(My article for the July edition of Heartbeat Africa. Here’s the video our team produced on the same subject).

“Two thirds of active missionaries are married couples. Another third are single women. The rest are single men.”

This is not exactly a statistic, per se. It’s a sentiment, and sometimes a joke, expressed by mission leaders, mission recruiters, and most recently, by a bunch of twenty-something singles in my living room. It is a sentiment that reveals a striking truth about missionary work today: There are very few single men choosing to go.

The real statistic is this: For AIM and other similar organizations, somewhere between 80 and 85 percent of all single missionaries are women. For every 10 singles sent, only 2 are men. The disparity is great enough that there’s a noticeable gap on many mission fields. The men are missing, and a cadre of single women have taken up the work, sometimes doing jobs that a male presence would be better suited to.

Why is there such a difference between men and women who choose missions in their single years? And does it matter?

Statistics and demographics are a very human way to measure something. Maybe God is simply directing more women into missions than men—kind of like the way He calls more people from Michigan than New Jersey (or does He?) But maybe there’s something behind the trend. Maybe there’s something that our churches and mission agencies can do differently. And maybe there are some men out there who need a wake up call.

The majority of singles entering mission work today are young, part of the generation known as the ‘millenials’. I am neither young or single, so in order to gather some insight on the issue, I enticed a half-dozen of these millenials over to my house with the promise of a home-cooked meal and an evening of stirring, and possibly unsettling, conversation. The group consisted of three single men and three single women, ranging in ages from 22 to 30, all active missionaries in Africa.

A lot has been said about this generation, and I’m not the first to wonder if something’s gone awry. There’s been plenty written, and even preached, lamenting the diminishing participation of men in modern society and the church. Mark Driscol, head pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle puts it bluntly (as he usually does), “The least likely person to see in church is a twenty something single male.” Coincidentally (or is it consequently?) this is also the least likely person to see on the mission field.

A Cultural Tide

Distracted. Entitled. Over confident. Under motived. Apathetic. If you were to dig for adjectives that describe the millennial generation, these are some of the common descriptors that would surface. I laid this out, somewhat timidly, to our discussion group and asked them if they agreed. I was surprised to hear such a resounding ‘yes’.

Increasingly wired, millenials have the world at their fingertips, entertainment at every turn, and expectations that things ought to be easy—easy as a click. Despite massive virtual connectivity they are growing more bored, disconnected, and apathetic. The men in particular extend their adolescent pursuits, and both men and women delay marriage. They change jobs more frequently, attend church less religiously, yet “post” more prolifically about what’s wrong with the world.

Driscol sees this in the church: “The notorious sin of Christian guys today is complaining about things rather than doing something.”

Benjamin Brophy, in an article entitled “My Generation’s Disease”, put it this way: “Millennials want to change the world, but they sit and wait for that world-changing opportunity to be handed to them. The cliche is that we want to save the world, but we want to do it from behind a computer screen.”

Our focus group offered the recent “Kony 2012″ campaign as an illustration. The video documentary exposing warlord Joseph Kony and the atrocities he’s committed in Central Africa went massively viral in 2012—largely due to the moral outrage of millenials.

“So many were worked up,” our group said, “but all they did was share the video. They had no idea this was going on for years, and now, no one talks about it anymore.”

“That’s not lasting change,” one of the young women offered, “That’s just making yourself feel better.”

I asked the group if the world could actually be changed with a click. Yes, they said, as millenials have witnessed these things first hand in their lifetime. But then I asked them if disciples could be made with a click.

“Taking time to build relationships, be in people’s lives, and understand a culture, is much harder than clicking a button,” one of the women argued. “I don’t know a lot of young people who would be willing to walk into a situation like this. This is really hard. Discipleship requires real relationships, commitment, and sacrifice.”

Could this be part of what’s affecting millenials’ participation in missions, and if so, is it a greater factor for men? Are the men just more apathetic than the women? To even try to answer that, we had to first define what manhood is, or rather, what it’s perceived to be.

The narrative on gender roles has changed for this generation, and our group had a lot to say about the effects on their age-mates from what the culture and the media teaches about manhood.

In the past 50 years, women in the West have made great gains. Today, more women than men graduate from college, with better GPAs, and greater confidence and drive than the men in their classes. They are more likely than men to go to graduate school and many even out-earn their counterparts in the marketplace. Women are being told that they can achieve anything, and many are pursuing that promise. Men, on the other hand, are being told something of the opposite.

As women have gained more equality, men have been devalued. Referred to as the “feminization of the culture”, we are in the midst of a cultural shift where men are perceived as less and less important in the scheme of things. The media takes this perception and codifies it. And then a generation taught through mass media grows up believing it.

As Owen Strachan writes in The Gospel Coalition blog, “Men today are in trouble. Guys have been taught by countless sources and media outlets that they are inherently dumb, ignoble, and inferior to women. Guys hook up with girls, shirk responsibility, take only unserious things seriously, and generally neglect the great opportunities before them.”

Is it possible these millennial men are simply living up the low expectations culture has laid out for them?

Our discussion group was quick to lay some blame at the door of fatherless homes. Once an anomaly, absent fathers—resulting from divorce or neglect or even overwork—are now an epidemic. As a result, scores of children grow up without balanced role models or instruction on gender roles. Boys learn about manhood from the media or their peers, but not from their fathers.

