It began with books, it always does. And then things happened and time passed and another book proved the catalyst, culminating in a throwaway comment by a man in a blue shirt which finally consolidated my thinking on the matter.
Over the years I have been noticing a gradual disconnect amongst my generation. There is a growing indifference towards mission.
I have a theory about that, developed slowly over many years but finally consciously articulated four years ago at the annual CU missions talk when it all came to a head in a clash of worldviews.
The Man in Blue
Three first years and a second year. My friends and I were buzzing. Of the four of us, two were seriously considering working in a cross-cultural context, one was working towards full-time ministry, and the other had a strong interest in supporting such work at the very least. The missions talk had reminded us why and I looked forwards to the conversation that would follow later over lunch.
As the man in blue wrapped up his talk , my friends and I scribbled brief notes back and forwards across the row. Then he blew my entire life out of the water.
“So if you are eighteen, you can serve God and we look forward to hearing from you.”
I sat forwards, stunned. A gentle yet firm hand on my arm eased me back into my seat.
I was only seventeen years old.
It felt strange and somehow disconcerting to have so much of my life dismissed just like that. It wasn’t so much the sentiment that stung (I had heard it many times before in its varying forms), rather it was the incredible bluntness.
The conversation I had with him later, to the amusement of my teachers, served only to frustrate us both. I was irked because I had not misunderstood him as I had hoped was the case and he was annoyed because I would not concede that he was right.
All those hours trudging through Dundee, Perth, and Cumnock in the ice and snow to tell people the gospel;hours and hours giving out tracts in our neighbourhood; a week in Wick; just over five months in Indonesia; thousands of cups of tea and meals made; years of gospel conversations in high school; guests hosted; dishes washed; strangers fed: it was all for nothing.
And so often I have lamented how late I began. So many of my friends have been serving, evangelising, preaching even since before they were teenagers.
It has been four years since that first CU missions talk crippled its reputation in my eyes. Since then, I have noticed an increasing desperation in their presentations year by year.
Three years ago, they took the angle of the heroism of a lifetime’s service. Two years ago it was the excitement of unreached people groups and the glamourised hardship of reaching them. Only a year ago they were practically begging us to sign up for a short-term summer trip somewhere, anywhere, whether we were interested long-term or not.
I have a theory as to why so many of our young ones have so little interest in serving and specifically why they have so little interest in mission.
Because they are not being raised to be interested in mission.
Sure, millennial attitudes, the disillusionment of a war-torn world, and the sickeningly self-centred attitude of Western culture aren’t helpful but I’m not sure that the church is entirely blameless. Here are three things that we are telling our young ones (consciously or otherwise) that is killing their passion for mission.
Let’s start with the man in blue.
1. You have to be 18
By the time people are eighteen, they are leaving home, choosing university subjects, and embarking on the beginning of their glorious careers. It’s not a good time to suggest a major change in plan, their direction in life is already being set and a lot of time, energy, and thought has already gone into the decision.
We need to catch them far younger. They need to be caught at an age where they are still climbing onto your lap for stories. After all, it’s at that age that you start asking what they want to be when they grow up.
Tell them about that great cloud of witnesses. Start with Paul maybe. What child doesn’t love daring tales of intrigue, escape by night, imprisonment, shipwreck, and adventure? Bring them up on Adoniram Judson (imprisoned in Burma), John Keith Falconer (Penny-farthing enthusiast, Middle East) , David Livingstone (Lion Wrestler, Africa), and Nate Saint (Jungle Pilot, Ecuador). Let them stay up once in a while to go to a prayer meeting and hear about the work of a visiting church planter. Encourage them to deliver invites for church events to the houses on your street. Help them to make a Christmas card for a struggling pastor friend. Use books like Windows on the World to help them learn to love to pray for those across the world who have never heard the gospel.
If your child grows up learning that there are a lot of lost people in the world who desperately need the gospel, then they are more likely to ask what can be done. This should lead to a healthy interest in (and hopefully understanding of) mission.
