Why They Don’t Go: Surveying the Next Generation of Mission Workers

by Philip Thornton and Jeremy Thornton

A survey of 250 college-aged students reveals the real reasons why fewer young people are going into long-term mission work.

While it is true that the task of “world evangelization” is far from finished, it is equally true that fewer young people from the US seem willing to follow the call into long-term missionary service (see Moreau 2004). This opens up a set of important questions for institutions charged with training the next generation of mission workers. Forced reflection reveals a myriad of potential rationales for this generation’s unwillingness to serve. From our own experience, we first propose a list of thirteen possible barriers to students who might otherwise pursue full-time Christian service. We then report on a detailed survey of college students, asking them to comment on and rank those barriers. Several observations, both expected and unexpected, have surfaced as reasons for “why they don’t go.”

1. Pluralism. No group wants to be told that what they believe is wrong, nor is any religion anxious to lay exclusive claim to the truth. This is as true on Christian college campuses as it is at public universities. The end result is a world in which the preaching of Jesus Christ as the “only way, truth and life” is, at best, difficult, and can draw the ire of many—even those in the church. Unless young people have a strong conviction that men and women are truly lost without Christ, there is little impetus to tackle the biblical mandate to reach the world with the gospel.

2. The Church. By and large, the Church in the US is myopic. It directs most of its energy and resources toward meeting the needs and desires of those who enter its doors. At the same time, it seems to be unwilling to take on the daunting task of ministering to a hurting world, or supporting those who do. The young person who has watched missionaries struggle for months on end trying to raise support inevitably must question the Church’s priorities.

3. The political climate. The September 11, 2001 attack on the US and the subsequent terrorist activities have created a spirit of fear which has all but paralyzed many Christians. Add to that the turmoil of the Middle East, the recent move to the left in some Latin American countries, tensions with North Korea and the threat of terrorism all over the world and, indeed, our planet has become a threatening place for many young persons considering cross-cultural service.

4. Selfishness. Self-sacrifice is not a popular theme in churches today. This leaves little room for the road less traveled of sacrificial service. Unfortunately, little takes place in our church teaching that challenges this mindset.

5. The family. Young people often hesitate to do anything which would take them away from their loved ones. It is not unusual for students, sometimes with tears in their eyes, to relate how parents discourage and even outright oppose their considering a career in missionary service. As one mother put it, “If you go to the mission field, you will break my heart.”

6. The disconnect between the local church and professional mission agencies. In spite of some significant efforts on the part of mission agencies to communicate their message, their mission and their strategy with the local church—and in spite of the wealth of resources available to the local church today—the world of missions remains beyond the understanding or the interest of most persons in church pews today.

7. Inadequate theology. A failure to perceive the theme of redemption running from Genesis to Revelation cripples any effort in world evangelization. Even when they have grown up in church, most young people have never been exposed to the “connecting thread” of missions in scripture. Thus, it is not surprising that they lack the biblical backbone necessary for responding to a call to a career in missions in a dangerous and hostile world.

8. Confused definitions. The old saying that everybody’s job is nobody’s job seems particularly applicable to missions. When we begin to label any and all the ministries of the church as missionary, we lose the uniqueness of the missionary task. Without an understanding of the unique dimension of the Church’s task we call missions, young people will continue to find it hard to dedicate themselves to a missionary career.

9. Inadequate preparation. A unique task requires unique preparation. While it is certainly true that God can and does use people from all walks of life in missionary service, this does not diminish the need for all missionaries to have quality training in cross-cultural ministry. Nor does it diminish the need for some to have missions as their primary course of training. But young people are under significant pressure to get a “marketable” skill. Formal training in missiology is perceived as secondary. It is unclear how a de-professionalization of missions will impact long-term strategic ministry (see Hesselgrave 2005).

10. Debt. Among those young people who do put their hand to the plow of academic and practical preparation, many will never reach the mission field because of the debt they have incurred in the process. These valuable resources for the kingdom are squandered daily because of the financial bondage of debt incurred in the educational process or other fiscal irresponsibility.

