By David Mark
Regional Coordinator for Latin America
Covenant World Mission
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1: 5-9 (TNIV)
If you are reading this, chances are that you have been on a mission trip. If you have been on a mission trip, the chances are you have gone on more than one and may well go again, perhaps to some other destination. The winter, 2007 Leadership Journal, published by the folks that put out Christianity Today, included some statistics about the amazing growth in the number of people involved in week to ten-day mission trips.
In 1979, 22,000 Americans went on very short mission trips.
In 1989, 120,000.
In 2001, 350,000.
Some other 2005 statistics report the estimate of more than 2 million young people in the 13-17 year old age group going on mission trips that year. (Mark Galli, p.33)
Clearly, this is a very big deal. It is now and will become increasingly a matter of debate among mission theorists and has many implications for on-site, long-term missionaries and for missionary sending agencies, denominational and otherwise. The overall impact that this practice (massive and now “in overdrive”) will have on churches and ministries around the world also remains to be seen. It is the subject of much debate with impassioned defenders and opponents lining up on either side. It is, however, simply real and cannot, nor should not, be ignored.
I do not want to enter into all the details of the missiological debate in this article. What I would rather do is encourage you to “add value” to your church’s mission trip experience. Peter assumed that “added value” was needed for spiritual development and I think something similar is needed to help the week-long mission trip find a meaningful place within the larger panorama of world mission. Deepening the mission trippers’ understanding and skill can add value to their experience. So, to borrow from St. Peter, I would write,
“Make every effort to add to your passion for world mission theological and Biblical depth; to theological and Biblical depth, add language ability; to language ability, add cultural sensitivity; to cultural sensitivity, add historical insight. To all of these, make love your aim. Protect the integrity of mission and defend the dignity of those whom you serve.”
Add theological and Biblical depth:
It is truly wonderful that so many Americans are coming to faith and becoming part of the Church. It appears also to be true that a great many of the people who go on mission trips are very new believers with limited formation as followers of Jesus. Many people who plan and organize mission trips use them intentionally as a means for “bonding” new believers to the Christian community and introducing them to God’s passionate love for the world. This is certainly a good thing to do. As on-site missionaries have accompanied mission trip folk, they have noticed that understandings of some of the following themes add value to the experience.
- How is the Church (and how are individual believers) called to relate to the world? This is actually a rather complex theme and a mission trip that takes place in an unfamiliar environment pushes the envelope even further. Biblical teaching often comes to us in ways that appear to be contradictory at the outset. So, the Bible says in one place, “Come out from among them and be separate…” while in another place we are admonished to “let your light shine among people so that they may see your good works…” in another, to be “salt and light” in another, to be “in the world but not of the world” and then, “love not the world or the things of the world”. If this is hard to live into in one’s own culture, it’s even harder to sort out in someone else’s cultural framework. Mission trippers may have little sense of what behaviors may be permitted or condemned by their hosts – let alone why the local church has taken this or that position about specific behaviors or practices. They may not know what simply reflects local culture and what may be a deeply held faith conviction about how to relate to the world around us. So, mission trip folks need two things. First, they do need to understand how they relate to the culture in which they live, particularly in terms of conduct that symbolizes either acceptance of a cultural way of being (like, say, saluting the flag) or rejection of a common practice acceptable to certain local cultures (like, say, recreational sex between consenting, unmarried adults). In the end, it is very important that mission trip folk have “insider knowledge” about the values and behaviors of their hosts and their host’s cultural environment. A local leader may be able to help mission trippers gain understanding and insight as could a long-term, on-site missionary.
- What is the core human condition? Again we are faced with what looks somewhat contradictory. One set of texts speaks of those who are “lost” (“…like sheep without a shepherd…”) and the prevailing attitude toward them is compassion. Key texts like John 3:16 may be cited as well as magisterial teaching like Jesus’ story of the Waiting Father, also known as the story of the “Prodigal Son”. Other texts seem to focus on rebelliousness or unrighteousness as the human condition. The behaviors mentioned in these texts sometimes elicit anger and “prophetic denunciation”. There is certainly plenty of anger in Jesus’ reaction to recalcitrant religious leaders. It is important to help new believers that go on mission trips – particularly those that try to do some evangelism – to have this sorted out. There are at least a couple of fruitful areas for potential mission trip folk to discuss to add value by deeper understanding. One might be to concentrate on the ways in which “The love of Christ constrains us…” That God’s love for people is the basis for our motivations to serve is well worth focused discussion and prayerful reflection. As for denunciation or anger toward conduct perceived as sinful, long-term missionaries would advise caution and an acknowledgement of realistic limits. A one week or ten day mission trip rarely provides enough context, shared history or relationships of tested trust for the visitor to have earned the right to denounce anyone’s behavior or attitudes. While this should be seriously considered, it would also be fruitful to remind each other that it is the task of the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin. He can do that with a precision and sensitivity that a temporary visitor will certainly lack.
- How does one resolve the tension between humankind as “…the Image of God…” and “Fallen”? People who do not have this worked out yet have difficulty knowing how to think, feel and act toward the “objects of their mission”. Any pastor worth his or her salt can help the group figure this issue out and discern what it means in practice. So, yes, I do think that mission trip folk do need the guidance and instruction of either a pastor or mature Christian leader before they leave on their journey. It’s not enough to just have, say, a good construction plan put together or some memorized evangelistic formula. The encounters between people in an international or even local ministry setting demand greater thoughtfulness. It is the minimal price of genuine love.
