by Horace L. Fenton, Jr.
There has been a lot of hand wringing in recent times over the decline in the number of candidates for foreign missionary service.
There has been a lot of hand wringing in recent times over the decline in the number of candidates for foreign missionary service. It is too soon to measure the extent of any such decline, but there is no question that many mission boards have reported a falling off in the number of candidates in the last few years. Whenever mission executives get together, this problem comes in for discussion, and the theme has not been overlooked in the evangelical press.
At times, it would almost seem that our attitude toward the situation approaches that of panic. As the flow of candidate applications diminishes, we grow desperate, wondering what will happen to the missionary enterprise if this trend continues. We berate the products of Christian schools, and bewail the softness of the present generation. We blame the materialism of our times, and of our churches. Our appeals grow more frenzied; we tend to scold young and old alike for the situation we find ourselves in. Privately and publicly we engage in a great deal of hand wringing.
It is not the purpose of this article to deny the seriousness of the situation. It is no minor matter if fewer young people are responding to the call of the Lord. Moreover, the situation may well be symptomatic of a more serious spiritual malaise that characterizes the Church in our time. If this be so, we ought to be deeply concerned – and dissatisfied – until we discover the root of the trouble, and deal with it.
But it just may be that hand wringing is not the way to deal with it, and that we are in danger of diagnosing the malady incorrectly because we deal with it emotionally rather than objectively. It may be that God is calling us from our hand wringing and insisting that instead we ask ourselves some hard questions.
This is the way He dealt with Joshua. Stunned by the crushing defeat at Ai, the leader of God’s people was groveling before the Lord. But God would have none of this hand wringing. He insisted that Joshua get up on his feet, and face the situation that had caused the tragedy. It was easier to grovel than to search for causes of the failure, but God’s way is seldom the easy way – in Joshua’s time or in ours.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
What are some of the hard questions we ought to be asking ourselves? Let each thinking Christian who is deeply concerned about the missionary enterprise compile his own list. As a start, here are some of the questions which demand an answer in our times:
1. Are we praying passionately for the thrusting forth of new laborers? The adverb passionately is perhaps not the most exact one that could be used here, but it represents an attempt to indicate that much of our praying – for candidates or for anything else – is too casual to be worthy of the name of prayer. Since the decline in candidates was first noted a few years ago, has there been any notable increase in prayer concern about the matter? Scripture doesn’t give us complete answers to all the problems of our candidate programs, but it leaves us in no doubt about how to get people out to the field – they are to be prayed out! We all believe that, but often our hand wringing in public is a direct result of our prayerlessness in private. It’s easier to bemoan the lack of candidates than to pray the Lord of the harvest – and we inevitably choose the easy way.
2. Are we looking in the right places? Several years ago Eric Fife, missionary director of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, raised this question at a meeting of mission executives. He pointed out that, whereas missions had traditionally looked to the Bible institutes and Christian colleges to supply the bulk of their candidates, many of them were overlooking Christian groups on secular campuses as a source of recruits. The accuracy of his observation has been demonstrated clearly in the experience of a number of missions. On the one hand, many (not all, forwhich we can thank the Lord!) Christian schoolsadmitthat a declining proportion of their students are finding their way into what has traditionally been called fulltime service. There may be a number of reasons for this trend; it is not our purpose to examine them here. Meanwhile, on many a secular campus, a small hard core of committed Christians fights a spiritual battle terribly outnumbered by the unbelievers all around them. These Christians are learning how to stand and how to communicate the Gospel to an unbelieving world. They are open, some of us are discovering, to the missionary appeal – open and responsive. Does this mean that we ought to stop looking to the Christian schools for candidates? Of course not! Some of our best workers will come to us from that direction. But it is amazing that so few of our missions are actively cultivating the Christian groups on the secular campuses. A few missions have found in these groups a new source of supply – one that other missions would do well not to overlook.
3. Are we really more concerned about numbers than quality? The present crisis is a good time for soul searching on this point. We preach fervently that the Lord is not dependent upon impressive numbers, and we cite Gideon’s army, and the fact that it is nothing to the Lord to save by many or by few. Do we really mean it? Is there any danger that we have become more statistics conscious than the Bible is? What does it indicate about the superficiality of our thinking when a mission executive, just returned from a survey trip, announces that if we had 500 more missionaries in a given area we could finish the job there? Is this missionary strategy, or another evidence that our ways are not God’s ways?
A few years ago we were boasting about the tremendous growth in the number of missionaries we were sending out. We were comparing (to our own advantage, of course) the number sent sent out by IFMA and EFMA groups with the lesser number sent out by ecumenically oriented groups. Did all this indicate a burden for getting the job done – or an unsuspected fleshly pride in statistics?
4. Are we making the right appeal to young people today? We would quickly deny any charge that our purpose is to export Anglo-Saxon culture, or Western civilization. Yet in our mission rallies and in our missionary exhibits we still stress the exotic, still talk about leprosy and nakedness and illiteracy, as though these were the great symbols of spiritual need. Meanwhile, our college young people, sitting side by side in classes with international students and marvelling at their intellectual keenness and their culture, find themselves strangely unmoved by our nineteenth century appeals. When will we say that man’s basic trouble is separation from God – and that this is equally terrible, with or without civilization, in a leper colony or in a world where dread diseases are gradually being banished? And when will we say – by our missionary movies and slides as well as by our lips – that man’s spiritual need has no direct relationship to the kind or amount of clothes that he wears?
