Educating University Students for Mission

One of my mentors, while I studied at Fuller Theological Seminary during the 1970’s, was Dr. Donald McGavran who is world famous as the founder of the Church Growth movement.  In speaking with me about his philosophy, he often mentioned that the church and its leaders were not being honest with themselves and were claiming growth and success where there was none.  Pressures to obtain good results were the cause of many to exaggerate their numbers.  The present situation has shown us that the Church Growth movement has seen its heyday.  A good report of the birth, rise and decline of one Church movement is given by Fred McRae in his book  A Case Study in Contextualization – The History of the German Church Growth Association 1985-2003.  It showed that the movement was no longer as relevant as before.

But the question remaining is this.  Are some of McGavran’s doubts as the positive reporting of results still a problem in the missionary world of today.  In his monumental book McGavran made this statement:

“A strange combination of factors keeps us from perceiving church growth and kept  Church leaders from measuring what has occurred and planning for more.  These factors render the phenomenon as invisible as if blotter out by a physical fog.  Pastors and missionaries, surrounded by this opaqueness, carry on programs, preach sermons, do assigned work, raise   budgets, administer departments, baptize converts, teach schoolchildren and recruit new workers.  But only occasionally – when the cloud lifts – do they glimpse briefly into the state of church growth.  It is taken for granted that everyone knows about it and assumes its importance.” 2

Our world today is definitely different from that of the middle of the twentieth Century when McGavran was active, but  there are important similarities.  In describing the last days in Matthew 24 Jesus lists many events and problems faced by the church before he returns.  I always had problems with two that that seemed to be in conflict.  In verse 12 He states that “The love of many will grow cold” and in verse 24 it states “that false Christs and false  prophets will …….deceive even the very elect.”  It appears as if there will be a falling away of many from the faith.  While Jesus also said that before the end must come this “Gospel of the Kingdom must be preached in the whole world…” 3. Those who believe that today we are living in the last days have to deal with two quite different predictions.  One way to solve this problem is to look at different parts of the world.  Today it is very apparent that in the traditional Christian parts of the world  there is a falling away  from the faith due to persecution and secularism. This is true in Europe, the United States and the Middle East.   While in the developing world, including Asia, there is an expansion of the faith. We as missiologists must take into account this difference.  It is beyond our scope of this paper to study the whole world but if we limit it to one discipline and one area of the world then we might get a good picture of the problem..  I am fully aware that I am speaking to an Asian audience of trained missiologists who are academic astute, but my experiences are mostly in the post-christian world already described.  What we can learn from a study of this world are some principles that might be useful in the future in the growing world of the Faith.

Another aspect of this paper is not to concentrate of what I call micro missions but rather to look at mega missions or better how we can change not only people but whole societies.

Micro, Meta, and Macro Missions:

As we speak of the development of strategies it might be helpful to borrow from the study the Muslim Strategist, Khervaim Mural who claims that Islam works at three levels.  He describes them as:

1.                  The Micro level: he level of the individual persons and small organizations.

2.                  The Meta level: The level of very large groups, institutions and structures.

3.                  The Macro level: the level of overall ummah and Muslim societies and states.

In applying the same categories to other movements it becomes apparent that some have much larger goals than others.  Some have well developed plans for outreach at one level but have nothing at another level. In looking at missions it is apparent that Evangelical Christianity has much to learn from other movements but they are so wrapped with their own work that they are blinded by  McGavran’s universal fog,  thus are not ready to learn from others.  How other groups function and how they seek to gain new adherents can also be helpful to trained missiologists as we try to help the church to carry out the Great Commission of our Lord.

Not only did I accept the Micro, Meta and the Macro levels but I also found that many writers were stating that there were several mountains of culture.  I took these seven mountains and expanded them to ten.  One of the mountains that most agree upon is one that is the theme of this paper – education. 5.

