Are medical missionaries relics of the past? How many career missionary doctors and nurses do you still know? Are your children likely to grow up without stirring first-person stories of missionary surgeons stitching up patients by the aid of a flashlight after all-night trips in dugout canoes?
According to the current issue of Today's Christian Doctor magazine, the statistics are worse than sobering. For example: Thirty missions organizations right now are reporting 33 hospitals worldwide without a single doctor or nurse on their staffs.
There's a lesson here for all of us who have devoted much of our lives and energies to promoting the Christian worldview. It is possible, in our all-out effort to integrate our faith with the rest of our lives, to do such a good job of such integration that our faith all but disappears.
It wasn't supposed to work that way. The truth of the gospel was supposed to be so vital and so important and so all-encompassing that it would come to dominate and reshape all the other aspects of our lives. You don't have to be a pastor or a missionary, we have always said, to be faithful to the call of Christ. You can be just as faithful in your service to God if you diligently put Him first in your calling as an engineer, a military officer, a dietitian-or even a journalist. And we were right. Your vocational calling from God is a holy thing, no matter what occupation it involves.
But in the process of learning to think that way, is it also possible that we've given ourselves excuses for talking ourselves out of some of the hardest assignments God hands to His people?
Today's Christian Doctor, published by the Christian Medical and Dental Society, claims one survey found that of a hundred young people who sensed a definite call of God to medical missions, only 12 completed training for that call, only two actually went-and only one stayed.
The enormous cost of a medical education, of course, has become a significant deterrent, especially when coupled with the huge debts most medical students incur. The magazine reports one study that found that "only 20 percent of doctors who have felt the call of God to go as missionary doctors still have that interest when their training is completed and their debts have been paid off. This last requirement usually takes five to ten years. By then the family and practice are well situated. The imagined work and call schedule in the mission hospital produces only panic."
But the magazine also suggests that a common practice meant to build interest in missions may actually be hurting instead. "In some ways short-term service and short-term teams have killed long-term service. The question may be asked: If I can fulfill God's requirements for my life for world evangelism by a two-week commitment per year, why should I consider a lifetime commitment?"
Could it be that our sophisticated thinking about serving God no matter what we are doing, coupled with opportunities to serve in hardship settings every now and then, has inoculated many of us against lifetime callings to such places? Or is it simply that we are wimps compared to our ancestors, too cautious to make the same kind of big commitments they made? Are we, more than we think, simply the products of our age-whirling through short-term stints in jobs, churches, and even marriages, but never receiving the rich benefits that long-term, come-what-may, for-better-or-for-worse relationships have a tendency to produce?
All this isn't meant to beat up on stay-at-home doctors any more than it is a critique of all of us who have made the same comfortable decision. It's just that the crisis in medical missions is this week's news. And it dramatizes for us all how easily we let even good things get in the way of unstinting, selfless, let-it-all-hang-out service.
Indeed, you probably wouldn't be holding this issue of WORLD magazine if a missionary doctor hadn't cut short his career in China and come home. Nelson Bell, faced with the storm clouds of World War II, returned to North Carolina-and was never again a career missionary. With the same high level of commitment and risk, however, he threw himself into the work of Christian journalism (even while continuing to practice medicine), and in 1942 founded the organization that now produces WORLD each week. So Nelson Bell didn't end up as a lifetime missionary doctor. But that turn in the road was God's sovereign doing-not Nelson Bell's. He had made himself available for a hard task and committed himself to doing it, whatever the cost.
What would happen today if a whole lot more of us sized up the gifts God has given us and then actually volunteered to use those gifts in the most difficult circumstances we could possibly imagine? Many, in all probability, would discover-as Dr. Bell did-a rich but short career in such a setting before being reassigned to something equally important at home. Others might enjoy a lifetime of adventure and service in hard but exotic settings.
Pity is that most of us will never make ourselves available for either possibility. And we will be the losers.