Friday, August 08, 2008

Whose Mission?

Today, Talitha from Madame Future Moderator has written a thought-provoking post about mission. I hope it sparks some interesting discussion!

Whose Mission?

I can't help my geekiness, I have to start this post in Latin.
Mission, though a common noun nowadays, came from a verb, mittere, to send. We may have missions and do missions and even live in missions, but once upon a time when the western world still spoke Latin, people knew that the word was verbal. That you couldn't have a mission unless someone was sending someone – that there is no mission without a sender and sendee.
(of course, we knew that. God's the sender and we're the sent)

How, then, did we end up with short term mission trips? Wherein we choose an exotic, impoverished destination and go minister there for as long or as short a time as we care to?

We have a good concept of the basic structure of mission. God sends someone and they go – just like Jesus told us.
But I think in many cases we are holding on to a fragile eggshell of what mission could be. What we have is the "going" part, made more accessible by our friends in the airline industry. Where did the "come back a week later with a lot of photos" come from? Why did we go, anyway? What did we do there? Who sent us?

I'll be the first to admit I sent myself on mission trips. Less than a month after I graduated from college, I sent myself to Uganda to serve orphans. I stayed there, with my sister, for five months and then returned and served the American side of the same organization for the remainder of the year. I did it because I was in an open minded, questioning, vocationally unsure point of my life, but also because I knew there would be great benefits for me. I went looking for an escape from the shallowness of American life, and I'll even admit that my sister and I wrote a really melodramatic song about how crucial it was to get away from the empty glitter of America.
I went with personal goals. I knew, somehow, that God would be able to touch me through this work. I was seeking a more raw, direct way of living life, hitting my boundaries, opening up and learning to "really live." I still think that these kinds of benefits are an important goal of mission -- the "conversion of the missionary" as Anthony J. Gittins has written. Isn't this why we send our teenagers out on mission trips? We are hoping that they will be touched and inspired.

However, within the structure of our mission work, the hard question has been asked -- do we do anything more than seek our own spiritual experiences? Are we doing any earthly good at all? If we're doing more harm than good, we must wonder whether God is doing the sending, or if we are taking mission (the noun) into our own hands.
The Washington Post has asked it.
Catapult Magazine has asked it, and asked it well.
In Uganda, I have seen and worked with some groups who rode the fine line between volunteer service and spiritual tourism... or maybe I was just bitter because they had so much more energy than I, a jaded three-monther, could muster up.
In committee 8 at GA218, Hunter Farrell mentioned a slightly embarrassing episode wherein short-term-mission-trippers came from different PC(USA) churches and over the span of the summer, painted and re-painted the same church in Guatemala. Such sloppiness with regards to the task at hand indicates that the participants may have been doing a little more navel-gazing or sightseeing than they were binding up the broken-hearted and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor.

I wonder if we haven't been working only with the empty eggshell of mission (the noun - the going places - the openhearted adventure)...
Have we lost sight of the one who moves mission, who sends us, and in whose mission we are mere vessels?

i mean, maybe not... maybe the problems are exceptions, and really we just need to use our God-given common sense... but that lets us off the hook. If we look at the church as a wonderful group with just a few ignorant people in it who perpetuate cheap foolishnesses, we ignore the fact that these studies and articles cover trends and not isolated cases. Somehow we may all be complicit in sloppy, self-serving patterns of mission.
I wonder what we need. Confession, perhaps... perhaps the Invitation to Expanding Partnership in God's Mission can show us our goals, and we can confess whenever we fall short.

Call to Confession:
people of God, we serve a great God who calls us to great things. Let us not be ashamed to turn from our mistakes, knowing that God is calling us, pushing us, and sending us forth to serve in ever-better ways. Let us pray!

Written by Talitha from Madame Future Moderator.


Sarahlynn said...

The story of the thrice-painted church in Guatemala is very poignant. "Such sloppiness with regards to the task at hand indicates that the participants may have been doing a little more navel-gazing or sightseeing than they were binding up the broken-hearted and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor."

Yes . . . and it's an aspect of mission I think we need to spend much more time examining, especially with our youth.

The sort of mission trip that comes in and does whatever the participants/organizers decide to do (rather than engaging meaningfully with the community they intend to serve) reeks of an us/them approach. A "we know better so we'll help you little people" approach. And it hurts us all.

Stushie said...

My youngest daughter is just finishing a three month mission trip for a secular charity in Tabora, Tanzania. She has been working with orphaned children, whose parents have died from HIV/AIDS. Some of them also have AIDS. She has contracted malaria and confronted the authorities. Perhaps if she had been on a church trip instead of a secular one, she would have only been a holy tourist.