During my extensive studies of six growing groups in the West I tried to discover the six largest growing  movements in the U.S.  I defined them as:

1.                  The Southern Baptists

2.                  The Assemblies of God

3.                  The Jehovah Witnesses

4.                  the Mormons

5.                  The Muslims

6.                  The Homosexuals

To my surprise,  I discovered that only three of the six have a major strategy at the Mega level.  They are the Mormons, the Muslims and the Homosexuals.  Sad to say that for the evangelicals, and the Pentecostals the area of higher education seems to have fallen between the cracks.   But rather than study more than one group I have decided to look at the missionary implications of the Mormon emphasis on higher education for our paper.  What they are doing in the world of education is one of the main reasons for their continued growth .

The Situation among University Students in the Western World:

Today in the Western World we are losing many of our Christian University Students to the forces of secularism.  Not only are contemporary students not ready to answer the call for missions but they are leaving the faith altogether.  It is imperative that we find some way to retain them.  In one recent study in the U.S.A. It was determined That 70% of church going young people drop out of church between the ages of 18 to 22 or the ages when many are studying in the university.  Another study that looked exclusively only at those young people attending a college were much less inclined to attend church.  The study stated that among incoming freshmen, 43.7 percent said they frequently attend religious services, but by the end of their junior year attendance was down to 25.4 percent. 6. Another study taken of Southern Baptist students said that only 4.6% of Southern Baptists graduating students attended church.5

The next question is why did these young people stop going to Church.  Thom Ranier in his book Essential Church gives the top ten life-Change reasons Yong Adults left the Church between he ages of Eighteen and Twenty-two.  They were:

1.                  I simply wanted a break (27 percent)

2.                  I moved to college and stopped attending church (25 Percent)

3.                  My work responsibilities prevented me from attending church (25 Percent)

4.                  I moved to far from the church to continue attending (22 Percent)

5.                  I became to busy though I still wanted to attend (22 Percent)

6.                  I chose to spend more time with friends outside the church (17 Percent)

7.                  School responsibility prevented me from attending church (16 Percent)

8.                  I wanted to make life decisions that were not accepted by the church (14 Percent)

9.                  Family/home responsibilities prevented me from attending church (12 percent)

10.               I lost touch with my church going friends (11 Percent) 7.

During his research Rainer also sought to see if there were some theological reasons for leaving the church.  Here is a portion of the results of reason they stopped attending church:

“I disagreed with the church’s teachings about God” (14 Percent)

“I was unsure of the reasons behind my faith” (13 Percent)

“I no longer wanted to identity myself as a Christian” (9 Percent)

“ I stopped believing in God” (7 Percent) 8.

Many studies have been made without being to arrive at definite reasons why the church is failing to reach the 18 to 22 year olds.  Most evangelicals will say that most universities in the West are too liberal and the teaching that the young people receive kill their faith.  One problem with this explanation if that the fallout rate for non college attending youth in the same age bracket is only a little bit higher. 9.  The purpose of this paper is not to try to understand the reasons for the problem but rather to look at one growing religious group that appears to have solved the problem.  It could be that we could learn from the Mormons and help the church to develop  better methods for using our young people in missions.

The Mormon Success:

Over the last one hundred and fifty years the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints (Mormons) have grown from a small insignificant sect in the deserts of the United States to one of the most influential religious movements in the world.  When a study is made of their theology and their beginnings it is unimaginable that this could happen, thus the question must be asked – How did this happen?  I am convinced that it was not their theology, or that the Spirit of God led them, but rather it was that they developed a better Mega strategy and have kept to their basic plan.  True they made some small modifications to this strategy over the years, but they seldom diverted far from their original plans.   Their basic plan is very simple is that they are using University students as their main missionary force.

In their 1995 report the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LSD) reported they had 9,024,569 members with 47,311 missionaries working in over 300 missions world wide. 10. By 2015 their membership had grown to 15,372,337 members with over 80,000 full time missionaries serving in 405 church missions throughout the world.  In my discussion with their leadership  they claim that they will have over 100,000 missionaries by the year 2020. 11.This is phenomenal growth and those who refuse to even look at what they are doing are sitting in the “Universal Fog” with their eyes closed.

