The Emerging College Generation and Missions: Issues, Attitudes, Postures and Passions

by Murray Decker

How do today’s students view missions and cross-cultural service? What do they value? How can we prepare them for global service?

Each new generation of mission-minded college students brings new assumptions and attitudes to the global mission enterprise. My work with these students as an educator in intercultural studies has provided the opportunity to ask, “How do today’s students view missions and cross-cultural service? What do they value? How can we best prepare them for global service?” The following thoughts are based upon reading, interview and observation, as I have worked with traditional undergraduate college students (ages eighteen to twenty-one) who are part of the larger group commonly called “The Millennial Generation.” These are broad-brush characterizations of this generation. There are exceptions to all the points below. I offer these observations as a digital snapshot to help others who work in missions training, mobilization and supervision.

The events of September 11, 2001 and the wars that followed have significantly shaped these students. Like Generation X before them, they have come of age in an era of economic prosperity, but enter college much more aware of the Islamic world and global security concerns. This at a time when mission agencies are rapidly changing in response to new global realities. Below I will look at four questions: (1) What do these students value? (2) How do they see the world and what is influencing them? (3) How do they view missions? and (4) How might supervisors, educators and recruiters best relate to them?

Five values are central for today’s mission-minded college student.

1. Smaller, in-depth relational mission efforts. Today’s students are generally not attracted to large, programmatic mission “campaigns” (such as “The Co-Mission”) or big organizations. They prefer smaller, more intimate and more in-depth relational mission efforts. Students will go with a big organization such as Wycliffe or Pioneers, but not because they are big. Large organizations are finding that unless they are intentional about “individualizing” their contact with prospective candidates and breaking the organization into smaller, more relational cohort groups, students may see their size as a liability.

2. Relationship as foundation to everything else. Students expect that mission training and service will be built upon a foundation of relationship and community. Nothing is more attractive to them than honest and authentic relationships. Students who are generally averse to making commitments will commit to a community typified by honesty, authenticity and intimacy. Further, students have an expectation of intimacy and depth from their prospective leaders. “Can we hang out?” is the highest compliment a college student can pay you. “Will you make time to spend with me?” is the unasked question that underlies most conversations between them and any potential mentor. Organizations which cannot demonstrate how they will meet these “softer” relational expectations will be less effective in drawing attention than those that speak this language.

3. Identity in community. Students regularly express how their community is central to their identity. Speaking of his mission calling, one student said, “Our generation finds our identity in community. We have our group and we want to go together. I desire this as much as I desire to find the right agency.” Another stated, “People often concentrate on where they want to go, but don’t think much about who they want to go with. My friends and I want to go overseas as a team.” Mission agencies that tap into these relational networks will do better than those who depend on big campaigns and slick promotional marketing.

4. Commitment to family wholeness. Generation X, the generation of latch-key childcare and no-fault divorce, was the first generation of American missionaries who emphatically stated that family wholeness would be valued above loyalty to agency policy or mission directive. Any organization making assumptions that fathers were expected to spend extended time away from their families or children was challenged. This has not changed; if anything, these convictions are stronger with current college students and their parents.

5. Ongoing engagement of parents. The term “Helicopter Parents” describes how the parents of this generation “hover” over them. These parents take an active role in the lives of their children. Emotional separation and financial emancipation appear to be postponed later for many Millenials. Students and their parents are negotiating relationships that blur previous lines of independence that used to occur in late adolescence. Increasingly, students are going on mission trips with their parents, or parents visit their child while abroad. Parents are not content to stay, pray and pay; they want to see firsthand what their child is doing. Most students appear to appreciate this.

Millenials have been influenced by many factors—both good and bad. Below are four concepts that drive their passion for mission.

