Short Term Missions Reconsidered: 5 Dangerous Questions
Let me first respond to some criticisms that have been leveled against these essays by restating that I really do believe that missions are important. They are very important. That’s why I’m writing this, because I care about missions and their practice so much! I am not, in any way, interested in “throwing them out” or moving “beyond” them as if we know “so much more about things now”. I am, however, interested in reimaging their practice. I think that missions and spiritual formation DO go hand in hand and should not be separated. I don’t think that union happens in the way short-term missions are currently practiced, I am therefore, suggesting that we innovate, not leave behind.
So, with that said, I offer you these 5 Dangerous Questions concerning the future of Short Term Missions. These questions challenge and inspire me and I hope they lead to new questions and better practice for you. Some are simple and thought provoking, some are pretty radical, but all of them represent what I’m thinking about now and my attempt to imagine a way forward. With that said, let’s get to question #1:
1.) What if Globalization Is a Bad Thing and Doesn’t Last.
One of the things that inspire me is how we might craft faith practices now that positively affect the church 1000 years from now. I think it’s reasonable to consider that life in the way of Jesus will be happening in the year 3005 and therefore it’s also reasonable to consider that things may look quite a bit different than they do now.
I read a book this summer called The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. In it Kunstler contends that global oil production is about reach its peak. Soon. In the next 6-24 months. At this point the world will have produced half as much oil as it will ever produce and production will begin a remorseless decline leading to a time in history he calls the Long Emergency. During this time every part of our post-industrial revolution culture and society that is based on the availability of cheap-oil will be aggressively deconstructed and become something new/old. It’s really quite fascinating and, while he is very apocalyptic in his visions of the future, I think he’s really on to something worth thinking about.
Imagine a world where Wal-Mart and McDonalds are a thing of the past. Where the suburbs (a place where the entire way of life is car based and oil dependant) are the new slums. There will be no more cheap oil to precipitate anything from the 3000 mile Caesar salad we buy at Wendy’s to the Super market where you buy your food. This is part of Kunstler’s vision of the Long Emergency and it will create a world where everything is “fiercely local”. He suggests a new agrarian society will emerge out of this change and that it will look a lot more like the America Thomas Jefferson envisioned than anything else.
Now, this raises a lot of other questions I realize (perhaps I’ll do a post just on the Long Emergency later. I’d be interested in the discussion) and I’m not completely sold on all of Kunstler’s conclusions, however, it has really got me thinking. Oil is not a renewable resource and its coming production peak is widely accepted as a fact. Furthermore, our current way of life, which involves constant expansion and growth, is really not sustainable. What would our society, lives and ministries look like if oil weren’t available on the cheap anymore? How would life change? How would missions change?
So much practice of modern church life today is totally under written by cheap, available transportation and the assumption that the global village we live in will continue on indefinitely. We don’t live under the parish structure in England where every home was within earshot of a church bell. We drive everywhere, even to church. What if we couldn’t do that anymore? What would we start think thinking missions looked like if it cost $500 to fill the tank of the church van? Furthermore, what if you couldn’t fly anywhere? The already suffering airline industry presently spends close to half of its operating expenses on fuel. Say there’s no cheap fuel in 50 years? What happens to the future of short-term missions? Or sooner than that, how do you propose to do your trip to Mexico in 10 years when plane tickets cost $2000 a piece or don’t exist at all? Under this scenario, I wonder if the future of missions in general and short-term missions specifically won’t need a massive overhaul.
What that looks like may be a future of short-term missions may be as “fiercely local” as Kunstler suggests our communities, economies and trades will be. Travel will be difficult and slow at best. The age of globalization, precipitated by, as he says, the “cheap oil fiesta” may only be a blip on the radar screen of human history. A very unusual, unsustainable and perhaps unrepeatable period of human history, made possible by the industrial revolution and cheap oil, where we exceeded our planet’s carrying capacity, ravaged our ecosystems, raped the environment and made lots of money. (It makes more and more sense to me that God crafted an agrarian society when he set up community life and government – see the Old Testament).