What the Mormons are doing to reach people or their church is secondary to this paper.  Our theme is developing a better  system at the university level for the preparation of missionaries for the future.   No only has their strategy been successful but their training and discipleship of future members is outstanding.  Let us look in depth into their plans so as to see why they have been so successful.  At this point the best approach is to take a closer look at nine different aspects of their work.  At the end a summation shall attempt to put all they do into perspective for us understand the whole so that possibly we can duplicate parts of what they are doing.

1. Use of University Students:

For many yeas they would use practically exclusively male university students as their main missionary force.  Only in the last twenty years have they begun to use older adults as well as young women on short term duties.  In speaking with Dr. McGavran about the use of University students as the main thrust for missionary work he strongly said that this would not end up in success.  I did mention the Mormon plan but he never gave me an answer.  He felt that university students were to preoccupied to be good missionaries. 12.   The Mormons have proved him wrong.  I had the opportunity of making a rare visit to their missionary training facility in Provo. Utah.  13. I asked them when did they use University students.  Their answer was very logical.  They felt first of all that young men between the ages of 18 and 22 were the most likely to be ready to do a two year missionary duty.  They quoted to me the fact that the U.S. military has stated that they recruit young people to go into the military who are between the ages of 18 and 22.  their reasoning is that before the age of 18 they are too immature and after the age of 22 they are having children and are planing for a more stable existence.  But between the ages of 18 and 22 they are ready for excitement and adventure.  It is interesting to note that the same ages are when most young people are in college.  They also stated that if they took them between high school and college they learned that many would not go back to college after their missionary term or if they waited until after college many had a very difficult time after their return going back into their normal life.  With the Mormons they wait until the students have completed two years in college and then they send them out for two years.  All are expected to come back and go back to college for the next two years, thus helping them to reintegrate back into their own culture.  They stated that this plan had worked very well for them.

It is not only young men who now do their missionary service but there is a growing number of young women as well as retired older couples.  The males can begin their work at the age of 19 but the girls must wait until they are 19.  In 2007 it was reported that 80% of their missionary force were young men, while 13% were young women and 7% were older retired couples. Also in 2007 it was reported that 30% of all Mormon men had served in a mission while those young men coming from they describe as active LDS families the percentage climbs up to 80% to 90%. 14.

Most parents from the secular West are reluctant to let their young people take a break from college but the leadership of the LDS church has convinced their members  that it is in their best interest.  Another advantage is that when recruiters come to offer students good positions with leading companies, they are impressed that the graduating senior also has had international experience and often is fluent in another language.  This has been especially true when government agencies are looking for help.  There is a very big percentage of Mormons working for the FBI and CIA in America.

2. Financing of Missionaries:

The Southern Baptist began a two year program for college graduates but it only recruited about 200.  The reason was that the IMB paid all their expenses and there was a limit as to how many they could afford.  In the Mormon system the full support of the young people who are working as missionaries is given by the young person themselves, their families, or their local stake.  One of their ways of raising funds is that when a boy is born into a Mormon family they immediately open up a savings account for his missionary work.  Then when friends or family want to give gifts to the young boy, instead of a shirt that says “I  love you Daddy” they put money into his missionary account.  The same is done as the boy grows older.  When he has reached the age of going as a missionary often he has the funding for the two years.  The Mormon denomination or the mission sending agency does not pay for their missionary expenses.

I have tried to discover how much it costs for a missionary to live.  Of course it varies depending on where they live but the amount that needs to be paid is he same for all and it is approximately a Thousand dollars  month or $25,000 a for the two year period. 15.

The missionaries live a very simple life.  They do not eat out unless it has to do with their work, they ride bicycles that are provided for them or they walk.  In some cases they can take public transportation.  Their meals are very simple, they do not have televisions, radios or the fine things of life.  For two years they must concentrate on their mission and be willing to do without.

