The World Has Changed: Missions Must Too!
Over the last five or so years I've been intrigued by the phenomenon of "digital nomads." In case you're not familiar with this term let me explain. Digital nomads are people who harness the power of technology to work remotely from anywhere in the world with internet access. Got computer will travel!
Digital nomads do everything from accounting to teaching xylophone lessons online. The phenomenon of "digital" or "remote" workers has become so pervasive some countries now offer visas specifically to attract this working segment (here is a list of 20). Some countries like Thailand even offer membership based offices where digital nomads can access high-speed internet and a well-maintained work space for a monthly fee. The offices are open 24/7/365. But what is driving this new reality other than technology?
Quite simply, the driving force for many young Americans is the cheap cost of living in other countries. Strapped with student loan debt many Millennial/Gen Z folks are finding they can make money in the "digital economy." But the need to live cheap is also coupled with the Millennial/Gen Z love of experiences. In the new "gig economy" one can live in an exotic place on the cheap while working less and having more time for leisure activities.
OK, great sounds like fun. But I want us to stop for a moment and consider the implications of the "digital nomad" on global Christian missions. While not a prophet nor the son of one, I have enough foresight to see how this new economy will have massive impact on the future of global missions.
In ministry we often use the term "tent-maker" or "bi-vocational" to describe a minister who works a public job while also serving a church. Typically the goal of the bi-vocational minister is to quit her/his day job to become involved in full-time vocational ministry. In other words, only work one job!
In recent days, a new term has emerged - "co-vocational." Now I've heard well-meaning church and denominational leaders use this new phrase as a replacement for "bi-vocational" - well it's not.
Co-vocational ministry describes ministers who believe God has called them to the marketplace and ministry. The goal of the co-vocational minister is not to enter full-time vocational ministry. Instead, they are convinced part of their life calling is to remain in business where they can have missional impact. (For more information about co-vocational ministry click here).
Most global missions agencies require their global workers to raise a budget and keep themselves from business entanglements while serving. This often requires the worker to raise a significant financial budget before leaving for the field. Now, I am speaking about career level missionary work like Sherry and I are doing in Uganda, East Africa.
In the industrial age a young man or woman hoped to land a job at a factory after graduation (or before). The goal then become putting in your 30-years and retiring. Along the way one made a good living to supply for the needs of their family. That is awesome! I am alive today because my dad did this and put food on the table.
But if I was working in a manufacturing plant and wanted to become a missionary I had to choose. It's not like I could pick up the factory and take it with me. If the calling was evident and compelling then I quit my job, raised my budget, and went to the field.
In today's technological economy if one has a computer, internet access, skill, and a love for the unreached - they may not have to choose to leave their job to do missions. We live in a new de-centralized world. A world joined together at the end of fiber lines, CAT cables, and "www" addresses. The future of global missions is and will continue to be shaped by this new global economy.
If you've stuck with me this long, you might be thinking, "Danny, aren't you just describing 'Business as Mission (BAM)?" Well, not really and maybe. Mats Tunehag defines BAM as:
“Business as Mission is about real, viable, sustainable and profitable businesses; with a Kingdom of God purpose, perspective and impact; leading to a transformation of people and societies spiritually, economically and socially – to the greater glory of God."
Digital nomads may be entrepreneurs building a business that honors God to bring transformation to people. Or, they may simply use their talents to generate in income to support them while they live among a people, share Christ, and disciple others. They leverage the "Roman Road" of our day - the internet - to create opportunities for relationship building and global Christian witness. These Digital Nomad Missionaries will take advantage of a de-centralized world economy as opportunity to preach the centrality of faith in Jesus.
One of the major challenges to recruiting and deploying future missionaries is student loan debt. I've had countless conversations with students who desire to enter missions. But they look at the current approval and fund-raising models for most missions agencies as a hindrance rather than a help. They cannot see past their debt that, quite honestly, many of our Christian colleges convinced them was a good thing (but that's another blog for another day).
Yet, they have valuable skills and passionate zeal to spread the Good News around the world. What if space was created that allowed for the digital nomad lifestyle to be merged with missionary calling?
I know! I know! That's not how we've always done it. And I know that a dependence on internet access might dictate or limit the places one can go. However, I think the idea is worth considering.
I see clearly a day where a host of digital nomads close their laptops in the USA and open them in Croatia or Spain or Thailand.