Where are the single missionary men?

In 1988, when I was doing my engineering practical for my undergraduate degree, I was blessed with the opportunity to work for United Mission to Nepal (UMN). As part of the community, I was kindly included in the annual missionary conference in Kathmandu.

Out of the 400 missionaries in attendance, there were 100 couples, 180 single female missionaries and 20 single male missionaries. But this does not give the entire picture. We, single males, shared a dormitory room. It turned out that out of the 20, some were married but their wives had not accompanied them for various reasons. A few were short-term students like myself, and only two out of the 400 present were single male long-term missionaries.

This experience agrees with that of others as recently recorded in an article published by the US Gospel Coalition by Paul Akin. It also agrees with our experience on the field in Cambodia for the past 20 years: there are far more long-term single female missionaries – giving the best years of their lives to learn the local language so that they might effectively share the gospel across cultures – than there are single men. Why is this so?

In seeking to address this question, I am doing so primarily from the viewpoint of a missionary on the field looking at those disembarking from the aeroplane as it arrives on the tarmac. We witness lots of faithful young women arriving, willing to sacrifice the best part of their lives to gospel ministry, but few young men.

Cross-cultural service has a lengthy training component. It generally takes ten years to become an effective communicator in a foreign language, so this is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Moreover, living in another culture is often a difficult and lonely experience, filled with perseverance and hardship. Therefore, those who come to the field with mixed or even dubious motives are soon found out.

While any single man wanting to go the mission field is surrounded by single women, it rarely holds the other way.

So, where are the single missionary men? I can make a few observations from the field and a few more as a missionary who has completed six “home assignments”, where I have sought to mobilise young men and women for the missionary task. However, I have no detailed study or compiled lists of statistics to stand on.

The fields where I have served are filled with the stories of single women who have devoted almost their entire lives to missionary service. One example comes to mind: Alice Compain, who served throughout Southeast Asia (1959-2005) and, towards the end of her time there, provided some invaluable assistance to a young Australian couple struggling to learn the Khmer language. Moreover, it has not gone unnoticed that in more recent times at the NSW CMS Summer School in Katoomba, many faithful single women are putting themselves forward for service in some of the more challenging fields (in my opinion) and very few single men.

First, it could be that there are, quite simply, more Christian women than men in Western countries that send missionaries. I remember, as a young single trainee pastor, having lunch with five widows from the local church I was assigned. Each of these ladies was converted at a Billy Graham crusade (probably 1969), and all married non-Christians, which then precluded them from seriously considering missionary service. They each shared that regret with the not-so-subtle hint that I should marry a Christian girl.

Most Australian churches have more women than men, and as we get older, and we men get married off, die off, or walk away from the faith, this gender imbalance becomes more pronounced. This imbalance means that if these deserving women were to marry a Christian man, there would not be enough available men to go around (sorry for stating the obvious). Therefore, while any single man wanting to go the mission field is surrounded by single women, it rarely holds the other way.

“Many young men remain spiritually immature into adulthood.” – Paul Akin

To dive in deeper, we might want to ask, why are there fewer men available in our churches? More particularly, why are there fewer men available for cross-cultural overseas missions? Paul Akin [an academic at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary], writing to an American audience, suggests:

“Many young men remain spiritually immature into adulthood. Often, they’re not discipled. Whereas many local churches have vibrant women’s ministries and women’s Bible studies, there’s often a lack of strong male examples in the local church who are investing in the next generation. This results in large numbers of immature Christian young men.”

Undoubtedly, some Australian churches have strong male leadership that seeks to preach the gospel and exhorts its members to an active faith. These churches produce many fine young men (and women) who have filled some of our Bible colleges over the past two decades. There are, however, many other churches where there are far fewer men than women and often no young men at all in their congregations. It is hard to compete with the gods of sport and relaxation if all that is on offer is formal religion, platitudes and morning tea.

Secondly, Akin quite rightly brings up the perils of pornography on the spiritual development of young men. Righteous living is an essential part of the response to the gospel call. Young men would do well to respond to temptation like Joseph in Potiphar’s house. I cannot explain why, but the digital world is far more tempting to young men than to young women (except for social media). I fear that the absent men are at home, drawn to the siren call of video games, sinking into imaginary worlds such as “Better than life”, as so brilliantly depicted in Red Dwarf. Any challenge to cross-cultural mission in a difficult location will never be comprehended, let alone acted upon by a young man already fully immersed in a life on another planet, surrounded by nymphs, taking out their aggression upon hordes of imaginary aliens while stockpiling digital gold.

How many parents pray for their sons to leave potentially lucrative careers to go and live in a poverty-stricken frontier?

Finally, we should consider that young men are not being sufficiently challenged to go! How many parents pray for their sons to leave potentially lucrative careers to go and live in a poverty-stricken frontier filled with disease, poor hygiene and unseen dangers? Does the pastor of your church regularly give a “call” to the mission field? Does your church regularly invite suitably qualified missionaries to preach? Is mission seen to be a serious biblical theme (which it is), or is it something that gets in the way of the more important business of teaching the Bible? Missionaries can bring their experience to the Scriptures, seeing gospel truths from different perspectives that our own culture has lost, but we need to comprehend if we are to effectively share the gospel with those of the many cultures who now live around us in our cities. Moreover, most young men will only respond to a missionary call if they have sound reasons and solid role models. But where these are absent, they will soon direct their energy and attention elsewhere.

I want to finish by leaving a few unanswered questions:

What is the effect upon the national churches we work alongside when they see such a serious gender imbalance among the missionary workforce?

For how long has there been this gender imbalance in the missionary workforce? Was there a time when there were more single men? I am thinking of Hudson Taylor and the Cambridge seven – seven young men who so positively responded to Taylor’s challenge to take the gospel to China.

What is the effect of radical feminism on the missionary workforce? Are young men now more fearful of putting themselves forward for leadership positions? If this is the case, I fear that the people and churches we missionaries work with are bearing a tragic loss.

This conversation still has a long way to go; however, I believe it should now be taken up by those who have experience as single missionaries going out for the first time, those serving as singles on the field, or even a young single man seriously considering missionary service. What do the single male and female missionaries have to say?

Dave Painter teaches at Phnom Penh Bible College in Cambodia – a country where he and his wife Leoni have served as CMS missionaries for over 20 years.