dventist Frontier Missions currently has about 30 student missionaries (SMs) assisting on projects around the world. They play a profound role in supporting the work among the unreached. As veteran missionary Leonda George puts it, “Student missionaries are an indispensable aspect of our work.”
The concept of student missionaries is simple. Youth at the front end of their careers are given the opportunity to work alongside experienced career missionaries for a year and given an option to sign up for a second. As a former SM recently pointed out to me, it’s similar to the model used by ancient Waldensians to train their pastors. In addition to the opportunity to learn from seasoned missionaries, SMs get a feel for what missionary life entails—the range of skills that might prove helpful were they to pursue a full-fledged missionary career—and a chance to talk to God about His calling on their lives. As God confirms this calling, many SMs go on to become career missionaries. Others have started ministries of their own or have committed their lives to serving God through occupations here in the U.S. About 25 percent of AFM’s current missionaries started their mission careers as SMs.
I recently contacted several former AFM student missionaries to better understand their view of SM life. Most of them told me that SM service helped confirm their life’s calling. One is now a nurse/pilot with his own plane. He has a fulltime job but lives on a small fraction of his income so he can pay off his student loans and be free to go to the mission field. In the meantime, he is looking for a place to invest his God-given skills in saving souls.
Two other former SMs are now teachers, gaining valuable experience while they look for a place to work as career missionaries. I listened to them as they shared exciting personal experiences with a group of academy students. They told these students that SM service challenged them to develop new skills and carry out tasks and responsibilities that pushed them out of their comfort zones. Then, to their complete surprise, they discovered that they really enjoyed the new responsibilities! SM service completely changed their career choices and their lives. In the process, they discovered the deep sense of fulfillment that comes from knowing they were right where God wanted them to be.
Mariette, an SM from South Africa, returned home after more than a year of service but wanted to continue serving. Noticing homeless orphans in her community, she found a garage where they could meet and welcomed them to sing, read the Bible and do crafts with her on Sabbaths. They came—dozens of them! They loved the food she brought for them and quickly learned that she truly cared. Then the owner of the garage lost her home. Mariette told me, “When I informed the children that we probably would have to stop with our class, they hugged me tightly and said ‘No! Just come! We will sit here next to the street in the sun. Just come!’”
AFM recognizes the tremendous influence SMs can have on our projects as well as the influence that their service has on the rest of their lives. We have worked hard over the years to develop a training program that will prepare each SM to maximize both their project contribution and personal development. But the real training begins the day they arrive on the new project site.
Consider Louis, another student missionary from South Africa. He introduced himself as a skinny computer geek, but the project site he joined was in the mountains of Palawan, Philippines, and involved strenuous climbing. In a letter he wrote to his friends back home, he talked about his admiration for other student missionaries who seemed more fit for the task. He told about how well they could speak the language and how they had earned the local people’s respect. Then he said, “My biggest dream and prayer is to be as fit as Brenden and as tough as Robby so I can start exploring these mountains and look for the people who don’t know God yet.”
But the path to fitness isn’t paved. It requires exercise, challenge and pain. We all want to be fit, but when we see the requirements to get there, too many of us turn back. Louis continued to write letters detailing one challenge after another. I couldn’t help but feel proud of him, when, after relating a story of particularly intense personal struggle, he concluded, “I ask that you pray for me, as I have decided to stay for a second year.”
I contacted Brenden and Robby as well, and both related to their years in the mission field much the same as Louis did. It was God’s training camp, and while they collected their own scrapes and bruises, they were being stretched and matured in preparation for greater usefulness.
Rachel Perry wrote, “My time as an SM was really formative and crucial to my development as a person. My career missionary mentors showed me the love of Jesus in a practical way. They fully expected that I would make mistakes, yet they willingly took the risk. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. And one day I realized, Wow! That’s how God loves me! This awakened confidence in me that I never knew before—confidence to live fearlessly for God, to do what He asks no matter how unqualified I feel.”
All SMs want their year of service to leave a positive impact on the lives of people, and ultimately, to make heaven a little fuller. Rachel explained to me that she knows SMs are only a link in a chain shared by other missionaries and heavenly agencies. They won’t always get to see the final results before they leave, but she trusted that God would provide the other links of the chain once she was gone.
Rodrigo Sampaio, an SM from Brazil who was a huge blessing to the work in West Africa, says that the biggest barrier to effective ministry isn’t so much the differences in language and culture; it is fear of being inconvenienced. Once we push past this, God opens doors for ministry.
SMs make a difference. One of Mariette’s friends in Cambodia called her “My best friend.” When Brenden got ready to leave after several years on the Palawano Project, an old auntie tearfully told him, “We wish you would not go. You have taught us to hope in Jesus.”
Unreached people need more student missionaries. AFM currently has 50 calls for SMs during the 2019/2020 school year. If you would like to sign up for one of these positions, please contact John Baxter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It typically costs about $14,000 to train, equip, deploy and support an SM for a year. Since SMs are often saddled with enough education-related expenses already, and the time they have to raise funds is limited, they are only asked to raise a portion of these expenses. In North America, this amounts to $5,000 each. AFM’s SM Fund covers remaining expenses. Your donations to this fund are a blessing to the world! Thank you!