11. Short-term missions. There is little doubt that a first-hand experience on the mission field can be a key ingredient in helping young people decipher God’s plan for their lives. However, much of what is taking place today in the name of short-term work is more “vacation” than a mission experience. Worse yet, such experiences often serve as an inoculation rather than an encouragement. This Christian rite of passage can give the false perception of young people having “done their bit” for the kingdom. Current research indicates that short-term experiences are not translating into long-term commitments—for going or for giving (Ver Beek 2006).

12. Spiritual warfare. The last thing Satan wants is for young people to be obedient to a call to a lifetime of missionary service. To that end, he will engineer any and all obstacles to prevent a person from going. As we address the practical issues raised above, we dare not forget that ultimately we “wrestle not against flesh and blood but against authorities and rulers of darkness” (Eph. 6:12). Our response must take into consideration this spiritual dimension.

13. Emerging Two-thirds World. There are those who suggest that the future of the Church is shifting to the Majority World (Myers 2003). Many argue that Majority World workers can do missions more cheaply and effectively than Western missionaries. As one young professor at Asbury College put it, “We post-moderns are more interested in seeing contextual mission by indigenous Christians occur than in continuing to export Western institutional Christianity through the sending of traditional Western missionaries.” Some young people find this an easy “out” to their going.

While the above observations are gleaned from over twenty-five years of working with college students considering full-time Christian service, we wanted to know how today’s students would react to (or refute) these ideas. A questionnaire was distributed to 250 Asbury College students, freshmen through seniors, representing ten different academic disciplines. Students were first asked to weigh each of ten obstacles (drawn from the above thirteen previously mentioned) in terms of their impact on potential missionary service. Then, they were asked to rank that same list, with the possibility of adding obstacles which they thought we had missed. The chart on page 200 is a summary of the results.

In an open-ended section of the questionnaire, several other issues came up:

• A number of students pointed out, some rather strongly, that all professions represent a “calling” for Christians. This response would imply that our definition of missionary service is too narrow.

• A number of students expressed the need to see the “US as a mission field” and that we “can do missions here at home.” The implication seemed to be that we spend too much time focusing on the world beyond our own borders. One student noted, “Students today tend to view whatever they do vocationally as ‘their mission field.’ They do not see cross-cultural missions as any more important than their ‘mission’ where they work and live.”

• Some students mentioned family issues, such as the raising of children on the mission field and separation from family, as being significant obstacles.

• A few students mentioned “image” as a factor. According to one student, “Missionaries are seen as weird people who do weird things.”

• Only two students mentioned raising support as a major obstacle—although most have stories of missionaries they know who have had trouble raising sufficient financial support.

Our survey brought to light some unexpected findings, particularly for churches or educational institutions that want to encourage interest in missions.

Materialism vs. pluralism. Writers and commentators on the topic of missions most commonly cite pluralism as the most likely intellectual barrier to involvement in missions. However, our findings indicate that this issue was relatively far down the list of student concerns. Our survey indicates that materialism, rather than pluralism, is a far more significant barrier. In this way, students at Asbury College seem to parallel those of others at both Christian and secular institutions.

Global danger. The second-highest ranked answer was also surprising. Given the significant amount of international travel most of our students do each year, the notion that global danger would be a significant barrier is curious. What is interesting is that the issue of physical safety rates so high when many of the students’ peers are putting their lives on the line in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, whether in the military, or as journalists or relief workers. Is the world today really more dangerous for missionaries than it was for those early pioneers who answered the missions call? Consider the toll taken by disease, the dangers of travel on less-than-seaworthy vessels, the hostility of other faiths against the Christian witness and colonial governments more interested in commerce than spreading the gospel. Is the danger really greater today? Perhaps it is time for the Church in the West to turn its attention to a theology of suffering. As John Piper notes, “Some suffering is the calling of every believer, but especially of those God calls to bear the gospel to the unreached” (1993, 78).

