Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for May 2010

No sooner had I put up my last post than I happened to read an excellent article by Karla Ann Koll in the April issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. Koll is a theology professor in Costa Rica and she says better than I can, anecdotally and with solid scholarly analysis, what needs to be said on the topic of “short-term mission trips”. I commend the article for study by every well-to-do church and evangelical organization.

Following the Tsunami disaster of 26th December 2004, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia, hundreds of foreign NGOs sprang up overnight, often duplicating and needlessly competing with others. Well-meaning church “mission teams”, with little experience of relief and rehabilitation, made all the classic blunders of foreign aid (inappropriate housing materials, giving to the wrong people, and so on). Some local Christian leaders have become adept at not only dancing to the tunes played by foreign donors but composing the tunes that the latter love to hear. Money corrupts as well as helps.

There was, however, another side to the story. We benefited enormously from the sacrificial and spontaneous service of many (Christians and others) from Western nations and also from other Asian nations. These were usually men and women with specialist skills, and who came to serve alongside their local counterparts. Many of them decided to stay for six months, if not much longer. Some young people without skills simply arrived and offered to work on menial chores alongside more skilled locals. The contribution of all these people to the immediate relief as well as the long-term rehabilitation of lives and communities is incalculable. It is a pity that we in South Asia could not reciprocate when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans a year later. Despite all the rhetoric today about “mission from everywhere to anywhere”, border controls determine the actual direction of Christian service.

My main concern in the last Blog post was not the duration of such trips. It is not as if I am commending “long-term mission” as opposed to “short-term mission”. It was, rather, the way that the very concept of mission itself has been reduced in many evangelical circles to “going abroad” or what we do as caring Christians in societies other than our own. Hence the disastrous splits –in both churches and theological seminaries- between “mission” and “ethics”, the “personal” and the “political”, “proclamation” and “dialogue”. Unlike the first disciples of Jesus, those of us who live in big cities meet people of all cultures and religious affiliations on a daily basis. We can also make a huge difference to the lives of people in other parts of the world by changing our patterns of consumption, speaking on behalf of those affected by our lifestyles, and challenging the policies and practices of our governments. This applies to places like India or Singapore no less than the US or UK.

For those of us who live in situations of poverty, violence and tyranny, Jesus exhorted us to become like “grains of rice” that “fall into the earth and die” (John 12: 24): in other words, staying rather than “going”, freely sharing in the pain and hopelessness of others as a witness to the extraordinary hope of the Gospel. (There are times, of course, when we may need to run away- and not feel guilty about it- but only if we can do more good, by being abroad, for those whom we leave behind). The only “methodologies” of fruitful mission that Jesus gave his church were the principles of dying and loving (unity); but these costly, life-transforming practices of discipleship are what we continue to ignore in the name of “missions”. Ironically, we are now in a global situation where rich Christians make “short-term” forays into poor countries, while poor Christians (and rich Christians from poor countries) make “long-term” trips to the rich world. I wonder what Good News is being communicated to the world in this way? How do we demonstrate the incarnation of God in frail, vulnerable human flesh, and in a particular place and time, when the cult of globalising consumerism pushes us in the opposite direction?

Here is a staggering statistic that I came across recently. Robert Wuthnow, the eminent sociologist of religion at Princeton University has estimated that up to 1.6 million American Christians take part in overseas “mission trips” each year, with churches spending at least $2.4 billion per year on such trips. What is unsurprising is that many of these 1-3 week “mission trips” are to the Caribbean and Central America, with luxury resorts such as the Bahamas reporting one “short-term missionary” for every 15 residents. One would expect Mexico, which receives the most American “mission teams” every year, to be the most Christian nation on earth.

In the distant days when I was a university student in London, I had friends among people who came from all over the world. They embraced all religions and none. Some of them still remain friends. Occasionally I would take a backpack and “bum around” Europe. I would travel by train and public buses, stay in youth hostels or sleep in railway stations like thousands of other young tourists. I would love nothing better than to land in a strange city and explore it from one end to another (or as much as possible) by foot. Sometimes I would contact local churches and, if I spoke a smattering of the language, join their Sunday worship. Before visiting a country, not only did I pore over maps to acquaint myself with the geographical layout, but devoured books on its history, including the history and present situation of the Christian church.

My thoughts return to these experiences whenever my wife and I receive a request from some Western (or rich Asian) church to find someone in Sri Lanka or India willing to host a team of young people who want to undertake a “mission trip”. We don’t doubt the sincerity of those who want to practise neighbour love or share the gospel with people in other lands. But good intentions, history reminds us, often do not translate into good outcomes. But those who are enthusiastic about such “mission trips” usually don’t have the patience to study history.

It is customary for the leaders of such teams to inform us that such an “exposure” is absolutely vital for these (relatively affluent) kids to discover the world and become (it is hoped) missionaries in the long term. “Mission”, in this way of thinking, is what one does elsewhere, not in one’s own neighbourhood or nation. It baffles us why such Christian kids cannot learn about the world by doing what I, and several millions of their non-Christian peers, have done over decades: simply travelling as tourists and exploring the countries we visit, learning about the history and culture as we do so. Moreover, in America, Europe and Australia, there are millions of people today from every religion, culture and nation to be found in almost every major city: why not stay and learn about “mission” from the local churches that are working among such people?

It also baffles us as to why such Christians first need to have an “exposure” to mission before they engage in mission, when the great majority of missionaries in the world are poor and unable to afford such costly trips. Having a rich nation’s passport, and not requiring visas to most countries, makes it easier to be a “short-term missionary”. I heard recently of two Chinese women who felt called to be missionaries in Cambodia. So they simply went there overland and took jobs in a factory, and joined a local church. They didn’t first plan a “mission trip” to gain “exposure”, nor are they starting another “church-planting project”. We find ourselves wondering: how did Christian mission become reduced to “missions” and now to “mission trips”? What is the harm in simply coming as a tourist, if one is seriously curious about a place? If, on the other hand, one wants to come and serve the native church, why not simply do what the two Chinese women did?

There are few Asian Christians who will openly refuse to welcome such “mission teams”. The more opportunistic among us tend to see such visits as a chance to receive favours in return: for example, a parting gift of money or a future invitation to visit a team member in his or her own country. But most Asian Christians will not refuse simply because hospitality is a cherished value and an ancient tradition, especially among the rural poor. I remember a Burmese pastor once telling me, when I enquired why the Burmese church graciously continued to host visits from affluent Singaporean Christians coming as “evangelism trainers” (to Burmese churches that had much more to teach the Singaporeans about evangelism than vice versa), he simply replied, “We find it difficult to say “no” to visitors.”

This is just one dilemma. It is extremely difficult for us to say to zealous American, Singaporean or Korean Christians that they are really not needed. While there is a lot of talk about “mission partnerships” these days, the theologies of mission that we hold are rarely scrutinized and challenged in a genuine rich-poor encounter. The world of “ missions” seems hopelessly fragmented- and more pragmatist than ever. As long as this state of affairs continues, will not the practice of “partnership” be loaded in favour of those churches with the bigger wallets and the louder voices?


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