1. Worship-centered motivation for mission. John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad! continues to resonate with this generation as no other theology of mission text. Students echo Piper’s focus on God’s passion for his glory as the larger theme of history. His contribution to theology of mission is now almost universally accepted. We take this for granted—a God-centered motivation for mission—but this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Twenty-five years ago the motivation for missions preached at most conferences was need-based (“If you don’t go, their blood is on your hands.”). The larger worship movement within the Evangelical Church has shaped this generation, with primary leadership by the Charismatic Church. Students came of age attending conferences like Passion and Acquire the Fire with their high school youth groups. Many of the leading worship bands are missions focused. The leaders of these bands are not just musicians, but also key mission leaders. Listen to the lyrics of their songs—they sing of the love of God for the nations.

2. Narrative (honest and messy) spirituality. Millennials identify with the theology/spirituality of brokenness presented by Henri Nouwen (Return of the Prodigal, Wounded Healer and Out of Solitude are several student favorites) and Fredrick Buechner (The Sacred Journey). Nouwen being Catholic does not bother them. They are drawn to messy and honest portrayals of life, but unlike Generation Xers, they seem to have a desire and ability to move toward healing more quickly. Narrative Christian spirituality such as Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz captures the hearts of students who are trying to figure out their own story.

3. Self-awareness and spiritual formation. The evangelical awakening to a deeper conversation about the spiritual life and spiritual formation is being adopted by missions-minded college students. Self-awareness of the issues of the heart is seen positively. Most mission agencies say that they value honest self-awareness in their candidates, but many mission leaders (especially those on the field) are uncomfortable with all this honesty, with the exposure of “woundedness” and with the adoption of spiritual practices that were not common in the Baptist church they grew up in.
As evangelical churches continue to mature in their discussion of spirituality and spiritual formation, these tensions appear to be easing. The convergence of the three streams of worship, spiritual formation and mission are clearly a hallmark of this generation. Acknowledgement of Brian McLaren must be made here. While many evangelicals do not accept all that McLaren is saying (see Hesselgrave 2007), he has his finger on the pulse of this generation and is giving leadership to the convergence of these three streams within his own ministry and the greater Emerging Church movement.

4. Post-modernity and secularism. Generation X was the first American generation to grow up without Christianity as the predominant cultural worldview and the Church as final arbiter of morality and cultural decency. Two decades later, today’s college students show evidence of the evangelical backlash to post-modernity. While they have no memory of the Ten Commandments posted in the classroom or the Lord’s Prayer being evoked in the public arena, they are increasingly coming out of church youth groups where apologetic training provides a more sophisticated vocabulary to confront the dominant culture. They intuitively understand a post-Christian worldview and generally are not threatened by secularism. Moral relativism was the norm for those who attended public school, so they have always seen themselves as “the resistance.” However, you cannot make the same assumptions regarding foundational moral and philosophical worldview presuppositions as you could with Baby Boomers. Basic questions such as “Are the lost really lost?” and “Will God really send them to hell?” must be addressed. You cannot assume that every young person coming out of an Assemblies of God or Evangelical Free church holds a conservative biblical view of sin, scriptural authority and moral absolutes.

What is missions for today’s student? Below are five key ideas.

1. Personal engagement. The Millennial generation brings a “can do” spirit to missions. They are fixers. They are not content to sit, watch and wait. This appears to be a major shift from even ten years ago when Generation X was the buzzword on everyone’s lips. (The tired “Gen X = apathetic slackers” was the worst of the stereotypes; but in truth, many in Generation X seemed reluctant to take initiative). Backed by the resources of their supportive parents, current students appear far less apathetic or paralyzed to initiate action. They want to be involved, but that does not necessarily translate into eager “joiners” of existing mission structures.

