More on Re-thinking Mission
Posted May 21, 2010on:
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?