Cross-cultural evangelism is a demanding task that requires our best people. It is essential as we seek to be faithful to the mission of God that we search for the very finest people among us to mobilize for the demanding task. Through the years a large percentage of the workers who have gone out to other cultures have come from the ranks of university students. One great example of this in Protestant circles was the tremendous success of the Student Volunteer Movement toward the end of the 19th Century. Thousands were mobilized and went abroad in the name of Christ.
Our experience in churches of Christ a century later is that university students are still a prime source for missionary candidates. Ideally the molding of missionaries needs to begin at a much earlier age, but the homes and local churches in our fellowship are not cooperating on a large scale to realize this possibility. The majority of our Christian young people experience their first real contact with the possibility of missionary service for their lives on our university campuses. How do we mobilize this large pool of potential workers to fulfill the mission of our God?
It may be worth a few moments to identify some factors that impede recruiting efforts. Random polls at Abilene Christian University make it evident that an increasing percentage of students lack a sense of urgency concerning the lost. In fact, many young people coming from our Christian homes and local congregations have no real conviction that human beings are lost without Christ. Without this sense of lostness mobilization for God's mission is extremely difficult.
The cultural emphasis on materialistic security which now permeates our churches is another serious barrier. Parents encourage their children to prepare to make a good living rather than to live a life that will bless others. Any sense of personal sacrifice or risk-taking is an alien idea. Even when missions becomes a serious option many students want to "hedge their bets" by choosing a marketable major rather than doing serious academic preparation for a lifetime commitment. Few people today are willing to make cross-cultural evangelism a lifetime vocation, choosing to serve for a temporary period overseas before they get on with their lives.
Students are also aware that, given the anemic commitment to missions in the majority of our local congregations, funding for necessary personal support can be quite tenuous. Another obstacle is the stereotype of missionaries as misfits or generally inept people, which causes many young people to avoid missions. A final reality is the increasing number of our students who come from backgrounds of broken homes, drug experimentation, sexual immorality and abuse, all of which leave them emotionally scarred and perhaps unable to meet the rigors of cross-cultural adaptation and stress.
Our recruitment efforts must overcome these barriers if we are going to involve quality people in the mission of God. Regardless of the obstacles or challenges, the urgency of our task demands that we do our best to mobilize students to the great work God has given us.
There are three things that all of us who teach and encourage students concerning world evangelism must do to overcome these barriers. We must teach in a compelling way the biblical truth about lostness. We must demonstrate in our own personal lives that material security is not to be valued. We must see that students are exposed to good role models of effective missionaries to destroy the stereotype of ineptness that pervades the thinking of many.
Now, what can we do on our campuses to aggressively mobilize the potential army of workers that surrounds us? Over the years at Abilene Christian we have developed the following ideas and activities that have been integrated into what we might call a stratified approach to missions mobilization of students. Most of these concepts are being used on other campuses. Perhaps the only uniqueness of this approach is the use of all of them simultaneously to provide stratified options for missions involvement to all of our students, regardless of their level of missions interest.
A balanced, stratified program of missions involvement for students must begin at a non-threatening level. Over the years we have used a general missions interest meeting variously called Mission Study, Mission Outreach, and finally World Christian Fellowship. Over the last few years we have seen the development of more specific area interest groups meeting on a bi-weekly basis. As these geographically focused groups gained in popularity the general missions interest group began to lose ground and was discontinued. The focused groups for Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America seem to meet the needs of students who have a general interest because they can visit the different groups to get a view of what is happening in the various regions. The advantage is that it also meets the need of more focused students because they are able to gain more specific information on areas that are of particular interest to them.
Another broad based approach that we initiated several years ago is the World Christian class, taught in the academic program to satisfy required Bible hours. It is offered in two sections usually totaling well over one hundred students each semester. It is team taught, using a large number of people with varying expertise to challenge students with the lostness of the world and offering specific ways to be involved in God's mission both as senders and as those sent out. The great advantage of this type of class is that it involves young people who have not given much thought to missions, and allows an entire semester to challenge them with ideas and concepts that can truly change their lives.
