Debt and Missions

A Missional Perspective on College Debt

Missionary statesman Ralph Winter writes in his classic essay, Re-consecration to a Wartime Lifestyle, that we spend “as much on chewing gum annually as we do on missions.”Just as the average American made sacrifices during World War II, reasons Winter, the average Christian must make sacrifices to live simply in order to support missionaries in today’s spiritual battles.

It’s one thing for the church to give up Bubble Yum (or Starbucks, as the case may be) in order to further the Kingdom. But it’s quite another thing when the main financial obstacle to fulfilling the Great Commission is student debt. I’ve personally counseled hundreds of people who would go overseas in a minute…if it wasn’t for their college loans.

Is it Worth It?

As missions-minded Christians with a wartime mentality, we wonder if it makes sense to go $20,000 (and more!) into debt for a college degree. Wouldn’t that money be better spent getting a head start on the mission field?  

The disciples raise a similar question when Mary anointed Jesus with costly perfume: “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” Jesus responds:

The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.

Mark 14:7

Jesus’ point is clear: some things are worth spending on, even in the face of other legitimate needs. A college education holds significant value for prospective missionaries and could be one of those things which is worth the cost. Consider:

  • A good college education gives you a framework to address big questions about truth, justice and responsibility.
  • A good college education develops the critical thinking skills and practical skills needed in missions work.
  • Overseas employers (and employers in the United States) value candidates with the intelligence and discipline evidenced by succeeding in a college environment. A North American college education gives you valuable (and often required) credentials for the mission field. For example, with TeachOverseas (the organization I serve with), our international partners require candidates with college degrees.

Tips for Reconciling Debt with Missions

Even so, deciding whether to complete a college education is a choice you need to make prayerfully, seeking God’s direction. If you do decide college is the next step for you (or if you’re already in the midst of college), here are some tips for reconciling debt with missions:

Take on as little debt as possible

Seems simple, right? But, pursuing a debt-free life takes difficult decisions and actions. For example, how will you spend your summer? Many colleges offer significantly reduced tuition for summer classes. Are you willing to stay on campus and miss family vacation? Or, are you able to take classes at a community college so that you can transfer in credits? Could you save significant money by living off-campus and renting a room from an elderly person at your church?

Can you make time in your schedule for a part-time job? What small or large luxuries could you give up to live a simple, “wartime” lifestyle today? If your long-term desire is to live cross-culturally, how can you live counter-culturally in today’s consumer-oriented society?

Pay off your debt can as soon as possible

If you have a clear missionary calling, minimizing your debt load as quickly as you can is good stewardship and will get you to the field faster. After you graduate, continue to live a simple lifestyle, even if you are fortunate enough to have a well-paying job. Put together a budget that includes fixed expenses and differentiates between “needs” and “wants.” Learn to cook inexpensive and healthy meals instead of eating out. Find free sources of entertainment. Shop at second-hand stores. Use public transportation instead of owning a car.

You will be surprised how far these small savings will add up to reduce your debt over a period of time. And, as a bonus, you will be developing valuable skills for a life overseas where convenience foods and personal vehicles are rare.

Defer your loans for a year or two

If you have a general interest in missions,it may be best to differ your loans for a short time. Let’s face it, if you wait until your loans are completely paid off, you may never make it overseas! Your early twenties are a special time in life. Before you settle down into a career and/or marriage, I highly recommend that you explore a calling to overseas service. Most mission agencies can help you defer your loans while you volunteer.

While this doesn’t help you reduce your debt, it does give you the freedom to get your feet wet and see if missions is right for you. If it is, you can return home with the passion and vision that will motivate you to work-off your debt and build a support network before launching out long-term.

Go to God

Jesus talked a lot about money. In fact, apart from the kingdom of God, it was his favorite topic. Why not spend some time talking to Jesus about your financial situation. I’m sure he’ll have plenty of insights to share with you.

With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

Matthew 19:26


Sabrina Wong is vice president of TeachOverseas, a mission organization that trains and sends people to teach English in unreached nations. Sabrina was involved in the InterVarsity chapter at Stanford University, where she graduated debt-free with a B.A. in English. Sabrina also graduated debt-free from Fuller Theological Seminary with an M.A. in Intercultural Studies. Sabrina served two years in China and has been on the executive and planning committees of the World Christian Conference held in northern California.

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Comments

This is an interesting article. I have to say I think it overlooks a couple of key points in outlining a Biblical perspective on debt and missions. 1) The lady who poured out the flask of oil was using her own resource - not someone else's. She was free to pour it out at will, because it was hers. She didn't go into debt to anyone else in order to be able to give such an offering. 2) It's important that any believer thinking of taking on debt (of any kind), really understand what the scriptures say about borrowing money and being in debt to another [note: not once does the Bible suggest it's a good thing]. It's not something to be taken on lightly, or justified as being 'worth it' - the long-term impact of debt is not nearly as simple as that, as anyone with significant debt will tell you. 3) Not one of Jesus' twelve disciples had any formal training before they were sent out to fulfill the Great Commission. It follows then, that a college degree is not a requirement to be effective in missions, but rather a life lived in submission to the Lord is what's needed (which may, or may not, involve a season in college). Let's not tie ourselves down unnecessarily with burdens that the Lord is trying to free us from. He has called you, and He has enabled you! Blessings

As a college grad with no debt (hurray!) and desiring to go to seminary with no money saved (boo!) i appreciate the article and the response from anonymous. Still wondering how i'm going to make it through seminary in a financial way. But i'm convinced that a master's degree of christian education can be a great tool to be used in the mission field. A.K.A. teaching pastors in other countries, but it is not for everyone, and no, ultimately degrees aren't required in Christ's eyes, but human's whether Christian or otherwise sure value them.

Hi. Do you have an idea what mission board's polices are now for unsecured debt? Do they have a dollar limits for educational debt that are different from consumer debt? Do they go by total debt of a candidate or by the required monthly debt payments? Thanks for any light you can shed on this.

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