We love global missions at desiringGod.org. And missions is a huge priority for you, Pastor John. In fact, I think this episode will go live online at about the same time you’ll be traveling to Indianapolis to speak at the 2016 Cross Conference.
So it’s no surprise, we get a lot of questions from missionaries in the field, and a number of questions from missionaries in training, and a fair number of questions from college students who are interested in giving their lives to missions. Today’s question comes from a podcast listener named Amy, who writes, “Pastor John, I’ve recently noticed that the number of women going to the nations far outweighs men. I looked for more statistics on this, and struggled to even find information. If this is the case, what are your thoughts on this trend, and what do you think are the most probable causes?”
Well, whatever the case among Roman Catholics who have the peculiar views about celibacy, whatever the case about Roman Catholics or liberal Protestants who, by and large, don’t do missions in order to convert people to Christ, the case among evangelicals, and faith missions in particular is, as Amy hints, contained in this joke.
Two-thirds of active missionaries are married couples. Another third are single women. The rest are single men. Well, if that went by too fast, two thirds plus one third doesn’t leave any room for single men. And it is only a joke in part because it is almost that way.
To be more accurate, the actual situation among most evangelical faith missions is that between 80–85 percent of all single missionaries are women. It is a rare thing, like two out of every 10, for a single man to make missions his life’s vocation, which results in the overall statistics being that one-third of those in evangelical world missions are married men, one-third are married women, and 80 percent of the last third are single women. Which means that something just less than two-thirds of the total missionary force are women.
Now, why is that? And I think the most honest answer would be: I don’t know. And if the research has been done to get the answers, I am not aware of it. So, let me just give two opinions. Everybody should know these two things are flying under the banner: opinion, not strong conviction. And then I will end with a challenge to men.
1) Opinion number one: Let’s start with the observation that many single women in missions would like to be married, not all. Some regard it as a divine calling to serve as a single woman, and they have no intention of even hoping or praying toward marriage. And I thank God for that and for them. But many would like to serve in missions side by side with a similarly called and devoted husband. But by and large, it is men who propose marriage. Women have less control over being married than men do—they can always say no, but I mean taking the initiative in a positive way. Therefore, the single missionary woman who would like to be married is not exactly in the same position as a single missionary man who would like to be married.
Here is a little anecdote. Elisabeth Elliot—I went down and got this from my wife, because I knew she said this once—Elisabeth Elliot told of an interview she had with Gladys Aylward, a single missionary to China who died in 1970: The Small Woman: Gladys Aylward is the name of one biography. Here is what Elisabeth Elliot said. I think she was talking at Urbana when she said this, “Miss Aylward talked to the Lord about her singleness. She was a no-nonsense woman in very direct and straightforward ways and she asked God to call a man from England, send him straight out to China, straight to where she was, and have him propose to her.” I can’t forget the next line. Elisabeth Elliot said, “With a look of even deeper intensity, she shook her little bony finger in my face and said, ‘Elisabeth, I believe God answers prayer. And he called him.’” And here there was a brief pause of intense whisper. She said, “‘He called him, and he never came.’”
Now, that experience, I would guess, is not unique to Gladys Aylward. So, that is my first opinion, that the disproportion of single missionary women to missionary men is that the initiative of proposing marriage among those two groups, singles, lies with the men and not the women.
2) Here is opinion number two: Many, it seems to me, of those single men probably avoid missions out of the same personal dynamics that keep them single. Among Christian men who do not get married, say, in their 20s and 30s, they are probably held back from that relationship of marriage by—here are my opinions—a sense of inadequacy that they could be a spiritual leader or a fear that they might be rejected as they pursue a relationship or a lack of purpose in life that would give support and meaning in a marriage relationship. Any of those hindrances to forming a long-term commitment of marriage would also explain why he may have a sense of inadequacy about missions or a fear about missions or a lack of purpose about missions.
In other words, the very things that keep a man single in his late 20s and 30s are probably the same kind of things that would keep him from pursuing a life in missions. On the other hand, single women may not feel any of those hindrances. They would happily marry a godly, mature, purposeful, mission-directed man if he came along. But they can’t make that happen without men doing their part.
Now, I am sure the matter is way more complex than those two opinions have hinted at, but those are possible explanations for the disproportionate number in the single missionary force—like 80 percent women and 20 percent men. So, the way I would like to end is by taking the words of Mike Delorenzo who works for Africa Inland Mission (AIM) and close by reading his challenge. Thinking of single men as opposed to single women in missions, he said,
Yes, it may be harder for [men]. Harder to cut through the lies and the apathy. Harder to raise money in a self-reliant society. Harder to enter into relationally-driven cross-cultural missions. Harder to find your ministry in your vocation. But the gospel needs men. The Christian life is a battle, so much so that the Bible calls us to put on armor. And the mission field is a battle field, where a man’s strengths and passions are called upon to be spent for the greatest cause creation has ever known: the cause of Christ and His redemptive work to save this world—and I mean really save this world. It takes courage—courage to step out of your slumber and into the fray. It takes humility—to be willing to fail or at least be deemed a failure by your peers. And it takes strength—more than you know, but not more than God will give you.