Part of what we do as missionaries is “mobilization,” educating people back home about what we do in order that God might by our stories call some to the field. But in an effort to recruit more workers, many have taken to using “lostness” statistics in order to guilt the willing into overseas service. I’ve often heard about how few missionaries there are, and how many more we need in order to “complete the task.” But whose job is it to call believers to missions? Have we changed the Lord’s directive in Matthew 9:37 from “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” to “Tell the Lord we’re sending out workers?” We mustn’t forget that while “The harvest is plentiful” and “the workers are few,” we are instructed to “ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
If there is a shortage of workers on the field, it can only be for one of two reasons. 1) The sin of those who have been called but refuse to go, or 2) God is not calling the masses of missionaries we think necessary to do His will. While I’m certain there are disobedient believers out there who are ignoring God’s call to international service, it seems very like our God to “thin out the army” so that He might do with a select few what we consider only to be possible with four times as many. (It sounds vaguely similar to Gideon’s story.) I also believe that as we dare to depend on human-centered strategies, God is allowing us to fail on our own terms, in order that we might be reminded of our total dependence on Him.
Besides the number of missionaries, we might also need to abandon our expectations for how God might use His workers. Another major problem we’re facing, according to my colleagues, is that while the number of “short-term” workers continues to climb, relatively few are signing on for career service. But such a shift in the modes of service reflects a generational change. Just a few years ago, the model for missions was a married couple and their five children moving to Zimbabwe and living in a mud hut until retirement or death, whichever came first. But today, the greater part of the world’s population lives in an urban setting, and a career for this generation of young professionals may only last five years. Young people today are a date book people rather than a checkbook people. They will sooner give a few years of their lives in service than give a few hundred dollars to a faceless corporation that has little accountability as to how it spends that money. We should not see this change as a threat, but as a new way of doing our work, allowing our strategy to be dictated by God’s calling on individual lives.