by Paul Borthwick
How can we get more of those under age thirty involved in and committed to global, cross-cultural missions?
As a former youth worker and missions pastor, an adjunct member of the Urbana Leadership Team and a part-time professor in missions at a Christian College, I interact regularly with church and missions leaders interested in (or concerned about) mobilizing the “next generation.” How can we get more of those under age thirty involved in and committed to global, cross-cultural missions?
A PICTURE OF THE CHALLENGES
While teaching a class on biblical and historical foundations for missions several years ago, I was privileged to have Elisabeth Elliot come to speak and tell the Through Gates of Splendor story first-hand. My students were getting to meet mission’s history face-to-face!
That evening I saw the vivid cross-cultural challenge we face in mobilizing the next generation. Elisabeth Elliot (now Elisabeth Gren) aged seventy-something, captivated students for more than an hour with well-chosen words and her candor about living the Christian life. After her lecture, we took a break so students could meet her and buy books.
From the back of the room came Haley, a twenty-year-old enthusiastic young woman with bright orange hair and ragged jeans. Haley had several studs in her ears, an eyebrow ring, a nose ring, a tattoo on her shoulder and a short-shirt that revealed a naval ring. And here she came towards the distinguished and stately looking Elisabeth Elliot.
Mrs. Gren was gracious as Haley blurted out, “Oh Mrs. Gren, I read your book, Shadow of the Almighty, last summer before I went as a short-term missionary to Uganda. That book changed my life. I think I want to be a missionary.”
They talked a few more minutes; Mrs. Gren graciously signed her book. She offered Haley some words of encouragement and they parted. For Haley, the interchange was a highlight of her college years. For Mrs. Gren? I really don’t know what she thought. I wondered if, as she looked as this young woman, she was thinking “You’ll do well in a tribal culture; I knew Auca tribesmen with fewer body-piercings!”
The image of the two of them talking has been my ongoing snapshot summary of the challenges we face in mobilizing the next generation. How can we get the life of Elisabeth Elliot, symbolizing sacrifice and commitment, passed on to Haley who symbolizes energy, enthusiasm and the future? How do we mobilize the Haleys of the world to God’s global mission?
My experience with students has led to some of the categories of response you’ll find below. But before articulating these, we’ll look at some foundational matters that often don’t get addressed in articles or seminars on the subject of “Emerging Cultures.”1
1. Young people are PEOPLE, not survey statistics. Often people ask me, “How did you learn this about students?” They ask because they are wondering if my information came from some publication from a campus group like InterVarsity or Campus Crusade, or if I’m relying on George Barna’s research or some other commentator on postmodern culture.
These resources are extraordinarily helpful because they provide a framework for understanding, but nothing is as effective as talking with students. Read statistics and surveys, and the “Characteristics of Postmoderns” lists, but above all, interact with young people one by one. The world they live in is incredibly diverse with dozens of options. As a result, the younger generation defies stereotyping. They might be confronted with similar influences—the media, postmodern culture, etc.—but are individuals who need to be known individually.
2. Everything flows from relationships. Community is perhaps the greatest value of this generation. They react emotionally to the materialistic, technological, impersonal world that they have inherited with a cry for community. Friendships and relationships are top priorities. Community might take shapes I’m not familiar with (chat rooms) or not comfortable with (co-ed apartments), but the search is on for family, belonging and fellowship.
A recent MTV video contrasted the grunge culture of twenty-somethings with older executives in white shirts/blouses and dark suits. The band’s chorus rang out, “I may be a loser but at least I’m not alone.” Translation? I’m willing to sacrifice career so that I’m not alone—like you older folks!
Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, they may not sing “Though none go with me still I will follow,” but they are likely to sing, “If you go with me, I’ll go anywhere.” As a result, they come looking for relationships. A team-oriented, relationally driven approach to ministry (which is quite biblical) will attract many towards involvement. If we insist on the old “rugged individualist” paradigm, the response will be slim (or worse, we’ll end up attracting people with some major social dysfunctions).
3. I cannot project my youth culture onto them. Many of us who are doing the mobilizing are Baby-Boomers, now age forty to late fifties, and feeling woefully out of date. Others are younger but still realizing that they are ten years past college. We wonder what we have to say to the youth culture we’re no longer part of.
When I think back on my youth—a youth culture raised on slogans like “Don’t trust anyone over thirty”—I wonder, “Does this generation look at me the way I looked at my parents and people my age?”
In short, the answer is no. I’ve found the younger generation, following on the desire for community, is looking for parental figures. They want mentors; they look for advice. They enjoy following the international culture where young people call me “Uncle Paul.” They are facing so many uncertainties about the future that they love some adult direction. If I take them and their lives seriously, my age and the culture gap is seldom an issue.
