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Gen Xers in The Last Frontier: last generation of missions?

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Generation X is coming of age just as Christian missions is waking up to the full challenge and potential of reaching unreached peoples.
Coincidence? Not likely, if missions history is any guide.
“The young people of this generation do not apologize for worldwide missions … . They believe in it as has no preceding generation of young people … . Let us rise and resolve that, at whatever cost of self-denial, that live or die, we shall live or die for the evangelization of the world in our day.”
John R. Mott said that — in 1901. Mott led the Student Volunteer Movement, launched in 1886, which helped spur the “second wave” of modern missions: the inland thrust from coastal cities by missionaries searching out the lost. Of the 100,000 students who participated in the Student Volunteer Movement, 20,000 reportedly went overseas to spread the gospel.
Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette describes Mott as possessing “a simple faith … a complete commitment to Christ … (and) worldwide vision.” That pretty well describes, too, many young people today spreading the gospel among unreached peoples of The Last Frontier — the “third wave” of missions.
The Southern Baptist International Mission Board has a “whole crew of people that are literally willing to die for their people group,” says Jim Riddell, associate director of IMB mission personnel selection. “These are people who have bought into this image of living on the edge, this goal of ‘all peoples, nothing less,’ and they want to do what it takes to reach their people group. This is largely a Buster and Generation X group.”
Many went to the field as short-term workers in restricted areas among untouched peoples. Some come home and share the vision of “all peoples, nothing less” among others in local churches. Others decide to commit to the task for a lifetime and become career missionaries.
Emeritus IMB missionary Jimmie Hooten, who helped lead a campaign to reach the Maasai people of Kenya, saw a number of adventurous young missionaries arrive in Africa during his latter years there. Missionaries willing to do — and do without — whatever is necessary to reach people groups still in darkness. Hooten calls them “commandos.”
“They’re possibility thinkers,” says Lloyd Atkinson, IMB associate vice president for mission personnel. “They honestly believe every people in the world can be reached for Christ, and that this might be the last generation of missionaries. They want to be a part of that. That’s why I don’t think a lot of them are interested in just maintaining something someone else started.”
Last year, 101 of the 207 career missionaries appointed by the IMB went to The Last Frontier. Eighty-nine of its 415 shorter-term personnel on the field last year — including journeymen, who must be under 30 to attend orientation — were assigned to The Last Frontier. Of more than 500 IMB summer missionaries this year, 260 were assigned to The Last Frontier.
Students don’t just accept challenging assignments; they ask for them. “They say, ‘I want to go to a place where nobody else wants to serve, and I’m willing to do what it takes for me to get there,'” explains Mike Lopez, IMB student section chief. “For the most part, they raise their own money … .”
Raised in a tumultuous American society, comfortable with multiple cultures and surfing the Internet, Xers “can live with chaos,” observes David Garrison, IMB strategy and mobilization leader and a pioneer in targeting unreached peoples. And more and more of them come to the task well-informed about the thousands of ethnic-linguistic peoples untouched by the gospel.
Xers with a taste of The Last Frontier like to sit up all night trading stories about how close they came to the edge while sharing the gospel. They go into unreached villages, make friends quickly and share their faith — and sometimes get pulled into police stations for questioning or sent packing.
“We used to see that as a sign of failure,” Garrison says. “They see it as a sign of success.”
Not too many years ago, Garrison found little interest in unreached peoples when he talked to students on college and seminary campuses. Now, he says, they seek him out and declare, “I want my life to make a difference. I want a cause worth dying for.”

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  • Erich Bridges