While statistics from the Seventh-day Adventist Church's Office of Volunteer Ministries indicate the number of student missionaries remains steady, world church leader G. T. Ng says fewer trained and experienced professionals -- particularly physicians and university-level professors from North America -- are trading successful practices and tenure for missionary stipends and uncertain futures.
Early Adventists lived and breathed mission, Ng says. A small, enthusiastic group, they were intent on spreading the message of hope they'd recently accepted and were seemingly immune to the sacrifices a life dedicated to mission demanded, he says.
"Why did J.N. Andrews [the Adventist Church's first missionary] go to Switzerland? What compelled him?" Ng asked, trying to grasp the drive early church members felt for mission.
While adventure, travel and gaining cultural experience might make a list of plausible answers, Ng says missionaries are fundamentally motivated by an "extreme love of serving God." And he knows such a "tremendous" call is between a church member and God -- "We play no role. We can only pick up the phone and ask."
With more than 16 million fellow members worldwide and the church's global network of schools and hospitals, some of today's Adventists may feel the Biblical call to "go and preach" less acutely, Ng suggests.
Yet now is no time to rest on one's laurels, he says. While some 900 missionaries currently serve the church long-term, Ng estimates the church needs hundreds more.
The situation, as Ng describes it, is a conundrum. If considerably more missionaries volunteered, the world church could likely muster a larger budget, but the current allotment -- $25 million annually -- isn't magnetic enough to draw as many as Ng says are necessary.
Recently Ng, currently a world church associate secretary for the Northern Asia-Pacific, Southern Asia and Trans-European regions, sat down with Adventist News Network to share his concerns about mission and what it takes spread the church's message of hope. Excerpts follow:
Adventist News Network: Why aren't more members volunteering to be missionaries?
G. T. Ng: I'll tell you one thing. When [North American missionaries who served as educators] return, they are perceived to be out of touch with the current situation in the school system of their home country. And as a result, they are not hired, even though they are well qualified and have considerable experience. And so this is a deterrent to potential missionaries. They say, "Why shouldn't I be in the same boat?" So that might be a big part of why there are now fewer missionaries from North America.
ANN: You've described dwindling number of missionaries as a "systemic problem." There must be other reasons.
Ng: Let me give you an example. We will call Dr. So-and-so to talk about a mission opportunity. "Oh, it sounds exciting," he says. "Tell me more." Eventually, he will pop the question: "What is my salary like?" So we tell him, and he says, "Is that a joke? You expect me to give up my practice here, which took 25 years to establish, and go overseas for that?" I mean, it doesn't even enter into the imagination. The gap is too big. So for people who do go to the mission field, pay cannot be an issue.
I recently talked to an anesthesiologist who is leaving to do missionary work in Nepal. Now, an anesthesiologist has a gift -- he puts people to sleep. Some of our speakers are also unfortunately gifted in this way, without medical training! [Laughs] To give up his practice takes sacrifice. And yet he will tell you, "It's an honor for me to serve God. A privilege.' So he knows he financially suffers. Yet he and his wife are willing to live with much lower salaries. So how to inculcate this spirit for mission is the question.
ANN: His story suggests that being a missionary demands an extreme level of sacrifice. Would you say fewer members are willing to accept that inevitability?
Ng: Look, we cannot judge someone who chooses not to be a missionary because of financial reasons. It's not their fault. The low salaries we offer them are because of the church's limited budget, because of the current market. So we should not blame them. We cannot say they are less dedicated when the pay is less. And we do not know their situation -- what financial burdens they may have. Many have graduated with many loans they must pay off. They cannot just leave.
ANN: What about training more local members to serve in their own regions, which might allow the church to do more work with fewer resources?
Ng: Missionaries used to only come from the United States. That was in the '60s. By the '80s, the situation began to change. More and more missionaries from developing countries, from places like South America, Inter-America and the Philippines, began to take over missions, resulting in fewer missionaries from the U.S. Right now, just over 30 percent are from the U.S., with the rest from around the world. So you can see that the church is already making use of local missionaries.
ANN: What's one of your most unique needs currently?
Ng: For many years we had an individual serving in Vellore [India] as a physician/professor and a mentor at Christian Medical College [a Protestant-run institution]. The [Adventist Church] donates $10,000 to the school every year. And because of that, we are guaranteed a certain number of slots for students to study medicine there every year. We have a strong group of Adventist medical students there. See, in India, it's almost impossible to attend medical school because of the Sabbath. But this is a Christian school and they respect our Sabbath-keeping. So this position is very important to fill. And this man retired, and we cannot find anyone. A physician with teaching experience is a tall order. See how tough? I'm just telling you the great need for professionals in the mission field, in the area of education.
ANN: And that's just one example. Would you say it's crunch time for finding missionaries?
Ng: It's not crunch time. It's all of the time.
ANN: How do you encourage a church member to become a missionary?
Ng: Sometimes the picture we see is one of imbalance. Sixteen million members. Five hundred hospitals. Countless schools and so on and so forth. But the work is hardly finished. And yet when we send short-term missionaries, where do these people often go? Mostly to countries where the work is already established and strong. Why? Lopsided mission, I call it. I've researched records from the past five years -- who is sent where, and when. We need to better educate our members to go to areas of acute need, especially in the 10-40 Window [a region of largely unentered territory spanning from West Africa across Asia]. Why not [go to] Sri Lanka? Why not Nepal? Why not Muslim countries? These are blind spots where there is little mission.
ANN: What does it take to be a missionary?
Ng: It takes a gift to be a missionary. Not everybody has the chemistry, the endurance or the tolerance to be a missionary. Not everyone can tolerate sitting outside all day in Nepal, no air conditioning. To be a missionary is a direct response to God's call. That call comes to them, and they say, "I would rather do this than anything else in the world." You cannot begin to describe their enthusiasm for mission.