Haley’s admiration of Elisabeth Elliot illustrates this. Student desire to hear Tony Campolo and George Verwer illustrate this. Scott Litchfield, a mobilizer in Australia (which is more postmodern than most of North America), says:
I want to categorically state that older people have much to offer and have made a huge commitment to the modern mission movement. I respect this greatly but we, as mission leaders, need to be realistic about the future. (Litchfield)
Who are these future missionaries? They want to listen to adults whose lives they respect, who are not afraid to admit their failures, who tell them the truth and who treat them with sincerity. And, as stated earlier, they want older people who are not afraid to build a relationship with them.
4. Don’t be afraid to set the bar high. My experience with young people is that they respond to being challenged. Witness how many young men enlisted to fight the war on terrorism. We do the younger generation a great disservice if we assume they will not respond to being challenged. Just because a student wears baggy shorts with his underwear showing doesn’t mean that he’s a slacker or as unmotivated as under-achiever Bart Simpson.
Whether we’re challenging them on their convictions or their economic lifestyles, young people respond best when confronted with truth. One of my students told me:
Tell us the truth. We’re tired of being pitched by people trying to sell us something or lied to by people casting an image. If it’s going to be tough, tell us; don’t try to entice us by downplaying the challenges. We may disagree with you, but we always respond better to someone who speaks to us honestly.
Organizations driven by twenty-somethings illustrate this. Word Made Flesh challenges students to go and live side-by-side with the poor. One of my former students was attracted to Word Made Flesh because of their radical commitment. She’s now living with a single mom and her family of twelve in a tiny apartment in a poor village in Romania.
The Traveling Team is another example. This group of recent college graduates travels around the country speaking on college campuses challenging their slightly younger contemporaries to join them in their commitment to missions. When they speak, their challenge is as confrontational as any mission speaker I’ve ever heard. And they get responses because students are attracted to their passion for Christ—and because the challenge is coming from a peer.
5. We must be as dedicated to doing missions mobilization as we do cross-cultural missions. It’s ironic that people dedicated to missions—which implies a conviction that we must volitionally seek to understand and enter the culture of someone different than ourselves—often balk at the change in our own culture.
People who lament the “good old days” or complain, “Students today are less committed” forget that doing missions means dedicating ourselves to understanding the culture(s) we are trying to reach. If young people are going to be mobilized, it will mean learning their language, worldview, culture and the way they make decisions. I call it “doing mobilization missiologically.” We go into the world of another seeking to understand so we can be understood, and present our challenge or invitation in a culturally relevant, con-textualized way.
SIX LESSIONS LEARNED
This article is not intended to be a critique of the younger generation. If anything, it’s critique of us over forties who have created the pluralistic, materialistic, world of over-choice that they have absorbed. Rather than critiquing them, I hope to provide an assessment (admittedly my subjective assessment) of where this generation is at so that we who desire to stir them to greater involvement in global missions can meet them where they are and help them take the next step.
My observations fall into six categories—all of which are alliterated, a clear indication of my age.
1. Communication content—what we say. Put simply, we need to translate our message. Many younger people simply do not understand our “in-house” missions language. I’m not referring to students majoring in missions at Bible Schools or graduates of a recent Perspectives course. I’m referring to average students in Campus Fellowships on secular campuses or active in church young adult groups.
How can we translate the message to a generation who might not know where the “10-40 Window” is? They may not use words like “indigenous,” “linguistics” or “church-planting.” Even the term “missions” might need definition because it could mean “purpose” (as in mission statements) or it could mean historic cultural imperialism.
In addition, the younger generation is not necessarily biblically astute. One biblically illiterate fellow in a Campus Fellowship told me he had never heard of the “Book of Axe”—though he thought it sounded violent. Another computer sales fellow in the young adult Sunday school class at our church guessed the Great Commission was thirty percent. He had no frame of reference for the word “commission” outside of sales. “Ten percent would be a good commission; twenty percent would be better, but thirty percent would be a great commission.”
They also may not be very geographically astute. National Geographic (June 2000) cited that one in seven North American adults could not find the US on the map of the world. If I want to list all of the obscure places where our ministry is involved, I need to furnish a map with arrows pointing to the places—at least in the introductory literature. I cannot assume readers know the location of Côte d’Ivoire, Paraguay or Myanmar.
Finally, young people are not necessarily historically astute. When my students hear the name C.T. Studd, their first response is “great name” not “great missionary.” Several years ago I met with Jamie Taylor (James Hudson Taylor IV) and his dad, Dr. Jim Taylor (James Hudson Taylor III). I commented in my newsletter about the thrill of meeting with mission’s history. One young reader replied, “Next time you see your friend James Taylor, tell him that I really enjoy his music.” I think he was kidding.
