Mission challenge: Personal development is high priority for younger Christians
A study into what motivated over a thousand young Christians from across Europe to attend a mission congress has shed light on some of the challenges faced by mission agencies today.
The Mission-Net Congress is one of the largest events for European Christians between the ages of 16 and 30, and takes place every two years.
The 1,590 young European Christians who attended the last Congress in Erfurt, Germany, in 2011 were surveyed by organisers on why they wanted to attend the event.
The results revealed that concerns about personal development were greater motivators in attending the congress than learning about the needs of the world and engaging in mission.
Interest in mission was outweighed by the desire to develop themselves personally and be refreshed in their own faith.
Some 69% of participants said they wanted to be "encouraged and challenged", while two-thirds said they wanted to "get closer to Jesus/God and become a disciple". Sixty per cent said they were looking for spiritual refreshment.
Although the congress was primarily about mission, just over half (54%) said they wanted to find out more about mission organisations and exactly half wanted to "learn about my place in mission work".
Only a fifth (22%) said they were interested in finding out what mission jobs are available. Similarly, just under a quarter (24%) said they wanted "to learn about needs in this world" and only 26% were interested in learning how to live missionally in their workplace.
Just under a third of participants were between the ages of 16 and 20, while 21 to 25-year-olds made up the largest age group (38%). Just over a fifth (21%) were aged 26 to 30.
Women more than doubled the number of men at the congress (68% compared to 33%) and 93% were single.
Study author Dick Slikker suggested the results support perceptions of a trend away from the missionary lifestyle as one of self-sacrifice and serving others, to being much more focused on personal interests.
Rather than wanting to know how they could support mission, he suggested the priority for young Christians was "how a mission organisation could serve or help them".
"The main question asked was: 'Is there a place in mission that I would like to do?' rather than: 'What is needed in the mission field?'" he said.
"This result clearly shows the people pay great attention to personal desires ... Many are looking for challenges, international friendships, worship etc, instead of learning about jobs in mission."
The next Mission-Net Congress takes place in Offenburg, Germany, this year from 28 December to 2 January. A major element of the congress is the Global Market where mission agencies showcase their work.
Mr Slikker said mission organisations may have to measure success in a different way from purely recruitment figures and work to engage in conversations with young Christians about their needs and desires, and how they can journey with them.
"Collecting email addresses and chasing sign up for organisational newsletters may in fact turn people away ... It is less about whom to recruit than to build people," he said.
"A mission organisation needs to show that they are a spiritual organisation and have an interest in and are willing to develop the spiritual life of their workers.
"To 'win' this group for [the] mission field, it is better not to start talking about available jobs. A more important consideration for them is: 'How can the mission help me grow spiritually?'
"The mission organisation needs to show that working in the mission field can offer them good training opportunities ... their own personal development is very important."
The fact that young people are coming to Mission Net for spiritual reasons and their own satisfaction over and above concern for mission or the needs in the world "should be an area of concern for both the organisers and the mission organisations", Mr Slikker continued.
"If the main aims of the congress were to worship, to challenge, to have fellowship, to get to know Jesus better and so on, then the right people came," he said.
"However there remains a great challenge for the organisers and exhibitors if the congress wants to point to the issue of mission above all."