David Brainerd was one. So was Henry Martyn. And James Gilmour spent most of his career as one.

Single men serving as cross-cultural missionaries.

It's a short list by almost any measure. Think about it:  how many single female missionaries are on your prayer list, and how many single male missionaries?

Men, Marriage, and Missions

Aside from married couples, single women comprise the bulk of Western missionaries. In some missions agencies, the disparity can be as high as three single men to every 16 single women. More commonly, however, it may be closer to three men to every six women. 

Some of the disparity, of course, stems from the same ratio distortion we find between genders in the Western church itself: most denominations report having more female than male parishioners. However, the imbalance here at home isn't nearly as wide as it is on the mission field, is it?

And considering evangelical Christianity's emphasis on male leadership, does it make sense that single men are conspicuous by their absence in cross-cultural ministry?

Few official studies have been published exploring reasons for gender imbalance on the mission field. Most evangelical organizations recruit and commission regardless of gender, trusting that God, through his sovereignty, is accomplishing his plan and purpose for his Kingdom. Since God's will cannot be thwarted just because American men aren't flocking to the mission field, perhaps the gender disparity we see isn't the red flag it appears to be.

Nevertheless, it remains a curious anomaly.

Over the past couple of months, several cross-cultural missionaries participated in an informal, non-scientific survey exploring the question of why we see more unmarried female missionaries than male. All of the respondents were single, except one male who recently got married after seven years as a single missionary. Because most of this survey's participants minister in sensitive countries, and since none profess expertise in gender issues, their identities and missions agencies will remain confidential. Yet what they say regarding this topic provides some keen insight.

So, are you ready for some blunt observations from the trenches?

A Man's World?

First, it seems that men may need women more than women need men. At least if you're going to be a missionary. Cross-cultural missions entails a tangle of jarring lifestyle readjustments that challenge all of the emotions and senses. Especially for people coddled by Western affluence, the transition from a relatively ordered post-industrial worldview to one of political and social oppression, scarce resources, and marginal literacy may actually be harder for single men than single women to bear. While America has its problems, they pale in comparison to moving almost anyplace else.

Most Western men are enculturated to overcome obstacles by acquiring the knowledge and tools necessary for progress. Know your market, craft your product to be as appealing as possible, deploy trendy programs, and you should start seeing results. But people groups outside the Western world, with mindsets and lifestyles so different from ours, can suddenly make discipleship a much more bewildering struggle.

Not that men can't take the pressure. Apparently, though, they just can't take it alone. David Brainerd, who evangelized Native Americans and died before the Revolutionary War, suffered severe depression in part because of his deep loneliness. British missionary Henry Martyn wrote excruciatingly plaintive journal entries* about whether he should marry before departing England for India.  It wasn't until after he died on the mission field that the woman he loved admitted publicly she loved him, too.