2. Globalized and unified. Cultural distinctions between missionary and national, “us” and “them,” are growing increasingly superficial. Will this generation be the first to erase most racial, cultural and even minor theological distinctions? Organizations such as YWAM and OM appear to operate this way. Globalization and the emergence of English as the dominant language of educational, media and technological exchange have made organizational integration much easier for North Americans. Point of evidence: interracial dating is almost universally considered “no big deal” by this generation, and some agencies are so typified by cross-cultural/interracial relationships that they have created their own hybrid culture. If you need proof, next time you are anywhere in the world, spend a couple nights at the local YWAM base. However, the question remains, will this North American generation effectively bridge the cultural distinctions that created so much tension between earlier generations of missionaries and national believers, or will they merely succumb to an easier form of cultural minimalization? Evidence would show that North American Millennials are more willing to submit to the leadership and vision of non-Western leaders than ever before, but not without some replay of the old battles over budgets, final decision-making authority, etc.

3. Not defined by time limits. “I made a long-term commitment to missions” said one graduating college student. When another student asked how long that commitment would be, she responded, “Two years.” The long-term vs. short-term dichotomy appears to be lost on this generation. Mission is mission, regardless of the time frame it takes place in. Mission agencies and groups that are highly flexible with time commitments (YWAM, Calvary Chapel, Vineyard, among others) continue to grow. When you ask a graduating college senior about what is next, many say, “I’m looking to go overseas for about two years to see if that is the country/ministry for me.” Two years seems like the perfect time frame for them (Marston 2006). One student told me, “Long-term is a commitment of the heart, not a time period. I’m not going to commit to something for fifteen years, but my life’s direction is to the nations.” However, another said, “I think that the phrase long-term missionary still means something. Everyone goes on a short-term trip. For those of us who are going to spend our life overseas, our friends recognize that it is a different calling.”

4. Deeply influenced by short-term mission trips—positively. It is hard to overstate the impact that the short-term mission movement has had on the mission formation of this generation. As the movement has matured, more and more short-term mission foci are contributing in meaningful ways to pioneer ministries among Muslims and other unreached peoples. Not only do today’s college students enter with cross-cultural experience, many of them have actually spent time in the 10/40 Window among the least-reached with missionaries on the field, rather than merely meeting them at a mission conference. These relationships are key in the ongoing mission formation process. One of my students wrote, “My time working side by side with the long-term missionary family was the most significant way the Lord confirmed my missionary calling while I was overseas.”

5. Deeply influenced by short-term mission trips—perhaps negatively. Sadly, there appears to be an experience of “missions inoculation” that happens when people go on numerous short-term trips. In a previous era, many mission candidates left for a five-year term without ever once pre-visiting the field. Perhaps they were more naïve and idealistic going into their assignment—the lure, romance and challenge of cross-cultural service unsullied by familiarity. Today, a college senior has already participated in four overseas trips by the time he or she graduates. The person is not wide-eyed and naïve about overseas travel, foreign cultures or dysfunctional missionary communities. By the time he or she graduates from college, the person may show apathy to any longer commitment of service, having been “inoculated” by many shorter trips.

As mentors and guides who will come alongside this younger generation, we must seek to reach them in ways they can relate to. Below are four ways we can do this.

1. Keep it personal. The emerging generation will do anything if you do it with them. This generation of students responds to an invitation to relationship, not guilt. Guilt-based appeals are not just bad theology; they are a poor mobilization strategy. Most motivational speeches to a big crowd are received with skepticism. Recruiters often want to gather the crowd, give their best message and sign the candidates up afterward. That kind of appeal has limited effectiveness and considerable attrition—only a fraction of the people who initially sign the clipboard follow through. It was encouraging to see several mission agency staff employ more high-touch, relational approaches to recruitment at the last Urbana conference. They went to dinner or coffee with students and created space where more intimate conversation could take place.