You don’t have to send them off to Sri Lanka for six months, you just need to teach them the urgency and truth of the gospel. Raise your child to understand that in making a cup of tea for that missionary, in praying for that church planter and his family, in helping the local church distribute gospel tracts, in doing these things, they are part of that important work. They don’t have to be a particular age to be able to help.
If we do not put a minimum age on serving, we may find that we no longer have to compete with university, the job market, and the general cares of this world for the attention of our youth.
2. You have to have a career first
That’s not to say you shouldn’t have a job. Having a job is actually a very good idea because we live in a world with borders and those borders are more inclined to hand out visas to teachers, mechanics, and businessmen than to missionaries and pastors.
However, if you tell your young ones that they need to get a job and have a bit of a career to gain some life experience before serving in a full-time capacity, they might just take your advice and then you’re in trouble. By the time a few years have gone by and you’ve decided that they have enough life experience, the chances are that they will be tied down with a job and probably a home, a dog, a gym membership, and the beginnings of a family.
A useful skill set is an important thing to have. Some training behind you can prove invaluable but a decade of working in the world to get ‘experience’ is a decade that could be spent planting churches and reaching nations and gaining ground for the kingdom instead.
Everybody is different. Some young people will need time to find their feet, learn a little about the world, and mature a bit. Others will be ready to just go. It depends on the individual and it’s important to seek wise counsel on that point. All I’m suggesting is that having a career should not be a rule.
I understand that parents want their children to do well, to make something of themselves, even just to have a degree of financial stability.However, children are a gift from God and there may come a time when God requires you to hand them over, as hard as that may be.
3. It is better to serve some ways than others
The majority of us will never be church planters, pastors, or missionaries. That’s just how it is. As my parents often remind each other when they are weary or frustrated, someone has to work the 9-5 that feeds the pastor.
I worry, particularly with things like the CU mission tour, that Christians have a tendency to see some callings as more valuable than others. Higher, holier – however you want to put it.
Yes, these people are doing such an important job and we need to recognise that and support them but my concern is that we do so at the risk of losing sight of the value of other kinds of service.
When we build up men like Charles Spurgeon, Gerhart Oncken, Jim Elliot, and J.O. Fraser, covering over their flaws, we risk creating an unobtainable, saint-like stature for Christian service which we all know that we cannot live up to. And so our young ones don’t even try. They think that they cannot be a missionary because they could never be like the polished, haloed version of whichever person it is that they admire.
This attitude also diminishes the Tabithas among us (Acts 9. 36-43). You probably have no idea who Caroline is but her gift of hospitality and chirp has revived many a weary soul. You’ve probably never heard of David who plays the piano or of Daniel and Monet and Lawrie and David who work 9-5 every day. My bet is that you’ve never met Alan who collects up the Bibles after the service, or Andy who sweeps the floor, or Reka, Sophie, Elspeth who cook and bake and hold babies so that their mothers can have a cup of coffee in peace.
We need to raise our children to understand that everyone is involved in taking the gospel to the world because everyone has a part to play in the body. If they understand that it is not just the man in the pulpit or the family living in a remote jungle somewhere but the tea-makers, the floor-sweepers, the pray-ers who help build the church to the glory of God, our young ones will have a far healthier interest in serving and ultimately in worldwide mission.
Back to Basics
It is a sad day when no one is interested in hearing about worldwide mission. Perhaps it reflects the selfishness of our culture – we can go anywhere at anytime for our own pleasure, why would we go for someone else’s sake? Or perhaps it reflects a lack of urgency in our theology. Sure, we understand that without the gospel people are hellbound, but there seems to be a disconnect between head and heart on this point. We’re all guilty of it.
There is a lack of urgency and compassion (I speak to myself here too) which makes us slow to reach out to our neighbours never mind someone halfway across the globe.
I’m sure that there are many reasons for this but it needs to change and one of the more practical and efficient ways to do that is to raise our children and young ones (including our spiritual babies) to serve.
I long for the day when the CUs have no mission tours anymore not because no one is interested, but because practically everyone is interested and engaged in one way or another. Until then, let us encourage our young ones to serve however they can wherever they can, to put God first, and to teach them that you are old enough to glorify God and to serve him as soon as he puts breath in your body and for as long as he sees fit to continue to do so.