3. Preparation

Close to most high schools and in all Mormon Church buildings they have what they call seminaries.  Their young people must attend these schools which are held at times then their main schools are free.  During this time they are taught what could be considered as beginning courses on their beliefs as well as preparation for their missionary work.  You cannot go as a missionary unless you have attended faithfully these seminary classes.  While in college they also have to attend classes intended for their missionary work.  During their sophomore year they make an application to go as a missionary.  On the form they have to give their background including the courses complete at the seminaries.  Also they need the full backing of their local Bishop.  A big day in the life of most Mormon families in when the invitation letters are sent out from the church to the young men.  The letter, Which is known as their “Call to Serve”,will tell them if they have been accepted to do missionary work or not.  It also tells them the country where they will serve if they have been accepted.  They make the necessary preparation including the purchase of the designated clothing and gear.  Then on a given day they are to come to Provo for the sending out ceremonial.  The auditorium is full with the student and their family and friends.  When their name is called they go forward and through a door at the front.  From that time on they are not allowed to see or visit with families or friends.  They are allowed only two telephone calls a year to the family during their time on the field, but they are encouraged to write a letter to their family every week. .  They main purpose for the next two years is their mission.

4. Orientation:

Before they go on the field they will have a two month orientation, part of which is the same for all those going, but some of which is designed for those going to particular countries.  Included in this orientation is a two month extensive language learning class.  The Mormons brag that their language school is the the second best in the world, with only the the Language school for the U.S. Government military in California being better.  After two months the students are not expected to be fluent in the language but they will have a beginning knowledge of the language of the people they are going to serve.   Included in the two month orientation are  courses on discipleship and evangelism.

5. Field Structure:

I made a study of the Mormon missionary program in Bonn Germany and have been told that other parts of the world have a similar structures.  In Bonn they have divided the city up into 12 well defined areas.  For Bonn they have 24 missionaries assigned to the city which has two Mormon sakes, thus each area will have twelve missionaries assigned to each major section and twelve missionaries working under the leader of the Bishop of the stake.

Since each area has two missionaries in it, one of these has been in the area for one year while the second person is new.  The reason for this is because the longer serving person has spend the last year learning from the older missionary, both in the language and how to witness.  With these two missionaries, the older one does most of the speaking and takes the leads in evangelism and discipleship while he younger person learns.  Also during the private devotions when the two study together the older one takes the lead.  When the year is finished the older one goes home having served for two years while the younger one now takes the lead.   If there are problems between the two then the Bishop is called in to solve the problems.

One of the greatest advantages of this structure is that there is a continuity of witness in the system.  Lets look a this more closely. The older missionary has contact with some people and works with them for a year.  When the older one goes home then these contacts are taken up immediately by the younger person who has been with the older one for all the visits.  This goes on and on over the years.    Now I have been told that the missionaries have computers and they have every house and apartment in their area on the computer.  The missionaries can look at any house in their area and see what type of contact they have had at that location.  This way they can process their contacts with all in their area. Evangelicals have very little that can compare with this.

6. Use of Short Term Missionaries:

It has been stated that most of the missionary work has been done by young college age students.  They also use girls more and more for the two year terms but more often for short term positions such as for a summer.   Here is an example as to how the short termites fits into the structure and how they still have continuity of witness.  In Bonn one Baptist young mother received a call from the Bishop and was told that two young American University students were going to be in Bonn for three months and even though they could not speak good  German they would be willing to come take care of the woman’s two young children on Monday mornings for four hours while the mother did some of her chores and shopping.  The mother was very reluctant to accept the offer but the Bishop sent the two young girls to the home anyway.  The mother was impressed with the two girls who wore dresses and were very clean and well kept.   The mother decided to try it.  When she returned the children were happy, the house had been cleaned and lunch prepared.  The girls said they would come again the next week.  They did this for four weeks and then the mother through a translator asked why they did this.  The Mother was told it was because of their church.  The mother asked for more information about this church and she was told that the girls did not have the necessary information  to tell her what she wanted to know but they had two males friends who could come and give her the information she wanted.  At once the short termers had given he contact off to the two area missionaries who could keep contact with the mother for the next years.  Even the short term missionaries were a part of this well planned concept of continuity of witness.

