I have gone on several short-term mission trips. I love going and think they’re awesome, but not because I think that I can “save” anybody in a week. Actually the reason I go is to be further converted to Christianity by serving people who seem to have a deeper, richer relationship with God than I do. In Methodism, missions is mostly about service and awakening to the realities of global injustice for the person going on the trip. In the evangelical world where I grew up, missions was primarily about saving souls; if you gave people a “cup of cold water,” it was so that you could talk to them about Jesus. But as missionary Laura Parker shares in a recent post, when you use a bait and switch missions approach, what you end up with are “rice Christians.”
My mission work has primarily been in Latin America supporting churches indigenous to the region who always took the lead in whatever outreach we did in the community, so I have never experienced the complete cultural dissonance that Parker had in her Asian mission setting:
I was face-to-face with the realities that the story of Jesus was so completely other to the people I was living among. Buddhism and the East had painted such a vastly different framework than the one I was used to that I was at a loss as to how to even begin to communicate the gospel effectively.
Parker shares that after spending a long period of time learning the culture and building trust with very little “progress” in terms of people converting to Christianity, she started to hear about short-term mission teams claiming to have bagged “decisions for Christ.”
Sometimes they would do vacation bible schools for the kids, other times they would show a film. Sometimes they would do a sermon or go door-to-door. Other times, they would help build a bathroom or a water well or a new church. These Americans — many of whom didn’t know the language and hadn’t studied the culture– often came back thrilled to have witnessed several locals seemingly convert from Buddhism to Christianity. After three days of ministry.
It could go a bit like this: uneducated villagers, a little (or a lot) in awe of the white American, are provided with goods they desperately need, entertainment that encourages their kids, and attention by the wealthy Westerner, all of which they gladly accept. And at some point over the course of the event, the Westerners share honestly about their religion and eventually ask for public professions of faith. And, seriously, what’s an impoverished person, raised in a culture of respect, supposed to do in light of this turn of events?
So think on that the next time you want to keep score on a mission trip. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do vacation Bible school and that sort of thing. We do it every mission trip, and I think that giving the kids in the community a basic knowledge of songs and stories about Jesus is a wonderful gift. But trying to get them to “make a decision” so we can add jewels to our crown turns the mission trip into a tour of self-congratulation. I wrote in a previous post that Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood is an excellent resource for mission teams. By all means, go to far away places even if you have only a week, but don’t go there to save people; go there to be saved by Jesus.