Does mission recruiting overlook the poor?

*Q. I’m curious to know the socio-economic background of people who are mobilized into missions from North America. In the back of my mind, I wonder if a whole section of believers is overlooked who come from lower class families with little to no financial means. And I wonder how our current missions systems affect this reality.*A few people have asked a similar question of me over the years. I’m not aware of any studies on the subject, although three items have been pointed out to me by friends on Facebook:

(I have not read any of these items, so they may address the topic in far more detail and accuracy then what I am going to here. I recommend availing yourself of them.) I don’t have any broad research on the subject, and I want to avoid availability bias. Still, we can make some assessments based on observable evidence: the people in our own agencies, and the people we run into at various mission conferences and mobilization events. Based on this, it seems obvious “less well off” or impoverished believers–especially minorities–do not tend to make it into most Western mission agencies. Why is more difficult. It’s most likely a variety of factors. I have a few theories, outlined below, and I’m sure more can be identified.

  • In reality, very few mission agencies are large; the vast majority of agencies are small. For these, most recruitment is done by the founder through a close network of relationships. Unless the founder is fairly unique, this circle will be more like them than not. For a founder to be able to sustain an agency, financial resources are required; a founder is more likely to be middle or upper class (in terms of his/her country) than not, and thus the recruits are more likely to come from this strata as well. I honestly think this is the largest factor.
  • Few mission agencies fund their workers; most use a “faith-based” (donation-based) model. No matter how much an agency might wish for people of all strata, the people who actually make it to the field are the people who can raise the funds. If an individual’s network of relationships does not represent enough finances to make this possible, they will almost certainly drop out. It’s an unfortunate reality.
  • The limits of the donation-based model is the expected budget. A lot of Western agencies expect their people to have/raise significant operational budgets as well as personal support. Travel, trainings, education, medical insurance, life insurance, retirement: all of these add up. Plus, many workers are being sent places which are considerably more expensive than where some economically poorer people live; Beijing and Tokyo and Singapore etc. can have significantly higher costs of living than suburb America. We can debate about whether this budget is needed or not; I will say Westerners, with this budget, can do a lot of “cross-pollinating” kinds of work others cannot do.
  • People who are less well off economically may never apply to an agency. They may simply be too busy with work, or think themselves unqualified, or think they could never get the money together for a mission trip. When churches advertise short-term mission trips costing several hundred or thousand dollars, they may reinforce this idea. Most (all?) agencies simply cannot recognize potential talent without an application to reveal it; just as Walmart or Target etc. can’t recognize potential workers until they apply for a job. That application is a strong signal of initiative; but the reality is there are people who would be good candidates, and just think themselves incapable, and so never apply.
  • Larger agencies with a lot of short-term people, and agencies that look for a lower monetary bar, do seem to me to be more diverse. Some agencies have a huge number of people, many of them young. Some of these also tend to recruit for a lower financial perspective: they work with the poor, the oppressed, the addicted, etc., and they have a culture that reminds me of the monastic societies and intentional vows of poverty. Communal living spaces, bases, and so on are the norm. In my observation (no research here), WEC, OM and YWAM tend to conform to this model (some have told me YWAM stands for “Youth Without Any Money”). I’m not saying this is bad; in fact in some ways I think it’s quite good. YWAM, OM and WEC also tend to be multicultural, with strong non-North American influences, and many of these are what some Americans would consider to be poorer in monetary terms.
  • A correlating (not necessarily causal) factor is that many non-White groups in America tend to be less represented in mission agencies. There are many opinions on why this is. Many have told me that for a variety of reasons mobilization of the African American churches in America seems to be difficult. Asians and Hispanics seem to be more represented (even though they are small numbers) in missions. I find this interesting because many Latinos are sent from South America on mission (witness COMIBAM and the like), and Africans (especially Nigerians?) in Europe are among the most vibrant church planters there. I’m not convinced the lack of certain minorities in America is a money issue; while clearly minorities can be less well off than Whites in America (plenty of research on inequality bears this out), there’s still wealth in the minority communities and a lot of missionaries sent out in America don’t have high net asset values in their network of supporters.
  • Finally, a lot of recruitment is done in churches and through church networks. Mission agencies don’t have the budget or staff to pursue recruits widely, so they work through word of mouth references. If you want to know who gets into a mission network, look at the demographic makeup of the churches they have relationships with. This, again, brings in some limits on the potential types of recruits.

We should remember that this is from a North American perspective, about North American missions. Many mission agencies send workers from other countries, and they would operate in vastly different ways, in locations North Americans can’t get to, on vastly lower budgets. Further, less-well-known North American missions may very well be sending less-economically-well-off people or even enabling them to serve diasporas here in America. Our view of the field is limited, but what we can see of the medium-to-largish agencies appears to suggest there are some unfortunate situational limits on who can go, based on the model most use.  

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