Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Mission Trips, Who Needs them? Not my child

I must admit that one of my favorite things to do is to make controversial statements that really get people mad. I must also admit that I especially like to do this when I feel I am right about something and wish to really show people how wrong they are. I also admit that I sometimes have to eat my words. I will also admit to never having been accused of having a great deal of subtlety or tact. I have, or so it seems a rather broad streak of the Curmudgeon in me. In fact, I sort of like being a curmudgeon and sincerely believe that the Church needs more curmudgeons. Since I know of no official job description for the office of Church Curmudgeon I am going to, in this instance, take up the mantle and proclaim myself an official curmudgeon. Do not misunderstand, the Church does not need people who are a curmudgeon about everything but rather people that are willing to point out areas within our Christian lives, both private and corporate that need improving. These people may need to take rather unpopular or strange stands to help bring about reform, repentance or rededication in the Church and in individuals. Also, as befits a true curmudgeon, I believe I am right, completely and totally right and that most other people are wrong. Therefore, if I sound like I am riding a bit of a spiritual high horse, well I am, it comes with the job of curmudgeon. As an official curmudgeon I am going to ask what I hope will be relevant, revealing and spiritually convicting rhetorical questions about something that has been bothering me for quite a long time. But because I am operating in my capacity as a Curmudgeon, I am not going to waste words being overly nice in a misguided attempt to not offend anybody. I am not going to beat around the bush either. I am going to attempt to hit you verbally between the eyes as hard as I can with as heavy an object as I can find. I am going to state my case as forcefully and bluntly as possible and not worry whether anyone agrees. I want everyone who is considering engaging in this sin to hear a clear call to repentance

But, before I give you my cause and what I, as a curmudgeon think, should be done about it I feel that I should enlighten you as to my qualifications for being a curmudgeon on this topic. I am a US citizen that lives abroad. My wife is not an American and I live in Asia because it is her home. I doubt very much if I will ever live in the US again. While I work for a Christian organization, I did not come to Hong Kong to be employed by that organization, I came here to live where my wife is comfortable thereby fulfilling the Biblical injunction that a husband is to "leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife". I am not a missionary and never have been. However, because I live in a city (Hong Kong) with a large missionary population and work for a Christian organization I know a lot of missionaries. Thus, by default I have become an observer of my own land, my own culture and my own religion from a distance and through the eyes of one who has intimate knowledge both his own and another culture. What all of this means is that I am something of a voluntary "Phillip Knowland": a man without a country. Actually, that is not true. In many ways, I am an ex-American; I am simply now a person who lives in Hong Kong, a non-Chinese Hong Konger. But in any case, I feel that I am in a unique position to observe attitudes and practices that many North American and European Christians demonstrate while engaging in "Mission Trips" or "short-term" missions in Hong Kong and that I believe are not only hurtful to the eventual evangelization of China but also sinful. I also assume that because these things are done here that they are done through out the world. (Though it is possible that all the incompetent short-term missionaries come here.) I believe this so strongly that I think it would be better for many "lay Missionaries" to stay at home. That leads me to a question that any self-respecting curmudgeon must ask himself, "Who needs mission trips?"

I realize that saying that mission trips for high school students and short term missions by adult lay Missionaries do more harm than good is tantamount to saying that our children should spend their time playing broom hockey with the devil. However, I have had to put up with uppity mission trip kids and arrogant, holier-than-thou lay missionaries for years. The least you can do is to hear me out before you excommunicate me.

Why, I ask with rhetorical drama, do people go on short-term missions? What do our kids really do on mission trips? Well, in the past few years the school I work for has had a group of lay missionaries fly all the way from the US to build wooden shelves for my library. I've also seen a group of college freshmen arrive to spend five weeks doing unspecified "ministry" work in seven different Asian countries. I see other people that come to Hong Kong to supposedly evangelize school kids by "teaching" conversational English for two weeks. (I've never met anybody converted by this sort-term activity.) I've met people that come here with a suitcase full of Bibles that they are planning to smuggle across the border into the non-SAR portion of China. One of these had bought the Bibles in Taiwan, which uses a different set of Chinese characters, and are effectively a foreign language to the average person in China. (In addition to the fact that it is illegal to distribute anything printed in Taiwan in the PRC but Bibles can bought at any book store in the PRC!!!) Other short-term missionaries I have met wanted to "fellowship" with the "pure" Christians of the underground church in China. For the most part, what I see is a group of people coming here to, in my opinion, embellish their spiritual ego by going home after three weeks and saying "Oh, isn't God so good! What a blessing to go help those poor unfortunate heathen who can't speak good English, wear funny clothes and eat food that would turn a normal person's stomach." You may think that I am exaggerating a bit (I do not) but even if I am the point is still valid. Given the very real cultural and economic differences that exist between the US and all third world countries it is IMPOSSIBLE or at least very, very, very hard for non-trained personnel to go to a foreign country and to do any kind of meaningful evangelistic work in three weeks. Pardon me for sounding crass and unspiritual but it appears to me that some people have adventure vacations by bungee jumping off the side of volcanoes or bridges others go white-water rafting; still others do eco-touring in the jungles of South America; Christians do mission trips.

