Redefining Normal: How to Develop the Future Overseas Missionary Force

Meet Amy, a 17-year-old student from Oregon (USA). Amy is not typical. If God allows, Amy is committed to giving her life in service as a foreign missionary. She is not typical because she is part of a shrinking group of Americans who are committed to full-time vocational service overseas and to taking the gospel to the remaining corners of the world.

Ryan Shaw, director of the Student Volunteer Movement 2, recently wrote a book1 articulating the missionary potential in the emerging generation. He writes, “While the number of young adults involved in short-term, cross-cultural ministry (two weeks to six months) today is staggering, the number of new long-term workers, from the emerging generation, continues to dwindle.”2 To combat this trend, it is crucial to study the environment and attributes of students such as Amy.

It has been reported that the American missionary force in 1988 totaled sixty-five thousand missionaries. Just over twenty years later that number has dropped almost fifty percent to under thirty-five thousand. To combat this trend, it is crucial to study the environment and attributes of students such as Amy.

Are there certain aspects of her family background, personality, church involvement, or short-term mission experience that increase or decrease her likelihood of making a long-term, overseas commitment? Do the pastors and leaders of an emerging generation have any influence in seeing greater numbers of people rise to meet the remaining need? The answers might surprise you.

The Study
A recent study was conducted with middle school and high school-age students from the Pacific Northwest (USA) who attended an event where they had an opportunity to make a commitment to give their life as a foreign missionary. Of the 1,100 students in attendance, 198 made commitments to give their lives as foreign missionaries. A follow-up survey was given to a portion of the students. Of the 902 students that did not make a commitment, seventy-six completed surveys. Of the 198 students that did make a commitment, sixty-four completed surveys.

A word about the significance of studying this age group as it pertains to world evangelization. A recent poll among thirty missionaries serving with the Christian and Missionary Alliance found that more than two-thirds of them had experienced their call and commitment to missions prior to turning eighteen. Bryant L. Meyers says that “important, life-shaping decisions are made when people are young.”3 Tomorrow’s missionaries are today’s teenagers. Investing in the likeliest of candidates is the most strategic investment in the cause of world evangelization as it relates to developing missionary personnel.

And while the reliability of adolescent commitments may leave something to be desired, the purpose of this study is not to gauge the quality of the commitments made to missions, but rather to look into the differences between the students who make them and the students who do not.

Back to the Study
This study is part of a larger 10-year study which will track these students over the coming decade. This portion was intended to explore whether or not there are any statistically significant differences between the students who made commitments and those who did not. Students were asked to answer more than forty questions that included areas such as: gender, age, amount of church-related activities per week, birth order, whether or not they would describe themselves as a leader, and mission experience.

The data confirmed some of the suspicions one might have about attributes that correlate with mission commitment; however, there were also some surprises. For instance, the length of a person’s Christian experience between the groups was insignificant. The quality of a student’s relationship with his or her parents seemed to make little difference, as well. Gender was a surprising variable, with only three out of ten boys making commitments, as compared to six out of ten girls.

A student’s birth order also seemed to correlate with their commitment as sixty-five percent of youngest children surveyed made commitments, while only thirty-five percent of middle children made commitments. One of the most surprising findings was the influence of any previous mission experience. One might think short-term trips are a crucial ingredient to a student commitment; however, students who made commitments were no more likely to have gone on a short-term mission trip.

All told, there were five statistically significant variables between the two groups of students, four of which are directly moldable as far as individuals and ministries are concerned. These are:

  • gender,
  • level of church involvement,
  • whether or not they serve, and
  • self-perceived levels of leadership and outgoingness.

How do these conclusions break down in layperson’s terms and translate into programmable principles? While this data cannot conclusively prove that any of these factors can actually cause students to make commitments, one can have confidence the following characteristics were present in almost all of the committed students surveyed.