Another activity which we consider to be important is the annual World Mission Workshop hosted on the various Christian college campuses. It provides an opportunity to encourage students who might be mildly interested in missions to participate in a relatively low cost activity but one which has considerable intensity. Many young people have been influenced to serve abroad through its more than thirty year history. It is essential that this workshop keep a strong focus on cross-cultural evangelism and church planting rather than become a forum for popularizing peripheral ministries or overemphasizing domestic outreach. This is a unique and valuable forum that must remain true to its historical purpose. It gives students a rare glimpse of the possibility of greater personal involvement in missions while demonstrating that there are a lot of other students with the same interest.
The next level up in this stratified approach is the short spring break campaigns, which are very popular with our students. In the ACU context this is a Student Association project managed almost entirely by the students. The value of the experience varies from group to group with quality control being something of a problem. However it does involve a large number of students with over five hundred participating last year. The majority work in a domestic setting but a few groups have gone to nearby countries. This exposure to ministry and outreach has very positively impacted many students through the years, and doubtless has contributed to increased interest in domestic missions.
The summer mission campaign experience is the next level. It is important because it gives students the opportunity to go abroad and participate firsthand in the reality of God's world. Many missionaries currently on the field would trace their commitment back to a few weeks spent helping to evangelize in some area of the world when they were a college student. Campaigns are valuable because they offer an authentic experience that is well within the reach of the average student. Campaign models vary widely in approach and duration, but the key ingredient for a successful experience is that the student be able to see the need and effectiveness of evangelizing in another culture. Getting to see poverty and spiritual need firsthand is a powerful influence on impressionable students. Campaigns can be done poorly, so it is important that they be well planned and integrated effectively into the local work. They should respect sound missiological principles and work in the local language whenever possible. It is very likely that the major benefit from campaigns is the positive effect that it has on the students who participate.
Rapidly growing in popularity is the summer missions internship, which offers the opportunity for students to spend two to three months observing and participating in a foreign work. Disadvantages include financial and time cost factors, with the loss of summer employment possibilities, but the advantages for students with a higher interest level are numerous. The student is able to spend more time in the cross-cultural setting and get more exposure to the reality of adjusting to a new culture, learning language, and understanding how the missionaries go about their work. It should always be a guided approach with planned supervision, rather than just spending the summer in an exotic place. Interns are expected to contribute to the work in any way that is appropriate to their entry-level capabilities, and should be debriefed after the experience.
One of the opportunities that has been in use for some time is the two- year missionary apprentice program. Our MARK Program has been functioning for fifteen years and has sent out around one hundred fifty students for this in-depth missions experience. Two-year workers discover what it is really like to be a missionary, learning language to the point of fluency, adjusting to cultural differences and participating in the mission effort in some measure as co-workers. This opportunity seems to be attracting fewer students in recent years, perhaps because of the commitment required. It is an excellent experience for students seriously interested in missions to determine if this is the way God would have them utilize their skills in His service for a lifetime.
In addition to these experientially based programs it is important to emphasize the academic opportunities available. Although designed for training rather than recruiting, the academic program is crucial in offering potential students the opportunity to be well trained for the task of cross-cultural evangelism. The concept of adequate training is inherent in the concept of mobilizing. The Missions Seminar program, which is offered every June for four weeks of intense missions training, has been a tool for recruiting as well as training. Non-mission students who take a missions class in Seminar to fill some academic requirement often find themselves exposed to missions in such a way that their interest begins to grow.
One other aspect of the recruiting/mobilizing concept that must be addressed is the formation of committed students into viable teams who actually make it to the field. This is doubtless the most complicated step in the process. Team formation and development requires careful nurturing and guidance. Countless people who have been interested and committed have never made it to the field because they never made it through this process. We are becoming much more knowledgeable about the dynamics involved in putting together successful teams, but it is still a challenging facet of the mobilization process.
Clearly it is pointless to have a host of fine programs in which students can participate unless they are motivated to take advantage of the opportunities. The most important link in recruiting and mobilizing our young people for God's mission is the first step. Many things compete for the attention of students with their busy schedules and plethora of extra-curricular activities. Many things can be done to involve them in a missions experience, including the use of various types of publicity. However, the most successful involvement technique is probably student to student recruiting. Establishing a core group of committed students will make it much easier to enlarge the group and involve increasing numbers.
May we all continue to work together toward the end of improving our capability to call young people into God's service for His glory and the blessing of the lost throughout the earth.