Vinoth Ramachandra

More on Re-thinking Mission

Posted on: May 21, 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?

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12 Responses to "More on Re-thinking Mission"

Hugely thought provoking! Which doesn’t help me since I sit a church history exam in 45 minutes and will now be thinking about mission instead of the Filioque clause!

This section seems very pertinent to me:

“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.”

This reveals that our missionary endeavours are actually determined by circumstance and not by theological reflection and sacrificial love.

Are you (or any fellow readers) aware of resources that help church communities in the west who are seeking to develop long-lasting and meaningful relationships of mutual support and encouragement with Christian communities in the majority world? It seems to me that if the commitment was not to tasks but to people and if the goal was not patronage (in the sense that much global mission is) but friendship then mission might flourish in both the western churches and the southern ones.

good and objective thoughts. we wonder here in romania, europe what mission became lately.

Kevin: you may want to start with “Mission in the 21st Century” by Walls and Ross, some good ideas there to start you off.

I’ve been mulling over these issues as I sent off a short-term mission team from my school (!). Missions also touches on issues of culture, contextualisation, the relationship between foreigners and local churches as well as partnerships in this mobile globalised world, the Christian attitude to the ‘other’ … Bit by bit we need to re-think all these.

Hi Vinoth,

The issues that you have highlighted are indeed an apt reflection of some of the struggles some Christians face. However, the sad reality of the matter is that the people who think about these issues will continue to find their foreign mission trips less and less relevant to the work of the kingdom whilst those who don’t grapple with these thoughts will continue to do what they are doing and may perhaps even step up their efforts to fill the gaps left behind.
Is possible to perhaps manage these mission trips in a manner that is fruitful?

1. Would short-term forays into the foreign lands be relevant and fruitful if they were precisely part of the discipleship process (of the mission team)? I.e. the team goes abroad with a clear and humble understanding that what they have to offer is neither necessary nor sometimes not even helpful and that in all likelihood they will be more blessed than they people they are sent to minister to.

2. I completely agree with your points on how Christians in rich countries can make a big difference individually or via institutions. However, these life changes are not mutually exclusive from going for overseas trips. Can these “short-term” trips, which in all likelihood will continue to occur, be used as effective primers for the life-transforming change that you’ve talked about?

I ask these questions in the context of seeing the lives of people changed via these “short-term” trips. Many return home (Singapore) and actively involve themselves in Int’l student ministries or campaign to increase the awareness of foreign worker discrimination. That said, the points that you have raised still stand since many still consider mission involvement to be nothing more than an annual trip.

What has Missions become today ? I believe The Apostle Paul gave us the best example . He suffered with the people , gave himself for the people and saw death as total victory. He used every skill to reach people ..preaching and dialogue that he might reach them for the lord. But the very first thing he did was to shut himself off in the deserts of Arabia ,where God prepared his Heart for the People. He was empowered by the Holy Ghost , then moved to reach those directed by the Holy Spirit. He could not go whereever he felt like going, because The Holy spirit resisted him from going to Asia. What is lacking today is SPIRIT Directed Missions . You correctly said , some is personal -a get to know/visit a country or people. Some is politically motivated. But Praise God there are still that small group who get to know God better through the experience and tasted of the fellowship of his suffering. Many are yet to experience what Paul experienced , in the line of a” Prayer Mission” to a country and People’s group where he cried with much tears for a people in need of the gospel.

Zhihan, the questions you raise are dealt with quite well in the IBMR article I referred to. She discusses how to prepare these teams before and afterwards.

A couple of quick thoughts on the above.
1. A pastor’s wife in a small church in a remote village in Albania once explained to me, “those teenagers that _____ church sends every year do nothing for our village or the Gospel.” When I asked why, then, did they tolerate them and should I help communicate that the trips needed to stop, she said, “No, it is our way for our church here to disciple British young people.” Perhaps an odd way for mission to travel East to West, but that’s what it was.
2. More than one Albanian church has been involved in short term mission to the UK, helping our church reach Albanians. Usually we helped pay for their short term visits. I’m not at all sure that’s wrong. Some missiologists and sociologists seem more wound up about who pays for what than the Bible is. (Sure, we’ve all seen the horrific, corrupting, excesses — relationship and wisdom gives hope and opportunity for us to find fruitful solutions.)
3. Border controls are, indeed, one factor determining the direction of mission and so the Middle East, North Korea and other places are not likely to be reached mainly by West to East mission as practiced traditionally. Multi-national, multi-church partnerships are an alternative that allow this to happen.

Vinoth,

Thank you for mentioning my article. I’m glad you found it helpful. I’d be happy to be in further conversation.

[...] See the continuation of Vinoth Ramachandra’s  thoughts on ‘More on Rethinking Mission’. [...]

Dr. Ramachandra,
I’m a D.Min. student at George Fox Evangelical seminary and a Mission Pastor in Little Rock, Arkansas. I’m focusing my dissertation on STM trips. I’ve followed your blog for quite some time, though this is my first time commenting.

In any of your books do you critique STM trips? Or can you point me to any books/articles of majority world thinkers who do?

Thanks for always making me think with your blog posts!

Chris Ellis

Dear Chris,

I don’t think I do. But my understanding of mission, as communicated in all my books, leaves little room for calling such trips “mission”. Majority-world theologians don’t deal with such trips because (a) only affluent kids or kids from affluent parts of the world can engage in such trips; and (b) they are so peripheral to the life and witness of the church in our countries.

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