1. PREP the SOIL
Salem Alliance Church (Salem, Oregon, USA; a congregation of four thousand people) has translated the findings into three postures, the first of which is the acronym PREP the SOIL. It seems fitting to use an agricultural analogy, especially because Jesus used a similar analogy in talking about the lack of workers in the harvest field. To prep the soil in an agricultural context is to loosen the dirt from its hardened state to prepare it to receive seed and to check the soil’s pH balances to make sure it contains the balance of chemicals necessary to promote life. Proper soil preparation provides the foundation for good seed germination and the subsequent growth of plants. To prep the soil in the mobilizing context means to:

  • Provide opportunities to serve. The study revealed that a student who volunteers at church was twice as likely to make a commitment: fifty-five percent of students serving made commitments, while only twenty-eight percent of students who were not serving made commitments. To adequately prep the soil there must be opportunities available for middle school, high school, and college-age students to serve. Effective local service is requisite for future foreign service. It seems that something clicks both in a student’s faith and in their commitment to serving for the rest of their life the sooner they move from the receiving end of ministry to the giving end of ministry. These opportunities should allow them to succeed and be appropriate to the gifting, availability, and capacity of each student.
  • Reinforce the value of outgoingness. Students who described themselves as very outgoing were four times as likely to make commitments than students who described themselves as shy. The value of being outgoing, even if it is uncomfortable, is crucial in developing a ministry that both receives and, ultimately, sends students well. Too many people’s first church experiences have been negative due to the inability of the regular attendees to be outgoing and introduce themselves and make the visitors feel comfortable, valued, and welcome. The importance of initiation and outgoingness in sharing one’s faith, coaching, mentoring relationships, and ultimately mission work require that this value be instilled and reinforced from an early age.
  • Encourage significant church involvement. Students who were involved in at least three church activities a week were almost twice as likely to make commitments as compared to those who only participated in only one. No one church activity meets the multiple spiritual and social needs of believers. Hence, there is the need for close, intimate relationships in: a small group setting, a ministry to use one’s gifts in service, regularly gathering as a body in times of corporate worship, and possible other church-related opportunities. An active participant in the life of a church is beneficial to the life of the believer, allows the church to continue operating efficiently, and correlates with students who made commitments to missions.
  • Promote the development of leaders. This area is similar to the outgoingness area in that there is an element of leadership that is both a gift and in one’s God-given capacity. However, there are also leadership principles, attitudes, and skills that one can grow and gain experience in to increase their ability to make a difference in their own life and in the realm of influence God has given them. Promoting the development of regular people in their leadership capacity takes time and investment, yet yields results for all parties involved.

Thus, the first step in preparing the environment out of which above-average amounts of students go as missionaries is to prep the soil.

2. Plant the Seed
The second step is to plant the seed. Shaw writes, “A leader of a large campus ministry in California admitted, ‘I’m trying to remember…I can’t honestly recall the last time I heard a call to long-term mission involvement.’” He goes on to say, “Without a radical shift in focus and a significant increase in the long-term challenge presented to the emerging generation, the completion of the Great Commission in our day is an elusive dream.”4

Planting the seed involves clearly articulating need and providing an opportunity for students to respond. A few students will connect the dots between God’s global mandate in scripture and their life; however, most need help in putting the pieces together. Providing a chance for students to commit to going is a non-negotiable in seeing students actually going. Inspirational and informative events highlighting stories of what God has done and is doing—combined with a clear and compelling call for everyone to embrace their strategic role in world evangelization—is the essence of planting the seed.

3. Protect the Sprout
The third and final step for any particular ministry or environment seeking to produce workers for the harvest is to protect the sprout. Assuming the soil has been prepped and the seed has been planted and taken root, the next challenge is to protect the sprout as it grows and develops. One must steward carefully and wisely the investment of future cross-cultural workers for the kingdom. According to many mission leaders there are a high number of well-intentioned people that make commitments to mission service that never make it to the field. The proper care and protection of the sprout, or committed student, can help him or her avoid the seemingly infinite amount of exit ramps on his or her long and challenging journey.

Back to Amy. How does she fare with the study’s findings?

Is she serving at her church? Check—grade school and middle school. Is she involved in multiple activities a week? Check—four and sometimes five. Is she outgoing? Check. Is she a leader? Undoubtedly. Does a disciplined adherence to these principles make any difference in the real world? It has for her church. In the last twelve months her church has seen over two hundred students and adults make commitments and begin journeys that will take them to the ends of the earth.

Amy is redefining typical and that is great news for every people group that has never heard the good news.


1. 2006. Waking the Giant. Pasadena, California, USA: William Carey Publishing.

2. Ibid, 75.

3. 1994. “State of the World’s Children: Critical Challenge to Christian Mission.” In International Bulletin of Missionary Research 18(3):98.

4. Shaw, 77.

Josh Mann is youth pastor at Salem Alliance Church in Salem, Oregon, USA. He is committed to informing and inspiring students to find their strategic role in world evangelization. He would welcome feedback on this article at: [email protected].