The point is that, examined under the white light of Scripture, many of our missionary appeals have been improperly motivated. And if this is true, it is a tragedy: we are responsible for those whom we drive away from a missionary vocation by our contrived and unscriptural appeals, as we are for those whom we get to raise their hands and sign our decision cards. We have appealed to sympathy; we have stressed the emptiness of life in underdeveloped countries; we have made geography the measure of obedience – but we have said all too little about the constraining love of Christ, and the effects that it must have in anyone who is truly yelded to Him. The result: our shrill cries fall on deaf ears; the supply of missionary candidates dwindles; and we begin to wring ourhands again, and to cry that spiritually the times are out of joint.
One of our favoriteexplanations ofthe current situation is that they no longer will respond to the challenge of the mission field. This sounds convincing – until the U.S. Government comes along, appeals to young people to spend themselves as a part of the Peace Corps in a foreign land, under difficult conditions, for a minimum allowance – and gets thousands of volunteers, most of whom know no spiritual motivation but are at least not shackled by materialism.
And what of Cardinal Cushing’s appeal for Papal volunteers? When he asked for layworkers for Latin America, toserve in neglected areas for an allowance of $40 per month, he got an immediate response, and almost three hundred volunteers went out in the first two years of the program.
We have an appeal to make, a motivation to claim, that neither the U.S. Government nor Cardinal Cushing can utilize. In the light of their apparent success and our apparent failure at recruitment, is it not time to ask hard questions about the content and the form of our appeals?
5. Are we open to considering new forms of missionary service? Do our candidate programs show the flexibility that our new day demands of them? Or are we tenaciously holding on to details such as age limits, length of terms of service, and established candidate procedures – as though they had the same authority and Scriptural basis as our fundamental doctrinal convictions?
There are some new sources of candidates that might be opening up to us, if we are flexible enough to study them carefully and critically, and then adapt them to our needs. Take the matter of short term missionaries, for example. We may not want to rush into such a program with the same alacrity that has characterized the old line boards, but to refuse to consider something of this sort, and to defend our position by the "once-a-missionary-always-a-missionary" argument, is not necessarily a sign of spirituality or of statesmanship.
The fact of the matter is that our times have changed: transportation to and from the field is swift, and relatively economical; there are some openings for missionary service where a short term is preferable, for the work as well as the worker. Besides, many Christian young people come to the close of their college careers without yet being sure of the Lord’s leading for their lives, and, seeking a way of knowing the needs and opportunities in foreign lands, will find such a way through the Peace Corps, if missions will not offer it to them. Must we pretend to them that faith is a leap in the dark – that there is no legitimate way of invesigating an unknown situation and their fitness for it, as a part of the process of seeking the Lord’s will?
The short term missionary concept is no panacea, and it has certain fairly evident disadvantages. But the problems we associate with it seem not to have proved any great handicap to the spread of Mormonism. And some evangelical mission boards are awakening to the fact that there is a real place, albeit with certain clear limitations, for the short term missionmy in the present day scheme of things.
POTENTIAL OF RETIRED PERSONS
In a day when business and professional men and women are retiring much earlier than used to be the case, when the fife span of the average individual has been markedly lengthened, missions would do well to examine carefully the potential of retired persons. This was brought forcibly to the writer’s attention not long ago when he met a retired Navy doctor, aged fifty-one, now enrolled in a theological seminary, and eagerly looking for some way in which to spend the remaining years of his life in the service of Christ. Others, who are administrators, office workers, teachers, nurses, achieve a measure of freedom and financial independence much earlier than used to be the case. Are we sufficiently aware of the potential of this group for missionary service? Are we encouraging them? Or are our time-hallowed regulations about age limits hamstringing us?
Not many of our missions have paid more than lip service to the idea that nonprofessional, missionaries may be part of the Lord’s answer to the problem of world evangelization. Granted that there are many frustrating limitations built into this kind of service. And granted that the whole concept has been harmed by overly extravagant claims in the past. The fact remains that the great tide of American business and professional people who work abroad in these days ought to be encouraged, stimulated and trained for witness for Christ in these foreign lands. They can’t replace missionaries, but they can supplement their activities and witness. And never before were so many of them abroad as at this moment. Yet little or no attempt is being made to encourage or direct their service for Christ.
The Mennonites have much to teach us here. They encourage their people to migrate to other lands, to form colonies and to do business there – all for the sake of the Gospel of Christ! Their exegesis of the Great Commission reads, "As ye go, reach . . ." And it is thus seen to apply to every Christian who on the move – not just to a privileged clas’s who are technically called missionaries.
The idea of internships for students for the Gospel ministry has taken increasing hold in many seminaries. Why should not the same thing be done for potential missionaries? Some mission boards are ready to welcome college and Bible school students for summertime service. At least one seminary has worked out a plan for having some of its students spend their middler year on the field. All this is good, but there ought to be more of it – much more of it!
There are other questions we ought to be asking ourselves in these days. Perhaps the incomplete list above will at least serve as a stimulus to a more careful review of the situation in which we find ourselves. This is no time for hiding from the harsh facts: a great number of missions have noted a marked decline in candidate applications. But neither is it a time for hand wringing; whatever temporary satisfaction that exercise gives us is illusory.
Finding the answer to the problem may well depend on asking the right questions about it. It is not essential that mission executives agree with the questions or the conclusions of this article. It would seem to be tremendously important that we meet the situation head on, face our own hard questions, and settle for nothing less than divine wisdom in answering them.
EMQ, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 24-30. Copyright © 1964 Evangelism and Missions Information Service. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.