I’m not sure how I ended up on this particular bus. It was Route 767, the one that takes you from the main campus to the freshman campus in the less developed part of the city. I loved the freshman campus because it was the best place for evangelizing new students.
They must have saved the good buses for the other routes because this clunker was ancient. It groaned under the weight of its passengers, it had no air conditioning, and sometimes it would completely and inexplicably stop. I remember one day when we loudly informed the driver that black smoke was coming from underneath the floor and beginning to fill the bus. Thankfully, he heard us. So he stopped the bus, came back to where we were, opened a trap door in the floor, and started trying to fix the engine. We, on the other hand, all decided to get off. We didn’t know where we were, or even how to ask for directions. But there didn’t seem to be any other choice.
I started serving overseas as a missionary in my early 20s. Many times I wondered how I got to the other side of the globe, surrounded by people who didn’t share my language nor my culture. I didn’t even know a whole lot about gospel ministry. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t glad to be there—I was! My 23-year-old mind found obstacles like Route 767 as an adventure, completely worth spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. As I look back 25 years later, I wonder if I hadn’t gone in my 20s whether I would have gone at all.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to questions about cross-cultural missions. When should you go? Where? Who should you go with? These are all important and complex questions. I want to camp out for a minute on that first question: When? Here are my reflections on the benefits and challenges of being a 20-something overseas.
1. A single-minded focus is easier when life is simpler.
When you’re unmarried or married without kids or even married with young kids—life is less logistically complicated. You probably don’t own property or have a lot of stuff. Before I set off overseas, I moved all my worldly possessions into a few boxes in my dad’s basement. I didn’t really think much about it at the time, but this enabled me to focus all my energy on the language, the culture, and the ministry in front of me.
2. Languages seem easier to learn the younger you are.
The science on this isn’t overwhelmingly conclusive, but part of the equation seems to be how easy it is to immerse yourself in a multi-lingual environment. Whether it’s because of changes in our brains or just because the simpler lifestyle lends itself to immersion—getting a younger start on another language seems to be a great idea.
3. 20-somethings can survive on less money, so support goals are lower.
Raising support is a challenge most missionaries have to tackle. Beginning when things are cheaper makes a lot of sense.
4. Ministry environments overseas need people to do a little bit of everything.
You might go from being on the bench in your home context to being a starter overseas. This allows opportunity for learning and growing in teaching, leading Bible studies, discipling, and evangelism.
5. Starting early gives the opportunity for many decades of fruitful ministry.
None of us know how long the Lord might want us to serve in the place he plants us. It seems worthwhile, however, to go with the idea that you will stay as long as you can and be as fruitful as you can.
1. You don’t know what you don’t know!
Ministry requires lots of decisions. So a lack of knowledge and experience can be a hindrance to wise decision-making.
2. You probably have fewer opportunities to be disciples and to observe a healthy church.
This flows from what I just said, and it makes your choice of sending church and agency all the more important. If you don’t have a clear understanding and vision of how to make disciples and plant churches, then you had better be heading to a place where the leaders and teams know how to disciple you in those.
3. Raising support can be more challenging as people are hesitant to give resources to the untested.
Hopefully, church leaders and individual Christians are willing to extend some level of “credit” to a new missionary. They aren’t wrong, however, to want to see a certain level of maturity and fruitfulness before committing more resources to a missionary. And this takes time.
4. You can be pushed into leadership too quickly because of the needs around you.
“Battlefield promotion” is a near constant reality, especially on new mission fields. Without a wise ministry leader, the tyranny of the urgent can lead to giving too much leadership to young people. This often leads to all sorts of problems.
So what do we do? I don’t think the challenges and potential dangers mean we shouldn’t send younger people to the field. I’m thankful for the opportunities I had through my 20s to serve and grow while overseas. But I do think some sending agencies are too eager to send as many missionaries as fast as they can.
Useful questions need to be asked: “Are you thriving in life and ministry here in your home country?” “Which sending agencies have a ministry plan that make sense?” By asking these questions, church leaders can help prospective missionaries evaluate whether they’re ready to go to the field. So make sure you’re a part of a healthy church here before you think about going overseas!
We shouldn’t close this topic without noting that the Lord has seen fit to use young missionaries in the past. Two of my heroes, David Brainerd and Jim Elliot, were extraordinarily fruitful and died at the age of 29. Paul’s words to Timothy ring ever true—don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers.