A profile of today’s missionary candidates could help mission agencies evaluate their policies for recruiting, selecting and placing missionaries in the field.
MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS AGO, from 1967 to 1968, Charles H. Troutman conducted a survey to determine where missionary candidates were coming from and how the Holy Spirit was moving them out of their own cultures (Troutman 1969). He wanted to discover the factors that motivated new missionaries to serve long-term. Troutman thought mission boards needed to know “something of the current picture.”
We recognize the same need to investigate the motivation of missionaries who are called to Latin America. A profile of today’s missionary candidates could help mission agencies evaluate their policies for recruiting, selecting and placing missionaries in the field.
We made an effort to replicate Troutman’s survey, asking many of the same questions to discover what differences might exist between new missionaries thirty years ago and new missionaries today. Our survey targeted students from four different language schools during June 1998 to August 1999. These students intended to be career missionaries. They fell into two age groups: under age forty and forty and above. Christine Gardner calls the older missionaries “finishers” (Gardner 1998). We felt it important to compare the characteristics and motivations of the two groups. We asked about family background, short-term experience and how well their missionary interests matched their field assignments.
THE NEW STUDENT MISSIONARY PROFILE
Demographics.The sample size was similar in each study, 253 then and 243 now, and the majority of the students came from the Spanish Language Institute in San José, Costa Rica. The average age in Troutman’s survey was 30.3, whereas in our current survey it was 36.8. In our study the average age was 30.7 for the younger group and 49.8 for the older group.
The proportion of female to male students noticeably increased in the current survey. Whereas there were 6 percent more females than males surveyed back then, we surveyed 18 percent more females.
This interesting change indicates that more single females are coming into missions. The percentage of single students was 26 percent then, now 23 percent, a difference of only 3 percent. Yet females made up 58 percent of the singles then and 73 percent now.
Families. Although older students are now present, the number of families with children has not varied much. But back then there were more families with two children, and now there are slightly more families with three children. And, as you might expect with an older student population, the average age of accompanying children is older as well.
Country of Origin. Missionaries now come from a greater number of countries. Thirteen different countries are represented now, whereas only five countries were represented thirty years ago. The segment that was North American then was 91 percent and now is 84 percent.
Mission Society. The number of mission societies included in the survey increased from forty-nine then to sixty-five now. This suggests that mission organizations have proliferated over the thirty-year span. Denominational missions have lost ground to other groups, while historical “mainline” groups are hardly represented. Denominations seem to be more successful in recruiting older missionaries, or these people may be more attracted to such boards.
Denominational Origins. More missionaries now come from independent churches. While Baptist groups remain about the same, other denominational groups have decreased in number. Although the majority of Latin American churches are Pentecostal or charismatic, very few Pentecostal missionaries are attending the language schools included in this survey.
Education. The Troutman survey asked for schools attended and whether or not the student finished, but it did not report on the degree obtained. In the current survey, more than 70 percent of the students had a Bachelors degree or an advanced degree. The younger student population had a higher percentage at the Masters level (29 percent), and the older group had a slightly higher percentage at the Doctoral level (6 percent).
Fewer students today have attended Christian undergraduate schools. However, among those who have, Moody Bible Institute still ranks high in attendance, followed by Bethany College, Southwest Baptist College and Grace Bible College. The leading sources of seminary graduates are Asbury, Southwestern Baptist and New Orleans Baptist.
Cross-cultural Experience. The number of students with short-term missionary experience rose 57 percentage points (Table 1). Younger students had a slightly higher percentage (9 percent) of short-term experience than the older group. The older students had more frequently visited the region for other reasons, such as business or vacation.
The increase in short-term mission experience today reflects the current trend in missions. Whether or not this experience contributes significantly to students’ decisions for long-term missionary service still remains a question. Certainly the experience of serving short-term gives potential candidates greater exposure to the needs on the field.
A relatively small percentage (6 percent) of the students had immediate family with Hispanic descent. Since this was not investigated in the previous study, a comparison could not be made.
Family History. Fewer (79 percent) of the new missionary students today come from Christian family backgrounds than previously (88 percent). For 33 percent of the older students and 16 percent of the younger, neither parent was a believer. The figure for the younger group was similar to the 12 percent reported back then (Table 2).