Driscol says this leads to a kind of “extended adolescence”, where boys remain boys well into their twenties. “In a consumer culture, manhood ends up being defined by what you consume, not by what you produce. Men become self-absorbed consumers, of gadgets and games and women. What kills young men is the thinking that this extended adolescence is acceptable and unavoidable.”

Unavoidable. That’s a curious word. Are millennial men unwitting victims of a cultural tide turned against them? They may be burdened with generational angst, lost role models, and the death of manhood, but isn’t the Church standing in the gap as a counter-cultural force?

A Milquetoast Gospel

In an article from Biola Magazine entitled “The Feminization of the Church” we learned that things were not as counter-cultural as you would hope.

Pollster George Barna refers to women as “the backbone of Christian congregations in America.” Roughly 60% of the church is made up of women, and for the men who do attend, they are less attentive—less likely to participate in Sunday school, small groups, and service activities. As a result, the message and ministries of the church tend to cater to women.

The men in our group agreed, “Spirituality is usually tied to feelings and emotions. Guys are turned away by this. It’s not seen as manly. And if a guy is not in church, he’s much less likely to be in missions.”

Mike Erre, a director for men’s ministry in a large California church, argues that the message of the church is just not resonating with men. “The gospel that Jesus and Paul preached is revolutionary, and it’s worth giving your life to. But part of the reason guys aren’t involved is that we’ve sold them a milquetoast gospel. We don’t paint it as big enough—or God as awesome enough—to be compelling,”

The feminization of the church reflects the feminization of the larger culture, and I wonder what degree of that carries forward into missions. Certainly the Great Commission is just as compelling, daring, and even revolutionary. But if the church does not present the Christian life in balanced perspective—affirming the strengths of both men and women—how will they present the call to missions?

And how about mission agencies? One of the women in our group serves as a coordinator for new missionaries in a sister organization to AIM. She argued that men have no idea about the opportunities before them, “Seventy-five percent of our placement forms will only appeal to women,” she said,  “because they focus on women, children, teaching, or nursing… the mass perception is that what is available to be done is about nurturing.”

Indeed much of mission work is nurturing. As we’ve seen, discipleship requires relationships and even relationships need nurturing. But these same relationships require a degree of risk, boldness, and, most importantly, some common ground to be built upon. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for young women to minister to men in most cross-cultural contexts. For the countless men in Africa who need to hear the Word and learn to be followers of Christ, only another man can show them the way.

There are probably hundreds of manly pursuits that can offer access to these kinds of discipleship opportunities. Do the young men wallowing in the pews of the Western church ever hear about these? What about those who visit a mission agency website? Are they discovering a place of radical surrender where their vocation, and God’s heart for the nations, meet?

A Harder Road

Besides negative pressure from the culture and lukewarm inspiration from the Church, single men may also be at a disadvantage in actually going to the field, and possibly in flourishing while there.

Cultural expectations play a role. One of the men in the group summed it up as a simple issue of “money and pride.” Men bear a larger burden than women to be providers and self-reliant members of society. Yet, as they follow a call to missions they are asked to embrace a life of dependency and even the prospect of what some would consider “career suicide,” all to do a work that many back home might not understand. This shunning of cultural expectations will undoubtedly challenge a man’s pride and might also be perceived as a colossal risk.

Related to pride is a fear of failure, in life or ministry or both. Some have suggested that single women are naturally better equipped to deal with the generalities of life on the field. Mission work tends to be relational and unstructured. It is filled with ambiguities where a guy might prefer a plan of action, and these do not lend themselves to easy solutions like a trip to Home Depot does. And then there’s the question of sexual purity, arguably a harder path for an unmarried man than a women.

It may be true that missions asks more of men, but as Driscol pounds out from his pulpit in a sermon about Biblical manhood, “Real men are not looking for the path of least resistance, but the path of the greatest glory to God.”

A Call to Action

While many men are avoiding that path when it takes an unexpected turn toward missionary work, women are much more ready to step out. And they are quick to stress that this is not a good thing. Not good for the imbalance in ministry pursuits on the field. Not good for the many women who serve in singleness for a lifetime, choosing a ministry call over a family because of the scarcity of men who share their vision. And not good for the men God is calling who may one day look back in regret at missing the greatest opportunity of their life.

Churches and mission sending agencies may also be missing out, and we need to reconsider the vision we are casting (or failing to) for the Great Commission to the young men in our midst. There is cost and danger in following Christ, and men are crafted by God to respond to such things.

I’m reminded of the gentle but sober exhortation in the book of First John that lays out the Christian’s conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil. “I write to you,” the author charges, “…fathers, children, young men.”

We could easily carry that charge further—to all the players in the modern missions movement:

I write to you, Church, because you hold a revolutionary message and only need to speak it.

I write to you, mission agencies, because you know the landscape and need to chart a path.

And I write to you, young men, because we need you.

Yes, it may be harder for you. Harder to cut through the lies and the apathy. Harder to raise money in a self-reliant society. Harder to enter into relationally-driven cross-cultural situations. Harder to find your ministry in your vocation. But the gospel needs men. The Christian life is a battle, so much so that the Bible calls us to put on armor. And the mission field is a battle field, where a man’s strengths and passions are called upon to be spent for the greatest cause creation has ever known: the cause of Christ and his redemptive work to save this world—and I mean really save this world. It takes courage—courage to step out of your slumber and into the fray. It takes humility—to be willing to fail or at least be deemed a failure by your peers. And it takes strength—more than you know, but not more than God will give you.

I write to you young men
and the Word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.
1John 2:14