Building a Community to Reach a Community

I Am Sending You

Rethinking our personal involvement in missions today.

Posted on December 17, 2013

The title of this essay is a quotation from Jesus taken from John 20:21. It is one of several statements he made that we hear today as our call to missionary service. But the way Christians in the west have responded to those words has changed significantly in the last 30 years. In 1982 my wife and I went on a short-term mission trip of 15 months. At that time, any venture less than a year was not even considered to be an authentic missionary effort. Today the typical short-term mission trip is 1-2 weeks. Some of the billions of dollars that North American churches expend on such trips is additional investment in missions but not all. Some is money diverted from the support of servants of Christ who go long and deep into another culture in order to share the gospel. It is only fair to say that some things have been gained in this shift and that some things have been lost. I spent 15 consecutive years as a missionary to the Philippines, during which time we hosted a number of short-term mission groups, most of them positive experiences. I have also been a pastor in Canada for 10 years and observed the challenges of keeping North American Christians actively engaged in world missions. That has given me some insight both from the sending and the receiving end of such efforts.

Two specific events prompted me to review what I have learned over the years and write out my thoughts. The first was reading the book “When Helping Hurts” which highlighted for me two things in particular: (a) the enormous investment that North American churches are making at present in these 1-2 week trips and (b) how to a large degree we are overestimating what we actually contribute to the mission of God by such brief excursions. The second event was the opportunity to hear several career missionaries speak at a Northern Alberta Mission Conference in Edmonton in 2012. I was impressed again with the fact that people who live in another culture for multiple years and who go with a broad set of skills and with a matured servant heart, are able to do mission work at a whole different level of understanding and impact.

I want to make clear from the outset that I am not opposed to what have become known as “short-term mission trips”. It is a question of their relative value that I want to address. Among other things we need better clarity in the nomenclature we use and in the purpose we pursue for the various things we do. For example, it is sometimes said that every Christian is a missionary. There is truth to such a statement, as reflected in Jesus powerful words, partially quoted in the title of this essay from John 20:21, “As the father has sent me, even so I am now sending you”. It is just that for most of us the “sending” is more often a few meters from where we are rather than thousands of kilometers away.

While it is true, in a technical sense, that every Christian is a missionary, because the word missionary has a long history of being used in a more particular sense of cross-cultural service, that statement does a great disservice. As Stephen Neil wrote many years ago, “If everything is mission, nothing is mission.” To use the term too broadly displays a profound lack of discernment concerning the unique forms of sacrifice, sensitivity, skill sets, and heart attitudes that are required as soon as we cross social, linguistic, religious, and cultural boundaries in our service for Christ at more than the level of a visitor.

I would like to make the following modest proposal that represents a small shift in the way we view the various forms of mission related service we do and along with that, highlights the distinctiveness of each form.

The Centerpiece: We Serve Where We Live

Rather than using the term, “every Christian is a missionary”, I believe it is preferable to speak of every Christian serving the people among whom they live. We are all sent, but only in the sense of going deeper into the web of relationships and opportunities of which we are already a part. We are sent to extended family, friends, neighborhoods, and places of work, study, business and social exchange.

Level One Missionary Service: Brief Intensive Opportunities to Learn and to Encourage

These are trips of one week to two months in social and cultural settings that are new to us. It would be of great benefit for every Christian to have at least one such opportunity. It may mean travelling to a different country or it may mean intentionally crossing through barriers to meet others within one’s own city and nation. At this level of service, the following points should be kept in mind:

