What will the next generation of WMPL missionaries look like?
I suspect you’ve heard the reports about the shrinking nature of the church in North America, and you very well may see it happening from where you sit on Sunday mornings. Increasing numbers of Americans are simply saying “no” to church. In particular, more and more of today’s young people claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. The percentages are startling, to be sure, and many find themselves wondering, “will the church survive?” Christian leaders quite appropriately view this exodus of young people with alarm, and wonder how we have failed and how we can do better. I find myself wondering what this means for World Mission Prayer League and our next generation of missionaries. Let me share with you something that may surprise you: I’m encouraged! Indeed, I’m excited for the future of Christian mission and our role in it.
I was recently blessed to teach at Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute, and to speak at the Association Free Lutheran Bible School. I found enthusiastic communities of young believers who were more mindful of modern developments than we are, who know themselves to be a counter-cultural minority, and who are eager and emboldened to take on the challenging task of being Christ’s witnesses in a post-Christendom world where they face opposition unlike anything North American Christians have faced before. I became convinced that as God reveals his grace and calling to them, they will become a “lean and mean” missionary force. They may not be many in number, but they will be well prepared – indeed uniquely prepared and equipped – to follow their Lord’s call to the nations.
“The more, the better,” we sometimes say. Quite often that’s true, and sometimes we’re inclined to think the same in mission work. After all, didn’t Jesus tell his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” “Pray therefore,” he said, “that the Lord would send out laborers…” (Matthew 9:37,38). Believe me, I’m all for having more missionaries, particularly those called to Gospel frontiers, but as we’re praying for the “new” let us also pray for the “few.” I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t direct us to ask the Lord to send out more laborers, but only to “send out laborers.” He gets to decide how many.
In our North American context God may be choosing to call and send out “few,” and specifically the “few” who are the notable minority from this new generation who are attuned to his love for them, his desire for the nations, and his calling to service. These few are the “lean and mean” of our future missionary force. They are accustomed to facing opposition, and, as some have shared with me, they are even thankful for that opposition which has helped refine their faith and sense of calling. They understand their shared identity in Christ to be more about community and movement than institution. They are inspired to find that they have things in common with the 1st century Christians in the Book of Acts. At the same time, they are gifted with abilities and sensitivities that equip them uniquely for mission in the 21st century. They are technologically adept. They are more accustomed to intercultural engagement than previous generations. They are ready to risk. They are ready for the new adventure that God is writing into his story for the world and his mission in it.
If you doubt me about seeing strength in smaller numbers, consider how God chose to work for and through Gideon when he faced the massive Midianite army in the Valley of Jezreel. You may very well know the story as it’s found in chapters 7 and 8 of Judges. God reduced Gideon’s forces from 22,000 soldiers to a mere 300! Even after Gideon cut his army to 10,000, God told him, “there are still too many men… I will sift them for you.” After his unique “sifting” was over, God said, “with these 300 men I will rescue you and give you victory.”
I ask myself: “As the number of church-goers diminishes in North America, is the Lord of Hosts and Harvests doing some “sifting?” Is he raising up from this generation a “lean and mean” missionary force uniquely sized and prepared to follow his Spirit’s lead? God’s promises, along with the history of his global mission, tell me that it must be so.
Finally, we will do well to recognize one more thing about how God brought victory to Gideon’s “lean and mean” fighting force. As the thousands of soldiers not to be sent into battle returned to their tents, the 300 soldiers who had been selected for the mission “took over the provisions and trumpets of the others” (Judges 7:8). God’s plan for victory required only 300 men, but utilized the resources of thousands. Regardless of our generation or station, regardless of whether we go or stay, we all have a part to play, a calling to obey, in our gracious Lord’s mission to the nations. Please pray for the “lean and mean” of this generation with whom God wants us to engage. Pray that he will “sift” them out and point them toward the nations. And pray that HE will transform us in the Prayer League for our role in calling, equipping and sending them.