Mid-Life Mission

by Mike Frith
Posted on 1st July 2007

There are many initiatives up and running by mission organisations to challenge and recruit young people (16-25) for mission and in recent years we have seen a growth in initiatives to encourage retirees and early retirees (50+) into mission; so what about all those in between? Has the increased growth in short-term mission been a result of the fact that we've marketed mission mainly to those who have some time to spare around their lives, whether that's long summer holidays or retirement from work? This has encouraged the notion that mission is a spare-time or part-time activity, easier to do when it doesn't encroach on your main job or career. No wonder long term missionaries are getting harder to find.

Those who are long term or career missionaries have traditionally been called and recruited into mission from a young age (pre-25), but an interesting thing seems to be happening at the moment. My experience from running the mission area at the New Wine conferences, and I hear similar reports from those who run mission stands at other Christian events, is that there is an increase in those who are enquiring about mission in the middle part of their working lives ... that mid-life period! Why is this? I think the whole reason why this category of people has been largely missing from mission recruitment is because we're not encouraging and challenging them enough and in the right way, to think about seeing mission as a second career option. I think it's time this changed ...

From our Society's perspective

According to a survey of 1,200 full time British workers conducted recently by insurer Norwich Union Life, almost half of Britons want a more compassionate career by the age of 45, reflecting a trend for what researchers call "Zenployment". 27 percent said that "making a difference to others" was the top priority in a second career. When asked, many of them said that this came out of a sense of being "unfulfilled" in their current jobs. More than half said they would be happy to earn less in a job that enabled them to feel happier about themselves, but two thirds said that financial commitments was the reason why they hadn't made the change.

This shows that there's a huge interest in people to move from "success to significance" in their careers. The desire to serve the interests of others and not just self grows greater not only with one's age but also with time as people get more post-modern in their outlook. What has post-modernity got to do with it? Well, modernity in the late 20th century showed a society driven by success. Post-modernity is the reaction to the fact that this success was not the complete fulfilment of life and happiness that many had hoped for. As post-modern thinking gradually replaces modern thinking, there's an increase in the desire for significance from life and not just individual success. As a result, voluntary and charity work has increased dramatically and people's criteria for choosing their first career, let alone their second career, has changed.

From a Biblical perspective

In my wider study of this topic, I have been impressed by the number of significant biblical characters who were used by God later in their lives. For many New Testament characters, exact details about age, birth and death dates are often missing, but for many Old Testament characters, the details are recorded. For many of these, God called them not in their youth, but later - usually around their mid-life period. I'm not getting into any interpretation of the amazing life duration of these characters, nor any scientific explanation of the possible change over time in the length of a year, but just taking the ages and dates on face value.

Character

Age at death

Significant Life Event

Age at the time

Noah

950

Built the ark

500-600

Abraham

175

Called by God

75

Sarah

127

Gives birth to Isaac

90

Moses

120

Burning bush

80

Joshua

110

Succeeds Moses

83

Paul

66

Road to Damascus

36

Paul, as a New Testament character, is included as his dates are clear from the scriptures. For many of these characters, their lives before their 'significant life event' were unremarkable. In some cases, like Moses, you can clearly see that God is preparing them for the task ahead but for others, like Noah, the recorded reason for being chosen is simply because they were faithful and upright in God's eyes. There are others, like Joseph, who had his dream when he was just 17, but it's interesting to see that those chosen to serve in their mid-life or mature years significantly outnumber those who were called when they were young! Why is this? Does God prefer those who have shown themselves to be faithful? Does God favour those with experience and wisdom over those with youth and energy when it comes to the responsibility of full-time service? It would seem so.

From a Mission community perspective

Some mission organisations have been engaged in recruiting this age group for a while. The Finishers Project, founded in 1998 by Nelson Malwitz in the USA, has as a vision statement "To significantly increase the number of global kingdom workers, especially those at mid-life." They have been engaged with many US based mission organizations and churches to challenge Christians to consider missions as a second career option.

Latin Link Mold team

In the UK, few mission organizations have recognized the value of this age group and tailored their mobilization programmes to suit. One exception, Latin Link, runs a short term mission programme called Step 35 plus which is aimed at those who are 35 and over, offering opportunities to serve on short term teams to Latin America.

One of the biggest reasons why this age group does not enter into mission work is because of the financial commitments that these people have. The Boomer generation was the first generation to gain significant spending power and personal choice, and for nearly 50 years this generation has chosen to increase that spending power by borrowing even more. As a result we have a culture of debt that has robbed many of their financial freedom and hence, the choice of following where God leads. Tackling the culture of debt, at least within the Christian community, is a must if we are to see more people released into ministry and mission. For those who would consider their financial obligations being more like commitments than debts, discovering different ways of honouring those commitments can be the solution to the perceived finance trap. For instance, it may not be necessary to remove the obligation of mortgage payments by selling one's house, letting it could prove to be a better solution in the long run both practically and financially.

Family commitments is another reason worth mentioning why mission is so often off the agenda for this age group. This may include issues surrounding children and/or aging parents. When it comes to children's education, anyone who has grown up or brought up children 'on the field' will tell you how enriching the experience was in comparison to so many 'home' alternatives. With the development of online technology and improved travel, the diversity of solutions for children's education is growing all the time.

Responsibility rests not just with the individual to work out ways of overcoming these hurdles to mid-life mission, but also lies with the mission organisations and sending agencies to be flexible enough to accommodate and cater for those with such needs.

Time for Action?

It seems to me that we have a window of opportunity that could reverse the trend of the declining mission task force. If people in our society are thinking about 'significant' second careers, surely there are many in our churches who are too. It would seem that God favours those who have already shown themselves to be faithful and upright, and that the maturity of years counts in ones favour when it comes to God's choice for mission workers, not against. It's time that mission organisations and churches recognised this opportunity and developed initiatives aimed at those in mid-life, with appropriate communication, advice and help when it comes to dealing with the challenges of mid-life commitments like family and finance.

 

This article may be freely reproduced with suitable acknowledgement for the author and OSCAR as the original source.

Further links

www.finishers.org - advice for the boomer generation about entering into mission
www.thecareerbreaksite.com - general advice on taking career breaks and sabbaticals

Mike Frith is the Founding Director of OSCAR. Prior to starting OSCAR, he worked as a pilot/engineer with Mission Aviation Fellowship where he spent time living in the USA, France, Switzerland, Madagascar and Uganda. He has been involved in working with, supporting, training and resourcing cross-cultural workers for over 25 years.