Q. Why are missionary numbers going down?

This request has come to me more than a few times this month. I have checked with my good friends in missionary research, Michael Jaffarian and Bert Hickman (researchers associated with Operation World and the World Christian Encyclopedia) to double-check my own understanding. Here’s the consensus:
1. Missionary deployment from the United States is not precisely declining. They’ve been in the vicinity of 40,000 (on the Protestant side) from the USA (I don’t have Catholic sending readily to hand). They peaked around 44,500 in 1988, then declined to about 38,000 around 1992, and after that have shown a slight-but-steady increase since then. One source for analyzing this is the North American Mission Handbook, which is published about every three years (and another edition is in the works).
Update: in this Tweet from Gina Zurlo at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, she says 127,000 missionaries are sent from the USA. This includes Catholics. I wouldn’t do a direct subtract from the 40,000 above, as the two numbers come from two different methodologies and different times, but at least it gives you some idea. Also, the link goes to their report which has sending by continent.
2. Some components of missionary deployment have been declining steadily for years, mainly the number of missionaries sent out by the mainline churches.
3. Many more evangelical missionaries are now being sent out directly through smaller agencies and from individual churches, and these are not showing up in many of the existing statistical measuring systems. I’m not sure how the Mission Handbook will deal with this in the next edition. For some time, however, it’s been known that a minority percentage of missionaries do this (for example, I know one missionary family that was rejected from many agencies and so formed their own agency and went–and were quite effective on the field).
4. The statistics I’ve cited above include people deployed for 4 years or longer. There appear to have been a slight decline in those deployed for 1 month to 4 years. No one measures the short-term trip takers (e.g. 2 weeks), but Michael told me about one study he saw that estimated those at 1.5 million per year.
5. Another factor impacting missionary deployment statistics is longevity on the field; I’ve written about this before. People are coming back faster than ever, for a variety of reasons. We wonder why people don’t have the “stick-to-it-ness” of those in days gone by, but one possibility is this: the ease of travel means people don’t have to make the same kinds of commitment to the field as people had to when it took a year to get to their station.
The bottom line is this: I don’t see that the number of missionaries sent from the USA is dramatically declining; in fact, it may very well be growing amongst certain groups. However, neither is it growing dramatically – certainly not to the levels “needed.” The West will never field all the missionary workers needed, so we need to think about how to use our existing force strategically to stimulate more workers and more works from other places closer to the harvest.


6 COMMENTS

  1. I suspect if a good count could be made and include the independent/lone rangers out there the numbers are higher than one might think. I was one of them for many years! Further, the number of intentional business workers is a growing area that needs to be counted.
    I do agree that shorter length of field service is happening.
    Dealing daily with those in missionary transition and studying worker retention, I agree that funding is a major factor. However, I see family-driven transitions as a departure from service cause. Younger workers seem to be tending to do 2-4 years on the field and then return to a “real” job. Student loan debt might be a factor in those decisions. It is hard to raise adequate support and pay off multiple years of loan debt.
    Do you have any data on 2nd career “finisher” worker trends?
    We need to keep asking questions, seek God and find HIS solutions.

  2. Ted Miller says:

    From observation (no statistics), there are more people willing to go, and more people willing to stay on the field than there are people willing to support them financially. I personally know of multiple “units” that have either tried and failed to raise support, or didn’t bother trying because they didn’t feel their chance of success made it worth expending the effort. I also know of several “units” whose decision to leave the field was heavily weighted by falling support levels.
    Again without statistics to prove it, my gut feeling is that fund-raising is the major factor keeping the numbers down. Part of that may also be that the kinds of missionaries are changing. 60 years ago the primary needed person was an extroverted pastor-type to go out and plant churches. Today many of us are in support roles, with the extroverted pastor-type roles having been turned over to nationals. The extroverted pastor-type had a lot easier time getting people excited about his work planting churches in native villages in ____ than those of us (many of us introverted ‘geek’ types) in support roles have in getting people excited about how our support roles have made the ministry of the national pastor-type guys easier, especially if we work with a lot of them, but don’t “make or break” any of their ministries.

    • Justin Long says:

      There’s significant anecdotal evidence from my own experience to support the idea that this is a big part of it. A lot of the people in my Challenge survey are citing Finances as their #1 challenge (raising them, etc). Interestingly enough Kingdom Come Training (which we use at ActBeyond) offers a guarantee that you’ll get to 100% support (if you use their coaching, or your money back). And their training is pretty good.

  3. #3 is a real issue. We were sent out of our local church. We now work for a network that has a partnership with a small non denominational sending structure.

    • Justin Long says:

      It will become an even bigger issue if the IMB is successful in its current efforts at enabling the sending of “limitless” missionaries.

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