Where are the missionaries now?

How can graduates enter the mission field with heavy student loans?

by Kameron Toews

If you grew up going to church or Bible camp, then you’ve probably sat through your share of missionary slide shows—the ones with actual slides, not PowerPoints. After the missionary brings their spouse and children to the stage, they always gently ask for financial support so they can continue doing God’s work. I wonder if Christian circles are still under the traditional model of missionaries raising support. I think our generation is scared of stepping into a lifestyle without a fixed income, and in return, missions as I knew it is changing.

My parents are missionaries, not to the tropical jungles of Indonesia, but to South Dakota. It doesn’t seem too glamorous, and that’s because it’s not. When they travel to supporting churches they don’t have photos of tribal conversions and foreign foods. Instead they’ve worked with the farm kids of rural America and Native American families living on reservations. My parents direct a summer Bible camp, hold after school Bible clubs, and pastor a small country church. They don’t get a pay check from their boss for their hours of driving, organizing, and phone calls, but instead write countless newsletters and visit donors asking for finances. I didn’t realize it as a kid, but everything I had while growing up came from the generosity of regular people interested in my parents’ work. Even the hamburger we had for supper came from a local rancher who donated a side of beef to my family every year. God supplied everything my family had.

I worked at my parents’ camp a few summers and had to raise my own support if I wanted any money. Year after year I gathered a list of names and addresses, wrote a nice letter, and mailed it out, hoping to get some checks back in the mail. Most summer camps, however, actually pay their staff, which makes it hard for my parents to find high school or college kids wanting to go through the extra work of fund raising.

If there isn’t a promise of a concrete income, our generation is hesitant to step in. I think one reason for this is that we feel uncomfortable asking strangers for money. We don’t want to sound helpless or bother people out of their hard earned money. Another part of this fear comes from the ever increasing cost of college and the debt that follows. How can college students give up a summer, not being sure if they’ll make any money, when they’re paying $30,000 for tuition? My father and mother worked their tails off during college and came out with no debt, allowing them to step right into ministry, but that’s basically impossible with today’s college prices.

As it becomes harder and harder to say “no” to the 9 to 5 job, the traditional missionary is fading away. My parents wonder who will take their spot when they retire. Most of their co-missionaries are over the age of 40 and the prospect of hiring young blood doesn’t look too promising. I realize that you can be a missionary in the office or construction site and that traditional missions isn’t for everyone, but for those who want to pursue their desire for service, the path seems to be dwindling and filling with obstacles.

I wonder what missions will look like when my children are ready to decide their life paths. Would parents be skeptical to let their child exit college on the hope that a local church gives some money so they can eat? Will the traveling missionary wearing Indian saris or Omani dish-dashas have anywhere to go, or is the face of missions changing into something requiring a more sustainable lifestyle?

I have a heart for missions, but that looming debt keeps me from jumping right in. As much as I want to fly to Africa and help dig wells, I need to find a job after college and get some money to pay back those loans. It’s frustrating for many who are in this same predicament.

When serving God’s children and making money intersect, who gets the right of way?

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