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Brought home: impermanence

I’ve been thinking a lot about the friends and acquaintances who went into overseas missions, and have wondered how they would respond to my challenge for the church to bring them home. In order to begin the process of contacting them about this series, I made a list of names and mission fields and their current status.

What I discovered was startling: of the 20 names on my list, only six were still overseas, one family was in the process of returning to Canada and the rest had returned to Canada some time ago. Suddenly, the prospect of writing about overseas missionary retention had changed, and I realized that, although not scientific, my survey does reveal that only a third of the missionaries – who to a person headed overseas with great ambition and purpose – remain.

I found myself stopped cold by the statistic, which tells me that overseas missionaries of my generation are not remaining overseas. Is it representative of the missions field as a whole?

There is increasing pressure on worldwide mission agencies to retain their staff. In 2010, the World Evangelical Alliance fielded the second instalment of ReMAP, or the Worldwide Missionary Retention Study and Best Practices, which surveyed 40,000 missionaries from 600 missions agencies across 22 countries. The 10-year, comprehensive study (which is available online) reveals two general findings that are particularly relevant: first, the average agency keeps 94 percent of its people year after year, but across 10 years loses 46 percent; and second, there is a general increase in missionaries who leave for preventable reasons. Given that my friends are 10-15 years out from training and university, the ratio I’ve encountered isn’t too far off from those worldwide figures.

Generally speaking, organizations that place greater emphasis on training and field orientation are getting better at retaining staff, but even those organizations are discovering how hard it is to keep people overseas, particularly in the face of “preventable loss,” such as burnout, psychological, emotional and spiritual issues, lack of funding and a host of other things driving/bringing missionaries home.

When I survey my list of those who have returned home, the preventable category certainly dominates the trend: to a person, they simply chose to come home and pursue opportunities here rather than continuing their missions overseas.

The preventable reasons are not necessarily negative, but they do reveal a decreasing commitment by people of my generation to remain overseas. Being offered a new job, wanting to have children in Canada for medical reasons, returning home in the face of unspeakable family tragedy or even running out of money are all legitimate opportunities and challenges, but in theory, given the right support, none are insurmountable. Yet as I was growing up, there seemed to be a greater assumption that difficulties and opportunities were to be taken in stride and weighed against the overall mission. When we’d hear about missionaries facing difficulty, the default response was that if we answered the call, God would take care of our needs.

Which is true, of course, but I think younger Christians are more comfortable with weighing their and their family’s needs against the challenges of remaining in the field. This doesn’t reflect a diminished faith, of course, but that personal choice and responsibility are now viewed more as strength than liability.

Vague uneasiness
There is also a greater comfort with shrugging off the negative forces that can drive traditional models of overseas missions: family legacy, vocational guilt, colonial attitudes and so on. When Jesus mandates us to minister to the poor, captive, blind and the oppressed in Luke 4, younger generations more easily apply those words to local and community needs and issues of social justice, rather than giving in to what Robert Hendrickson calls the “vague uneasiness” that contemporary Christians can carry to missions.

While there is a legitimate critique to be made of individualism, this self-awareness also allows further generations a clearer vision to look first around themselves and at their church communities. Which is a desperately needed shift in focus, one that challenges the traditional Reformed model of looking inwards to our congregations, outwards to the needy foreigners, and upwards towards our denominational structures. (Structures that often resist change: it says something that the CRC Office of Social Justice website allocates 325 words to the roots of global poverty but only 179 for the domestic side.)

In other words, it would be shortsighted to view the decline in overseas missions as a failure. We’re not losing missionaries; they’re simply coming home to serve.

  • Brent spent six years in the Middle East and Asia teaching, writing, and trying to make sense of the borders people create. A graduate of Redeemer University College and the Humber School of Writers, he is now working towards an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia. He works and lives in the Westdale neighbourhood of Hamilton with his wife Rosalee and baby daughter Nora. For more information, follow him on Twitter@brentvans or visit www.brentvanstaalduinen.com.

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