Profile of Students Today: Preparing for Missionary Service

by Marvin Newell

What are students like today, and how do we help them consider full-time careers in missions? Ten characteristic of students going into missions today.

From the very outset of the North American missionary movement, students have been the core in the pipeline of new missionary recruits. There is something about maturating youth that brings vigor, idealism, ideas, a sense of adventure, surrender and boldness that pushes dedicated young men and women into the frontlines of world evangelization. While some mission agencies are now focusing on recruiting new missionaries directly out of churches, the numerical and spiritual potential of undergraduate and graduate students cannot be ignored.

1. First wave. North American missions was birthed out of the infamous “Haystack Prayer Meeting” at Williams College in August 1806. This unplanned event was a landmark in American foreign missions (Tucker 2004, 131). Samuel Mills, Luther Rice, James Richardson, Francis Robbins, Harvey Loomis and Gordon Hall, known as the Society of the Brethren, formulated the first motto for North American missions in seven short words: “We can do it if we will.”

Mills, Rice and Hall went on to Andover Seminary where they were joined by Adoniram Judson from Brown University, Samuel Newell from Harvard University and Samuel Nott from Union College. They formed the Society of Inquiry on the Subject of Missions and in June 1810 appealed to the General Assembly of Congregational Churches, offering themselves for foreign missionary service. This led to the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Covell 2000, 425).

The first American party of missionaries came out of this group. The Judsons, the Newells and the Notts—along with Gordon Hall and Luther Rice—were ordained in Salem, Massachusetts, on February 6, 1812. Two weeks later the Judsons and Newells sailed from Salem on the Caravan, while the others left from Philadelphia on February 24 (Kane 1971, 88). The American foreign mission movement had been launched.

2. Second wave. Less than eighty years later a second impetus for missions emerged from the “Mt. Hermon 100.” In 1886, D.L. Moody gathered 250 students from across America at Mt. Hermon, Massachusetts, for a three-week Bible conference. At the final prayer meeting, one hundred students volunteered themselves for foreign missionary service with the pledge, “It is my purpose, if God permits, to become a foreign missionary.” The Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), touting the motto, “The evangelization of the world in this generation,” was born.

Over time, 20,500 students did go to foreign fields through the influence of the SVM. At one time, over forty thousand students at seven hundred institutions were involved in the movement (Pierson 2000, 914). Ruth Tucker has observed that in an era when many missionaries had become self-indulgent and idle, the student volunteers were a striking contrast, driven by an intensity of purpose that has rarely been equaled. They infused the fledging American missionary movement with a commitment to the evangelization of the world by whatever means was necessary (Tucker 2004, 313). The movement began a decline after World War I and by 1940 it ceased to be a factor in missions.

3. Third wave. Sixty years following the first Mt. Hermon conference, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship sponsored the first of the Urbana missionary conferences, held in Toronto in December 1946. There were 575 students in attendance. Nearly 1,300 students attended the second conference in 1948 in Urbana, Illinois. Today, attendance usually tops twenty thousand. David Howard has stated, “It is probably safe to say that in the second half of the twentieth century the Urbana conferences were the greatest single factor challenging students in North America to commit themselves to world missions” (2000, 992).

What are students like today, and how do we help them consider full-time careers in missions? Obviously it is important to understand who they are, what they are like and how they perceive the world and its needs. Inherent in a presentation of this sort is the danger to oversimplify and stereotype as if all students fit this profile exactly. Two obvious exceptions to what follows would be MKs and international students.

However, from my personal interaction with graduate students preparing for ministry, the following ten characteristics are dominant.

1. Expression of spirituality. Christian students today are more demonstrative in the expression of their faith than in past generations. If one were to have a Rip Van Winkle experience, waking up and returning to a Christian campus after a twenty-year hiatus, one would immediately be struck by the outward display of spirituality among Christian students. Spiritual lingo would pepper student conversations; vocal prayers would be long, fervent and full of sensitivity. Corporate worship in chapels would be bursting with outward emotion. Schools that once held staid and “orderly” services would now have students clapping, raising hands, sometimes jumping, sometimes weeping and spontaneously in interactive outbursts with whomever is leading. They would value emotion in worship as much as cognitive engagement. Corporately praying verbally, but not in unison, would also be common. Indeed, it appears that the more emotional expressions of Christianity from the “Southern Church” have penetrated into North American Christian student bodies as well (Escobar 2000, 25-45). Congruent with this is the student’s draw toward “Celtic spirituality.” Emphasis is placed on life as a journey, on the going rather than the arriving at one’s spiritual destination. Old Celtic prayers, mingled with Celtic tunes and the highly symbolic Celtic cross, are valued. This spirituality is also highly Trinitarian (Gibbs 2000, 137-142).

2. High sense of community. Since their early years in elementary school, most students today have been conditioned to do things together. They prefer to do things in groups, rather than individually. They prefer to complement each others’ skills on a corporate project rather than compete against each other. One outcome from this sense of community is that students feel they deserve to be rewarded and graded simply on the basis of participation. Schools struggle with grade inflation because it is difficult for professors to justify to students that they all do not earn an “A” simply by being part of the class. This sense of community has both advantages and disadvantages when recruiting for missionary service.

