J. R. Duren wanted to evangelize Europe. He felt God calling him to be a missionary. So he went to a state college, and then a Christian college, and then seminary, preparing for the work. He graduated in 2007, and finally he was ready. But when Duren sat down to apply with Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), he realized he might have a problem.

In 11 years of higher education, Duren had amassed more than $75,000 in student loans.

“I thought . . . my faith was being tested,” Duren recalled. “The proverbial odds were stacked against me, and the only thing that was going to get me through was God’s promise and my faith. I was trusting that he was going to be able to make up for this gap that I couldn’t resolve on my own.”

Cru had a different response, tempered by long experience. Duren’s application was rejected.

“Maybe the Lord wants you to focus on paying off your debts as soon as you can, then go,” a Cru staff member wrote to Duren. “Or maybe there is another way you can go. I don’t know.”

Today, more than 10 years later, many would-be missionaries receive similar rejections. As student debt levels have rapidly increased, missionary organizations regularly see recruits who feel called to missions but are held back by loan payments.

According to the most recent data, the average college graduate in 2018 had about $29,000 of student debt. That number has plateaued a bit since 2010, after a decade of rapid growth of annual borrowing. But it’s also misleading: 55 percent of graduates owe less than $20,000, while 25 percent owe $40,000 to $80,000, and 10 percent owe more than $80,000. Missions agencies say massive debt is a frequent problem.

“It ...

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