A 23-yr old’s Plea to the North American Church Regarding Missions
My generation has only ever known rapid change. We were born into the advent of the internet, and things haven’t slowed down since. I was raised as a missionary kid in West Africa until the age of 10, and when I moved to the US, it took my letters weeks to get to my best friend if they even arrived. Now he and I communicate via Whatsapp gifs and voice messages.
Today’s world is ever increasingly a global world. If you only spend time in western countries, you’d likely say it’s an increasingly secular world as well. This past week, attending the Missio Nexus Future Mission Conference, I was given frameworks to make sense of the shifts. When it comes to information, my generation has plenty. When it comes to interpreting that information, we get lost. Spiritually lost. Relationally lost. Missionally lost. Rates of suicide are higher than they have ever been. Pornography has us by the throat. We look to politicians as our saviors, and we fear religion. As I watch peers walk away from the church, as I empathize with my friends who prefer spirituality over religion. As I study community development and history to learn how I might engage with the world, I can’t help but notice my generation of American believers struggling for a justification of missions.
I can’t help but notice my generation of American believers struggling for a justification of missions.
Western society around us seems generally convinced that there is no longer a place for missions. Perhaps older generations and church leaders do not feel the tension, but for those of my generation still sitting in the pews, little seems to have been said from the pulpit regarding how to make sense of The Great Commission within the context of neo-colonialism critiques and short-term missions misgivings. What is our responsibility when it comes to sharing our faith after realizing that great intentions don’t always lead to great results? Is there a line to be drawn, and if so, where?
Last year, John Chau’s death was broadly considered the result of Christian extremism. 60 years ago, a not too different story left the public calling Jim Elliot a martyr. As the number of missionaries being sent each year continues to dwindle, will the “how” of sending missionaries from the US change?
Regardless of what the North American church decides, Christian evangelism seems set to continue.
Regardless of what the North American church decides, Christian evangelism seems set to continue. Christians throughout the rest of the world have picked up their crosses and begun sending missionaries to their neighbors and unreached people groups. Already, other countries are sending more missionaries per Christian than the US.
In my mind, this raises two questions:
- What is there to be learned from the history of Western missions?
- Who will learn it?
I believe the rest of the world is well-positioned to learn from the mistakes and best practices of Western missionaries. The whole Church must honestly examine its history of missions, which can be hard given that missionaries have long been placed on a pedestal as a result of their sacrifices.
I also believe that the Great Commission in Matthew 28 leaves no room for the Western Church to abandon its commitment to sharing its faith globally. So then, the Western Church must determine what to learn, what to change, and how to move forward.
So then, the Western Church must determine what to learn, what to change, and how to move forward.
My attention is particularly attuned to the realm of short-term missions in the wake of social consciousness that has been devoted to the potential harms associated with voluntourism. Jumping on a plane with a group of believers to go “share the love of Jesus” has become increasingly popular and cheaper over the last 50 years. While books like When Helping Hurts have started conversations, overwhelmingly, little seems to have changed. Groups continue their trips down to Haiti to paint the walls of a school painted just three weeks before by a different group of volunteers. Doctors, nurses, and med school hopefuls flood into Central America to provide pop-up clinics in villages year after year because their consistency makes it financially impossible for a pharmacy or local doctor to keep the doors open when free meds and care are sure to arrive every summer.
Many who grew up with me in the church recognize these problems because we were raised going on these trips and are finally old enough to examine them for what they were. I have friends who left the church because of it. Using food and handouts as a bargaining chip to pray for starving people has a way of appearing manipulative even to middle schoolers.
Are short-term mission trips irredeemable? Of course not. The world is never as simple as we’d like or fear.
Are short-term mission trips irredeemable? Of course not. The world is never as simple as we’d like or fear. However, I believe that the Kingdom and the world would be better off without a number of them. What then does it look like for a short-term trip to be done well?
I find that the Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Missions provide a helpful framework:
- Empowering Partnerships
- Mutual Design
- Comprehensive Administration
- Qualified Leadership
- Appropriate Training
- Thorough Follow-Through
If a trip can’t comply with all 7 standards, should it happen? Its a seemingly high bar, and very few people apply it. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t seem scared to raise the bar when I read his sermon on the mount.
Unlike a market system with incentives for those providing the best service, in the voluntourism market, the incentives are only structured to make sure the tourist goes home happy. Unlike an industry regulated by a government with the authority to enforce compliance, no one has regulatory power over the countless churches and organizations organizing trips. When those with the power are not those who pay the consequences of power’s ill-use, why should anyone be surprised to find the powerful blind to the harm done by their good intentions?
When those with the power are not those who pay the consequences of power’s ill-use, why should anyone be surprised to find the powerful blind to the harm done by their good intentions?
Church, what might we do to create marketplace incentives or regulate the industry? Perhaps another option exists. Undoubtedly, prayer must be part of the strategy. We desperately need a strategy.
Unable to “burn down short-term missions,” unable to change the incentives, and unable to regulate the industry, I’ve committed to equipping with tools, those who want to do short-term missions well. With lots of help, I’ve built XPCulture to help organizations qualify their leaders, train their participants, and support follow-through.
Powerless to change the incentives or impose regulations, I’m waiting for the people of God to be moved by his Holy Spirit, and to cry out against the status quo.
North American Church, my generation needs you to take a stand on the Great Commission without capitulating to the culture or the converse urge to turn a blind eye to the opportunities for improvement. Perhaps it was for such as time as this that Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”- Matthew 10:16
North American Church, I beg you to set aside your obsession with cultural perceptions. Rise up in obedience to the Great Commission even if it causes offense. Let us submit to the daily renewal of our minds and methods with a commitment to learning from the past’s failures and successes. May our commitment to missions be renewed and our approaches be transformed. The fields are ripe for harvest. Praise God that the nations of the world are faithfully raising up their own missionaries, and let us learn with and from them.
If you’re compelled by this plea, would you share it with others?
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