3. Internet savvy. Students today know how to find anything on any topic anywhere at anytime by using the Internet. Whereas the previous generation was relegated to finding information through hard copy sources, such as the yellow pages, encyclopedias, dictionaries and reference manuals, this is the first generation that would never think of going to those places first. With a few strokes on a keyboard and a click of a mouse, students navigate the information super highway on wireless laptops. If anything, they suffer from information overload.

4. Struggling in handling prosperity. Most American students today are affluent, and they know it. Visit any dorm room and you will find electronic gadgets that you would not have found twenty years ago. Televisions, computers, cell phones and i-pods are not only common, but are viewed as standard equipment. Some of these items are provided by the university and should be categorized as “institution affluence.” “Smart” classrooms and luxury student lounges are common. Student options for entertainment are many and expensive. As Tim Stafford has rightly observed, young people living in this age of abundance are struggling with “making do with more” (2006, 59-61).

Sensitive Christian students are aware of their affluence and understand its contrast with other parts of the world. Many struggle personally as they vacillate between condemning and condoning the world economic state of affairs. Some engage in social action while at school; others determine to do something once they graduate. American Christianity’s promotion of affluence is hard for many of them to come to grips with, since they are immersed in it themselves. They know both its advantages and its vices.

5. Making major decisions later in life—extended adolescence. They are labeled “late bloomers,” “boomerang kids,” “singletons,” “kidults,” “adultescent” and a host of other things. The alarming fact is that it is taking teenagers longer to grow up than in past generations (Furedi, 1).
Many late adolescent young people today are four to six years behind the previous generation in sociological and psychological development. This means a 24-year-old may be exhibiting the traits of a 17 or 18-year-old of a generation ago. Reasons for delayed adulthood include saturation of immature media culture, the vast number of available choices they must navigate through and information overload. This causes the making of important choices difficult and usually delayed. An alarming number of young men remain adolescents as they waste years of their lives playing video games for hours each day. Some are doing this into their thirties, by which time the world has passed many of them by (Gurian 2005, 2). This phenomenon is causing many young adults to delay making major life decisions until they are in their late twenties. This is especially true of marriage, career choices and church commitment. The average age of an American woman getting married for the first time is twenty-six years old; for the male it is twenty-eight. Career choices are being delayed just as long.

The effect of this on recruiting for missions is obvious. Candidates are now older and more technologically savvy; however, this does not necessarily mean they are more mature as they enter the mission ranks.

6. Been there, done that. Globalization, coupled with affluence, has made possible the explosion of North American short-term missions. It is rare to find a Christian college student who has not been overseas at least once on a short-term trip either in a mini (one to five days), standard (one to three weeks), seasonal (one to nine months) or extended (one half to four years) experience (Peterson 2003, 70). To a certain degree they have already been exposed to what life can be like outside of pampered suburbia. Students sitting in our classrooms have already experienced another place, another culture, another language and another worldview. They can, from experience, correct the professor if he or she misspeaks about some area of the world. Chances are they have already been there!

On the one hand, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of short-term “missionaries” never go into long-term missions. On the other hand, the vast majority of long-term missionaries going out today have been on a short-term mission trip and cite that as a major contributing factor to why they are now committing to long-term service. Agencies need to be careful not to trumpet their short-term programs as major recruitment grounds for their long-term missions. Nevertheless, they dare not omit short-term mission programs for lack of gaining the few potential recruits that may come their way.

7. A crises of faith. Each of us struggles with living a life of constant, consistent faith in God. However, I repeatedly hear Christian students today expressing struggles in three areas relating to missions that boil down to issues of faith.

a. Raising support. I often hear students say they refuse to “beg” for support. They see support raising more of a financial ineptitude on their part, than a lifestyle of dependence on God and God’s people. This may be a contributing reason why many now wish to go overseas as “tentmakers” (or in some form of Business As Mission, BAM) rather than on the faith support system.

b. Location of ministry. “Vision trips” to potential areas of ministry are the norm for missionary candidates/appointees today. Most would never think of committing to years of service to a place they had never seen or visited beforehand.

c. Family welfare. Every parent is rightfully concerned about how his or her child will be educated overseas. Yet many students hesitate to commit to missions simply because these questions about their children are not fully answered beforehand. “I could never raise my family over there,” is a common objection that young parents use for not going into missions. It seems a bit much for them to step out and see how God will take care of them as a family in a foreign environment.

8. Choices are many…change is easy. Students today have grown up in a fluid, fast-paced, multi-optional world. Switching from one brand to another, one interest to another, one college to another and “moving on” from one relationship to another is common. This leads to a low commitment level. Students today have a hard time committing themselves to any one agency, ministry or ministry location. Many students respond to a need of the hour or express interest in the trend of the time, only to later change their attention when something different comes along.