Taking Action: A basic response to this issue of communication is to recruit young people to listen to our sermons, look at our Web sites, read our material with one goal—to identify all the things they do not understand in our language or text. Use the missio-logical principle of “Back Translation.”
2. Communication technique— How we say it. In my youth, mobil-izers started their presentations by overwhelming the listeners. They would mention the “one billion” of that or the “millions and millions” of something else, or the “thousands who will die of hunger in the next half hour.” I’m not sure if it mobilized us, but it got our attention.
Being overwhelmed generally does not motivate today’s Internet generation. The deluge of available information has rendered this generation intolerant of being flooded with data; they tune out. Tom Sine, the futurist, illustrates our age of information; in one seminar, he cites that there is more information in one issue of the New York Sunday Times than a person in 1600 A.D. had access to in a lifetime. I don’t know how he arrives at such a conclusion, but it certainly is a believable statement.
Rather than being overwhelmed, the younger generation is saying, “Show me how to make a difference. I want to do something. Don’t just tell me about Islam; help me reach out to my co-worker from Morocco. I’m convinced that homeless people are out there; take me to a shelter and give me a chance to serve a meal.”
Taking action: Whenever we present our ministries or missions in general, ask the question, “What are one or two ideas for immediate take-away that I can give these young people?”
“How we say it” also refers to communicating in this age of high technology. Agencies often assume, “if we want to reach youth, we must spend lots of money on our Web site” or “we need PowerPoint presentations.”
Technology can help, but listen again to Scott Litchfield. He writes that this generation is “Not readers of books but screens and not writers of letters but e-mails.” He goes on to speak to the forty-somethings and older who generally do missions mobilization:
Many of us were brought up on missionary biographies and deputation slide shows, and somewhere through all the eccentricity we experienced, God worked in our lives. This era has passed but our Web sites need to give the background and depth of mission theology and life somehow and be relational and interactive not just an electronic version of our static paper material and application forms. (Litchfield)
Taking action: evaluate the use of technology and make sure it’s not becoming an end itself. If it’s not serving the goal of building relationships with young people, the effort is not worth it.
3. Conviction. No one has to research far to document that younger people, steeped in the pluralism of our age, have absorbed the culture. On the positive side, they are accepting of people who are different, open to cross-cultural relationships and tolerant of other worldviews. In many respects, they are better equipped than previous generations for the dynamics of working and living amid the differences found in cultures. They look for churches or organizations that reflect cultural diversity and gender-sensitive issues.
On the negative side, however, their toleration often belies an implicit theological pluralism. A twenty-five-year-old candidate reflected this when she asked, “Are all those Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, many of whom are really nice people and often more spiritual than Christians, really lost?”
Many are not so blunt. Instead, they exhibit a more passive form of pluralism. While they would never say Jesus is just “one way to God among many,” their lack of concern for missions and evangelism reflects a theology that Robertson McQuilkin calls the “wider hope” theory—believing that people who have never heard of Jesus will be saved somehow without our involvement as evangelists or missionaries.
The diminished conviction of Christ’s uniqueness has also carried over into the pursuit of “me-centered” Christianity. Our worship centers around how Jesus makes me feel rather than “We’ve a story to tell to the nations.” We say with ease “I believe” but nominalism makes it possible to hold to beliefs that are in no way integrated into life.
Taking action: Don’t tiptoe around this issue. Ask people directly their perspectives on the eternal fate of those without Christ. Get them to wrestle with the issue biblically by reading books like McQuilkin’s Great Omission or Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad.
4. Cash. Indebtedness after college or university is perhaps the greatest practical hindrance to students pursuing cross-cultural missions. What do we do with a potential candidate who is ten to forty thousand dollars in debt at age twenty-two?
School loans often play into the indebtedness-mindset of our culture. Borrowing money and living in debt to pay for school carry over into lifestyle issues that include unrealistic expectations and over-charging credit cards.
For the potential recruit, we need to ask if a generation raised on double-latte coffees costing three dollars or more per cup can adjust to a world where the majority has no access to clean drinking water? Can Westerners who routinely spend five to nine dollars to go see a movie live effectively alongside the one billion abjectly poor people living on less than one dollar per day? If the editors of World Christian Encyclopedia (2000 edition) are correct, forty-three percent of the world will never make a telephone call. Can a generation accustomed to personal cellular phones and dedicated Internet lines make the adjustment?
The cash and credit card issues speak to the grasp that materialism has on our hearts. One missionary summarized it this way: “When we went out in 1969, we left everything to follow Jesus to South America. Today’s new missionaries bring everything with them.”