7. Emphasis in Evangelism and Discipleship:

Lyle Schaller, A well know missiologist visited my Seminary and and during our discussions I asked him if he could predict which denomination would be the largest in California in twenty years.  He answered that He was not sure but did say that he knew that the church that demanded he most of their memes would grow to be he largest.  He added that in the early part of 1900 one forth of all Californians were Methodists but now that denomination was quite small and getting smaller.  If Schaller was right then the Mormons would probably be the largest in the near future. 16.

In looking at the daily schedule for the average missionary one is impressed with the dedication to their job.  Every day they hold to the same daily plan.  They wake up at 6:30 and exercise for one half hour and then eat Breakfast.  After two hours of personal devotional studies as well as 30 minutes for language study they they go out on the street to do what they call proselytism.  They take a break for lunch and return to their proselytizing for a total nine and one half hours in the day.  Before they go to bed they spend one hour in planning for the next day and in prayer. What they call proselytizing is made up of two elements, personal evangelism and discipleship.

8. International Contacts:

The Mormon missionary activity is in many way a very large network of various means of making contacts and then following up with the expressed purpose to make converts.  A good example of this was the Winter Olympics of 2008   When Salt Lake was given the Winter Olympics many reporters feared that the church would use this occasion to try to make converts. But after the games were over many said how pleased they were that there was no high pressure evangelism done by the LDS church.  However it should be noted that the church organized a vast army of young college girls to act as tour guides that were made available for free for those who wanted to tour the impressive Mormon facilities including their tabernacle.  These girls were very careful not to try to pressure those they were leading but were ready to say why they were giving up their time to do this work  At the end the would ask if the tourists would like a free Book of Mormon.  If they said yes then the girls got their address, many who were from out of the country, and sent the address to the two Mormon missionaries who had responsibility in that area and then the two young men would hand deliver the Book to those who now had been contacted.  Their whole plan was very low key.

If any Mormon meets another person from another country they can send the name and information to the church and it will be passed on to the missionaries.  They also use business contacts for missionary work.  It is interesting to note that in Austria, the evangelicals tries for years to receive State recognition to exist while in the 1970’s the Mormons received this recognition through both Mormon politicians and businesspeople from the U.S.A.

As the LSD church expands rapidly in many countries of the world, their missionary force is becoming much more multinational.  It is not only American young people who are doing their missionary work but all young people regardless of nationality are expected to do their missionary work.  In many cases those from other countries will work in their own country or in their own language group group but increasingly they are being sent to other countries to work.  During my time at the Missionary training center I was told that now English is the second language of Mormonism, with more Spanish speaking Mormons than English speaking

9. Use of Technology:

In the last twenty years the World has radically changed due to the great advances of technology.  Those missions that fail to understand and use the new new technologies are going to be left behind.  For most mission agencies there is no no strategy in place that capitalizes on the use of the internet or even the computers.  In many ways the Mormon Church has let the way.

For many years the Mormon Church had strict rules on the use of the computers by missionaries.  Because of their strict discipline their missionaries were admonished to “avoid all forms of worldly entertainment.  Today they are not permitted to watch television, listen to the radio, watch or go to movies or use he internet except for their work.  The exception allows them access to computers and the internet in order to use social media for proselyting.  Also they can use their computer in order to keep track of all persons in their area so as to buildup their contact base.

In Provo they now have missionaries whose work is composed of only the use of social media in order to reach converts.  Of course their media contact is always passed on to those on the ground for face to face followup.  In one study in the church it was learned that door-to-door missionaries convert about 6 people during their l8 to 24 month service while online missionaries see about 30 converts in the same time. 17.

Using the Mormon Methods –  The New Antioch

In 2005 after finishing my study of the strategies of the Mormon church I put together a program call The New Antioch with the intent of providing the Southern Baptists with a new alternate way to do missions.  The plan drew heavily on the Mormon strategy while incorporating it into a Southern Baptist Culture.  At that time both the North American Mission Board who was responsible for domestic missions and the International Mission Board who a responsible for intentional missions had relatively new executive Secretaries.  Leading the IMB was Dr. Jerry Rankin and the NAMB was Dr. Bob Record.  They both allowed me to make a major presentation of my plan to them and some of their leading strategists.  Both said that they were open for new ideas and also open to work together for the future.  After the plan was presented they took some time to consider the New Antioch.  Later they informed me that they rejected the plans.  Their reason was simple.  The plan was too radical and it would interfere too much with what they were doing at that time.  Later both told me that they would like to reconsider the New Antioch, but Dr. Record lost his position and several staffers who were given the job of reevaluating the plan retired.  The plan just died a natural death.

