Joel Rainey is the Director of Missions at Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, an adjunct professor at Capital Bible Seminary and blogs at Themelios (Twitter - @joelrainey).
As spring and summer approach, mission teams from churches all over America begin gearing up for a busy season. Anyone who frequents airports for either business or pleasure has no doubt seen oceans of identical T-shirts wandering the concourses between connections, and those wearing those T-shirts expect no less than a “great missions experience.” Summer has barely begun, and our Association has already had teams on the ground in several different parts of the globe, with our most recent effort just concluding last week, as our disaster relief team continued its work in Long Island, New York. But why do they really go?
In a few days, I will post my annual summer reading list, give the blogosphere a rather long rest and depart for an Asian country myself. I’ll log quite a few miles between now and the end of summer, and like most who plan for trips like this, my small team expects a “great experience.” But several years ago I ran into an article by Dave Livermore that I think should be read by anyone who aspires to go abroad.
Livermore is the Director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Seminary, where he also teaches Intercultural Studies. He is also the author of Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. In that work, he stresses the importance of cultural sensitivity when doing missions, and Mark Oestreicher of Youth Specialties gives the book plenty of praise, stating that mission efforts by American evangelical churches, while all well-intentioned, have not always been thoughtful. “[M]any of us have been concerned over the years that we’ve created a monster, doing more damage than ministry.”
I share Oestreicher’s assessment. Livermore cites research he generated from 250 national pastors who minister in 21 different countries, and each of them, while very appreciative of the efforts of American churches, also clearly delineated 10 things they literally “hated” about American mission projects. Whether your efforts this summer take you to Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South America, or Asia, the following may sting a bit. Nevertheless, if we are truly going to serve….to be “on mission,” we need to listen to these guys:
10 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):
1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.
2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.
3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.
4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.
5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.
6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.
7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.
8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.
9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.
10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Hurts, doesn’t it?
Yet this is the way so many of our brothers and sisters in other lands view American Christians. Such things may help to explain why the nation with the greatest amount of material wealth, professional training, and mobilized volunteers accomplishes so little in the world.
The solution to this is, of course, to do a bit of a “gut check” before embarking on a trip of this nature. Take a moment to consider that those who worship Christ in other lands are not our “little” brothers and sisters. In fact, in many ways large portions of them could teach us a thing or two about what it means to follow Jesus. Bob Roberts expresses this same sentiment when he writes “Frankly, we have more need of them than they have of us. . . . .how arrogant we are to think that we must rush our missionaries over to closed parts of the world to tell them how to ‘do church.’ God, save them from us, and let them help us become more of who they are!”
So before you get on that plane this summer, ask yourself a hard question: “Why am I doing this?” Is this so you can travel to the other side of the world and play the part of the autonomous knower? If so, consider exchanging that ticket to Asia for one to the Caribbean to lay on a beach. Both you and those you would insult might frankly be better served. But if your heart is that of a servant, who understands that the Kingdom of God is bigger than the west, who longs to learn from those to whom you minister as much or more than you will teach, then you probably understand, and will subsequently experience, what it really means to be “on mission.”
This summer, I’ll pray to just that end for you, and as I embark for overseas destinations in just a few weeks, I hope you will do the same for me.