The Cost of Your Call
By bret mavrich
August 17, 2012
Paul Park first heard God’s call at the 1993 Urbana missions conference, and he assumed that taking the Gospel to the nations would be an exotic one—overseas. Today, he spends his workdays in a cubicle on the California shore.
Park is the executive director of First Fruit, Inc., a foundation that issues grants to holistic Christian ministries reaching the unreached. But he started out like many young people today: graduating college with more debt than vocational clarity, deeply motivated to make a difference in the world but not sure where to start. Clearly, he’s ended up in a place he never expected.
Park’s road to the mission field was fraught with modern challenges—the same sacrifices and obstacles thousands of young adults must overcome to reach the unreached today.
Instrinsically, missions work carries the connotation of sacrifice. It always has. In Luke 14, Jesus exhorts His followers to count the cost of discipleship, including the high price of hating fathers and mothers, bearing the cross and renouncing all personal possessions. Through the centuries since, Christ-followers have had to bear the fallout of the strain their decisions put on their closest relationships, the financial implications of delaying or forgoing a lucrative career, and even the possibility of death.
Additionally, today’s missionaries face unique hurdles to get to the mission field. Simply being born in an age of frenetic information exchange, limitless travel and a world perched on the brink of economic collapse poses its own set of challenges.
Park believes that today, the call to missions is too simplistic when weighed against the real risks of bringing Christ to the nations. For a globally connected generation (where two of every three young adults have a passport), he wonders if the novelty of travel overshadows the real purpose of missions work.
“Our missiology has been reduced to ‘just go,’” Park says, but a “Just Go” missiology lacks the strategic approach critical to the field. He worries this mentality will not lay the goundwork necessary to overcome the disillusionment young people may experience once they’re faced with unexpected hardship or even the threat of persecution in missions work.
Waylaid by Logistics
Shortly after his own call to missions, Park was confronted with a challenge common to all, mission-minded or otherwise: student debt. To give himself a little breathing room before entering the field, he decided to work at a consulting firm in New York City to pay back his college loans.
Some missions organizations actually have debt thresholds (caps on the amount of debt a potential missionary candidate can carry before being sent to the field), and these thresholds often run lower than the average debt graduates carry.
Liberty University, for example, is the largest Christian university in the world and has historically been a major recruiting pool for missions initiatives. According to CollegeInSight, the average debt of a Liberty University graduate in 2010 was just over $32,000—roughly $7,000 more than the average debt of all college graduates in the same year, according to the Project On Student Debt.
Combined, these factors converge to make the process harder and longer for missionaries to get to the field.
The shift in Western sending initiatives also poses challenges for the expectations of a generation passionate about global evangelism. Many missiologists believe that indigenous members of the global south are best suited for the “front lines” missions work, rather than Western missionaries, since they already know the language and the culture of the region they are trying to reach.
Accordingly, Park thinks the role of Western missions might shift to more of a mentoring role. But that new role might be a hard sell to Westerners; it lacks the sense of nobility and romanticism of front-line missions. Working in a high-rise office at a stateside NGO is by no means the same path to glory as laboring in the midst of an undiscovered tribe in a remote location. In fact, when First Fruits, Inc., approached Park about a position, he had his reservations. “I thought, how could sitting in an office in Newport Beach be doing missions?” he says.
Like many missionaries today, Park had to learn that an indigenous person is more culturally attuned and equipped to enter the action than he is. Park has since come to understand that the most strategic contribution he can make to world evangelism is to be a “come-along-side-er,” as he calls it.
Life on the Line
Despite the odds, young adults are meeting these modern challenges in creative ways. More and more people, for instance, are joining missions networks rather than formal organizations—a decision which often comes down to simple math: A young adult can move to a slum in Mumbai for $6,000, instead of raising $20,000 to go through a formal organization. It’s a bit renegade, but it’s where the raw pragmatism of a generation meets an economic recession.
Tom Lin, director of the Urbana Student Missions Conference, has found that some of the challenges Millennials face can be turned into their greatest allies. “This generation wants instant satisfaction. At Urbana 2009, we did an additional call for attendees to share their faith with two people on their campus. [One-third] agreed to do it at the conference—over 5,000 people. If there is immediate application, they agree to do it. Another 5,000 agreed to do short-term missions.”
In fact, Lin notes, the thousands of young adults who committed to taking up the cause of missions at Urbana 2009 was the highest number they’d seen in the past three conferences.
And the rising costs of higher education, combined with the personal risks associated with family and career aspirations, isn’t stopping an expected 18,000 students from registering for Urbana’s conference this year in St. Louis, Mo.
As an exercise in the sacrificial cost of missions, Urbana 12 has planned interactive sessions of progressive giving in partnership with World Vision. Students will be called onto the stage to assemble a record 32,000 medical kits to be distributed by Christian caregivers workings in AIDS and HIV-infected areas of Africa.
The next morning, they’ll be asked to take the next step beyond giving with their hands: Giving with their wallets toward a $1 million dollar offering to support global missions. And on the last night, a final call will raise the bar once more by posing the question: “Are you willing to give your life?”
But the cost of missions is not reserved for those who “go.” Many young adults will make sacrifices for the Gospel in their hometowns. The critical element, Lin says, is intentionality.
“I can go work for IBM in China,” he explains, “and if my intention is to make Chinese friends and share Jesus with them, I’m a missionary. We’re called to bless the nations, we’re called to make disciples, and the nations include America. Intentionality is simply going with the intent of God’s missionary call.”
Some who “go” will face the ultimate cost: persecution. The realization of Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 24:14 that the Gospel will reach every nation, tribe and tongue is actually within reach—but many unreached nations are openly hostile to Western influence, which can be personified by Christianity.
Brian Kim, the director of the ACTS school, a missions organization committed to taking the Gospel to the unreached in the darkest corners on Earth, says many of these nations are flagged by the U.S. State Department as unwise for any Westerners to visit. Some missiologists term them “closed-access nations.” Kim calls them “creative access nations.”
“The hurdle for a young person in the West,” he says, “is their whole lives, they’re taught to be cautious and be safe and don’t risk too much.”
Kim says of teams entering hostile regions, “Safety is one of the main things that I would ask. But on a list of one to 10, can it just not be number one, the primary thing that we’re always considering? Put it third or fourth, but can the first thing just be obedience to Jesus?”
In fact, Kim would like to call today’s young missionaries to the same dedication and vision embodied by the student volunteer movement that emerged in the late 19th century. At the height of that movement, young adults leaving for the mission field packed their belongings in wood coffins—a grim statement of their intent to take the Gospel to unreached peoples or to die trying. Nobel-prize-winner John R. Mott, a leading voice for missions at the time, recognized the key to motivating students: “I will tell you the way to do it, and that is to place something before them which is tremendously difficult.”
Lin could not agree more. “At Urbana, we believe that God has always used young people throughout history, and we don’t have to lower our expectations for them. If we give them a tough call and a purpose, they’ll rise to the occasion.”
ACTS team leader Amy Dinh, for one, has heard the call to a hostile region and is answering it, despite the questions fired at her from the people she loves the most.
She says, “My mom told me, ‘Back in the day, people were forced to go to war; people were drafted. Why are you volunteering yourself?’ And I remember telling her, ‘Mom, it’s for the cause of Christ. It’s because life is more than going to church on Sundays, more than getting a college degree and being happy. That’s not true joy. True joy is when you realize you’re living for Someone [who] is worth dying for.’”
Bret Mavrich is a missionary and independent journalist living in the Kansas City area.