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WORLDVIEW: Debt’s damage to missions

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–It’s back-to-school time, when American universities send some of our best and brightest young scholars abroad for study.

Along with some of our worst and most obnoxious knuckleheads.

The “ugly American” stereotype has found new life among some of the 160,000 students who go overseas each year, according to a recent article in The New York Times. The majority of traveling students still behave more or less like adults, The Times reports, but college officials worry that their institutions are “exporting drunkenness, misconduct and other trouble to an unprecedented degree.”

One student abroad got into a fistfight over a political disagreement — while studying diplomacy, of all things. Other American “scholars” regularly dropped trash out of dorm windows, or trashed hotel rooms like rock stars on tour. Some skipped classes and study excursions altogether, hitting local beaches and bars instead. Still others got themselves arrested for drug possession, then whined about being held accountable under local laws.

The response from foreign nations and universities, according to one U.S. college provost quoted by The Times: “We’re tired of this…. Don’t send us your troublemakers.”

Surely we can do better.

Yet, while spoiled brats and frat-house hooligans hop overseas in growing numbers, some of our best and brightest young Christians aren’t going anywhere – either for study or for missionary service.

Why? Because of one nasty four-letter word: debt.

Student loan payments can pressure personal budgets for years after college. And while tuition rates continue to soar, grants — once the bulk of student aid — are falling. In the year 2000, nearly 70 percent of graduates with bachelor’s degrees carried student debt into their early professional years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s 24 percent higher than a decade earlier.

“Student debt is a reality for most college students in public, private and faith-related schools,” writes Ben Sells in Mission Frontiers magazine. “When the debt is so high that monthly payments can’t be made on a missionary salary, it’s a hurdle too high for many potential missionaries.”

Student debt often sidelines “impact” missionaries, says Sells, former director of the International Centre for Excellence in Leadership at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. He defines “impact” missionaries as recent college grads who can make a significant contribution almost immediately, like “impact” athletes who become stars in their rookie seasons. What they lack in maturity and experience, young workers more than make up for in boldness, risk-taking, teachability and rapid language-learning.

All of which goes for naught if school debt won’t let them get to the mission field.

But student loan payments often can be deferred for young missionaries on short-term assignments. Better yet, they can be avoided:

— Many high school seniors can get inexpensive freshman college credits through dual enrollment.

— High school graduates can attend more affordable community colleges for a year or two, then transfer to four-year schools.

— Mission-minded Christian institutions – including Southern Baptist colleges and universities — offer many forms of assistance and creative paths to ministry (for more ideas, visit www.missionfrontiers.org; click on “Back Issues,” then on July-August 2004, “Student Debt and Missionary Service”).

Besides, student debts aren’t the worst mission-stoppers. Nor are car loans or home mortgages. Cars can be sold; houses can be sold or rented.

The worst forms of debt for Christian workers are big credit-card balances and unsecured consumer loans. They top the list of financial obligations that chain potential missionaries to home shores.

“We have many, many people come to us whose debts do not allow them to go” overseas, says Jerry DeOliveira, a missionary candidate consultant at the International Mission Board. “We counsel them to tear up their credit cards and pick a plan to pay them off.”

True, young Christians called to vocational ministry often get into debt while sacrificing earning potential to attend seminary or Bible school. But too many are lured into needless debt by the pressure of consumer culture, which relentlessly markets “wants” as “needs.”

It starts early. Christian commentator Chuck Colson reports that in 2002 alone, American teens spent $100 billion and persuaded their parents to spend an additional $50 billion on them. Credit companies have targeted college students for years, and now market teen-oriented credit cards and cash cards. Easy come, easy go –- until Mom and Dad stop footing the bills. By then, many young people have established a life pattern of revolving debt that’s hard to break.

“Discipline is what moderns need the most and want the least,” wrote Richard S. Taylor more than 40 years ago in “The Disciplined Life.”

“The easy style of living and spending of these years of plenty has seeped into Christian circles,” Taylor warned. “We have given lip service to the altar of the Lord but in practice have bowed at the shrine of the swank. We have been mesmerized by materialism ourselves even while protesting it in others. We have been thrown off balance by the prevailing false standards of value.”

Hard words, but true. For the Lord’s sake, let’s not sacrifice our children — the next generation of missionaries — at the “shrine of the swank” to which we have bowed.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges