Missionary volunteers are growing in ranks

( [email protected] ) Jul 20, 2003 11:54 PM EDT

The number of evangelical Christians volunteering as missionaries in the United States and overseas has more than doubled in the last five years, according to the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's second-largest religious group, The Dallas Morning News reported.

"We project there were more than a half-million missionary volunteers last year, just in the United States," said Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization for the North American Mission Board, who expects Southern Baptists to deploy a million missionaries annually by 2010.

In 1997, Burton said 210,748 Southern Baptists volunteered for missions in the United States and Canada.

Burton and other evangelicals say there is a constellation of reasons for the growth ?affordable air travel, populist volunteerism, immigration ?but they say most of the stars lined up in people's hearts and minds.

"This kind of work answers the question of how significant people feel their lives are," said Burton. "Not only are people asking, `What am I doing?' but `What have I really done?' This experience gives definition and meaning to people's lives."

The experience of building houses, medical clinics or preaching in the inner city seems to resonate most with teenagers, young adults and people approaching retirement, said John Fletcher, international director of Pioneers, a Florida-based missionary organization.

"Short-term missions really benefit the individual most," said Fletcher. "Hopefully, the work ... meets needs and benefits the local culture, but it provides the people who come home a richer and deeper understanding of diversity and struggles in the world."

Although many missionaries and churches are motivated by humanitarian interests, Peggy Levitt, an assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College near Boston, said others use the work as an opportunity to convert people to Christianity.

"Some are very clearly motivated by a desire to do good in the world," she said. "For others, it might be a carrot. `We'll do some work that needs to be done, but here's what we believe, and we'd really like you to believe it also.'"

Some concerns arose in the spring as Christian relief agencies geared up to provide food staples and other essentials to war-torn Iraq and its population that is almost entirely Muslim.

"If they really are concerned about our welfare and aid, then why slip the Bible in between?" Dr. Liyakat Takim, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at Denver University, said in April. "If it were purely a humanitarian cause, then Muslims would welcome it. But there is clearly a hidden agenda."

Some Christian groups avoid such issues by sending youth groups to volunteer in other Christian churches in America.

For example, at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, a youth mission trip is taken every three years, said Camilla Ballard, youth minister. Last month, 34 kids ?in grades 7 through 12 ?spent a week in Seattle helping to refurbish a small inner-city church.

The work was not easy, but it was rewarding, Ballard said.

"They worked like machines," she said. "This church, from day one, just wrapped us in their arms. They were so excited that we were coming and doing this for them. A few people from the church would drop in every morning and see how we were doing and encourage the kids."

Students help pay for the mission trips by volunteering in various ministries at First Presbyterian, a 1,600-member church in downtown Dallas.

On each trip, youths have free time and do some sightseeing, but the main appeal is the volunteer work, Ballard said.

"Yes, it's fun to fly halfway across the country, but kids don't sign up for the perks," she said. "I think service is the way to draw people in. You may go in thinking `I'm doing this for someone else.' But the person it helps the most, I've found, is ourselves. We become better people."

After traveling to Mexico, Brazil or Africa and getting to know people who live happily without the modern conveniences of air conditioning or running water, many North Texans reconsider their values, said Phil Hamlin, a spokesman for Global Missions Fellowship in Dallas.

"For some people, it's transforming," said Hamlin, whose group sends 2,000 people a year on missions to places such as Russia, Peru and Romania. "They realize that everything they've searched for and put stock in may not bring ultimate happiness. Parents see kids in these places who don't talk back, and they say, `Man, I wished my kids looked at me like that.' "

But some academics and others question whether it wouldn't be better to send money rather than missionaries. Money wouldn't be spent on airfare, and local jobs would be created.

"You can't justify these trips simply on the basis of the work being done," said Robin Lovin, an ethics professor at Southern Methodist University. "Certainly, it would be more efficient to have kids hold a bake sale and send the money."

But, he said the relationship formed between young people provides a more worldly perspective.

"There is no question the American kids are the prime beneficiaries of this relationship," he said. "This is really a long-term investment in building attitudes and relationships."