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Young, single and taking on the world for Christ

Unmarried women are heading off in force for hard places for the gospel

The courage and commitment of single women were on graphic display at a conference in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, last week.

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Of the 18 new missionaries commissioned by the Church Missionary Society NSW/ACT, a missions group supported mainly by Anglican evangelicals, four were single women. Two of them were heading to sensitive locations in the Middle East and Asia that could not be identified for security reasons. The other seven “missionary units” were married couples.

There were no single male missionaries. However, there were three single women missionaries on home assignment who gave presentations at the conference, called Summer School.

Lizzie*, a new missionary in her mid-30s who is headed for the Middle East to serve refugees, says she knows of five other single women of a similar age who intend to go into refugee ministry in the Middle East with CMS.

“We desperately need some men to join us – not to be our husbands but just to be part of this ministry of serving vulnerable people,” says Lizzie (*not her real name).

This gender disparity reflects a problem that is not just affecting CMS  but the whole church, notes CMS Federal Secretary Peter Rodgers. “The trend is, and has been for as long as I can remember, that a lot more single women than men do come forward for missionary service,” he tells Eternity.

“Women are courageous and committed and ready to serve.” – Peter Rodgers

“I’m speculating here but it may be the case there are more single women than single men in our churches.

“Look at who are attending our Bible colleges – there are a lot more single women than single men. The issue isn’t with CMS; it’s about church ministry, and how many single women are studying theology – that flows to us because there are a lot more women positioning themselves, doing the training for mission work.

“Women are courageous and committed and ready to serve; the other thing that impresses me is the number of those willing to go to sensitive locations.”

Rodgers said, however, that while there were no single men in the field or in training for missionary work with CMS, there were single men applying at the moment. He denied that CMS had a policy of not sending single men.

“This semester at St Andrew’s Hall we have five couples and four single women.” – David Williams

“We send the people that we believe the Lord is bringing forward and if they are single men, we are very thankful and, if single women, we are also very thankful.”

He said, however, that there were not enough applicants of either gender coming forward to answer the call made by Tanzanian Bishop Mwita Akiri at this year’s CMS Summer School. Akiri called for 200 new missionaries from Sydney and 50 from Brisbane to fill roles in the rapidly expanding Tanzanian Anglican church.

Akiri said that while evangelism efforts had been successful in creating large churches in Tanzania, half of the pastors were not theologically trained. As a result, there was a big need for Bible teachers, discipleship trainers and directors of children’s, youth and women’s ministries.

Rodgers noted that the main obstacle to filling the needs in Tanzania was not lack of money but of people. “There are many opportunities in Tanzania and there are very few people applying,” he said.

“The need for missionaries is still great but the role has changed. Whereas we originally went to plant churches and evangelise, now that the church is large, our role is to support the church in its discipleship and training, for adults and children and youth.”

“…the statistic is that one-third of evangelical world missionaries are married men. One-third are married women. Of the last third, 80 per cent are single women.“ – John Piper

David Williams, who heads up training at  St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne, says he has had only two or three single men go through the CMS training college in his nine years there.

“It’s not like we’re chasing people away. It’s a demographic thing – there are fewer single men in the Christian world than single women,” he says. “This semester at St Andrew’s Hall, we have five couples and four single women. In the second semester, we will have two or three single women.”

Williams said the disparity also reflects the type of candidates which CMS recruits. “Our main focus is on sending long-termers and most of our candidates have theological degrees, which means their average age would be early 30s. We rarely have anyone younger than 26 or 27.

“Other agencies such as Operation Mobilisation send out 19- to 21-year-olds, and so they would have a larger number of single men doing gap years or serving immediately post-undergraduate degrees.”

In a recent post on his Desiring God blog, US Baptist preacher John Piper said that 80-85 per cent of all single evangelical missionaries are women.

“Now, why is that?,” asked Piper rhetorically. “I think the most honest answer would be: I don’t know. And if the research has been done to get the answers, I am not aware of it.”

“Overall the statistic is that one-third of evangelical world missionaries are married men. One-third are married women. Of the last third, 80 per cent are single women, so a bit less than two-thirds of the missionary force are women.”

He offered two (potentially controversial) opinions on why this was so: “Many single women in missions would like to be married – not all; some regard it as a divine calling to serve as a single woman and have no intention of hoping or praying for marriage,” he said.

“But many would like to serve in missions side by side with a similarly called and devoted husband, but by and large it’s men who propose marriage; women have less control over being married than men do.”

A second explanation could relate to the type of man who remained single into his 20s and 30s, he said.

“Many of those single men probably avoid missions out of the same personal dynamics that keep them single. Christian men who do not get married in their 20s and 30s are probably held back from that relationship of marriage by a sense of inadequacy that they could be a spiritual leader or a fear they might be rejected as they pursue a relationship,” he said.

“The very things that keep a man single are probably the same kind of things that would keep him from pursuing a life in mission.

“Single women may not feel any of those hindrances; they would happily marry a mature mission-directed man if he came along but they can’t do that without the man playing their part.”

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