by Ken Baker
The maturation of baby boomer missionaries has sparked not only new spheres of ministry but also new types of ministry.
I first went to the field in 1978 as a short-term worker in Ghana. Since that time there have been some significant changes in our mission, most of them positive. Over the years, I’ve gone from idealism to realism, but this has meant a stronger resolve and commitment, rather disillusionment.
It’s vital that a mission agency adapt to reasonable changes in society, because these changes will be reflected in the members, and potential members, of the organization. This is not an encouragement to compromise. But the missions that do not learn to discern the times will gradually lose their effectiveness.
Sadly, new ideas of the younger generation are sometimes interpreted as a lack of appreciation for the past, or for certain people and their work. Granted, the newer members have not had the same wealth of experience, but they do bring a fresh perspective unhampered by the baggage of the past. Old and tried solutions do not always answer current problems. Adaptation must always characterize missions, whether on the personal or organizational level.
A less structured, less authoritative style of mission administration seems to be emerging. Traditionally, those with the most experience directed those with the least experience. Even though logical, this implies that newer missionaries do not have much, if anything, to contribute to a decision.
Certainly there is no substitute for experience, but all too often creative ideas are snuffed out by the vetoes of experienced people. Perhaps one of the baby boomer’s greatest frustrations is the feeling that no one is listening. This cannot be overemphasized. When baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) speak up with their ideas, the elders somehow assume that they want to be the leaders of the mission. But the baby boomers only want their ideas to be heard and fairly considered. Therefore, those agencies that develop and encourage participation in decision-making will attract and keep baby boomers. It’s important to them that the ideas of newcomers be just as important as those of the old-timers.
Mission agencies are encountering hot issues that long ago were settled: the role of women, power encounter, education, and fund-raising, to name a few. But now they find out that the emerging generation is questioning virtually everything. The point is, even if the new "final" answers are the same as the old positions, the issues must at least be open for discussion. As Leith Anderson said so well at the 1987 conference of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association and the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, "Reaffirmation without reconsideration, and conclusions without communication will not set well with this large part of our population (baby boomers)."
Looking at the demographics, which show a declining pool of potential missionaries (by 1995 it is estimated there will be more than one-third fewer college seniors than in 1975), it’s important to see that baby boomers are quite inclined to choose missions as a second career opportunity. For example, SIM’s church-planting team in Ivory Coast has three new couples who are second-career baby boomers. Thus, mission societies have a second chance, as it were, to recruit the baby boom generation.
The maturation of baby boomer missionaries has sparked not only new spheres of ministry but also new types of ministry. During the last 20 years we have seen a growing ministry specialization. To the chagrin of some, our generation is quite specialized, perhaps to a fault. Specialization is an identifiable trait of the baby boomers.
Some mission agencies have resisted new, more specialized ministries and are seeking to curtail variety in ministry. Yet, for baby boomers, diversity of choice is the norm. This trend will continue and agencies must learn how to handle diversification rather than retreat from it.
Of course, there are some negatives to specialization. I have a friend who is highly trained and who has a deep burden for world missions. For a he worked with a mission in media production, his specialty. But the agency was not ready to move ahead, so he left, hoping to find a mission board that could use his skills to their capacity. He hasn’t been able to find one, so he’s frustrated and discouraged because he can’t "get into missions."
Without diminishing either his zeal or his skill, I’m saddened by his story. I don’t think he ever considered working at another task in missions. Although baby boomers are quite willing to move to a new place, generally they remain loyal to their chosen profession. A computer specialist in a secular job usually will want to do only computer work in missions.
Baby boomers often get their first exposure to missions through short-term service. This fits the fact that they are much more likely to commit themselves to a limited time rather than signing on for career service. Even those who accept career status do not necessarily believe they will stay until retirement.
Often, old-timers interpret this attitude as a lack of commitment. Older missionaries treat me with a little more respect when they learn that I’m on career status. But I’m not sure the central issue is lack of commitment. Baby boomers have had wide exposure to many things and their interests are very broad. The short-termer can be just as committed during his service as the career person. Often, short-termers become career missionaries. In the meantime, they see their present position as a time of waiting for what God may have ahead for them. Perhaps they should be commended for their honesty and foresight.