- What do group members and their hosts believe about sanctification? This can be a critical issue for mutual understanding between the members of a mission team and the local folk who receive them. Large numbers of mission groups form relationships with struggling, storefront, independent Pentecostal congregations. They are attracted to them by their zeal for evangelism and enthusiastic worship and also by the perception on the part of the mission trippers that they are needy and poor. Sometimes, there are hidden differences that can affect what mission groups are expected to do. American Protestants generally believe that sanctification is mostly a rational process related to learning and personal discipline. Many Pentecostals often believe that sanctification is not a process at all, but rather a crisis event or series of events to be “resolved at the altar”. Some believe that it always involves a “power encounter” of some kind and should be marked by a visible sign like tongues or “fainting”. So, some mission groups that want to focus on teaching or Bible studies focused on personal growth or maturation may be frustrated by the apparent lack of response from their hosts.
- How do group members and their hosts use the Bible? It is important to know at the outset how those who receive the mission trippers use the Bible in practice. Is it used for edification or mainly for inspiration? Is it interpreted allegorically (the default mode in scores of non-western churches around the world) or by literary exegesis? Which has greater authority in the local church – the Bible or the prophetic utterance of the leader? Particularly in congregations where illiteracy is common, there may be little or no reference to the Bible at all in preaching and teaching, but richly present in worship music. To know and understand the practices of the receiving congregation can enhance the effectiveness of the mission trippers. It may also affect the decision making process about the selection of mission partners in the first place.
- What is the role of leadership in the receiving church? Does the church operate on Biblical rules or “family rules”, for example. In many congregations, the leader’s authority is almost absolute and there is no governing body of any kind among the laity. Interaction with this leader may be indirect, rather than the direct approach more common to U.S. culture. To effectively serve a host congregation, mission trippers need to know how decisions are made and by whom they are made.
- What is the Biblical theology of poverty? In the Bible, poverty is a strong and often discussed category whose meaning and description bears little or no resemblance to many American theories about it. Why are people poor? This question is answered in the Bible in unexpected ways that often include references to oppression and injustice. The American penchant for labeling or categorizing almost everything can surprise and offend people who do not think of themselves as poor – even though the mission trippers think that they are! In the Biblical model, one is rich if one has one’s own roof to sleep under at night and daily food. From this Biblical point of view, most mission trippers do not serve the poor. They serve folks who have noticeably less luxuries than do Americans in general, but rarely have direct contact with “life-threatened poor people”.
- What really helps? What kinds of “help” erode human dignity? What kinds of “help” lead to dependencies and paternalism? What kinds of “help” do people truly need? A good starting place for discussion by a mission group could be, “How does God help us? What does He do and what does He refrain from doing?” This theme is quite large and complex. A lot of good material has been written about it. I recommend the With the Poor series published by World Vision International as a good place to start. You can easily find their catalogue of published material on the web at www.worldvisionresources.com.
Add language ability:
Someone on the mission trip needs to be fluent in the language of the hosts. It surprises me that some folks have gone every year for many years on mission trips to the same language group and have never even tried to learn the host language. The simple ability to communicate in the host language is an immense added value. A common expression used to describe native language is “heart language”. Mission seeks to address the deepest and most intimate realities of people’s life. The more mission folks develop their ability to communicate in the “heart language” of their hosts, the more profound their spiritual impact.
Add cultural sensitivity:
One aspect of culture is that we all learn how to be polite by the example of parents and family, teachers, respected leaders and the society around us. We learn most of this during childhood and it becomes as natural to us as breathing. But the things that “everybody just knows” are not the same from culture to culture. In most Mexican culture, for example, leave-taking seems like quite a production to U.S. folk. When Mexican people leave a meeting, party, gathering or church, they usually say good-bye to each person individually. To fail to say good-bye is understood as a sign that there is a problem between people. I once accidentally missed saying good-bye to a friend after a church service. Within an hour, he called me to ask if there was a problem between us that needed to be resolved. So, language ability is an added value, but cultural understanding and sensitivity is even greater.
Add historical insight:
The most effective mission trippers are voracious learners. They saturate themselves with information and knowledge about the history of those they will serve. It is a profound added value to become an “expert” on the story of someone you want to love. It will certainly help folks avoid obvious errors and unintentional offense. One large U.S. youth outreach to Mexico City decided to use “Conquista (Conquest)” as their “theme”. They wore t-shirts with “Conquista” printed on them over an artistic rendition of a person wearing a suit of armor and brandishing a sword. They wore the t-shirts to their outreach site. It was the Central Plaza (the Zocalo) of Mexico City. The very stones on which they stood had been taken from buildings destroyed by the Spanish conquistadores when they conquered the city – a story well known by every school child in Mexico. The story is taught as an object lesson against oppression and violence and as a means to establish historical identity. It is taught in the same way that U.S. children learn about the Boston Tea Party, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The leaders of the event minimized the negative impact when confronted about it. They certainly had no intention to offend, but offence was taken and outrage was expressed in Mexican newspapers and other media for many months afterward. The leaders of this mission trip never knew of this unintended consequence because 1) it was all in Spanish and 2) the trip was over in a week and they were soon long gone.
Look to Jesus. Love – the Jesus kind, not to be confused with sentimentality – is the greatest added value and covers a great many unintended transgressions along the way – cultural, historical, linguistic and otherwise. How best to love those we seek to serve should be the object of prayer, reflection on our Lord’s teaching and example, and constant critical reflection. The love of Christ Jesus expressed through the mission trippers will protect the integrity of mission and defend the dignity of those whom they are called to serve in Jesus’ Name and for his sake.
(If you would like to read more on this theme, please see On Someone Else’s Terms; A U.S./Mexico Journey in Mission Partnership, by David Mark. You can get a copy from the Covenant Bookstore online or the Department of World Mission of the Evangelical Covenant Church.)