“Ask teenagers in a church youth group what they mean by mission, and most of them will tell you about a hot week in July when they traveled to a poverty-stricken community to do home repair…” -Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian, p. 96).
In some progressive churches and youth ministries there is a push against the traditional “mission trip.” We’ve become suspicious of the week-long excursion to a “low-income” or “impoverished” place, to serve and help the “less fortunate.” I remember a good friend of mine in seminary emphatically saying, “I will never go on another mission trip!… We should just call them what they really are: Christian tourism!”
Now, this resistance to the “mission trip” idea might sound a little strange to some. What could possibly be wrong with sending some teenagers down to Mexico to build a house, or out to Los Angeles to serve meals on “skid row”?! But the suspicions are coming from all the right places. Mission trips, as we’ve been doing them, have two distinct problems: a justice problem and a theology problem.
The justice problem in mission trips comes when we see mission trips as excursions for helping the “less fortunate.” I used to help lead trips down to Mexico twice a year. This was intuitive for our ministry, since we were located in San Diego and a trip down to Mexico to build a house only took one day. We crossed the border, built a house in Tijuana or Tecate, and returned to the United States, often in time to grab dinner back home at a local Mexican restaurant. Upon our return, the reviews were always the same. People commented on how nice it was to return home to a hot shower and flushing toilets. They talked about how moving it was to hand the keys of the house to the family after it was finished. And they always talked about how good it felt to help someone who was living in “such poor conditions.” In retrospect, that seemed to be the main motivation for the trip: how good it feels to help someone who is less fortunate. But the reason that this presents a justice problem is that the division between “us” and “them” was never really called into question. In fact, our good feelings about being good helpers may have served to reify, to strengthen, the binary division between the helpers and the helpees. Instead of motivating us to rise against the systems that create poverty and normalize inequality, these mission trips just make us grateful for our fortunes. We who have been blessed with the love of God love to offer that love to others. Our service to the “less fortunates” might actually be perpetuating their misfortune.
Of course, the justice problem is, in itself, a theology problem too. But mission trips present a more specific theological issue in the way they shape our understanding of mission. My friend from seminary named it implicitly: “let’s just call them what they really are…” Mission trips don’t necessarily have anything to do with “mission,” at least not in the theological sense of the word. As Kenda Creasy Dean puts it, “Mission is not a trip or a youth activity… Mission is the business that congregations are in” (Almost Christian, p. 97). We have another word for mission that might get closer to the heart of what we should actually mean when we say mission: ministry!
Ministry is about participating in God’s action in the world, the ongoing work of Christ for the healing of the world and the restoration of the world’s relationship with God. Ministry blurs the lines between helper and helped because it is about participation in God’s presence in the lives of the persons we encounter. Nobody “offers” the love of God or takes God to the other. Ministry expects to find God’s love already present and active in every place and every life, not presuming to take God or the gospel there themselves. Mission, then, means encountering people as the Imago Dei, the image of God, to re-member the body of Christ. If you’re going on a mission trip in order to help someone, you’re doing it wrong.
Mission is not a trip you take in July. Mission is encountering and participating in the presence of God in the life of the world. But even with all the problems of traditional excursions, I think we can redeem the practice of going on mission trips. We can take our young people to places that are unfamiliar, where they might not expect God to be present or active, and give them opportunities to encounter people as persons through whom God might be revealed.
Let’s go to places where we might not expect to find God and allow our vision to be transformed through encounter. Let’s go on trips that will help us to see the world as a place where God acts, and let’s go ahead and call these trips what they really are: mission trips.