What does our practice of missions become (with that defined as our reflection of the mission of God in the world) in a time where we can not pack people into an airplane, fly them across the country for 3 hours to El Paso, put them in a van and do work projects during the day while shuttling them across the border each night to sleep? I believe we have to ask this questions now because the time might be sooner than we think. Not to mention the reality of youth ministry if kids need to live at home and help out on the family farm but that’s another crazy conversation.
Initially, local missions may involve radical redemptive movement in our community. Actually knowing the needs of our neighbors and simply not being able to ignore them because you can drive to the other side of the tracks. The way we treat each other in our communities will matter more than it ever because our reputation will be inexorable linked to our vocation, home life and ability to survive. (Who wants to do business and trade food with a jerk?) And our faith!
This also may look more like the ministry of Paul than anything we’ve seen in the last 150 years. Yes, Paul did go to other cultures, but only to places where he already knew the culture and spoke the language. Never for a short term “visit”. He went only to establish and support indigenous Christianity. What if in the future a short-term mission trip is only appropriate among your own indigenous culture? The cross-cultural tourism that happens in so many short-term trips may be a thing of the past, unless of course, you live next door to a different culture. You can’t minister to those you can’t touch. Then like Paul, you can become like a Greek to the Greeks if you live next door to them.
This is not to say that there will not be need for long-term missionaries going to “unreached people groups”(which is a strange term and I’m sorry for using it). I’m simply suggesting that with the current geo-political climate and the way our global consumerism and foreign policy in the USA makes life more difficult for missionaries living among “unreached people groups”, it’s worth considering that Kunstler’s prediction may be the movement of God happening in a whole new diretion.
2.) Are Short Term Missions Really Just Pre-faded Blue Jeans?
I bought some jeans back in May and they were “pre-faded”. They have never really gone through all the “life experience” it would take to cause the sort of distressing they exhibit. They were made to look like authentically worn jeans, but really they are anything but. They are a constructed, arranged crafted version of the real thing, not the real thing it self. Another word for this type of thing in philosophy circles is simulacra, and from Disney World to the Real World, our culture is full of it.
Are short-term missions really just an example of this same phenomenon? Are they a fabricated version of something authentic? A safe construction that imitates something really real, but never approaches it in and of itself? Are they a practice that gives the illusion of authentic mission work by allowing people to “tour the mission field” but never really do the real thing?
Finally, if they are just the simulacra, is there any reason we should continue to do them? If they are not real and they are the simulacra of real missions, should they continue? What would take their place? Are we willing to have that conversation with our communities?
It may be worth noting here that mission and missions are different things. David Bosch (a missiologist from South Africa) says that, “Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God.” God is a missionary God and the church is privileged to participate in the mission of God in the world. Missions is the word we’ve used to describe what we do as we play our part in the Missio Deo. My deep desire is for my “missions” or, better still, my missional life, to be a reflection and expression of the “mission” of God.
I hope my practice of missions isn’t simulacra but an expression of the Misseo Deo.
3.) Were You A Blessing?
One of my dear friends from seminary was a church planter in San Luis Potisi. While he and his wife were there they hosted over 500 students on short-term trips and every time the trips were more of a hindrance than help. The presence, attitudes and actions of the “missionaries” set him back in his community and made his Christian praxis more difficult. The book he always talked about writing (and I wish that he had) was going to be called “Were you a blessing”. I think it’s a question every group needs to ask of itself before, during and after their trip. Were we really a blessing? Can we be a blessing or are we just using this community and their poverty like therapist? Is this somewhere to work out our issues? Did we benefit this community/missionary/city or are we leaving things worse than how we found them? These are hard questions to ask because it challenges our basic assumptions about what success, content and theology on a “mission trip” looks like but it needs to be asked.
