TTATB2: “Missions” Redux

I want to clarify (not withdraw) my most recent post about missions, as it too broadly paints all of mission-work as ultimately self-serving.  So here’s the clarification:  my beef is not with the practice of people who pick up their lives and go live in and embrace another culture in order to expand the kingdom of God, setting down roots, defining their new mission field as “home.”  Brian McLaren in A Generous Orthodoxy tells the story of Daniel Crawford, a Bretheren missionary who left his native Scotland to serve in central Africa

but failed to return to “civilization” for his expected furlough.  Eventually his countrymen received a letter from him explaining why he didn’t feel the need to always return “home,” for Africa was now his home:  “I am de-nationalized–a brother to all men; Arab, African, Mongol, Aryan, Jew; seeing in the Incarnation a link that binds us up with all men.”

I have many friends who have done just that–they go to Germany and become Germans for the sake of the Kingdom, or to Vietnam and become Vietnamese (no mean feat, to be sure) for the sake of the Kingdom.  These people are my heroes.

I also have friends who go as Americans to serve the people in other cultures.  A well-respected heart surgeon at my church takes an annual trip to Haiti to do surgeries for people who could never otherwise get help.  He extends the healing ministry of Jesus to native Haitians as only an American physician can, and in that he uses the gift of his nationality to expand the Kingdom in another nation.  He also is my hero.

But it’s the short term (1 to 3 week) recon-style mission trip junkets that have become such an unquestioned mainstay of the programming diet of US Baptist (and other) churches that make me want to scream.  You can’t go to Trinidad and in 5 days of revival meetings become Trinidadian in any useful, Kingdom-of-God-extending sense of the word.  What you can do is score some serious internal piety points within your church’s sub-culture.  What you can do is deepen the unhealthy dependence indigenious churches have on American money, methods, and manpower, truncating the development of indigenious discipleship methods, models, and expressions.  What you can do is create a load of converts who have little hope of becoming disciples.  What you can do is inoculate yourself to the burden to coherently re-present and incarnate Christ in your own world, your home.

I grasped a deeper sense of this problem last spring when I went with a group from my church to Trinidad for a 10 day trip.  Because of some pre-trip communication guffaws my team arrived on site without a clue as to what we were going to be doing to support the church there, so I opened my first conversation with the local pastor with a question:  “What can we do to serve you this week?”

The look on his face indicated that my question stunned him, but his answer stunned me even more:  “What do you want to do?”

“We want to help out, to bless you and the work you’re doing in whatever way you see fit.  We’ll do anything–clean toilets, haul bricks, sing songs, dress wounds–that you think will expand the kingdom of God here, and we know that you know better than we do what we need to be doing.  We’re here to serve you.”

My new pastor friend looked like he was going to cry, and I realized he had never had an American missionary offer to serve him, to come under his authority on his turf.  “Well, what other groups have done is go door to door, inviting people to come to nightly street meetings where they sing songs, do dramatic presentations, and preach.  I suppose you could do that.” 

“We don’t care so much about what other groups have done.  We want to do what you need us to do.”

After a thoughtful pause he said, “I want to make sure your team has a good experience here.”

I’m certain that I looked like I was going to cry at that point.  My friend had gotten used to his role as tour guide for Americans on “mission trips,” providing meaningful experiences for monied believers in the hope that their positive experience would translate into longer-term financial support.  In subsequent conversations I learned that his 5-year old church included only extended family members, and that no long-term fruit had been produced from 5 years of American missionaries preaching in the street to Trinidadian Hindus in this village. 

We ended up following the well-trodden path laid before us by other groups, and yes, we did have some good experiences (I rediscovered my knack for and love of teaching, for example, and several villagers indicated a decision to become a follower of Christ).  But how I wish the money my church spent to send me to Trinidad could have gone to buy my friend a decent van so he could serve his neighbors more effectively, so he could better incarnate Christ as only a Trinidadian can incarnate Christ.

Incarnating Christ where we are is the mission.  It’s the big deal, the big kingdom-of-God kahuna, and when we attempt to pull it off where we are not (i.e., in foreign cultures over the span of days or weeks instead of lifetimes) without caring to attempt it where we are (our cul-de-sac, our children’s schools, our watershed), we are kidding ourselves in the most dangerous way.  The best I can hope to do for other places as a rich (read: “American”) Christian is to enable others to incarnate Christ where they are.

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