Millennials and mission: some thoughts

Over on, Eddie Arthur (experienced missiologist, blogger and more importantly, another ultra-runner) has been once again sharing thought-provoking material. He lays the gauntlet down to us millennials (those born 1982-2000), to give our thoughts on the way ahead with mission and mission agencies.

The problem

Traditional mission agencies are closing left, right and centre in the UK/Europe. Eddie has highlighted how the model started by William Carey in the 18th century, has not really changed since. But now it’s suffering, as big agency after big agency, lays off staff and some even shut doors.

Some of that, is because of new agencies starting (we won’t have time to consider why fully), some presumably is because the Church in the west is (mostly) in sharp decline, and some is because we operate on old models, as I outlined in my last post. This has resulted in organisations like the Irish Mission Agency Partnership, functionally dying a death, despite the evangelical Church in Ireland being in a time of rapid growth (albeit from very small numbers to start with).

An attempt at a solution

Let’s just say that one blog post will never come up with a solution to this problem. Nor will any one person. I have less experience than many of you reading this, and my theology is not as full-orbed or deep at my age either. And I write from a specific context. But, given all that, I’m still going to try.

First, one assumption: mission agencies are necessary things

I’m going to assume that because of the following reasons, we want to persist with charitable bodies that I will call mission agencies:

  • they sharpen the global Church’s focus, when we often are consumed by what is in front of our noses
  • they give expertise in a way that few local churches, individuals or denominations could do
  • when closely linked and in submission to the church (in Acts 13-style mission teams), they can be Biblical
  • despite the disadvantages, mission agencies have many advantages too, such as a brand, prayer base, past experience etc. Good institutions/agencies are very hard to start from scratch!

And so, if you’re still with me, here’s 3 principles I think may help us going forward:

  1. Mission events and agencies need to speak into pre-existing communities more (Local Church, Global Mission)
  2. Mission events and agencies need to know the “why” of what they’re doing (Finding your purpose)
  3. Mission events and agencies need to understand the questions that people are asking (Understanding the questions of the day)

Understanding all 3 of these may be helped by first reading my last post before continuing here. Let me expand on these 3 now:

(image stolen from a friend)
  1. Local church, global mission

Part A) Should an agency turn up to a (church) gathering I’m already going to, I’ll likely be there. The problem with creating extra events for people to attend, is that in some cases, you are actually preventing mission happening rather than helping it. You create extra Christian meetings, so that no-one is sharing any depth of life week by week with their non-Christian colleagues, neighbours and friends. I admit that there will always be necessary meetings that won’t be connected to one individual church, but I do wonder whether our frustration at lack of attendance at these, is more because we haven’t taken the time to work with local churches on such meetings.

Recently I was part of a team who pioneered a student mission-equipping festival in Ireland last year. In attendance were 150 students, and this year it seems that perhaps double that will attend. It was possible, because we speak into pre-existing communities and persuade them of the worth of going. Their leaders persuade their communities and all come together. At the same time, I got a phonecall from another mission agency leader, who offered me large money to bus those hundreds of students 1.5 hours to a different venue, where he would gather 80 mission agency workers and they could chat to them. They then would travel 1.5 hours back to our festival. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the answer I gave (let’s reverse the travel order). Let’s speak into where pre-existing communities are at, and if going outside of that, let’s still work with them.

Part B) Because the younger generations no longer support organisations and institutions so much, it is necessary for those employed in mission agencies to not separate “mobilising” and “mission” so much. The most successful workers in the current generation, I would argue, have mobilised while they are on mission (though I’ve sat through countless counter-arguments to this, and attempts to say that bi-vocational ministry is never good). Let me give one (real) example from a different organisation (names have been made up to protect anonymity).

CASE STUDY 1: mobilising for Jambooli-Ministries International (JMI: reaching some of the least reached people ever)

Old Model: Mobiliser went round 160 prayer meetings (per year) telling the story of their mission workers and organisation [JMI]. They tell of the great things God is doing, share the needs, and pick up €100 at the end of the night. For many churches, they’ll have that worker back again in a year to do the same thing, with a few prayer updates in between. This will no longer work so well because:

  • there are not 160 prayer meetings in churches in most areas, to easily attend. And there are many agencies.
  • The likelihood of someone responding to the need mentioned amongst the Jambooli is not great, given it’s come out of the blue.
  • It it a highly un-relational model and relies on people supporting organisations, which few do anymore.

