In 1911, Samuel Zwemer, the “Apostle to Islam,” wrote these words about young men and the mission field: “Is there a more heroic test for the powers of manhood than pioneer work in the mission field?”

More than a century ago, Zwemer recognized a lack of young men willing to go to the mission field. Today, the situation remains largely the same. Young Christian women are more likely to pursue missions than their male counterparts.

This isn’t meant to disparage young men. Furthermore, we should celebrate the many bold, courageous, and God-called women who are faithfully serving Christ around the world. I’m thankful for how God is using them in immeasurable ways. However, now is the time for more young men to step up, join their sisters, and take initiative in the Great Commission.

Glaring Absence

The absence of young men in missions is a trend I’ve been observing for more than a decade. I’ve lived on the mission field, served in local churches, and trained missionaries through the International Mission Board (IMB). Currently, I teach missionaries at a seminary. In each setting, I’ve witnessed a shortage of young men from North America willing to count the cost and pursue international missions.

On a recent trip to East Africa, I met a young man in his early 20s serving in the two-year Journeyman program with the IMB. He shared with me that the program was largely populated by women; he was one of two guys out of over 40 journeymen.

The ratio of women to men in the missions world is staggering. Widespread anecdotal data suggests that women outnumber men on the mission field by a ratio of at least 2:1. Today, about two-thirds of missionaries are married couples, and 70 to 80 percent of the rest are single women.

Why Men Are Missing

Why this disparity? One reason is that biblical complementarianism rightly limits women’s opportunities for ministry. While the mission field can provide women a unique avenue for service, men might prefer a pastoral position at home that often pays better and seems easier. But there are other practical reasons why more men aren’t serving on the mission field.

Women outnumber men on the mission field by a ratio of at least 2:1.

1. Immaturity

Many young men remain spiritually immature into adulthood. Often, they’re not discipled. Whereas many local churches have vibrant women’s ministries and women’s Bible studies, there’s often a lack of strong male examples in the local church who are investing in the next generation. This results in large numbers of immature Christian young men.

2. Sin

Christians fight sin daily. Young men often fight sins that are obstacles to their service on the mission field. It’s well documented that pornography is preventing many young men from pursuing missions. In addition, pride, anger, foolishness, lack of self-control, and laziness are just a sample of the sins impeding young men from serving overseas.

3. Debt

The average college student graduates with around $30,000 in student loan debt. Most mission agencies rightly have policies against sending missionaries with significant debts to serve overseas. Many young adults are working hard to pay off student loans. Increasingly, this prevents young men (and women) from pursuing global missions, especially if they can find better-paying ministry positions.

4. Not Called

Unlike previous generations, it seems young men aren’t being challenged to consider serving on the mission field. Most parents aren’t actively praying for their children to be missionaries. Pastors rarely extend a “call” from the stage to this end. Perhaps one of the reasons young men aren’t pursuing international missions is because no one is encouraging them to go.

What We Can Do

I’m convinced the lack of young men on the mission field is first and foremost a local church issue. So what can we do?

Older men in the church can purposefully disciple young men with the nations in mind. They can show the next generation that God is a missionary God and the Bible is a missionary book. Young men (and women) should understand that missions is a central theme running from Genesis to Revelation and that God has saved them so they can participate in his mission of redemption. If mature male leaders take initiative and disciple young men, I believe they’ll find many who are ready for the challenge.

Perhaps one of the reasons young men aren’t pursuing international missions is because no one is intentionally encouraging them to go.

But we shouldn’t wait until young men have started college or their careers before introducing them to missions. Casting a vision while they’re young is important. From preschool through high school, local churches can teach about global missions. Kids can pray for unreached peoples. They can meet visiting missionaries. They can be involved in ministry projects and trips. They can hear their pastors regularly talking and praying about missions.

Perhaps most important of all, we should commit this issue, and our children, to fervent prayer. Prayer is the work of missions, and God hears us when we pray. But how many of our churches are praying regularly in corporate gatherings for missions? How many are praying specifically for more young men to pursue missions? We should be on our knees asking God to do what only he can in the lives of young men in our churches.

Calling Young Men

The absence of men on the mission field has been a reality for generations. This isn’t an issue that will be solved overnight. But it’s an issue worth addressing. Just as women have a vital role to play on the mission field, there’s much work to be done that calls for qualified, godly, and courageous men.

Like Samuel Zwemer, I believe we need to challenge young men to answer that call. The call to forsake sin and follow God. The call to take his message of truth and love to the world. The call to recognize that the unreached peoples and places of this world are unreached for a reason—because they’re the hardest to reach. Now is the time for young men in the church to step up.