On the Backs of 20-Somethings


What do mission legends Mary Slessor, Hudson Taylor and Cameron Townsend share in common? They were all impacting nations and reshaping mission paradigms before they were 30 years old.

The gospel’s march has often been carried on the backs (and in the backpacks) of young people. The golden chain of mission expansion has been forged by teenagers and young adults. And whether or not they realize it, on-fire youth today add to a train of faith centuries long.

The average age was 27 at the Moravian gathering in 1727 that birthed a nonstop prayer vigil for world evangelization that would last 100 years. Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, who gave leadership to the Moravians, joined other students at 16 to form a school prayer group that exploded into a prayer movement that swept Europe.

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William Carey, not yet 30, defied a complacent church and became the catalyst for the modern mission movement. Following were a host of young mission giants including Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone and Amy Carmichael. Livingstone and Taylor were both teenagers when they committed their lives to missionary service.

The impromptu Haystack Prayer Meeting of students at Williams College in 1806 launched the American mission movement. Almost a century later, the Student Volunteer Movement saw some 20,000 graduates go as missionaries.

Cambridge University has witnessed waves of mission fervor through the centuries. In different generations the preaching of Charles Simeon, David Livingstone and D.L. Moody lit mission fires that leaped from that campus to the world. Significant outcomes of these mission emphases include The Cambridge Seven, who inspired thousands of collegians for missions, and the founding at Cambridge of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

As a new era dawned, again it was young, innovative thinkers like Cameron Townsend and Donald McGavran who changed the course of missions. In 1936 college students birthed the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship.

In 1944, Billy Graham, who had recently graduated from Wheaton College, and 26-year-old pastor Torrey Johnson formed Youth for Christ. A young seminary student named Bill Bright launched Campus Crusade for Christ seven years later. In 1956, 29-year-old Jim Elliot and four other young missionaries were martyred while attempting to plant the gospel among the Waodoni in Ecuador’s jungle. Hundreds of young people across America volunteered to take their place. As the turbulent 1960s began, Loren Cunningham founded Youth With a Mission. In the late 1980s ORU students Ron and Katie Luce launched Teen Mania.

Thank God for the unbridled evangelistic passion of youth. As Christian leaders today we’re privileged to mentor their zeal, directing youthful fire where it can be most productive. Let’s help propel young world-changers through these simple actions:

  • Affirm them.As mentors to young visionaries, we must never be guilty of preventing youthful dreams from launching. We can help guide where those dreams soar, but we should never strap down the wings of vision or creativity.
  • Challenge them.Let’s help young firebrands construct a global vision. Entrust them with some weighty assignments.
  • Inspire them.They don’t want us to sugarcoat the mission mandate or minimize the hostile challenges against the gospel. They simply need to know that we will join them in the trenches.

Too often caustic voices tell young people their hopes are pipe dreams and that “with maturity” they will settle into (and settle for) a mundane faith. 

Dear God, deliver me from any identification with these dream dousers! Let’s lift young people’s sights to reach the world for Christ! 

Throughout history, when God wanted a big job done, He often looked to a young person. Teenagers like David and Mary changed history.

Youth is when idealism and a sense of justice (and injustice) peak. The venom of unbelief hasn’t poisoned their spiritual bloodstream. Youth doesn’t know what can’t be done!

David Shibley founded Global Advance in 1990 and has equipped church leaders in 62 nations. Now serving as Global Advance’s international representative, he mentors young people called to Christian ministry. 

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