New suggested model: The mobiliser sees that there are a few Jamboolian people here in Ireland, (that JMI seeks to reach abroad) amongst many others from other cultures. They join or start a ministry alongside churches, seeking to reach these people in Ireland (amongst others perhaps). Through serving in this way, people develop a heart for these people, learn skills, and ponder going longterm to the Jamboolians. It is also highly relational ministry. The JMI mission partners now have prayer support and potential team-mates. At the very least, their prayer supporters are more informed. Disadvantages:

  • mobilising by reaching out at the same time, is a lifestyle, not a job. This could be good, however.
  • In many rural places, it may not be possible to enact this model quite so easily (though Jambooli has farmers/rural business too)
  • The church (or individuals within it) must realise that this training and discipleship opportunity that opens their eyes to unreached peoples, and also trains them in contextual evangelism, must come at a cost, and must be willing to support more than just the “old way” of thrusting €100 in the workers hands per year. Though perhaps the worker could now consider being bi-vocational too, teaching English to Jamboolians here, as a paid job.

Onto (a far more brief) principle 2 for mission agencies going forward:

2. Finding your purpose

Crudely put, to survive as an agency, you must find what your purpose (Unique Selling Point/why) is and make sure you beat that drum. In my first post that you’ve hopefully read by now, the meeting had no USP. I could be passionate about mission, yet happily not go.

Similarly for another Missions conference in Ireland called the “Outreach Conference” in Kilkenny. It came about because decades ago, it was a very lonely experience to reach out as an evangelical in Roman Catholic Ireland, and there were very few workers and very little support. A support conference like that, was gold-dust for such workers. Now, although I went each year and dearly love all those who do, it’s attendance sharply declines, with a few new faces occasionally coming along, propped up by trying to ship in big name speakers from round the world. It has such potential for shaping mission in Ireland, but lacks a new USP. The vision for the new USP should sing from the publicity, and connect with hearers who think “ah…I’d always wanted a network like that!”.

Even for mission agencies, they must re-think their USPs sometimes. As mission is no longer “from the west to the rest” (as it may have been assumed it was by many in the last century) some of the agency worker’s role must be spent on invaluable other things (eg: like helping new Nigerian churches in Ireland, integrate, contextualise and partner well with Irish churches and vice versa) which are different to what they might have done 20 years ago.

Connected into that, our third (and final) brief point for mission agencies going forward:

3. Understanding the questions of the day

John Stott was famous for speaking lots about “double listening”. Having the Bible in one hand and a newspaper [/insert modern method…internet] in the other. He would seek to apply God’s word to God’s world. Without deeply knowing one or the other, God’s voice is not as clearly heard or applied.

I’ve already mentioned in my last post about how this affects the questions we ask non-Christians, but it also affects the questions that young Christians have today too, and how they engage with mission agencies.

And so we must think through this for mission agencies and their workers. They must realise that “come on my organisation’s summer team” cannot be the set answer for everything. Nor can, “signup to pray and give to our organisation“. Yet those are the two incessant things that are pushed at most mission agency stalls I’ve ever visited. Your summer team may indeed be the answer to my questions, but unless you help me to get to see that, the likely reason I will choose your summer team, is because it looks really cool (though more likely than not, with 100 other cool summer teams, I won’t even pick it for that reason). Ironically many of the agencies say that standing at stalls at large Christian festivals is something that bears little visible fruit, yet they still go.

I suggest that we either don’t go, and re-invest the time in relationships. Or that we go, and learn to ask better questions in the context of fresh relationships. I’ll have a separate post on this soon.

In conclusion

“What on earth has any of this got to do with you being a millennial? You’ve just stated 3 [good?] principles but nothing that could not have been stated by an older person.”

