by Leslie Pelt
Questions about motives focus on both baby boomers themselves and the agencies.
How long are you out for?" ! I asked a new missionary shortly after his arrival.
"Well," he replied, "I’m going to try it for six months and see how things work out."
His response was typical of many who come overseas for a short time, trying to find out if it’s God’s will for them to become career missionaries. They test the fields like someone smelling, squeezing, and sampling the fruit at the local market. If the climate, language, culture, and amenities are acceptable, then God might be leading them to extend their commitment. However, if things don’t go as they hoped, then it must not be God’s will for them to stay.
Of course, the number of short-term opportunities has exploded in recent years. As both new agencies specializing in sending short-term teams, and the traditional older agencies, get on the bandwagon, the ratio of short-termers to career missionaries has shifted dramatically. According to the 1989 Mission Handbook, between 1985 and 1988 the number of short-termers jumped to 30,748 from 21,200 (a 45 percent increase), while the number of career workers barely edged ahead to 40,221 from 37,500 (a 7 percent increase). If that rate continues, by the year 2000,66 percent of all missionaries will be short-termers.
I’ve seen this striking shift on my field over the last seven years. The overwhelming majority who’ve come over the past five years have been short-termers-and their turnover rate is high-while the majority of us who came out in the early 1980s are career. (The notable exception to this is the increasing number of Asian missionaries, all of them career.) We need to explore the motives behind this shift and the implications for world evangelization.
BABY BOOMERS TO BLAME?
Part of the short-term phenomenon has been motivated by the conviction that "baby boomers" (people born between 1946 and 1964) don’t have strong commitments to world missions. In fact, James Engel claims that only 10 percent have a strong interest in overseas missions, and 50 percent are not at all interested. Studies show boomers to be motivated by materialism, comfortable family life, immediate gratification, and other things generally not congruent with missionary life. They are to be more willing to try short-term assign-than to make long-commitments.
Further, Engel reports that local Christian causes spur far greater interest among boomers than spreading the gospel overseas. Of the Christian boomers he surveyed, over 75 percent believe the need for missionaries is greater in the U.S. than overseas. Therefore, Engel concludes that the baby boomer generation will not provide either the personnel or the money for traditional world missions-in the future. He counsels mission agencies to offer short-term assignments as the way to turn matters around.
However, others question the value of tailoring mission strategies to the prevailing baby boomer culture. Should agencies base their recruitment strategies on society’s current preferences? I think not. We must not allow God’s call to missions to become captive to the nonbiblical attitudes of baby boomers.
The fundamental problem, as Paul Hiebert observes, is that "the church in America has overcontextualized the gospel, especially in areas such as consumerism and individualism." We seem to be saying that because baby boomers are different, missions should be different. However, the cost of discipleship has not changed. Jesus’ command to "deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me" is just as binding on those born between 1946 and 1964 as it was for his disciples. He did not tell his followers to "try it and see if you like it" If so, the apostle Paul would not have endured imprisonments, beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, hunger, and cold.
Great missionary heroes like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Henry Martyn, Mary Slessor, and Amy Carmichael had to contend with greed, selfishness, and the lust for possessions, yet they made immeasurable sacrifices to see that the gospel spread to unreached corners of the world. I strongly believe there are people like them, born between 1946 and 1964, who have the qualities to carry out the Great Commission with the same zeal. Our mission agencies just have to find them.
To find committed people, mission agencies have to make commitment a requirement for service. If we encourage people to go out and test the field, to see if they like it, they end up conforming to minimal expectations, rather than being challenged to a life of sacrifice and self-denial. In tailoring their recruiting to the 90 percent who supposedly are not interested, mission agencies seem to overlook the fact that God works with a chosen few, not the masses, to accomplish world evangelization. Missionaries have always been the unusual ones, the peculiar, if you please, so we should aim our efforts at the 10 percent who are genuinely open to career service.
It seems to me that mission agencies are trying to compete in the marketplace, trying to attract the "consumer" with, among other things, short-term programs requiring limited commitment. In his book Dying for Change, Leith Anderson traces this fundamental change in the philosophy of missionary recruiting. In 1950, both agencies and candidates were primarily concerned about the divine call. By 1970, education was high on the list of qualifications. By 1990, candidates were asking about health insurance, retirement benefits, and education of yet-to-be-born children. "Current candidates see themselves as consumers shopping for the best mission," says Anderson.