Lauren has blogged her harrowing experiences at

jairus' daughter said...

I also worked for a secular charity -- and found it appropriate, not to have pretenses of grandeur as regards my role ("volunteer" has so much less baggage than "missionary")
Do you think this helps?

Heather W. Reichgott said...

I think you're 100% right.
My wife and I were talking about this and we thought keeping mission trips more local might be one example of a better approach. It's more cost-effective, it acknowledges that there are poor people right here in the US, and the tourism aspect is lessened. For example, removing lead paint from schools in Appalachia.
Or, if one is going to go overseas, to really go there and dwell there for enough time to build lasting relationships... the kind that continue to affect us after we've come back.
'Cause that's the problem with tourism, really---the place we went only affects us while we're there, and then after we're back, we forget about them.

John Shuck said...

Thrice painted churches remind us of why it is important to connect our work with our ecumenical partners and with established organizations such as the Appalachia Service Project.

There is a reason we do mission connectionally, not just shoot from the hip.

David Holyan said...

I tend to look at it a bit differently. If we are all the body of Christ, each of us a part of God's dynamic corpus, then maybe short-term mission trips aren't so horrible. (Although painting the same house is idiotic.)

I don't recall Jesus inviting His followers to feed only those they lived with for 6 months or more, give water only to the thirsty they lived with for a year, etc.

If faith is about being a body, maybe there is room for cells (short-term mission teams) to bring in supplies, build houses, dig wells, and, yes, even paint churches. Mission teams provide much needed supplies and resources, as well as hope and encouragement.

There is a thin line between mission and tourism, but if my village didn't have safe water, would I rather the digging-tourist/missionaries stay home?

There is poverty and need in our own 'backyards.' And, short-term mission trips are expensive. But the transformative power of "the haves" spending any amount of time with people in different cultures seems only to crack them open to the needs in their own backyards, as well as the needs in foreign lands.

Partnering is a great way to help – working with someone on the ground who knows the authentic needs of the community and isn't going to allow the same church to be painted again and again and again.

Not everyone called to short-term mission work is after a really guilt-relieving vacation. Some recognize that there is genuine need in the world and their affluence can be put to a gospel use.

jairus' daughter said...

hey David!
thanks for your comments. I agree - not all of us are after guilt relief. i don't object at all to the transformation that seems to happen in the "haves." That's a genuine benefit that everyone can agree is worth seeking. But... if i can push a little farther... I think trouble comes in when that transformation is not talked about, sometimes even denied in favor of a triumphalist "we're doing such a good job" when the locals will actually say "you're doing an okay job, until something breaks and you're not here to fix it."
Also, the transformation that the "haves" get from such an experience is noted to be actually rather short-lived (read the catapult magazine article that did follow-up surveys on short-term-mission participants).
Can we do better?

i wrote on my own blog a while back:
We could... give someone a fish, and they'd eat it, and we'd feel good about ourselves, and this would end our interaction.
we could... teach them how to fish, and leave -- they'd keep eating after we left.
we could send them a packet of information and a fishing pole, and they'd fish, eat, and pass the information on.
or WE COULD learn how to fish, move across the world, sit down and fish with them, stay with them, and eat the fish together -- and it would be harder, but all of us would be transformed. (my transparent bias, obviously, is in pushing us toward this kind of model)

Sarahlynn said...

I agree with David that there is a real need for short-term as well as long-term mission trips.

My husband spent a week in Mississippi after Katrina. A week was all he could take away from work, away from his wife and toddler. But in that week he hung a lot of drywall in a couple of houses, and that's something that had a real, measurable, important, long-term effect.

In college we belonged to a volunteer organization with a Christian history, but we never called what we did mission or even volunteerism; it was service. We were called to be of service to others, and I really like that terminology, not that I think there's anything wrong with volunteerism or mission, either. (Again with my husband; his parents were missionaries for many years, working as a high school teacher and a hospital nurse; doing really important work in a community.)

But last year, while our (St. Louis) church's senior high youth were away on their annual 2-week summer workcamp, my husband, children, and I went to Iowa for his family's reunion. While there, visiting at their small Quaker church one Sunday, we got to hear reports from their senior high workcamp group who'd just returned from their mission trip . . . to St. Louis.

I think this is an important concept to keep in mind as we plan mission trips for our faith communities and especially for our youth.

We need to be very careful that the work we're doing is very important and that we're not just being tourists.

On one mission trip as a Sr. High, I helped build a fence to keep goats off part of a reservation near Chinle, Az. That was important; crops couldn't grow in the dusty soil when goats kept eating up their roots.

But mostly, on mission trips, I've painted.