Yes and No. The three things I’ve just shared come about because of older models of working, based on things older folks cherished (or passed down by tradition). Perhaps if I were to sum it up:

In the modernist (truth-seeking) era of my grandparents:

  • the mission agency tells you about a need elsewhere
  • the mission agency tells you about a concept of how it does it
  • you pray and support and see that worker in a year (or many years)

In a post-modern (experiential/ individualistic), international world millennials were raised in:

  • (cross-cultural) mission needs are everywhere (including on our doorstep)
  • the agency can model the concept and help us reach out and train us through it
  • we experience deep relationship with the agency through working together

So in other words, the model of mission agencies is outdated, the USPs are often outdated (or not emphasized/known), and the questions that many ask are also outdated.

So in other words, the model of mission agencies is outdated, the USPs are often outdated (or not emphasized/known), and the questions that many ask are also outdated.

The one danger of all I’ve said about this of course, is that you could perhaps acquire the practical bits by secular training (model, USP and questions), and yet not walk closely with God, and not ooze Godly character and spirituality (compared to having acquired the practical bits by wrestling in prayer with a deep love for those you are seeking to partner with, mobilise and learn from). I dichotomise slightly.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Pushback?

I’d love to hear from you, whether in the comments below, or whether in person or from a blog response.

Looking for more along these lines? I have already shared how churches (particularly western evangelical ones) could change to facilitate mission here and here. The whole blog is an attempt to look through God’s mission in this world, through millennial eyes, in particular through the lens of travel – a topic/lifestyle that grips millions of us. Enjoy!

The meetings I won’t travel for

“No-one in the new Irish churches cares about mission!” exclaimed a mission agency representative from one organisation.

Every year we arrange incredible evenings of interactive mission experience, with an incredible speaker from round the world and good worship, and every year we face an empty room on the night. God, awake our nation for mission! Why does no-one care like we do?

You see, that evening I was in two places at the same time. I was on the inside of that circle, feeling frustrated that I’d ‘wasted’ another evening at a random meeting with very few people at it. I was a mission agency representative.

I would say I’m passionate about mission.
I’ve been on short-term mission teams from the age of 15.
I’ve used my holidays intentionally to explore mission.
I’ve trained teams of mission-minded students.
I’ve read several hundred books/papers on mission.
I’ve supported my church leaders seeking to shape the whole church around God’s mission.
I’ve failed endless times at living missionally in my day to day life.
I’ve lectured on mission.

But I was also on the outside of that circle that evening. Because? Because I am a millennial. Standing as the youngest mission agency representative in the circle by a long way, I felt completely baffled to why anyone was frustrated at all! Wasn’t it obvious why the evening had failed (humanly speaking)?

Apparently not.

You work with students, Peter! They have all the free time in the world. Why aren’t they here? Perhaps that’s why tonight failed! Where are they?!

But much as there weren’t many students there (or anyone, for that matter), I had suspicions that the very reason I wasn’t frustrated, may be the reason that they weren’t there too. For we were all (at the time) millennials.

Now, before I get myself into trouble for stereotyping, over-generalising and repeating some unhelpful, vicious attacks on a proportion of our society known as “millennials” (those born between 1980 and 1999), let me caveat this and say that there are obvious nuances of culture, background and much else to be had. I’ll let you apply common sense to what I say. And nope, I haven’t done much research on millennials…I just speak from experience.

But there are some mission gatherings I will not go to.

It’s not because they’re not good gatherings.
It’s not because I think I already know everything (though sadly I often act that way).
It’s not even that I don’t have time (though we all love to repeat that mantra).

Here, I suggest 3 real reasons why millennials like me, don’t go to such gatherings:

  1. Being passionate about mission, means being embedded in community
  2. Being passionate for mission does not equate to being passionate for your organisation
  3. Being passionate about mission, means asking the right questions
  1. Being passionate about mission, means being embedded in community.

I choose to be involved with a number of communities in life. Church community, my sports community, a local travel community and my friendship group. There are some communities I also have no choice about, like family, though for the average millennial in my life, duty-bound ties will never trump chosen ties (though I trust family can be both of these).