An example of this for me has been all the times short-term trips visit orphanages. I’ve heard so many stories about the orphan babies that just wanted to be held, and were clinging to us saying, “Please don’t go!” Is it possible that they are saying that because everyone in their life has always left them? No one ever sticks around and now we, as short-term missionaries are another group doing the same thing? It makes me cringe and not want to visit an orphanage in a town where I can’t go back again. I don’t know if I’m right about this, but it makes me think about what it means to really bless someone.
4.) Is There Any Such Thing As A “Term”?
Where does the idea of “term” come from? Short Term verse long-term missions. When did we start referring to mission work in this way. Sounds like a military thing to me, like a “Tour”. So, during your “tour” you are in country, living a certain way and doing certain things. But then once your tour is over, you’re finished. If we approach mission this way we see some of the disconnect in life practice and mission that I’ve described earlier. Perhaps the problem is in the idea of “Terms. Perhaps they lead to a “tour of duty”mentality where you once you finish your tour you go back to “normal” life. What if there are no terms?
I think if you approach mission work missionally “terms” cease to be a relevant way to conceive what you’re doing. There are no terms. What defines your mission praxis is not duration but context. Not geography but context. It’s culture and community. Perhaps the question missional people should be asking is in what way am I called to cultivate the Kingdom near and far, not how long am I suppose to go for and to whom. It’s not about race and geography, but about locality and neighborhoods, because really, we’re always going aren’t we? Now as for what you do with your churches mission budget, time to start dreaming
5.) Can You Really Do Another Short-Term Trip With Integrity?
I think we have to ask ourselves this question. It’s just a question, but one that needs to be thought through. If you’ve read this far then I assume that you’re with me in this (that or your really upset and gathering as much ammo as possible by reading all three of these essays). I am also assuming that you feel the disconnect within the practice of short-term missions and believe they need to be reinvented. If that’s true than we have to ask ourselves, can we do another short-term trip as they are currently practiced with integrity? Sure you can phone it in doing a package trip and maybe the way to have integrity in that is just to make due, and admit where the process sucks with your kids. I think there’s life there.
But please if you’re feeling this thing the way I am, and you have the imagination, I believe the responsibility is on us to reimagine this practice. It’s not going to come from anyone but innovative, risk taking practictioners like you and me. I’m up for it, are you?
For the in-breaking of the Kingdom,
Some of you may not know where to start with all this. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:
- Mendenhall Ministries
This place is super cool and doing neat racial reconciliation work in Alabama. However, I’ve tried to call and email them for over a year and can’t get anyone to call me back. I still recommend them because; if you could get connected it could be incredible. Check out (http://www.mbc-tmm.org/) for more info.
- City Dive in Seattle
If you live in the Seattle Area Karen Ward’s community is doing a city dive in January 2006 and offing a missional take on life, which sounds a lot like some the Jesus Dojo stuff. If you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest I’ll bet you could email the contact below and find out what they’re going to be up to.
This is from Karen’s blog (http://submerge.typepad.com/submergence/)
***at our new fremont abbey, we hope to host more groups of young people from our own diocese and synod here (before of after the trip to mexico) and spend a day with them on missional being and spiritual formation in the way of christ, in their own seattle backyard and within their own souls.- so if any parish youth group in the diocese of olympia or northwest washington synod is interested to do an alt form of mission trip at or with the fremont abbey, contact us firstname.lastname@example.org***
- Heifer International (Global Village)
This place in phenomenal. It is a simulated global village that is designed to show groups the realities of poverty, justice and connection on the globe and how we can play a part in helping things. Heifer International also does lots of other cool things and followers of Jesus founded it. Check out their website (http://www.heifer.org/site/c.edJRKQNiFiG/b.737833/k.8297/Heifer_Ranch_Gl...) for comprehensive information. Could be a great alternative to a summer mission trip if you live close to or are willing to drive to Arkansas or Illinois? My friend Holly Rankin Zaher took students there a few years ago and said it was great!
If you have any other ideas, please post them here for others. Peace,