By Steven Norris
At the heart of following the teachings of Jesus is a deep commitment to missions. In Matthew, the final words of Jesus include this command: “Go and make disciples of all nations…” (28:19). In Luke’s account, we read: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere…” (Acts 1:8)
As a working missiologist (one who studies missions), my experience is that the church is in dire need of rethinking the way that we join the missio dei (the mission of God) in the world. Take, for example, a partnership between an American church and a church in Central America. The American church took numerous short-term trips and noticed that one of the big needs was a new church building.
They raised funds, planned a trip, and traveled overseas, where they constructed a simple church building of concrete walls and a tin roof. The American team did the vast majority of work and handed the keys over as they left for home. Everything seemed great until a hurricane came through that community and the Americans received an email saying, “The roof of your church blew off. We need you to send a team to come down and fix it.”
The problem was that the church in that village had been given little input in the design or construction of the church. Even though the intent was to hand over ownership to the people, there was a strong sense that this church belonged to the Americans that paid for it and built it.
Much of our missionary endeavors suffer from a deep connection to the colonialism of the past 300-400 years. Even in modern times, many well-meaning churches and para-church organizations take a paternalistic approach to aid. We often step into situations believing that, since we have more material resources, we also have answers for the problems of those poorer communities around the world. Our “help” can do more harm than good.
Add to this an entire industry of “missional tourism” — the mixing of philanthropy, evangelism, and a desire to travel and see the world — and the Church is left with a significant amount of soul-searching to do. What are our motivations for missional activity? Guilt? Pity? Adventure? Love?
There are many great resources out there to help us begin to rethink the ways that we engage missions. The work of the Chalmers Center (chalmers.org) has been very informative for our congregation, as well as the writings of Robert Lupton (Toxic Charity and Charity Detox, among others).
Over the next few weeks, I would like to share a few stories from the numerous trips I’ve taken and led in more than twenty years of ministry. Each one of them has brought unique takeaways that have transformed the way that I think about and engage in missional activity in our community and around the world.
Being engaged in missions is not optional for the church that follows the teachings of Jesus. The manner in which we do so, however, may be the difference between being “good news” and merely being full of “good intentions.”