The responsibility of mission boards is to challenge this generation to abandon society’s idea of what it means to serve Christ, and to embrace Christ’s definition of a disciple. Of course, when we emphasize commitment and sacrifice to potential missionaries, some will go away sad, like the rich young ruler (Lk. 18). But others will accept the challenge with deep conviction, say with the disciples that they have left every-thing to follow Jesus (Mk. 10:28).
Of course, we hear that after their short-term experiences many people do in fact become career missionaries. However, the implication that they would not have otherwise become career workers is not necessarily true. God leads people into full-time service with or without short-term trials. I believe that when we challenge potential workers to biblical disciple-ship, we will not have to lure them with short-term opportunities.
I am not suggesting there are no values in short-term programs. Even if misused as a recruiting tool, these programs do serve other useful purposes. Many short-termers with specialized skills perform needed services and strategic short-term needs. Retirees make significant contributions with their experience and skills.
In addition, short-termers often return home and spread enthusiasm for missions in schools and churches. Even if they don’t become career workers, they become financial supporters and prayer warriors. Apart from benefits to world missions in general, there are the benefits to the workers themselves, as expressed in two testimonies: "Nothing outside of my salvation affected me the way my short-term mission did." …"It was good for me to get out of my comfortable culture. Everyone should go on a short-term experience."
But what should be our proper motive for short-term work? Regardless of the potential benefits, short-termers must be helped to understand the biblical rationale for their service. Of course, some go on short-term trips for the excitement of travel, to find out what the mission field is like, and to experience a different culture. In contrast, somehow short-term work must be related to the Great Commission. The goal of short-termers should be to help others find Christ, and to encourage growth in him, by using their gifts and skills. They can meet strategic needs through direct or short term ministries, where long-range service is not required. When a short-termer comes to the field with a servant’s heart, to work strategically in promoting the gospel for the length of time necessary, then he or she has the proper motive.
THE NATIONAL CHURCH
When short-termers show up without the proper motivation, national Christians question their presence. They also question the expense, believing that the money spent for such short periods of time could be better spent in more strategic ways. For example, if one round-trip plane ticket could support six national evangelists for a year, is it right to send out a singing group of 40 high school students for two weeks? The group’s airfare alone could support 240 evangelists for a year. Besides, their music wasn’t culturally relevant anyway. Although they raised support at home, the group still depended on the national church for feeding, housing, and transportation in the country.
However, national church leaders are too gracious to tell mission boards they do not want short-termers. As one Nigerian leader told me, "We are realizing that short-termers come mostly for their own experience, not necessarily for what they can contribute to the ministry. The short-term program is a tool for mission boards. This trend has come at a time when the national church has crucial ministry recruitment needs, housing shortages, and limited resources."
Of course, many problems like this could be resolved, for the benefit of both short-term workers and the national church, if the sending agencies kept in close touch with national leaders. If neither the right ministries nor the needed funds are available, the short-termers should not be sent. We must take seriously the national church’s priorities.
If we are to reach the world’s 1.3 billion unevangelized people, we need more full-time workers. When you think about all the lofty goals that missiologists and mission agencies have set for themselves, you realize that such things cannot be accomplished by two-week or two-year missionaries. Mission organizations must require commitment from their candidates and challenge thousands of potential missionaries to biblical discipleship.
Short-termers do meet some vital needs, of course, but boards should not use short-term programs just to give people a chance to test the field. They should be used to take advantage of strategic opportunities in evangelism and discipleship.
National church leaders, too, must be firmer with sending agencies, as they see the number of short-termers escalating and the requests to use them increasing. They cannot hide behind the fear of offending the agencies. Rather, they should known their priorities to the boards. There is no harm in saying No, if the time and money expended on short-term programs are not worth it.
Finally, I encourage my own generation of potential missionaries to get serious. Those who say, "First let me go and see what the mission field is like," are no different than the one who said to Jesus, "First let me go and bury my father." Jesus said, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" , (Lk. 9:62). Being born between 1946 and 1964 is no excuse for being self-centered, home-oriented, and materialistic.
Our recruiting must be biblically based. Scripture, not U.S. culture, must be our starting point God’s Holy Spirit still works to call people to missionary service. How we respond, as agencies, churches, and individuals, will depend on how much we listen to God on our knees.
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