Taking action: Like the issue of convictions, don’t tiptoe around this issue. Talk honestly with young people. We need to confront the grasp that materialism and affluent expectation has on all of us. Challenge young people to follow you in confronting the issues. Practically speaking, help them develop a plan for getting out of debt and then living debt-free.
5. Competition. In Alvin Toffler’s words, this is the age of “over choice.” Indeed, our greatest affluence in the Western world is our plethora of options. As a result, young people live in a world where dozens of good and bad things call for their attention.
Even if we isolate ourselves to only the good things, there are many things that can divert a student’s attention away from global missions. Local needs are presented and responding is faster, cheaper and more easily understood than the long-term, often intangible world of far-away missions.
The need for spiritual growth gets presented, and young people often get the impression they need to be fully mature before contemplating service in a lofty calling like missionary work. And, in a world where everyone evaluates feeling and emotions, personal needs likewise call for their attention.
Young people face an ocean of need and opportunity, and struggle to know where to dive in. Where shall I invest my time? How can I use the limited dollars I have? Should I feed the homeless or go overseas—and if I do these things, what about my neighbors?
One sad illustration of the competition for the attention of Christians in North America is the Christian bookstore. Need an illustration for the low priority given to missions in our Christian world? Go ask at a local Christian bookstore for their best books on missions. If you’re lucky, you’ll find Jim Elliot’s biography or maybe the testimony of the two women captured by the Taliban in August 2001. But generally, the store features Bibles, Christian trinkets and music. The book topics include self-help, end times, relationships and spiritual warfare—missions does not sell well.
Taking action: Help students integrate missions into the world in which they already live. Getting them involved right where they live can help them see cross-cultural outreach as a flow of their Christian lives rather than a competition with their other interests. Can they reach out to international students on campus? Are there opportunities to serve the poor right where they live? Practical involvement in ministry now is one of the best ways to focus their energies.
Combining several of the issues above, let me pause here to offer a huge endorsement of the value of the Perspectives course. It challenges convictions, focuses attention and expands the missiological knowledge of any who attend. It’s not for the person expressing superficial interest, but it’s a great tool for following up short-term missions or a missions conference (like Urbana), or as a requirement in the candidate preparation process for mission agencies.
6. Concentration and commitment. Many of us who serve as mobilizers can remember life before e-mail, the Internet, satellite TV and even TV—at least TVs in our homes. Students born in the 1980s have been raised in a world of multiple technologies offering hundreds if not millions of options. I was raised to “do one thing and do it well.” They have been raised in a world that extols the person who is best at multi-tasking.
I met a student in November 2001 who had attended Urbana 2000. I asked him what the lasting impact was of the conference. He couldn’t remember. He said, “Wow, that was so long ago.” A radio commentator reporting on the Iraq War, on the fourth day of the conflict stated, “The conflict drags into its fourth day.” We’re not a culture that would do well with “The 100 Years War.”
This concentration issue results in intense commitment to short-term missions (three-weeks or less) among the young, but reluctance to long-term. And it begs the question, “How effective will short-term oriented Americans be in the world of Muslim evangelism or Bible translation?”—ministries that often require several decades. Can a generation raised with remotes in their hands dedicate themselves to ministries that will take ten, twenty or thirty years?
The answer is yes. But we who mobilize need to adjust our time-lines. The time it takes to get from first involvement to life commitment might take a few years. Rather than the old fork-in-the-road paradigm where the decision-maker went forward at the missions conference and made a life commitment to cross-cultural service, today’s young person usually makes a progression of choices. A two-week short-term mission trip leads to the Urbana Missions Conference. A decision at Urbana leads to a longer short-term mission trip or a relationship with an agency or the Perspectives course. More involvement and learning follows. Perhaps, after a two or three year process, the student goes for a full four-year term.
Taking action: Study the way young people make decisions. Identify two or three people you know who are new to cross-cultural service and trace their pilgrimage from first inkling of interest to their current ministry. Studying how people get from initial interest to long-term commitment can help identify the typical steps they make.
CAN HALEY BECOME THE NEXT ELISABETH ELLIOT?
Can the younger generation rise up and offer themselves wholeheartedly to the global purposes of God? Absolutely yes, but we who mobilize must be students of the culture we’re trying to affect. In so doing, our language, methods and most importantly, our relationships, will become more effective.
1. “Emerging Cultures” is a term used often in the circles of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. A media presentation on the subject has been created. For more information, write to 2100 Productions, P.O. Box 7895, Madison, WI 53707-7895.
Litchfield, Scott. “Missional Communities in a Post modern World: The Way Forward for Mission Agencies.” Consultant for World and Cross Cultural Mission SA Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 434-442. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.