  • The focus here is first of all on learning. It is an opportunity to learn firsthand what God is up to in another place and culture, to gain new insight from the faith and practice of local Christians, to learn new ways of serving, and to gain awareness in our own relationship to Christ and his call on our lives.
  • There is also opportunity in such short visits to offer great encouragement. The little bit of hard labor we might do on a building project in another country is a highly inefficient way to bring help from a material standpoint, but the relationships that are built with local Christians and other workers can be very significant. Through times of shared prayer and worship and testimony and study in the word, the bonds of fellowship are established and yield great encouragement in both directions.
  • It would be preferable not to label these as “mission trips” out of respect for the fact that the historic meaning of the word missionary implies a whole lot more than this kind of temporary foray into another world. At the same time, it is an effort of significant value, some of which is outlined in the preceding statements. Perhaps terminology like Mission Exposure Trip or SALT Trip (Serving and Learning Together) or Refresh Trip could be used to more accurately reflect what is being accomplished.
  • Among all participants, it is essential that we think less in terms of “We have so much to give and so much to teach them” and take the posture instead of “We have so much to learn and where can we serve them in what they are already doing”.
  • Because serving and learning in this way is a great opportunity to grow in faith, in ministry skills, and in relationship building, a local church should do everything it can to encourage each member to have at least one significant, well planned experience of this kind. It may be just as appropriate to use funds from a spiritual formation budget as a mission budget. Regardless, beyond the first trip, individuals should pay their own way to reflect that at this level it is really more about what we receive and what we learn than what we give.

Level Two Missionary Service: Contributing Specialized Skills for Pressing Needs

Especially on trips of short duration, it is essential that we go with a learning posture. At the same time we recognize that there are certain skills, professional and otherwise, that may have ongoing value in mission endeavors in other parts of the world. These include people qualified to offer pastoral and theological training, those who have technical skills for things like digging water wells, those who have medical training, etc. At this level of service, the following points should be considered:

  • There is merit in a church directing mission funds to help with such trips beyond the initial one.
  • Wherever possible, training of local people should be a component of this service.

Level Three Missionary Service: Apprenticeship

These are trips of two months to one year in duration. At this level of service, the following ideas should be considered:

  • This is a distinctive category based on the fact that the understanding of cultures and mission work that we gain in 1-2 weeks is nowhere near what is gained when we actually live in a new environment for an extended period of time. Generally speaking most Christians come away from a two-week mission trip with observations like: (a) the people are just amazing, (b) the culture is really cool, and (c) the poverty makes me feel guilty and really sad. Stay longer than two weeks and all sorts of other insights emerge both positive and negative about a culture that always has many layers. All sorts of other feelings begin to emerge within a person towards this new people and their different ways. We begin to discern the struggles of local Christians along with their zeal.
  • This is a distinctive category based on the fact that, while smiles go a long way, to really minister to a people, you have to go through the long hard work of building relationships, understanding their world, learning their language, and becoming sensitive to the nuances of the way ministry is done in another culture. Spending several months in a place will at least get one started in that long term and essential process.
  • Churches should encourage this level of commitment to the mission of God with substantial support. One of the great values attributed to short-term missions is that through such experiences many are called to longer-term mission service. That is true, but two-week trips are simply inadequate as a way of exploring whether a new sense of call actually matches the gifting that God has given a person. I have personally witnessed examples of people who felt a strong call to become missionaries after a couple of weeks in another country. But when they finally entered into another culture for a longer period, within a few months it became evident that they had no matching maturity or gifting for that role.
  • With a higher level of support given by the church to potential mission apprentices, there should be a more stringent screening process.

Level Four Missionary Service: Extended Service in One Place

This is an exclusive group, not because the Christians who do this are more saintly but because God has intentionally gifted and equipped some to serve effectively across cultures. At this level of service, consider the following:

  • We will reserve the identifier of “missionary” for those who serve in one place for more than a year and preferably for multiple years.
  • There is the expectation that such people will go with a high level of training and/or experience in ministry. Every culture to which we go deserves the best we can offer.
  • There is the expectation that such missionaries will enter into their new culture in a serious way – learn the language, study the culture and adapt to it as much as appropriate, and think deeply about contextualizing the gospel. They will go in humility as servants. They will understand the holistic nature of the gospel.
  • A church will do well to support such people at a high level, with a long term commitment and with a priority given to supporting those who have natural connections with our church community as their sending partners.

Lee Bertsch

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