Recent articles from Barna, Alban and Gallup highlight a growing trend in young America — a deep desire to be engaged in activities that make a positive contribution to others and that yield immediate results. We are witnessing a shift from passivity to engagement — not a new phenomenon, but the normal upswing of a recurrent cycle that takes about forty years to complete. The same fervor that moved Baby Boomers to protest in the 1960s appears to be fueling a similar unrest in the first decade of the twenty-first century. For the contemporary young adult, actions speak louder than words.
A concurrent trend in mainline U. S. churches may reveal a disconnect between the “us” of church folk and the “them” of twenty- and thirty-somethings: a decline in “missions” and mission-related interest. Post-Katrina giving to special needs and missional priorities is waning and, in the face of recession-depression rumblings and sky-rocketing fears, is likely to decrease further. Couple that with the fact that fewer middle-aged-and-older people are volunteering for mission-type activities (preferring instead to give money and pay others to do it) and the picture for the future looks bleak. What young people crave more and more, the church is offering less and less.
The whole concept of “missions” in the United States is an object lesson in ambiguity. From the root, missio, “to send away,” missions in the Christian tradition were considered the work of taking the good news to new places (also, the definition of apostleship). From the first century onward, the good news was not merely the message of Christ, but the function and action of Christ — giving not only the emotional/spiritual grace of comfort, healing, hope, and encouragement, but also the physical food, shelter, resources, and knowledge to improve all aspects of life. In the development of the Roman Catholic vision of missions, the Epistle of James offered a guidebook — instructing missionaries to offer food for the body as well as for the spirit. The work of the church — the whole church — was to provide missionary outreach where lives and souls could be saved. Never intended to be a “program” of the church, missions was the reason for the church’s existence — to be the body of Christ incarnate for the world — to go to the rest of the world as Christ came to us.
In America, by the late 17th and early 18th century, missionaries were an elite and elect group, often supported by a church or congregation, and the work of missions became representational — a few brave souls did “mission work” for the folks back home. By the mid- to late-twentieth century, missions (for many) became nothing more than a line-item in the annual budget. But there is a reawakening to the centrality of missions to the identity of the people called Christian.
I received an e-mail recently from a young woman I had in my youth group years ago. She and her two younger sisters were delightful young women — the kind of teenagers every youth leader would die for. I haven’t spoken to any of them in years, but God’s grace is amazing, and you never know when you might plant a seed that takes root and changes lives. This is part of what she wrote:
“My family got together recently and we started talking about old days and your name came up. I have been living in Honduras for the past eighteen years, working with the poor and illiterate, and I told my sisters that a major reason for it was your influence. Jill said, “Get out!” and then she said that the reason she worked with children was also because — in part — of things she learned in youth group. Beth jumped in and said that she started volunteering (she is a real Mother Teresa — you can’t believe it) because of youth group and never stopped. I wanted to let you know that you made a huge impact on three lives. Each one of us remembers something you said (or what we think you said) that stayed with us for all this time. I remember you saying that being a missionary wasn’t any different than being a true Christian believer — you don’t go away to do missions, but you become a Missionary in Daily Life (her caps, not mine…) serving Christ in whatever way possible with everyone you meet. Jill remembered you saying that “faith that lacks an outward and visible expression isn’t faith, but pretense,” and Beth remembers you telling us that if we want God to know that we love him, we don’t just tell him, but we show him by the way we use our gifts and opportunities to serve his children.” Anyway, I just wanted to get back in touch to let you know that you helped create three Missionaries in Daily Life.”
It was really nice and gratifying to get such a blast from the past – in part because I don’t remember actually saying any of those things (though I agree with them all). I think I’m just surprised to find out that they listened to anything I said when I led youth group… However, many similar tales are plentiful in the modern-day emerging and house church movements — young people seeking community that equips, empowers, and supports them to be missionaries in daily life. One fascinating phenomenon is the undertow these movements exert, pulling many forty-, fifty-, sixty- and seventy-somethings along with them — people of all ages and stations in life who are bored with a passive church existence who want to get active in the name of the Christ.
Churches that are creating a viable and attractive future are offering a MiDL way — providing the context and resources necessary to help people become “missionaries in daily life.” The shift from the passive to the active is nothing new — this cycle of development is as old as the church itself. An active outreach moves people into the world, the movement becomes institutionalized, people enjoy the comforts of being on the inside, and then they grow dissatisfied with the status quo and begin looking for new challenges. It appears, based on many indicators, that we are experiencing an upward swing back out into the world, and it will be interesting to see who gets ahead of the curve, who rides the crest, and who gets left behind. But one thing is for sure, there are an awful lot of motivated young people wanting to make a difference in the world who aren’t going to wait for us to wake up.