In 1972, a thousand young people from around the world joined YWAM’s first Olympic Games Outreach in Munich, with many continuing on into longer-term missions.
Exactly fifty years ago this week, a young Dutch woman registered a new organisation in the Netherlands aimed to launch youth into global mission.
The Dutch name was Jeugd met een Opdracht, in English: Youth With A Mission. For some, mobilising untrained young people was irresponsible and unprofessional. Yet five decades and five generations later, youth mission is clearly here to stay. Other organisations and denominations followed over time with their own versions of short term youth mission opportunities.
Youth missions was pioneered in Europe half a century ago by George Verwer (Operation Mobilisation) and Loren Cunningham (Youth With A Mission), both Americans from the so-called Silent Generation (born 1928-1945). Now in the last phase of their pilgrimages and both facing terminal illnesses, they leave a rich legacy globally involving countless young missionaries.
Their first recruits were westerners (North Americans, Western Europeans and Australasians) from the post-war Baby Boomer generation. Youth missions thus emerged in Europe in the early 1970s riding the wave of the Jesus Revolution and (for YWAM) the Charismatic movement. In 1972, a thousand young people from around the world joined YWAM’s first Olympic Games Outreach in Munich, with many continuing on into longer-term missions.
From the widely accepted theory of generations – suggesting that whole generations are significantly shaped by major events and shared experiences – has come the popular terms ‘Boomers’, ‘GenXers’, ‘Millennials’ and now ‘GenZers’.
‘Boomers’ were self-assured, optimistic achievers ready to grasp the opportunities post-war prosperity and reconstruction. And ready to travel. Jumbo-jets and cheaper tickets made it possible for young people to fly to foreign destinations for short-term mission engagements. International communication however was still clumsy, via telex (teleprinter machines), and expensive, through pre-digital telephones.
Most boomers in YWAM (born 1945-1964) have now reached retirement age, after pioneering a network of mission training and mobilisation centres across western (and since 1990, eastern) Europe. That young Dutch woman is now a septuagenarian called Romkje Fountain.
The boomers’ successors, the GenXers (born 1965-1980), have moved into the vacant senior mission leadership roles. GenXers are sometimes called the ‘sandwich’ generation, squeezed in between the larger baby boomer and millennial generations. Growing up as digital technology began to permeate western life, they were always at home with personal computers, smartphones, MTV, video games, cable news and new software.
The new millennium dawned just as the oldest of Generation Y (born 1981-1996) were entering adulthood; hence the more common name Millennials. Now aged between 26 to 41, they form the bulk of the two thousand full-time YWAM staff serving across Europe, west and east. More comfortable with multi-ethnicity than previous generations, Millennials were a great match for missions ‘from everywhere to everywhere’. The centre of gravity of the world-wide church was no longer in the north and west, but in the majority world of the south and the east.
Millennials grew up with the internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and have an intuitive knowledge of technology. They value collaboration, team-work, innovation and creativity. YWAM’s offer of entrance into missions though collective, multi-ethnic experiences such as youth-led schools and team outreaches with specialist focus, including the arts, music, sports, justice and environment, has proven attractive to Millennials.
Enter the GenZers (or zoomers), born 1997- 2012, now the primary focus for missions recruiters. Zoomers have grown up in a ‘dangerous, scary world’ in recession, with parents anxious about coping with life. They feel that previous generations have stolen their future. Like Millennials, Zers are heavily suspicious of institutions and organisations they feel have failed them. They are the Greta Thunberg generation, aware that an ecological timebomb is ticking. As part of being ‘authentic’, they expect to be free to follow their desires, moment by moment, unrestricted by sexual convention.
They are the least churched and least reached western generation for centuries. They have been raised by non-Christian parents, are biblically illiterate and do not know the gospel story. They are not militant atheists, not secularists, not hostile antagonists. They are an unreached people group and need to be approached like other UPGs. Their spiritual situation demands immediate attention from church and mission leaders. They require a radical departure from our business-as-usual training programmes based on the needs of past generations.
Zers demand a much more holistic approach to missions and evangelism, a broader Missio Dei, including creation care, for example. Short term mission engagements, even for those still journeying towards faith, can offer the participation, experience and relationship through which Zoomers best learn.
Half a century ago, a new wave of mission leaders in Europe came off the streets through the Jesus Revolution. Youth missions was born. Why could not the Spirit of God once again harness the passions and giftings of youth, this time GenZ, to find creative solutions for the big issues of our day?
(This is an adapted and abridged version of an article in the Feb 2023 Missional Focus Journal of ForMission College)