Short Term Missions Reconsidered: From Missions to Missional

It is important to say that do I believe missions are important. Missions are integral to the way of Jesus. Our God is a God of mission, and we are a people called be about the same thing. I think we get confused, however, about what that term, missions, actually means. We view, express and practice “missions” as if it is an external activity, some sort of duty to be fulfilled. We see it, as a noun instead of what I will suggest that it is, an adjective. It seems to me that “missions” are not a task to be completed so much as a way of being. This way of being could be described as “missional” and it is the term I prefer.

To be missional is to approach the movement of God in the world as something to be partnered with. This follows from God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12 all the way to Jesus teachings about the Kingdom (Luke 4, 6, 8 etc.). The intended response to the movement of God by the people of God is to be a blessing in the world. Furthermore, this “in breaking” of blessing and kingdom is a truth that we do, not one that we hold. Here mission becomes something we are, not something we’re on. WE are the mission of God in the world. The way we live, in every holistic way, matters because all of it can be arranged around the movement of our God in the world. Period. Not just for one week a year in Mexico, but all the time.
It is my contention (I think) that the way forward within this “Short term Missions” quandary begins with a shift in perspective from “doing missions” to communal and individual life arrangement around “being missional”.
I’m also not suggesting that this is somehow finding a new way to “do missions”. Rather, I’m recommend a reconfigured approach to Jesus teaching to “Go” in Mathew 28:19. What’s a more helpful way to look at this command? I’ve been finding that the Jewish perspective is helpful.

The Hebrews approached the 10 words (commandments) as something that you inhabit not just obey. They weren’t so much rules as a way of being (Word 4 about keeping the Sabbath really gets at this). What if Jesus is suggesting the same kind of thing in his admonition to go? What if he is describing a way of life? A perspective? An approach, within the Kingdom, to life on this planet? If so, then missions become something much bigger and more formative than simply a work project in Appalachia. Furthermore, if you begin with this missional perspective then I believe you end up in a totally different place when you decide how to spend a week with students in the summer. You might do some of the same things, but you’ll do them for different reasons. This is where I’m finding hope.

My Opinion of How We Ended Up Here

I think the current problems of the short-term missions movement come out of a practice of spiritual formation that I’m calling, “The 4 food Groups Approach.” This approach is not wrong, I just think it leads us into some practices that are unhelpful.
The “4 Food Groups Approach” I’m describing says that within the life of a community you need certain amount of evangelism, discipleship, service, socializing (…whatever, each tradition picks their own categories really) to make “healthy Christians”. It is then the job of the pastor to make sure that everyone gets the recommended amount of each food group. In my experience “Missions” is often one of these categories. Some traditions encourage more “servings” of one than another, while still others contend that there’s not much difference between the categories at all. (Some even take an Atkins’ diet approach to formation where one area is fasted from entirely as others are more emphasized. But that’s a different discussion). The point is that the success of the “4 Food Groups Approach” centers around the adequate and prescribed distribution of certain teachings and practices for healthy Christian formation.
Within this worldview “Missions” are something that you need a serving of every year to stay healthy. It’s a requirement to be filled, checked off your list and to have your success measured by. What becomes even stranger is that, it seems that all you need to do to get a serving of the “missions” food group is to practice one of the other food groups far away from where you live among the needy. So, music, a skit and a reduced gospel “message” in your youth room (or on a retreat) are evangelism. Music, a skit and a similar gospel message in the barrio in Mexico are missions. You see what I mean. This always seemed strange to me and I figured that there must be a better way to do this. But what to do? If “Missions: are not a task to be completed but a way of being and their praxis involves more thought than just a new geographic local, what the heck to you do? How do you even take a mission trip in the summer? Good question! Here’s what we did…

A Trip of Mission and Spiritual Formation

Last year our community asked each other these questions: “What would it look like if we lived missionally instead of “doing missions”? Where would that take us? How could we build a mission trip around the value of moving in rhythm with God in the world? What would the components of that trip look like? Do we need a trip at all to do this? Etc., etc.

