Here’s a challenging post about short-term missions (1-3 weeks) from Wes Widner. Read and see what you think.
One of the biggest elephants in the evangelical, missiological, soul-winning room is the lingering question of just how much good short-term mission trips are and whether or not they merely amount to sanctified vacations taken at the expense of others.
Now, to be fair, I’m not claiming that either the missionaries or those who fund them are intentionally nefarious. On the contrary; I believe that for the most part, those who go on short term mission trips and those who support them financially have honest evangelistic intentions. I am simply wondering whether we’ve fostered this “super spiritual” mindset around something we call “the mission field” and, as a result, neglect to ask the burdensome and unpopular questions of stewardship and effectiveness.
He explains how people misunderstand the great commission by thinking that it requires people to go to foreign lands, and then he writes this:
Because of this misunderstanding of the great commission and what it truly means to make disciples of those around us, we tend to overlook questions of stewardship and logistics. In fact, since we think the imperative is to go we tend to start to think that any cost is acceptable and questions of logistics are a mere nuisance.
How much does a round-trip plane ticket usually cost to travel overseas? $1,000, $2,000? More? Once you count the cost of food, lodging, transportation, etc. you can often approach figures well over $3,000 just to send a single person overseas. Is this really the best way to reach the lost?
I agree with him completely that it is not a good use of money to send laypeople as missionaries to foreign countries. However, I do think that it is worth it to send scholars with doctorates to foreign universities and other centers of influence to lecture and debate. So basically we agree on the stewardship question, except if the missionary is a scholar headed to a center of cultural influence. What laypeople can do instead of going themselves is to work hard in school, get good jobs, and to financially support Christian scholars in their studies and public events at home or abroad – e.g. – William Lane Craig debating Muslims in Turkish universities or debating atheists in Chinese universities, etc.
I also agree with Wes that the right way for laypeople to disciple non-Christians is to deal with the people who are around you in your workplace, etc. The thing is, it is much more difficult to build a relationship with non-Christians on the same social rung as you are who you have to work with day in and day out. That’s much harder because you have to live as a public Christian where you are, and let it affect your life more personally. This isn’t flying off somewhere to deal with poor strangers who you will never see again. It’s much easier to fly off somewhere and not to have to deal with people over the long-term. Flyig off to “do good” gives a person the feelings of “being good” and “doing something” but without any of the hard work and persecution of having peers equal to you in social standing seeing you every day bearing with suffering and striving for holiness. Instead of trying to squeeze feelings of goodness out of temporary experiences “helping the poor”, we should be dealing with the smartest and most challenging people in our own lives – family, friends and co-workers. It’s not as emotionally fulfilling and spectacular, but it’s where God has placed us. It’s harder, too.
Secretly sponsoring the PhD studies of an aspiring Christian philosopher, lawyer or scientist would be an excellent use of your money, although it is not as flashy or emotional as helping the poor in Africa. You can’t really tell people back home about your spiritual experiences signing a check to bring in William Lane Craig to debate. You can’t really show impressive pictures of yourself working overtime to keep your job so you have money to support influential Christians like Michele Bachmann or Jennifer Roback Morse. But we have to ask ourselves which is more effective – not which caters to our emotional needs to get attention to force spiritual experiences and to feel good about ourselves.
Why do we go? Why do we really go? If our real aim is to make disciples as we are commanded to, then we will gladly step back and examine the questions raised above (and many will come to the conclusion that short-term, long-distance mission trips are simply not a good idea) but I believe the main reason most Christians go is to satisfy a desire for an emotional experience which they equate with “being close to God”. And therein lies the heart of our dilemma.
In the end, what’s the difference?
When we take vacations, we are expecting experiential reward. We don’t expect to leave a lasting impact on the lands we travel to, and we expect to receive a euphoric high from our experiences. Sadly, most testimonies I hear from short-term missionaries are wholly self-centered (though they are couched in a plethora of “Jesus speak”) with the focus being on the person as opposed to the message and often with little thought as to the lasting impact and cost vs. benefit to the congregation that helped send them.
We have a responsibility to God to think about what we are doing and produce results for him. We need to stop having pictures taken of ourselves hugging children in foreign countries, and to instead think about working hard in school, studying hard things that matter, and saving our money, so we can actually move the ball forward. I know lots of Hollywood celebrities who make a big deal out of supporting animal rights and global warming, but they want nothing to do with chastity, fidelity, marriage, parenting, etc. Christians should not be thinking of Christianity as a fashionable cause that allows them to feel good and be recognized by others. We’re not Hollywood celebrities. We’re supposed to be concerned with truth, not feelings.