Between my sports community and my church community, they have meetings 4 nights a week which I go to, and so when another meeting is scheduled (even in these communities!), I normally am reluctant to go to it, given that life is more than being in meetings. It must grab me enough, that I am persuaded it will impact my life. And that’s me as a single person with more free time than others who have family. I’ve written elsewhere about the trouble of always travelling to [Christian] meetings.

And so random meetings which I don’t see what the ‘Unique Selling Point’ is (or in Simon Sinek’s terms the “why“), will not get me out of my house, particularly if they’re at an unfamiliar venue, with people I don’t know. I may be passionate about mission, but still not attend your mission event. And I see nothing wrong with that.

I may be passionate about mission, but still not attend your mission event. And I see nothing wrong with that.

2. Being passionate for mission does not equate to being passionate for your organisation

You can debate all the reasons you want, and debate whether its a good thing or a bad thing too, but the younger generation like me don’t live by loyalty to organisations. Organisations are often perceived to be hierarchical constructions of a past generation that say very little to where things are at now. Slow-moving, cumbersome, and often more frustrating to work with; my friends would often rather do something without the paperwork, and something that flows from our hearts.

We support those we know on the mission-field. I go to events or things that my friends invite me to. I value authenticity, over an institutional name. I value partnership with others, over preserving a brand-name. I value godly risk-taking and action, over perpetual conservatism and inaction, done for the sake of preservation.

And so I may be passionate about mission, but will never see that as necessitating the support of your organisation, or others. And I see nothing wrong with that.

I value partnership with others, over preserving a brand-name.

3. Being passionate about mission, means asking the right questions

The questions of today’s millennials are different ones to the past generations. And although I quite often describe university students as “apathetic”, I don’t really mean they are apathetic to spiritual questions. It’s just that they’re apathetic to the questions that the last generation persuaded me are “the important questions”. No longer are they asking about “who is Jesus?”, “Did he rise from the dead in history?” or “is the Bible true?”. Those were the modernist’s truth-orientated questions. Yes, they are questions that are central to the gospel, that we cannot abandon, but they are questions that could be considered from other angles. (Kristi and others have better expressed this elsewhere.)

As humans, we are created thinking-beings. We will always have questions, regardless of whether we express them in words or not.

“What does it mean to be human?” invites questions that the modernist would have loved to ask about finding our identity in Christ, and who He is, our maker.

“Is there something more to life?” eventually invites us to consider the resurrection, in order to find purpose in life.

“What is the best grounds for Equality?” invites us to consider the only foundation for equality, found in the scriptures in Genesis 1-2.

“Does Christianity work?” invites us to experience Jesus first-hand in the scriptures, as he walks off the pages by the power of the Spirit.

As humans, we are created thinking-beings. We will always have questions, regardless of whether we express them in words or not.

Because Jesus is Lord over every area of life, He is always only one step away from any conversation, any topic or any question. We have no need to be afraid of other questions, and all questions will lead to Christ (ultimately…but please let’s not get there at a speed that no-one else can follow). Yes, there are some questions that like Christ, we should sidestep, in order to best answer real heart-questions, but let’s not hit people over the head with the old questions of the last generation, claiming it’s what is Biblical. Even I must teach myself this daily, as I work with students of a new generation who are not asking the questions that I was asking!

And so I may be passionate about mission, but will not attend an event or support something that asks the wrong questions. And I see nothing wrong with that.

And back to Ireland….

My prayer that night as we stood in that circle of frustration, not knowing how to escape, was that God would forgive us (who thought we were the most passionate about mission) how cold our hearts were for mission compared to His, and reveal to us afresh how abundantly good His character and gifts are to us, even past what we’ve ever found out.

Why were our hearts cold for mission? Because we forgot to ask the local churches what their questions were about mission, whether they wanted an event like this, and how we could run such things in a way that didn’t become an extra burden to everyone to attend. And when I say “forgot to ask the local churches”, I don’t mean sending them an email to ask what our event can cover. I mean listening to their members’ heartbeats from week to week and knowing them well enough to know the questions that scream from their lives. Sometimes we forget to love others.

I’ll share more concrete thoughts on a way ahead for mission agencies in just a little while. For now, I’ll leave it as the easy half – diagnosing a problem without giving solutions! Oh how easy it is to do this half!