Another group of people were called together and presented the plan.   Those who attended a seminar were Presidents of Baptist Universities, specialists in discipleship training and missionaries.  Again the plan was not totally accepted.  Some of the reasons given were as follows:

1.                  No long time history thus no finances

2.                  No readiness to change our present day methods

3.                  Our young people are not ready to sacrifice

4.                  Parents fearful that students will not return to their studies

5.                  Leaders of Christian Universities fearful of losing students

6.                  No other larger Christian body is ready to make the big jump

7.                  Fear of being branded as Mormons

8.                  No appropriate literature to use on the field

9.                  Untrained Field Personnel

10.              The plan is too radical

The basic reason why it is not accepted by evangelicals is the old “we did not originate it” problem.


There are two very important premises that we have covered in this paper.  The first one is that Evangelical Churches are losing our university students to secularism.  The drop out rate of 18 to 22 year olds should be a major concern to every Christian leader.  The second is that the best source of qualified missionaries workers could be our 18 to 22 years olds.  This generation of young people are wanting to be used and to make a difference in our world.

In looking at these two ideas we must look at other groups to find out who is successfully using this age group in missions and how they are doing it.  My argument is that the one organization that is successful in using university students in missions are the Mormons thus we need to study how we too can incorporate some of their strategies into our plans so that we will not continue losing these students to the world but rather will win them them to the job of presenting the Gospel to all nations.  It may not be simple to solve the problem before us but we as church leaders must begin to find ways to correct our present failures.




1.  This book was a dissertation written for the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven,

Belgium and was one of the first critical books to be written on a national Church Growth

Association.  The German Church Growth Association no longer exists.

2.  McGavran,  Understanding Church Growth, p. 56.

3.  All Scriptures are taken for the New International Version of the Bible.

4. Khurram Murad, Dawah Among Non-Muslims in the West. (London:Islamic Foundation,1986), p. 9.

5. The original seven mountains  of Culture were Art and Theater, Business, Education, Religion, Family, Media, and Government.  I have added three more which are Sports, Technology, and Military.

6. Rainer, Essential Church, p. 31

7. Ibid., p. 73.

8. Ibid., p. 150.

9. Ibid., p.30.

10. 1995 Church Handbook. Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints

11. “President Thomas S. Monson: ‘Welcome to Conference’”, Deseret News, 6 October 2013.

12. An Interview with Dr. Donald McGavran during my study year at Fuller Theological

Seminary in Pasadena, California in 1972.

13. In 2000 I was invited to make a visit to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Some of the information given was related orally to me during my visit.  I was not permitted to take written notes.

14.  Missionary (LSD Church) Wikipedia, obtained on April 30, 2015.p.1.

15. Ibid.p.5.

16. Personal interview with Lyle Schaller in 1992 at Golden Gate Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California.

17. Missionary (LSD Church) Wikipedia, obtained on April 30, 2015. p.10.


McCrae, Fred W., A Case Study in Contextualization – The History of the German Church Growth  Association 1985 – 2003. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2014.

McGavran, Donald A., Understanding Church Growth, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.

Murad, Khurram. Da’wah Among Non-Muslims in the West. London:Islamic Foundation, 1986.

Rainer, Thom S. and Sam S. Rainer III, Essential Church? Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts,

Nashville: B and H Publishing, 2008.

Stock, Rodney, The Rise of Mormonism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Preach My Gospel. A Guide to Missionary Service. United States: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2004.

Institute For
Global Strategic Studies

© Institute For Global Strategic Studies 2018. All Rights Reserved.