The Miseducation of Missions
What do you envision when you think of missions or a missionary? Typically, a group of Christians will answer, “evangelism,” “revivals,” or sometimes even “helping the poor.” But when the same question is asked of non-Christians, answers may include, “colonialism,” “abuse of power,” or even “ignorance.” For the most part, both groups are right.
Over the past 12 years, I’ve been on what I call a “journey of awakening”—a quest of brutal honesty in order to uncover what my own heart motivations are for wanting to be involved in a revolution of missions. During my journey, even the term “missions” has taken on a whole new life. I know what the Bible says about the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. But where I found myself getting stuck was the way we as followers of Jesus were going about fulfilling those beautiful concepts. Telling the world about Jesus and loving the world as I love myself seems self-explanatory, right?
Traditional missions have evolved immensely over the past 150 years. History now shows us that missions and missionaries have affected the world in many ways, both good and bad. I’ve realized that in order for me to truly be a part of a lasting legacy that’s beneficial to the Kingdom of God, I need to undergo several paradigm shifts of how I view missions. What exactly are we trying to accomplish when we go on missionary ventures in our local and global communities? I used to think the main goal was to get people “saved”—to say the sinner’s prayer in order for them to go to heaven when they die. But the more I interacted with suffering people, whether in an impoverished neighborhood in my local community or in a refugee village in a developing country, the more I realized there was so much more God seemed to care about. Of course He longs for relationship with His creation. Of course He wants to enter into a redeeming unity with His lost sheep. Historically, the Church has done an amazing job of seeing the importance of evangelism in Scripture and then crafting ways to effectively tell people about Jesus. But, also historically, the Church has not done such a good job with ministering to the other parts of a person or community. Evanglism needs to plug into a larger picture of holistic ministry; where the spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual and relational parts of a person are all valuable. That is where transformation will take place.
In the same vein of evangelism, I’m also beginning to shift my thinking on the practices of traditional missions. God cares about the aspect of our social networks. He designed us to be in community with others the way He is in community with Himself. God cares about the individual soul, but He also cares about the welfare of the entire community we find ourselves living within. How can we take the good parts of traditional missions and plug them into a larger picture of community transformation? Wherever there’s an expression of the Body of Christ—even just a few unorganized people—then the community can be transformed. If the enemy has come to kill, steal and destroy, and Jesus came to bring full life, then shouldn’t we want to see communities transformed from death into life to the fullest? Making this paradigm shift from missions to community transformation is a steep learning curve.
In It for the Long Haul
In order to love the poor, we have to be committed to the process, not just an event. Serving events should never be a systematic part of the life of a church. Both local and global serving events should be seen as practicing ground for the Holy Spirit to make community transformation a way of life. Changing your lifestyle does not come without practice. Serving events are not the success of a program—they are only stepping stones to an inward change of mind and heart that only the Holy Spirit can produce. The leadership challenge is to come up with clearly stated results and the tools to measure those results.
I think the Church is hungry to be actively involved in the fight against injustice. But when we’re hungry, we tend to eat too much and then get a bellyache, gain weight and get high blood pressure. The quest for justice sounds great, but it is not easy. The global Church is only in the beginning stages of a process that’s going to take a long time. Historically, we’ve responded in an uneducated manner out of our desire to ease the pain of the suffering. While that’s a noble desire, it can produce relationships of dependency and other unintended consequences. Many times I’ve attempted to do the right thing for the poor and have unintentionally done the wrong thing. For instance, when I was leading a trip to Sierra Leone, one of my teams saw the villagers were in need of clean water. An old well was re-opened, a ceremony was held to dedicate the well, and the villagers seemed overjoyed at the prospect of clean drinking water. What we didn’t do was take the time to educate ourselves about the long-time superstitions of this well, so instead of drinking from it, the villagers used the rope and bucket as a washbasin and something to tie their fishing nets with. Who can draw clean water from a well without a rope or bucket? The idea was right and the motivation was pure, but the method didn’t work in this instance and only produced a waste of money and time. Our fallen nature craves quick results and immediate gratification, but acting on those impulses proves empty. If we only give away free stuff or try to apply solutions that may not work across the board, we perpetuate the cycle that produces abuse and oppression instead of alleviating it. I think the Church is smart. If we put our heads and hearts together and are committed to the long haul, we can mark a turning point in the history of the Church’s relationship to justice.
Focusing on Assets, Not Defects
We know there are certain demographics more vulnerable to victimization. Focusing our efforts on issues like extreme poverty, preventable disease, abuse and oppression, lack of education or spiritual brokenness may help us become strategically focused on where we feel we can best make a difference. We also know that these issues are not autonomous of each other and they intersect with one another in many ways. However, if we solely focus on the needs, we run the risk of engaging in a one-sided relationship that ends up robbing dignity from both parties. Instead, what would it look like to begin pouring our time and resources into uncovering people’s assets? If a person can realize they are valuable and discover their God-given assets, then they’ll be more likely to use those assets to dig themselves out of poverty and all the evils that come with poverty.
What would be possible if the Body of Christ sought to involve ourselves in tangible ways that help people uncover their God-given assets and gifts by creating church-wide and small-group led local and global serving opportunities? Everyone has something to offer—from alternative income generation projects with former sex slaves to counseling young girls who are at risk of being trafficked, or business training and micro-credit programs to assisting with agricultural projects like urban gardens or soil replenishment. Every person can contribute to the eradication of extreme poverty and the abuse of power produced by poverty.
So, What Do I Do Now?
You may be feeling overwhelmed by all of these theoretical concepts. What does all of this mean, practically? How can we take these concepts and actually apply them in our churches and in our lives? Unfortunately, there isn’t really a five-step systematic way to accomplish this. But I can share some guidelines that have spurred me on in my own process. The paramount place to start is education. Let me warn you: This route may lead to your undoing. The more you look into clinical terms like “community transformation,” “dignified community development,” “reciprocity” and “asset-based ministry,” the more you realize how much there is to learn. But how we love the suffering is critical to the Kingdom of God. Educating myself has caused me at times to feel so overwhelmed that I’m paralyzed in fear and guilt. But let me assure you, this crushing sense of helplessness is actually a good place to be. Education should lead to the gift of repentance. There needs to be an appropriate measure of sorrow over our ignorance and lack of involvement with justice. But the brilliance of the Gospel is that God’s kindness leads us to repentance, and we don’t have to wallow in guilt. Instead we should respond to God’s kindness by confessing our sin and moving forward to love what God loves and hate what He hates. No matter how horrific the sin of injustice appears, we have access to all life and godliness through the power of His Holy Spirit. If we stay connected to the hope of the Kingdom of God, then we can see a world where there is no more suffering, sickness, sorrow and death. No matter how idealistic this sounds, there is Scripture that says God’s Kingdom can come on earth as it is in heaven—that we’re supposed to pray for this to happen and that God has invited us into this work of reconciliation despite our lack of understanding and know-how. What will future generations envision when they hear “missions” or “missionary”? With God’s kindness, we can be a part of the redefining.