By Doug Priest
When I was in college, my grandparents moved from their small farm into the Senior Estates in nearby Woodburn, Oregon. You had to be 55 or older to live in Senior Estates. Back then, I thought 55 was getting along in years. Time flies, and I could have moved into those same Senior Estates some years ago.
Several missions trends have implications for Christians who are seniors.
• The Christian center of gravity has shifted from the north to the south. In 1900, 80 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America. By 2000, only 40 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America. Today there are more Christians in the southern part of our world than the northern.
The definition and task of a missionary has been expanded. Since today’s church is so widespread geographically, most missionaries now go and work alongside other Christians. This means they do not need to be pioneer church planters so much as partners with national Christians.
You can go to the mission field now and stay as long as the task you are doing requires. If you go as an accountant, for example, your task might be to audit the books, set up a financial system for the national church, train another accountant, or help with bookkeeping for a specific project. Many such projects can take anywhere from one week to one year, or perhaps two years, and are invaluable contributions.
• Globalization. The world is smaller than ever before. The world is better connected.
My wife and I went to Kenya as missionaries back in the days before e-mail. It took a week for a letter sent from America to arrive at the nearest post office, a three-hour drive away. Every two or three weeks we got our mail. Of course, much of the mail required a response, which we would send on our next visit to the post office. That meant the turnaround time could be as much as six or seven weeks. With e-mail (and satellite phones, if there is no electricity), responses can be instantaneous.
On a recent trip to Kenya, we visited a Maasai village. I was shocked at how many villagers spoke English. Thirty years ago, when we first went to Kenya, very few Maasai people spoke English. Now, many of the men, women, and children do so.
Today, even when you go to remote areas on the other side of the world, you can communicate easily with people. Not only is communication much easier, but many more people speak English. You do not need to learn a foreign language to be able to make a significant contribution in missions. Even if the audience does not speak English, interpreters do. Of course, learning some language is a distinct benefit in identifying with your new neighbors and colleagues.
A large and rapidly growing staff of 200 Kenyans works among the urban poor in Nairobi—teachers, social workers, clerical assistants, medical personnel, microfinance workers, and community health evangelists. With such a large staff, each person must be on the same page, know where he is going, and know his role and the roles of others. You need to know your gifts, your job, and understand teamwork and interpersonal communication.
• Mission term lengths have been redefined.
It used to be that the missionary term length was four years, with a year of home service, followed by another four years on the field. At CMF, we used to define a long-term missionary as one who served for 20 years. Today, we define a long-term missionary as one who serves for a term of two years or longer! Mission term lengths now range from a week all the way up to three or four years.
• Holistic ministry.
Today there is an emphasis on holistic ministry, often called transformational ministry. This trend reflects a change in thinking from an earlier unfortunate distinction between evangelism and social action. In previous decades and generations, there was a misguided sense that one needed to choose between evangelism and social ministry. Seldom were the two ministries seen as compatible. Today, thankfully (and following the pattern of Jesus, I might add), that is no longer the case.
A missionary can be involved in transforming individuals and communities. He or she can help with relief work, community development, benevolence, justice, and caring for God’s creation. All of these things fall within the realm of missions.
People used to say, “I cannot be involved in missions because I cannot preach or evangelize people.” Such an excuse does not cut it today. God can use us to expand his kingdom in a variety of ways.
Reread Scripture and look for the instances when Jesus, as well as the prophets, were involved in ministry to the poor, the downtrodden, the widows, and orphans. This stream of care flows through the history of the Bible. If it was OK for Jesus, surely it is OK for us!
Since there are a variety of term lengths, missions can be done for probably significantly less money than you would expect. Short-term trips can be relatively inexpensive. You can use some of your own money and not have to raise funds for a large budget. And even though you may not need to raise a lot of money, many mission agencies will come alongside of you and be available to offer guidance in the process. Some positions are even paid positions.
You may be saying to yourself, This all sounds interesting, but I don’t have a clue about what I should do as the next step. My response would be to jump in and get started on research. Begin networking. Begin asking questions. Talk to your minister or professors from the nearest Bible college. Contact some mission agencies.
You might be surprised at the great opportunities. You might think that you could never work for Pioneer Bible Translators because you don’t know Greek or Hebrew and don’t have years to dedicate to reducing an unwritten language to writing. But PBT has many positions for people to help in logistics, purchasing, dorm care, and so on. FAME takes people on trips to fields where they can assist in medical work along with many other opportunities.
In fact, the opportunities are endless. And you probably have noticed I haven’t mentioned some of the involvements in missions that you might have expected. I do not mean to minimize the importance of prayer and financial giving. Those are very important. But my focus has been to paint a larger picture for direct involvement.
You Can Make a Difference
If you are considering being involved in missions, I want you to know you can make a real difference. In the schools in Kenya, or in many other places, students look up to their elders. They respect age. Young people need grandparents. You can be wonderful mentors.
The greatest contribution you can make is not your skills, but your person—your love, graciousness, and willingness to play a secondary role and not go in as the know-it-all ugly American. What you are, in fact, is the gospel incarnate. You represent Jesus Christ. You would be attempting to live the Christian life to the benefit of the ones among whom you are serving.
God bless you on the journey. Let’s get busy!
Doug Priest is the executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship, a contributing editor for Christian Standard, and still a kid at heart. This article is adapted from a workshop presented at Mayfest, Oregon Christian Convention, April 2010.