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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Mission Trips

Maybe it’s our affinity for convenience that has led us to settle for marketing-campaign dissemination of information over the long-term disciple-making relationships Jesus modeled with His disciples. But discipleship is not sharing information, public discourse, or debate. It has little to do with the materials we have available, and is not quick and easy. Discipleship is a relationship. In fact, the Good News is a relationship. The gospel itself is a relationship, and relationship is the context through which it must be shared.

The way I see it, Christians have been intrepreting the “Great Commission” to be a call to evengelism, and they’ve been responding to that call by doing missions and going on mission trips. These are usually intentional forays into the world, where Christians leave the comfort and safety of their subculture in order to take the gospel to lost people. They prepare a “program” and memorize their gospel presentations. They put together skits and songs. They collect cotton balls and toungue depressors for craft time. They raise money.

The mission trip mindset is one that I’m less and less comfortable with. It’s all about a “come see” event that often resorts to bait-and-switch tactics in order to share our message. I’ve seen people use clowns and puppets, music, sports, even food to get people to come and hear. When I participated in the Summer Missions program at Gano Street Baptist Mission Center in Houston, Texas, I had the opportunity to really help people in need. I remember really trying to learn Spanish so that I could communicate with the people in the neighborhood. We drove a big truck through the slums distribuiting day-old bread that hed been donated. All we had to do was drive slowly and shout out “Pan!” The Spanish word for bread had people running to the truck for something to eat. We gave out clothing to people who need it. There was a huge clothes closet at the mission center, and I was always overwhelmed by people’s gratitude as they left with new clothes to wear to work and school. We played with children during the day so their parents wouldn’t have to leave them alone while they went off to work. In reality, it was glorified babysitting, but we did it because we wanted to love the people of Houston. We really did love the people we were ministering to, but sometime during every act of service we required that the people listen to a presentation of the gospel. For them, it was a hoop they had to jump through in order to receive the help they needed. For them, prayer time was waiting for the “Amen” so they could rush home and fill their stomachs, brush their teeth, or put on their new clothes. We thought we were sharing Jesus. Looking back, I think we were probably standing in His way.

“Let your light so shine before men,” the verse goes, “that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” As I think about it, Gano Street Mission Canter, and many like it around the world have done tremendous work in selflessly ministering to people in need. They’ve done it in Jesus’s name. I just wish they didn’t always feel this need to tack the sermon on to the service. I think that selflessness and altruism and brotherly love are all supernatural things- not natural to humans but a result of God’s intervention. Our good works are evidence of God’s work in our lives, and that incarnational “picture” of Jesus really doesn’t require that we add the caption “This selfless act brought to you by Jesus.” I’m not saying that we souldn’t be quick to mention His name, nor that we sould leave any ambiguity as to why we do the things that we do. I’m just saying that “it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.”

A group of volunteers once came to a major European city on a mission trip. They had prepared a series of dramatic skits that they hoped would allow them to share the gospel with nationals despite the language barrier. You might be familiar with the skits; each portrayed sin as the problem and Jesus as the answer. One used a cardboard box to show how sin can trap us; another showed how people often ignore Jesus throughout their daily routine. Several had actors pantomime smoking and drinking in an attempt at depicting the depravity of unbelievers. You might imagine how the drama troupe was received. Without some cultural and linguistic translation, the Gospel was not communicated. Worst of all, the good news message was somehow changed from "Jesus is Life" to "God hates people who smoke and drink." For the European audience, it was hardly good news. While they did make the volunteers feel good about their efforts, the trite and cheesy skits only served to reinforce the perception of Christianity as irrelevant and powerless.


Paul said...

I think it was Christianity Today that carried several articles on the effectiveness/impact of short term missions. (I posted on it here, with links to the articles.)

Sounds a lot like what you are saying here.

stepchild said...

It seems like there are three schools of thought on the field about volunteers:
1. Those whose ministry revolves around bringing in hundreds of volunteers all year long, and focus their efforts on training/encouraging week-long mission trippers.
2. Those who consider volunteers to be the worst sort of babysitting that only hinders "real ministry." It seems that most of these folks have either had a bad experience with volunteers, or haven't been trained to use them.
3. Those of us (first-person!) that have a hard time finding good ways to involve volunteers in relational ministry. I don't think its a question of limiting God, we just haven't seen people connect in a short period of time with Americans who don't have the language.

Anyone have any suggestions? Remember- we're looking for minimal "people-as-project" activities.

steve w said...

As I've been mulling over your post, I started thinking about some of Paul's trips reported in Acts. I don't know that we have a direct correlation with short-term trips today, but do you think there is some sense in which his trips were short-term? Is there any correlation with what could or should be happening today? I haven't answered my own question; just thinking out loud (actually digitally I guess).

I have a good friend in a RA nation. He says he is always amazed at what God does just because they're there (the power of incarnation). He tells me regarding teams, "Just show up." Doesn't make it easy to explain to a team what we'll be doing, but I know what he means.

stepchild said...

Actually, I just came from a meeting in which we planned for a volunteer team of 15 that are coming for a week this spring. One passage of scripture God is using to teach me in this area is Acts 8, where Philip has a divine appointment with the Ethiopian. There was nothing long-term about that relationship, yet God used Philip to "close the deal" on what He had been doing in the Ethiopian's life.

I'm not sure how I'd catagorize Paul's "missionary journeys." Did he have to learn new languages? What were the cultural barriers he had to cross?

I'm seeing a big difference between church planting from within one's own culture versus doing it as a foreigner. The trouble with most volunteers is that the don't recognize that difference.

steve w said...

I don't know if Paul had to learn a new language. He would now if we sent him out, because he wouldn't be allowed to use his special gift of communication.

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