The first thing we did after asking these questions was decide that a trip could be a good thing for our group. First it was familiar. Second, it was a job requirement for me. Third, and most importantly, it was a good opportunity to push into something, on purpose, for a season that IS really important, and that is Spiritual Formation. There IS a place for intense spiritual practice over a short amount of time that is meant to make one a different kind of person for the long haul. We agreed there were things we COULD practice under the banner of Spiritual Formation that may well shape our lives after the trip was over. We admitted that what we were about to do was NOT a sustainable to live nor was it the ultimate in Christian praxis. It was far from a picture of true reality. It was not the thing that one should constantly seek in daily life, though it was meant to shape that very thing. It was a specific and purposeful time for formation with the intent that our personal and communal development on the trip also blesses Nashville.

From this we ended up framing the whole thing not as a Mission Trip, but as a Trip of Mission and Spiritual Formation. We recognized from the get go that our purpose on this trip was not to get people to “cross the line” and “get saved” through a puppet show in the barrio. Nor was it simply a service project that we were calling a “mission” because we were in Mexico. No, our purpose was to be a community of people seeking formation in the way of Jesus. We want greater integration with the movement of God in this world and will accept everything that means. This really changed everything.

First it changed our focus. When someone asked us why we were painting and cleaning up the Paige St. Center (a center of food distribution & community connection for the cities homeless) our answer wasn’t “Because Jesus loves you.” That would have been, as Mark said, “an alienating motive”. Instead we described our purpose personally. We said that we were people trying to learn the way of Jesus and service is a big part of that.
Do you feel that difference?
Its still service that blesses another, but the motivation has changed to something appealing and not disaffecting.
Second thing it changed was our vocabulary. We explained to residence of the city what we were doing for the week was exploring the connection between art, service and spirituality in “The Jesus Dojo”. A Dojo is a place where you learn the way. So, be it the way of judo, karate or kung fu, the dojo is where you go to practice, to master the praxis of your way. Our way is the way of Jesus and our time on this trip all about intentionally deepening our praxis and understanding of his rule of life. And, as hokey as it sounds our neighbors really got into it.
You see there are so many mission groups that live on the outskirts of the city and are bussed in to “service” the poor and “save” this city because it’s so Godless, that the locals are really suspicious. For us to show up, travel in small, unobtrusive groups, not wear really loud, brightly colored matching T-Shirts and talk about our purpose as “exploring the connection between spirituality and the arts (or service, or poetry or whatever the days focus was) really blessed the locals more than I ever anticipated. It also felt genuine, which is something I’ve rarely experience in “the mission field”.
The third thing that it changed was our perspective on returning home to Nashville. We were able to discuss our encounter in terms of continuing life formation and not as we something to “take home with us”. This was not an isolated, incongruous experience in our spiritual journey. This was part of our rhythm of life. It was not a “high” that we hope to get back to someday. Rather we designed the time to shape our daily practice of following Jesus and the funny thing is it actually worked. By the end of the trip we were all really tired of being there and being together because it had been a time of truly intense formation. This wasn’t like eating a candy bar, where it’s sweet and you can’t wait to do it again. This was like wearing your retainer. It’s good for you but it frickin’ hurts.

I believe this approach to missions respresents a possible way to get beyond the consumerism and disintegration (like my Outward Bound experience) of short-term missions. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s becoming something really good.

A Caveat:
Going to SF and connecting with my friend Mark was tremendous because the city is such a great teacher and he is such a great yogi. However, I realize not everyone has the opportunity to do all the things we did (which were incredible, meaningful, creative and too many to detail in this already too long post). However, I think the perspective of a “mission trip” reframed as “a trip of spiritual formation” can be done anywhere with any group.
Admittedly, if you were to head off with a package mission trip next summer you’d have trouble implementing much in the way of helpful practice. (Which is why I can’t do packaged trips anymore.) But doing the some of the same things for different reasons, it seems to me, could be a great place to start. If churches were willing to ask the hard questions of their mission praxis, reframe them around a missional perspective and then begin to create a new praxis (Maybe even in a fiercely local way) to match perhaps we’d be getting somewhere.

Happy innovating friends!

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