Baby boomers have had a significant impact on the growth of team ministries, especially in church planting. Such arrangements are very comfortable and conducive to the "boomer" mentality of community and common cause. No doubt the future will reveal some innovative models.
I would propose that missionary attrition for personal reasons has increased with our generation. We have been called the "me generation" and that’s more true than we may realize. Self-fulfillment is a primary concern of baby boomers. Loyalty to self often supercedes loyalty to an organization. Baby boomer missionaries take sense of self-fulfillment to include their families. If anything threatens this goal, they are likely to change direction to protect that interest.
Another volatile combination is the baby boomer’s idealism coupled with high expectations. On the field, realism develops quickly and the new missionary must adapt and cope with unfulfilled expectations. When that doesn’t happen, add another dropout to the list.
Sometimes the worker’s expectations for his mission board go unfulfilled. This may be the fault of the individual, the mission, or both. Some would say that this person did not have enough patience and perseverance, but I would not necessarily link the two. The baby boomer may be impatient, especially when he is not challenged, but when he is motivated perseverance can be his strength.
Here is where an inflexible mission policy can encourage attrition. It is more effective to motivate baby boomers by learning and fulfilling their perceived needs, than to expect them to remain loyal. Those missions that challenge people and communicate high expectations will attract baby boomers, for they definitely want to be challenged.
Baby boomer missionaries are intensely aware of family concerns, whether it be health, education, or housing. They also help the older generation to face the basic question, Who (or what) is more important, the work (the mission and its strategy), or the missionary? Fortunately, mission agencies are showing a greater responsibility for missionary care. As the older generation retires, there will be greater acceptance of the concept that the missionary is ultimately more important than the work. This means an increased awareness of relationships and their significance in measuring the health of a ministry. If the missionary is content, the work will proceed more smoothly.
Mission agencies are becoming more sensitive to "boomer" missionaries’ needs, trying to be as flexible and helpful as possible. The most obvious trend: growing attention being given to the well-being of missionary children. Support groups, conferences, and publications are now aimed solely at MKs. Many agencies are trying to help their families with alternative educational opportunities, flexible furloughs, and medical plans.
The baby boom generation grew up in a time of increasing world consciousness. Because of this, as missionaries they are perhaps better equipped to deal with new world mission realities that grew out of profound post-World War II political changes. Many older missionaries began their careers long before "third world" was a household term. They started during colonialism and the days of waning empires. They saw times of rapid change brought on by nationalism, expanding communism, and independence movements.
However, the baby boom missionaries did not experience these vast changes in the midst of political and economic upheaval. They arrived on the scene when national church associations were already in place. They have not known any other relationship with nationals. This seems to give them an advantage in developing healthy church-mission relationships.
Baby boomers have also shared in another trend on the field, away from institutionsâ€”mission schools, hospitals, orphanages, clinics, and compoundsâ€”and toward things like television, films, primary health care, wholistic development, and the great expansion of literature and radio. The "boomers’" exposure to and experience in technology has changed the face of missions in the last 20 years.
One of the strategic moves in missions has been a focus on urban evangelism and church planting. It would seem that baby boomers are well-suited to this thrust, perhaps being more mobile and prepared to make fresh starts, which is often difficult for older missionaries.
The baby boom generation is a unique phenomenon in American history. Its size and the progressive atmosphere of its development causes it to contrast sharply with the previous generation. Prosperity, great expectations, technological growth, high education, and activism are all trademarks of our era. The values gleaned from this environment, whether good or bad, are certainly distinct and have conditioned this generation toward a particular character.
Just as the boom generation affected every institution it touched, so it has affected the church and its world mission. At certain points, misunderstanding has often characterized the relationship between the emerging generation and the establishment.
By the year 2000, the baby boomers will be the establishment. In the meantime, it is imperative that older missionaries and administrators and baby boom missionaries try to understand the differences in perspectives. Each must listen to what the other has to say. Each generation has valuable things to contribute to the other. Together, we can make this generation gap less formidable and move forward together toward more effective world evangelization.
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