student groups on secular college campuses. The development of that kind of a movement could be the subject of the next article on this topic.

The benefits to these schools and their faculty are many. Not only is the teaching of missions deepened by the faculty exposure, but I, personally, now find myself directly teaching and encouraging my former students in the ongoing task. Consider the potential impact on local churches if their short-term efforts were more effectively tied into long-term goals. Recently, I traveled by boat to several villages that have never been touched by the gospel and to whom we now have good plans to develop outreach. Church members on such vision trips could not only see where their efforts are headed, they would experience a whole new set of ongoing relationships with those who need the gospel. Imagine also the benefits to mission agencies as deeper partnerships are developed with the institutions that are often already involved in the training of their candidates. The potential for significant new mobilization of workers who are also sensitive to the critical issues is great.

Let’s pray and strive to encourage a new “student volunteer movement” focused on the adoption of unreached people groups through a triad partnership of church, mission, and school. May God be glorified by it!  

Camp, Bruce K. 1994. “Major Paradigm Shifts in World Evangelization.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 11(3):133 138.

Dorr, Darrell R. 1995. “Reflections on the Adopt-A-People Concept and Clearinghouse.”  International Journal of Frontier Missions 12(1):11-15.

Johnson, Alan. 2001. “Critical Analysis of the Missiology of the Frontier Mission Movement.”  International Journal of Frontier Missions 18(3):121-127.

___________. 2001. “Major Concepts of the Frontier Mission Movement.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 18(2):89-97.

Metcalf, Samuel F. 1993. “Local Churches Act Like Agencies.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 29(2): 142-149.

Moore, Steve. 1995. “From Adoption to Engagement.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 12(1): 29-30.

Rickett, Daniel. 2008. “Short-term Missions for Long-term Partnership.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 44(1): 42-46.

Robinson, David. 1996. “Joshua Project 2000.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 13(2):85-91.

Shaw, Ryan. 2006. Waking the Giant: The Resurging Student Missions Movement. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Yoder, Stan. 1995. “A Strategy for Loving the Peoples of the World as Well as Our Missionaries.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 12(1):7-8.

_________. 2008. “One Church’s Story: Adopting the Susu People.” Accessed August 15, 2008 from http://www.adopt-a-people.org/articles.

Dr. David Cashin teaches intercultural studies at Columbia International University and served as a missionary for fifteen years in Bangladesh and Europe. He and his wife, Margareta, reside in Columbia, South Carolina.

Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


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