Two additional questions were added to the current survey that pertained to abuse (drug, sexual, physical or emotional). Of the students surveyed 19 percent admitted to having personally been abused, and 31 percent had a family member who had been abused. A closer look revealed that in cases where abuse was reported, it made no difference whether the student was male or female. Similarly, whether the family background was Christian made no difference.
The mere fact that abuses have been reported suggests that pastoral care or attention is needed. Whether missionaries with such backgrounds are more effective in relating to and evangelizing others with similar backgrounds still remains a question.
Income. The number of missionary students who received income beyond traditional church or mission support increased by 13 percent from then to now. The average age of those receiving outside income is 45 and the average amount of outside support they receive is 52 percent. These missionaries often have personal income from investments or retirement that they can apply to their support.
Missionary Conferences. Troutman wrote, “The overwhelming evidence here points to the fact that church missionary conferences are by far the significant factor in missionary decision.” The percentages of students who attended the Urbana conference are very similar (Table 3). Back then 75 percent had attended local church conferences, and of those, 53 percent stated that the event had a decisive influence.
Now the numbers are substantially lower. Almost half (46 percent) have never attended a mission conference. This may point to a decline in church-based mission conferences or in people’s interest in attending.
Literature. The influence of literature has declined as well. Printed materials such as books, missionary magazines, the Bible and other literature influenced 54 percent of the students now, fewer than the 57 percent then. The older group seemed more exposed to printed media. Slightly more than 50 percent of the younger group had either not read any missions literature or had not been influenced by it.
We recognize that the internet is a popular medium for obtaining missions information and literature that was not available thirty years ago. This medium was not addressed in the current survey. However, it would be interesting learn how the internet influences individuals seeking missions information and opportunities today.
Personal Influence. More than 70 percent of the students from both surveys indicated that personal contact with missionaries was a definite influence in their decision to become a foreign missionary. Today’s new missionaries are not only influenced by missionary contact but are far more influenced by spouses and friends than were missionaries thirty years ago (Table 4). Perhaps students are placing more emphasis on collective decisions by both marriage partners, and they may recognize their spouse’s greater involvement in their Christian vocation.
Pastors had a greater influence for the older group than the younger group. And today college professors have less influence than previously. This may be because fewer missionary candidates have attended Christian undergraduate schools.
First Interest in Missions. Troutman noted in 1968 that “what happens in the family and the church of the person during his childhood” is dominant. Aside from the possible influence of field visits, the younger group in our current study found parental influence, high school experiences and friendships more influential than the older group. The older student missionaries, while influenced by field visits, were also affected by experiences in church, local conferences, missionary literature, audio-visual presentations and contact with missionaries. The older students have likely seen their spiritual gifts bless others, and with a pastor’s encouragement and their field visit experience, the Lord leads them to consider missions.
The Decision. Younger students based their decisions more often on overseas experiences and the result of personal prayer and Bible study. The older group based its decisions on experience in church life, personal influence by missionaries and others, and factors such as obedience.
Motivation. This question was open-ended in both surveys, asking the students to declare their motivation for missionary service. The replies were classified according to the following categories: (a) God-oriented (God’s will, obedience, duty, etc.), (b) need-oriented (need on the field, state of the lost, purpose for service, etc.), (c) self-oriented, (self-fulfillment, the search for meaning, the use of one’s gifts, etc.), and (d) other-oriented (recognition of spouse’s call, love for Latin American people, compassion, etc.).
Interestingly, the top motivational reasons given in both surveys held the same order of priority: obedience, purpose and need (Table 5).
The older group was more motivated by the need and a sense that God could use their gifts, while the younger group was more motivated by theological values, such as a response to God’s love, gratitude and living a life “to God’s praise,” or “for his kingdom.”
Age of Decision. The average age of decision to go to the field then was 24.2, and now it is 27.2. Yet when we compare the younger and older groups, an average age difference of 14 years exists. The younger students made their decision to go to the field at an average age of 23, whereas the older students decided closer to age 37. There were many cases of childhood and youth decisions in the older group that were not acted upon until later in life.