2. Connect one on one. Mission-minded college students do not discount the heritage of a mission agency (“OMF—the agency of Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission”) as insignificant. And yes, compelling advertising and creative promotion will sway them a little. But recruitment will take far more than better marketing, slick slogans and references to a proud legacy—it goes to the very ethos of the organizational structure.
I recently had lunch with a 23-year-old campus recruiter for a well-known national mission agency. We were discussing the tensions he felt with the expectations of his Baby Boomer superiors. After sharing with “the guys in the head office” his desire to build relationships with students and tap into their relational networks, they advised him to “get a bigger banner that will attract more students to your table.” He laughed, then said to me, “I’ve got a lot of work to do to help them see that connecting with college students is more important than printing a bigger banner.” Where students feel “individualized” and cared-for, they tell their friends. Heritage and marketing will always fall to a lower priority than relationship.

3. Remain open to the ongoing dialog about the role of women. Women have carried significant responsibility in the late twentieth century mission enterprise. This will not change with the emerging generation; women with the heart, gifting and skills for mission service outnumber men. Perhaps a key difference will be that young men will be more comfortable with female leadership. Perhaps not. The generation of young women in college today are not only comfortable assuming organizational leadership, they expect that in time they will be promoted to top leadership positions. Organizations that give only token leadership to women are suspect to most college students. One student wrote, “We are looking for those who are open enough to recognize women in leadership roles, not merely supportive wives of missionary husbands.” Another said, “If God has given me these gifts, I would hope a mission organization wouldn’t stand in the way of me exercising them.”

Note: No other thesis on this list elicited more feedback from my students than this one. Many of my female students wanted me to “strengthen” this point. When I explained that this article was not advocating but merely describing what I see in this generation, they were not satisfied. It became obvious that this remains a sensitive subject for female evangelical college students. Agencies and supervisors need to carefully think through the implications of gender-related policies, the diversity of their leadership teams and the roles they encourage women to assume on the field. One alumna wrote: “If an agency treats me as a second-class missionary, I’ll move on to a different organization.”

4. Commitment and sacrifice are nurtured, not demanded. A mission executive recently asked me, “What about commitment and submission? When does the conversation come to these things?” His point is well taken. This generation, raised by doting and affluent parents, generally tunes out any discussion of “counting the cost” and submitting to authority. (One might ask, has this ever been a discussion readily embraced by any group of young people in any generation?) Mission leaders need to find a way to reinforce small commitments so they grow into larger, long-term commitments. Mentorship and modeling are the most effective means of nurturing commitment and sacrifice. Institutions that expect loyalty simply as a matter of course will be sorely disappointed by this generation. Loyalty is reserved for relationships, not for mission agencies, denominations or any other organization.

God is using this generation of students for his glory in the same way he has used faithful generations through the course of history. And like every previous generation, the attitudes and assumptions of this generation present a new set of challenges. We must continue to observe how the Lord is using this generation to the fulfillment of his global purposes. Those of us who are a bit older will need to come alongside this generation of students, entangle our lives in theirs, gently correct their failures, share our wisdom and knowledge and then watch them serve in ways that we could have never imagined.

Buechner, Fredrick. 1982. The Sacred Journey. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Hesselgrave, David. 2007. “Brian McLaren’s Contextualization of the Gospel.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly. 43(1): 92-100.

Marston, Sean. 2006. “Middle Mission.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly. 42(1): 90-94.

Miller, Donald. 2003. Blue Like Jazz. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Nouwen, Henri. 1972. Wounded Healer. New York: Doubleday.

______. 1974. Out of Solitude. Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press.

______. 1992. Return of the Prodigal. New York: Doubleday.

Piper, John. 1993. Let the Nations Be Glad! Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Additional Reading on the Millennial Generation

Egeler, Daniel. 2003. Mentoring Millennials: Shaping the Next Hero Generation. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Nav Press.

Strauss, William and Neil Howe. 2000. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books.

_______. 2003. Millennials Go to College. American Association of Collegiate Registrars.

Twenge, Jean. 2006. Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Free Press.


Dr. Murray Decker is chair of the undergraduate department of anthropology and intercultural studies at Biola University’s School of Intercultural Studies. He has served as a missionary and worked in Cameroon, West Africa and with various ministries in Eastern Europe, and has led numerous short-term trips to Latin America.

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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