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Solo Zone: Whither the Single Male Missionary?

  • Tim Laitinen Contributing Writer
  • 2011 3 Feb
Solo Zone: Whither the Single Male Missionary?

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.

God Made Eve for a Reason

It's not for no good reason that God created a helpmeet for Adam (Genesis 2:22-23). And it's not just the informal survey's female respondents who noticed this. One of the male respondents wondered if the emotive proclivities of women make them better engagers with the nitty-gritty of everyday cross-cultural realities. Maybe the same maternal drives that help females juggle the various demands of motherhood translate exceptionally well on the mission field?

Perhaps this sounds sexist and over-generalized, but nearly all of the female respondents suggested that women can tolerate the intangibles of cross-cultural ministry better than men can. To the extent men expect to work within structured environments for optimum results, perhaps that which drives males doesn't get stoked as much in overseas ministry. Here at home, where Christianity, even if not practiced biblically, is at least validated by society as mainstream, men have a more agreeable environment in which to chart their performance.

Then, too, perhaps the logic men are reputed to master plays a role. Abandoning tangible opportunities for ministry at home to travel halfway around the world to a foreign language and culture doesn't necessarily make a lot of practical sense, does it?  Western societies expect their men to pragmatically assess methods for supporting one's family. Short-term missions may be a lark for vacations or an entire summer, but hardly a lucrative option as a long-term vocation. Perhaps the men who overcome these arguments against pursuing missions also realize such a commitment—in terms of practicality—requires a wife as well, regardless of the financial factor. Maybe that's why most of the men who serve in overseas missions either are married when they arrive, or get married soon after.

Indeed, getting married while overseas seems to be a significant occurrence for those single guys who begin their service alone.  One reason for this involves sexual purity. Even in some of the remotest parts of the globe, pornography in all of its insidious forms can snatch unmet sexual desires of unmarried men alone in a foreign culture. Diligent single male missionaries who find themselves tempted in this way learn quickly what the Apostle Paul instructs regarding singles who can't keep themselves sexually pure: marry! (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).

The Right Kind of Burn-Out

So, what does all of this say about the single women who far outnumber the opposite gender on the mission field? Hopefully it's not simply that they're more obedient to God's call to missions than men. Are women illogical, sexually ambivalent, emotionally-driven matriarchal adventure hounds? Or, have they somehow been conditioned to better accommodate the struggles and challenges of cross-cultural ministry without a spouse for support? Might they be more adept at focusing on rewards over risks?

Not that missionary work is easy for any gender or marital status. And all kinds of variables remain unmeasured with such anecdotal observations and opinions as have been gleaned from this survey's respondents. One scenario that does seem to emerge from this exercise, however, should give us all pause: the absence of single men on the overseas mission field seems to fly in the face of the rugged, macho male icon.

Could it really be true that behind almost every "successful" male cross-cultural missionary stands … his wife?

Does it really matter if we send out more single female missionaries than male ones?  Biblically, it matters only if single men—who receive a legitimate call from God to serve him cross-culturally—don't obey him. Trusting in the providence of our Creator should preoccupy all of us—whether we're married or not. Whether our vocation should be foreign missions or not.

As the single Henry Martyn said upon arriving in India: "Now let me burn out for God."

To read more about Henry Martyn and his personal strife regarding his love for Lydia Grenfell, you can find excerpts from his journal online here.  Of particular interest are pages 44 to 100.

From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at

**This article first published on February 3, 2011.