Eliminating debt. The issue of debt is a serious one for those considering mission service. It is also the easiest to fix. The Evangelical Church today controls vast resources; it is not uncommon for mainline church denominations to pay pastors a reasonable salary and to help retire the existing education debt at the same time. How much less do we value potential missionaries, even when their sacrifice is that much greater? Why not offer to retire debt, or even subsidize the education of those willing to make this sacrifice? It is one thing for churches to call on their people to make the ultimate sacrifice of missionary service; it is quite another for them to participate in that burden (Sider 2005).

Training in missions. Students seem aware of their need to be adequately prepared for missionary service. This is evidenced by the fact that they ranked the statement “Young people do not feel sufficiently prepared to go into missionary service” as the fourth-highest potential obstacle. This is encouraging to those of us in the preparation business. However, the conviction that specifically-designed, cross-cultural training must be a part of that preparedness may not be as widespread as one would hope.

Everyone will grant the need for a personal walk with God which is dynamic; however, many do not seem to understand the importance of missiological training. As one student expressed it, “More students who are not Bible and missions majors are going into full-time missionary work today. They believe you must give people something they want before you give them the gospel.” While there is little doubt God is using an increasingly wide variety of occupations in the missions enterprise, this does not negate the need for solid anthropological and theological training.

Sacrificing family. Given the number of young people who indicated strong family opposition to their considering missionary service as a career, we would have likely ranked this obstacle higher than did students in the survey. While it is normal for parents to want the best for their children, when that best is framed in terms of material comfort and safety, missionary service which may include self-denial and danger can be seen as an enemy.

Global outreach. Seeing the US as the Western Church’s primary mission field fails to take into consideration the billions of people who have yet to hear the gospel, nor does it take into account the overwhelming physical needs of our world today. While this is not likely an argument which needs to be made with those reading this article, it does speak to an appalling lack of teaching in our churches concerning the demands of the Bible for reaching a world for Christ and our responsibility to care for the poor.

Self-centeredness. It seems that the self-centeredness of our culture which makes it hard for young people to commit to long-term missionary service is, in fact, perpetuated in the very churches which they attend. For example, while the renewed emphasis on corporate worship is a good thing, the nature of that worship is all-too-often “me-centered.” Having an emotional experience with God, even when genuine, has not necessarily translated into a commitment to the world for which he gave his Son. Nor is the “have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus” of Philippians 2 proclaimed as a challenge to sacrificial service.

What might these comments have to say to churches, Christian colleges and mission agencies? At the very least, it raises an interesting if not controversial issue. Do we continue to ring the traditional bell of self-sacrifice when it comes to missionary service, or will we be more open to what economists have called “rational self-interest”? Will we frame the missionary service question in terms of “call” alone, or will we allow “self-fulfillment” to also be considered a motivating factor (see Hesselgrave 2005)? Would that be going too far? Would it be denigrating the biblical concept of sacrifice, or is it simply speaking the language young people understand? Certainly these questions beg further discussion from those of us in the business of recruiting, training and deploying the next generation of mission workers.

Hesselgrave, David. 2005. Paradigms in Conflict. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel.

Moreau, A. Scott. 2004. “Putting the Survey in Perspective.” Missions Handbook: U.S. and Canadian Christian Ministries Overseas 2004-2006, eds. Dotsey Welliver and Minnette Northcutt, 11-64. 19th ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Evangelism & Missions Information Service.

Myers, Bryant. 2003. Exploring World Mission. Monrovia, Calif.: World Vision.

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

Shaw, Ryan. 2004. This Generation for the Forgotten. SVM2L.

Sider, Ronald. 2005. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Ver Beek, K.A. 2006. “The Impact of Short-term Missions.” Missiology 34(4): 477-495.


Philip Thornton is a former missionary in Latin America. For the past twenty-five years he has served as professor of missions at Asbury College. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Southern Methodist University. Jeremy Thornton is assistant professor of economics at Samford University. He is a graduate of Asbury College and holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Kentucky.

Copyright © 2008 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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