The Face of Missions Today

A little more than a month ago I was hanging out with a bunch of missionaries.

I had been invited to teach a graduate week-long intensive on Christian Ministry Models and Approaches for YWAM’s (Youth With A Mission) University of the Nations’ M.A. in Whole Person Health and Counseling program in Chatel, Switzerland.  I know.  Rough duty.  Youth With a Mission is one of the world’s largest mission organization with somewhere around 20,000 missionaries. 

Carol and I got to spend a week with ten students and the base personnel at Chatel and another week with some dear friends who live in France, just outside of Geneva, Switzerland.  It was a lot of work with some sightseeing tacked on the end.
The experience was amazing.  My students were not the only ones learning new things.  I learned a whole lot about missionaries.  With the typical arrogance of American Christianity I assumed that most of the missionaries in the world were from the United States.  We were the ones sending people overseas and providing financial and logistical support for them.  But that is not true.   The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary says that there were approximately 400,000 international missionaries sent out in 2010 with the United States sending out 127,000 and second place Brazil sending out 34,000. 

The top ten sending countries included the United States, Brazil, South Korea, India, South Africa, the Philippines, Mexico, China, Columbia, and Nigeria.  I would have thought that many of those countries would be large recipients of missionaries, not major senders of missionaries. 

As far as missionaries sent per million church members, strangely enough Palestine comes out on top with 3,201 sent, followed by Ireland, Malta, and Samoa.  South Korea comes in at #5 at 1,014 per million of Christians with the United States coming in at #9 with 617 missionaries sent per million church members.
South Korea, which was #2 in 2006, was eclipsed by Brazil, France, Spain, and Italy, all of which sent more missionaries than South Korea did in 2010.  Who would have thought that Europe would have stepped up to the plate?  I had always thought of Europe as being the charnel house of Christianity but apparently there is some life there yet (as I found out when I got to preach at a French church on Pentecost Sunday). 

The ten countries that sent the most international missionaries in 2010 were home to 32% of the world’s church members but sent almost 73% of all international missionaries. 
Most missionaries went to countries where most of the people consider themselves to be Christians.  The top nine receiving countries were home to only 3.5% of the world’s non-Christians but received 34% of all international missionaries.  All of these top nine nations have Christian majorities and were home to over 34% of the worlds Christians in 2010.
In comparison, the ten countries with the most non-Christians in 2010 were home to 73% of all the non-Christians in the world.  However, because many of these restrict or deny missionaries access, the received only 9% of all international missionaries.  However, in places like China, India, and Nigeria, large numbers of home missionaries also work among non-Christians. 

Which country, of all the countries in the world, received the most international missionaries?  That would be the United States with 34,000 international missionaries being sent here. The United States had the distinction of being both the largest sender of missionaries and the largest recipient of missionaries. 

While never having much knowledge about, or frankly, much interest in missions in general, I found this article really surprising.  These statistics were informed by my experience in Switzerland.  

Now, I’ve really not had much direct contact with missionaries, even as a pastor.   Going to Switzerland and hanging out with a group of really dedicated veteran missionaries was my first real extensive introduction to missionaries.  So, what did I discover about these YWAM missionaries? 

First, they are an enormously diverse group.  Of this group of veteran YWAM missionaries, most were not from the United States.  They were from all over, from Asia, from Europe, from Africa, from South America, from Canada, from the Pacific Islands, and an occasional one or two from the United States.  Our cook was from Malaysia (the food was excellent).  One of the leaders of the program was from Palau, while the other was from Canada.  There was also a group of Swedish missionaries from another missions organization who came to the base for debriefing after their mission was attacked in Kublai, Afghanistan and their guard beheaded and a fellow missionary kidnapped or missing.

Second, they are internationalist at heart.  Having lived outside of their home countries for such a long time and having traveled around the world as part of YWAM, their perspective on everything was uniquely cross-cultural.  They travel across international borders regularly and with confidence.  Carol and I felt nervous being in the Madrid airport where Spanish was spoken.  These folks had a perspective on the world that comes from being a world citizen. 
Third, many of them were single, female, and of mixed ages.  While I am sure that the demographics vary from mission organization to mission organization, this particular group had literally abandoned everything; family, potential husbands and wives, children, a secure future, regular income, etc. to follow the Lord.  They had laid it all on the line for the Kingdom as they worked in some amazingly unstable countries around the world.  Some of them were running national missions programs and had lots of people working with and under them.  Others were involved in mercy missions in various non-western cities and cultures.  Other servants spent their time doing carpentry, maintaining the property, cooking, repairing equipment, doing computer work, teaching, etc.   They were serving God with their gifts in whatever way they could.  None was more important than the other.  All were honored and all were servants.  I was impressed with their dedication and love for one another.

Fourth, they are just like us in some respects, and unlike us in others.  They are worried about their children (in whatever country they may be), about educational opportunities for themselves and for their families, and how to support themselves, as most live on limited tenuous financial support from others.      They wonder how they are going to be able to retire at the end of their careers.  Will they be able to own a home?  Where is home?  How will they be able to pay their bills, as their supporters are aging at the same rate as they are aging?  Theirs is not a very stable or secure life. 

They are unlike many of us in that they seem to be risk takers.  They appear to be very comfortable in a wide variety of settings, in new situations, with new groups of people.  For them, this is normal, for many of us, those same things might be viewed as being frightening. 
Lastly, I found that I had the opportunity to spend time with them outside of class, over meals, and on brief trips off the base that they were absolutely dedicated to serving the Lord in whatever way they could.  I thought it interesting that after I taught a morning session on deliverance and volunteered to work with whoever was interested the remainder of the week, every session that was available was booked with others ready if there was a cancellation.  That told me a lot about their hearts.  They wanted to be clean.  They wanted to serve.  They wanted to belong completely to the Lord.  I was impressed.   

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