Time of Arrival on the Field. The time between the age of decision and actual arrival on the field was close to 7 years in both studies. In the current study, the younger group took 7.4 years, and the older group 12.8. However, when we compared the average age of the decision and the student’s present age, a slightly different picture surfaced. The elapsed time is now 9.6 years average. Most of the students arrived in the field around two peak periods: ages 30-32 and 45-47.
We see another difference between the two groups in the time that elapsed from the decision to arriving at language school: 7.4 years for the younger group and 12.8 years for the older. The reason it is taking longer to get to language school needs to be investigated further. This finding could have an impact on missionary mobilization.
Types of Missionary Service. Education, evangelism, church-planting and pastoral work had a similar draw to service in both studies (Table 6). Now, however, interest in working with children, youth and students is notably higher, as is working in social ministries. There is also a remarkable increase in the number who are drawn to be “a missionary wife/mother.” And a large number of older students are drawn to administrative ministries. This finding suggests that this group is interested in bringing business experience to the field.
Expected Length of Service. Some student respondents listed their commitment as “the rest of my life” or “as long as the Lord wills.” The answers here belie the general impression that current missionaries are not committing themselves for lifetime service. Even the older group of respondents had committed themselves for long periods. This question was not asked in the original study.
Comparing Interest and Assignment. We attempted to compare the student’s original interest in various missionary activities with the actual assignment he or she was given. If several activities interested a person but his or her assignment only focused on one of them, we considered a “partial correlation.” This was the most typical situation. We found both cases of full correlation and no correlation. The results are depicted in Table 7.
Combining full and partial correlations suggests that the older group has a greater sense of their mission interests. However, they often find (or are given) assignments that fulfill only part of these interests. By comparison, the young group has more of their interests met. However, the missionary assignment in 12 percent of the younger group did not bear any correlation with the person’s interests. These findings merit further investigation. The incongruence may cause occupational stress and contribute to missionary attrition.
We conducted this survey and comparative study to give mission agencies and leaders a current picture of the missionaries called to serve in Latin America. We found that the factors that drove missionaries to the field thirty years ago are the same for missionaries today. These factors include obedience to God’s will, a sense of purpose, and responding to perceived needs.
A higher proportion of women, particularly single women, makes up today’s missionary ranks, and more missionaries are from outside North America. More missionaries come from interdenominational societies and independent churches than from denominational groups. Missionaries today have far more overseas exposure, and many have had previous short-term mission experience. Although new missionaries take longer to get to the field, they are still making long-term commitments. And missionaries are still one of the top influences in leading others to missionary service.
It does appear that God is calling and sending missionaries with similar profiles to those in the past, yet now a “finisher” group has the same motivation and commitment to serve. In light of these findings, mission agencies should ask themselves the following questions:
- Where are we looking for potential candidates? Can we look outside Christian colleges and consider secular schools? Perhaps we could recruit from professional organizations, such as medical, legal or educational associations.
- Are we being realistic or idealistic regarding whom we recruit? Do our screening methods and criteria take into consideration the current picture? What do we do with people whose backgrounds are not traditionally Christian? Do we relax our requirements for biblical education if a candidate presents a track record of success?
- Are pastoral or member care needs different for different age groups of missionaries? If so, what types of support are needed to keep healthy missionaries in the field?
- Is it possible to reduce the time it takes a missionary to get to the field? Can we offer programs that assist with ministry visioning, mission agency “red tape,” affirmation of one’s call and debt?
A more difficult question remains: does a candidate’s motivation for service, family background, age of children, life experience, education, etc. determine the effectiveness of his or her missionary service? Each mission agency and leader must consider these questions and others as we continue to recruit and send workers into the harvest field, not only in Latin America but also the rest of the world. As co-facilitators with God, we have the opportunity to participate with him in what he is doing in people’s lives. Therefore, we must be good stewards of our resources as we fulfill the Great Commission.
Gardner, Christine J. 1998. “Finishing Well.” Christianity Today, 5 October, 72-75.
Troutman, Charles H. 1969. “Latin American Survey: What Impelled Them to the Field?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 5 (Summer 1969): 206-218.
George Romot is the director of personnel for Latin America Mission. He is a missionary finisher who has served in Honduras and Costa Rica. Paul Pretiz, now retired in Costa Rica, served in Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico under Latin America Mission.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 488-495. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.