Monday, May 07, 2012

Is Missions An Old Mans Game?

To take off from an earlier post on missions and youth, I propose that maybe missions is more effective as an old man’s/woman game.

A few years back I was in Bolivia and met up with a guy in his mid-seventies.  He had been on the field for forty years and his sending agency wanted him to retire and return to the states.

“Why would I do that,” he wondered?  “I have some brothers and sisters back in the states, and of course some of my children, but I have no ties to the states.  I’d rather finish out my life here than some missionary retirement home in Florida.”

Carl’s support had dropped over the years as churches and donors dropped him to support younger missionaries.  He and his wife live on a modest income, but own their home in Santa Cruz.  Though this veteran admits he can’t physically do the things he did three decades ago, he still meets with pastors every day.  He counsels, encourages and teaches often.  What he has forgotten about missions is more than most first termers will ever learn. 

I’ve met many missionaries like Carl down through the years.  The eighty year old single woman in Kenya in 1978 who still drives the back roads among the Masai told me she has no plans on going back to the states as her “family” and friends all live in Kenya.  Or Marjorie who still rides a horse, though not as often, in the backside of Brazil for over fifty years.  Working with several organizations in South Asia the most effective national leader I know is in his eighth decade of life.  Apart from the physical challenges, these older folks are still making a significant contribution for the Kingdom around the world.

I am not suggesting that in every case older people are preferred over younger missionaries.  Of course the future of missions is to the young and not to those who are “too old to cut the mustard anymore.”  However, I can make the argument that, in some cases, older missionaries are preferable than those who are just now in their second decade of life.  Why?

First, life experience does count for something.  The young, in their twenty’s are, what a friend described as “pre-life” people, often have more zeal than knowledge.  In any profession those with experience are often more desirable in the workforce than those who just out of school.  Having once been a young person myself, I agree that it’s hard to have experience unless you are given a chance to prove yourself, but to put all your mission eggs in the basket of the young I think is unwise stewardship and not particularly strategic in furthering the Great Commission.

In the Western culture we adore the young and dismiss the old.  I think one of the reasons two week short-term mission trips are so popular is because the church can give kids something to do as they try to find their way in life.  Okay, good argument.  However, in most other cultures of the world, old age (anywhere between forty and eighty), are those who are respected.  Even Jesus didn’t have anything to say in His culture until He was thirty.  Youth is good.  Maturity is better when it comes to effectiveness on the field.

Third, older missionaries have the skills that will take the young at least ten years to acquire.  They have the language, have learned the rules of culture, the do’s and don’ts that only time provides.  Veterans are not enamored with the trends of missions that get everyone excited back in the states.  Senior missionaries year-by-year slog it out working with nationals, discipling new converts and building on a foundation they have established.  Why would any supporting church in the states diminish the efforts of seasoned missionaries just because they served for over thirty years?

I am very much aware that there are some older missionaries who should retire.  Just because they have seniority doesn’t make them effective.  Some old missionaries were not effective thirty years ago and are just comfortable being ineffective, as they grow older.  Since there are precious few mission dollars available, if an old retiree doing nothing is standing in the way of new career missionaries getting on the field, then, by all means, they should step aside and let the new generation take over. 

I am not yet a part of that old generation, but, admittedly, closer to them than the pre-life folks.  I’d like to think that when I get to that place in life, where the spirit is still willing but the body says it’s time to back it in, that I will have the wisdom to get off the stage.  My thoughts in this blog is that we recognize that missions is not just a young man’s game and that those who have been around a few years have much to offer.  That veteran may be the most strategic part of a churches outreach and is just as worthy as a young person and maybe more.   

Like an old professor of mine said, lying in the hospital, “Just about the time we learn how to live, it’s time to die.”  The wisdom and experience of the older missionaries makes missions an old man’s game. ­

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