Many people are bemoaning the lack of long-term commitment on the part of Millennials. They look at the astronomical rise in the number of short-termers vs long-termers. I’ve done this myself, in the past. But now I’m rethinking it.Let’s look at the actual numbers. I graphed the number of foreign workers per million affiliated church members (both global figures) from the 2016 Status of Global Christianity, and this is the result:
In other words, yes, there’s a bit of a dip between 2000 and 2015, but it’s in the same order of magnitude. The actual number of long-term workers has gone up over time, but it’s still pretty much in line with the total number of affiliated Christians. Go back and look at the old Mission Handbooks (published both by MARC and EMIS) and you’ll see that the absolute number of long-term missionaries from the USA hasn’t changed much over the years. And look at the recent book, “The Korean Missionary Movement,” and you’ll see the number of workers sent out by Korea has been oscillating back and forth around the 19,000 mark for several years, having risen from 10,422 in 2002.
[Update: In 2008, my colleague Michael Jaffarian published The statistical state of the North American Protestant Missions Movement, in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research based on the data from the Mission Handbook. See this PDF for the full article, starting at page 35. It shows clearly the number of long-term workers has remained largely the same–between 30,000 and 40,000–since 1972, despite the meteoric rise of short-termers. Michael is presently involved in the research-and-publication of the next edition of the Mission Handbook.]
So, maybe the challenge isn’t that we’re losing long-term workers in favor of short-term workers. Maybe the challenge is that a lot more people are going short-term today than ever went long-term before. Now, let’s ask ourselves: is this really a slacking off of long-term mission commitment – or simply an indicator of interest in missions that is now easier to satisfy in the short-term? There’s a lot of stuff that’s easier than ever to do today. Taking pictures. Making videos. Becoming a Youtube sensation. Sharing your latest recipe. Learning advanced cooking skills. Watching Youtube DIY videos and learning how to overhaul your bathroom or kitchen or whatever. Opening a small store on eBay. Traveling abroad. Vacationing in some remote part of the globe. And so on.
A few years ago we bought an older home in Texas, that came with the blessing of a pool. It’s a blessing to my wife and kids, anyway. I’m not really much of a pool person. My kids love the pool during the summer, and they’re constantly begging me to get in the pool. They’re always thrilled and excited when dad finally wades in after several days of 100 degree temperatures of warmed the water to a point I can stand it. And they know I’m not going to be diving in the deep end immediately, especially if there’s the prospect that the water is actually colder than what they claim it is. I stick my toe in the shallow end, and tread in gently. People who wouldn’t say “yes” to long-term – who wouldn’t cannonball into the deep end of the pool – are willing to stick their toe in the water in the shallow end. On reflection, I’m not sure that’s something we ought to be berating. In reality, global trends and the global church have made it easier to “try out missions,” and perhaps we ought to be encouraging that, knowing that some percentage of those in the shallow end of the pool will eventually make their way toward deeper waters.