Regrettably, the exit interview process at Moody Graduate School shows that most students graduating from the intercultural program are still uncertain and uncommitted to any organization, location or specific ministry focus. The sense of a “call” seems to be weak at worst, or open-ended at best. However, this can work to the advantage of mission agencies which would be able to guide interested candidates to ministries they, as an organization, have as priority.

9. Dealing with substantial academic debt. For the average student today, academic debt is unavoidable. Most students are unable to circumvent the already high and increasingly higher cost of earning a degree. Across America, tuition increases an average of eight to twelve percent per year—well above the annual three percent rate of inflation. Consequently, students are graduating from college, graduate school and seminary with substantial academic debt. Over the last decade, tuition and fees at private and public universities grew by forty percent and thirty-three percent respectively, whereas the median family income increased only twelve percent (Linda Dorr 2004, 11). Consequently, the average student debt has nearly tripled since 1987, and has increased 236% since 1991. Half of all graduates owe more than $18,400 at graduation (2004, 11). Commenting on this reality, Ben Sells has observed:

Student debt is a reality for most college students in public, private and faith-related schools. When the debt is so high that monthly payments can’t be made on a missionary salary, it’s a hurdle too high for many potential missionaries. It sidelines prospective “impact” missionaries, tripping them up in a race to mission frontiers. (2004, 8)

Academic debt, which is increasingly unavoidable, is to be distinguished from consumer debt, which is. Consumer debt is accrued from lifestyle choices, and should remain the responsibility of the consumer. To help find a solution to this increasingly unavoidable reality, some mission agencies are now including a line item in the missionary’s support schedule, allowing raised financial support to retire academic debt over time (Darrell Dorr 2004, 10). This minimizes the chances of appointees being lost over time to the mission because they are required to spend years eliminating their debt before being permitted to go overseas. Churches and individual supporters need to understand the necessity of this increasingly acceptable debt-alleviation solution and be willing to give accordingly.

10. The male-female ratio. Increasingly, more female than male students make up the student body of colleges and universities across America. Family therapist Michael Gurian has documented what many teachers of college/graduate classes have been observing over the years. Schools are grappling with the trend of what Gurian calls “the vanishing male” (2005, 1). Whereas men once dominated school enrollments, they now make up no more than forty-three percent of students in American institutions of higher learning. What’s more, females outperform males in almost every category of learning, especially in the reading/writing areas. It has yet to be demonstrated that the male disappearing phenomenon is as acute in Christian schools as in secular schools. Some Christian colleges put quotas on female students in order to keep a balance in the student body. The probable upshot of this trend to missions is an ever-decreasing candidate pool of trained males for service. In a field that is already numerically dominated by females, it appears this will continue to be so and even increase.

In the midst of this current student environment, I believe we have reason to be both concerned and encouraged. We need to be concerned that agencies, churches and schools are doing enough to help these students through their “frame of reference,” instilling in them a desire for, and then providing a channel into mission service. We should be encouraged that the potential to field a viable missionary force is as present today as in any previous generation. I like to think of the potential of students today in what I call “The Parable of the Potential,” found in Matthew 13:31-32:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.

Here is a paraphrase as it relates to Christian students today:
The kingdom of heaven is like a student, whom a church disciples and then plants in a Christian school. Though he seems to be the least likely to succeed, yet he grows and becomes well prepared and is eventually approved and appointed as a missionary, so that the members of the church rally around him.

Covell, Ralph. 2000. “Haystack Meeting” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. ed. A. Scott Moreau. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Dorr, Darrell. 2004. “What Are Mission Agencies Saying and Doing about Student Debt?” Mission Frontiers, July-August.

Dorr, Linda. 2004. “Release the Indentured.” Mission Frontiers, July-August.

Escobar, Samuel. 2000. “The Global Scenario at the Turn of the Century” in Global Missiology For the 21st Century. ed. William Taylor. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Furedi, Frank. “The Children Who Won’t Grow Up.”

Gibbs, Eddie. 2000. ChurchNext:Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Gurian, Michael. 2005. “Boys Disappearing Act.” December 4. Accessed February 5, 2006 from

Howard, David. 2000. “Urbana Missions Conferences,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. ed. A. Scott Moreau. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Kane, Herbert. 1971. A Global View of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Peterson, Roger, Gordon Aeschliman and R. Wayne Sneed. 2003. Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission. Minneapolis, Minn.: STEMPress.

Pierson, Paul. 2000. “The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM).” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. ed. A. Scott Moreau. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Sells, Ben. 2004. “Student Debt: A Hurdle Too High for ‘Impact’ Missionaries.” Mission Frontiers, July-August.

Strafford, Tim. 2006. “Making Do with More.” Christianity Today. February.
Tucker, Ruth. 2004. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.


Marv Newell served as a missionary for fifteen years in Papua Indonesia and then as regional director for ten Pacific Rim fields before spending seven years as professor of missions and head of the intercultural studies program at Moody Graduate School. He is now the executive director of the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association (IFMA).

Copyright © 2007 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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