Lutheran Missionaries on the Rise

''We're very grateful that, in the past two years, we've seen an increase in the number of people who have responded to the call to serve in global mission''
( [email protected] ) Oct 01, 2004 08:58 PM EDT

The number of new Lutheran missionaries has been on the rise since Sept 11, 2004, and is still rising, according to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In a Sept 28 press release, the ELCA announced that over the past two years, the number of ELCA mission personnel has grown exponentially.

"We're very grateful that, in the past two years, we've seen an increase in the number of people who have responded to the call to serve in global mission. In the time period from January to August 2002, we placed 98 new mission personnel in service. From January to August 2004, we placed 141" new mission personnel, said the Rev. Stephen J. Nelson, director for international personnel, ELCA Division for Global Mission. “The total number of ELCA mission personnel is about 320.”

Nelson explained that one reason for the increase may be attributed to the increased awareness of the global society since Sept 11.

"That awareness has translated into people who realize that life is too short to put off doing important things," Nelson said.

Additionally, Nelson said the people choosing to serve has missionary has been growing younger on average.

"Of the 141 [Lutherans] that began service the first eight months of this year, 79 were under the age of 30," Nelson said. Of the 79, "41 of them are currently serving in the church's Young Adults in Global Mission program (YAGM)," he said.

The YAGM began five years ago with only 10 participants. Currently, the group has 41 young adults serving in Argentina, Egypt, Germany, Kenya, Thailand and the United Kingdom. The goal of YAGM is two fold: serve as missionaries to foreign countries while building leadership skills, spiritual growth, global awareness and understanding.

"This is a program we're quite excited about," said Nelson. "The church needs leaders who are globally formed and informed, and who are adept and at ease in other cultures and languages. The church is providing young adults with a significant cross-cultural experience in a formative time in their lives. Their faith is tested in an interfaith context, and they mature in their understanding of God and God's place for them in the world."

According to Nelson, the reason for the influx of young adult missionaries is simply the newfound focus on international experiences in higher education.

"Colleges are placing greater emphasis on international experiences within the college curriculum. There's also a larger service element not only in colleges and universities but in high schools. I think people are growing up with a service attitude," he said.

Meanwhile, Nelson said some 70 percent of ELCA mission personnel are lay people.

"I think the percentage of lay people has always been larger than clergy," he said. "Traditionally, the three pillars of mission were church, school and hospital, and two of those were in the domain of laity. Today a large number of our missionaries are serving in teaching capacities -- English as a second language, high school or college instructors of various subjects. We still have a number of health care professionals, administrators and the like -- all lay professionals.”

The two trends, the rise in youth and the rise in laymen, go hand in hand, Nelson said.

A trend for mission personnel to serve shorter terms has "opened the door to more lay people in teaching, health and administration positions. Pastors traditionally have been more prevalent in the long-term career positions, but the number of those positions has decreased as more and more locally-trained pastors and leaders have assumed positions formerly held by American pastors," he said.

Nelson then went onto explain the historical implications of serving as a Lutheran missionary.

In the "early days of American mission work outside the territory of the United States, [missionaries] were going to areas where, for lack of better words, the gospel had not been heard. Those early pioneer missionaries did a wonderful job of preaching, teaching and leading small groups of Christians in various countries. The gospel took root and a church developed. They began training their own pastors, teachers and so forth. As the church matured, the kind of mission personnel needed also changed," Nelson said.

"Although we still need pastors to serve in Africa, for example, the number is not as high as before, because Africans now serve as pastors in their own congregations," he said. "Our role now is more in leadership development, teaching at seminaries, finance management, and responding to other needs.”

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