Now, to be fair, I have also seen professionals come here and train local Christians how to produce radio or television programs and conduct needed training for local pastors and do many other things to aid in the spread of the Gospel in China. However, I believe that these are the exceptions that prove the rule. I also have a great deal of respect for most of the professional missionaries that I have met here many of whom are my friends. But, there needs to be a clear line drawn between a professional missionary or a professional doing a professional activity and a fumbling, untrained, culturally insensitive do-gooder.

Let me use an example of what I mean from another field. If someone became concerned about the level of health care being provided by the local hospital they might go and volunteer in their local hospital. They could visit children as a candy striper, perhaps work in the laundry or kitchen, and maybe clean the floors or bathrooms. But, would the hospital put them in the emergency room as a physician's assistant? Would they be able to volunteer as a surgeon? My guess is not unless they had the requisite training. Would it make any difference if they were volunteering in a Christian hospital? No. Would you, as a patient want an untrained medical worker administering medication to you? Would it make any difference if they were really sincere and felt a strong calling from God to be a short-term health-care worker and had diligently saved $1000.00 to come to work there?

Well, what is more important, a person's body or a person's soul? Why then do we allow untrained people to go into short-term missions? Especially when often times, as missionaries have told me, short-term workers end up hindering the furtherance of the evangelization process in that mission field? One has told me that the only type of short-term missionary she needs in her family is someone to come and do her laundry and clean her house so she and her husband would have more time to actually perform their duties as missionaries. Any takers on that one?

Let me get personal; a group of short-term missionaries came this past summer and built shelving for the library at the school where I am a librarian. They were good people. I have no problem with them as people. I am not questioning their salvation, theology or personal lives. However, I would like to question their calling as short-term missionaries. Here is why. This was a team of about five people. They each probably raised a little over US$1000.00 dollars to pay for their flight in and out of Hong Kong. They stayed in the apartment of a teacher for three weeks. During that time they really did do a lot of maintenance around our buildings. We were and should have been grateful. However, suppose, just for the sake of argument, they had each taken that US$1000.00+ and donated it to the school. We could have hired a handyman for nearly 12 months at an above average rate of pay in Hong Kong. Which would have done more for the school? Just as importantly which would have done more to lift the lives of at least one Hong Kong family out of poverty? Also, would the fact that each of these people had contributed $1000.00 to the school keep them from being able to do needed carpentry work for the needy in their community? No. As a curmudgeon, I must ask: would they have furthered the advancement of God's kingdom more by staying home and sending the school money? I think so, I really do.

I have also seen a drama group perform for our students. They were performing a skit that used breakfast cereal. This missionary drama team changed the breakfast cereal to rice because they did not think that students in a school that uses an American Curriculum where most of the students, though Chinese, were born in the US would know what Corn Flakes were. Yeah, my daughter rides home on a water buffalo and we just pretend it is a bus. Don't get me wrong; I am not saying that it is not worthwhile for college students to want to be missionaries. I am saying you can't do the seven-countries-in-five-weeks thing. You also cannot perform meaningful missionary activity when you do not understand the culture you are ministering to. This kind of trip is not in my opinion a missionary activity it is a sanctified vacation. I am sure that the participants go home with good memories and a warm fuzzy feeling of having ministered to the lost. The question is why do we have to travel 12 time zones away to do that? Is there no place near their home where Christian service is needed? If you want to travel and see far-way places then do so. Yes, behave like a Christian just do not try to sanctify your vacation as something holy.

Whatever happened to the idea of the great commission? You know "But you shall receive power --- Ability, efficiency and might---- when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the ends ---- the very bounds---- of the earth." Act 1:8 (Amplified version)

Each of us has our Jerusalem. Are we witnesses there? It appears to me that Christians are more concerned about the lost at the “ends of the Earth�, than they are about the lost at the “ends of the street�. Could it be that it is easier to come to Hong Kong where nobody knows you and to witness to people that do not know what great hypocrites we are? Yes, it is and I believe that this is why Jesus told us to start at home first. We need to become bold witnesses to those closest to us because they see us for what we are and thus we are forced examine our lives so that our entire body becomes a witness. How much sin would we expunge from our life if we took seriously the idea of evangelizing our neighbors through our lifestyle? How many more evangelistic words could we speak if our personal lives did not betray our hypocrisy?

Oh, I know another why we don't send our kids away for two years to third world countries; it might make our kids late for college and that might keep them from getting a good job. Or, they might actually decide to live a consistent Christian life. How horrible to forgo our sanctified vacations and end up really serving the poor and lost by doing the will of God effectively. What would happen next? Do you suppose our children might ask us about our tithing? I could go on about the fact that what the Church in the third world really needs is not more short-term missionaries but rather more of the outrageous amount of wealth that American Christians WASTE each year. For example: I have been told that American women spend more on cosmetics each year than the combined Gross National Product of all the countries on the continent of Africa minus South Africa each year combined. Suppose our wives, mothers and daughters bought a few fewer paint rollers and a little less paint and suppose that money went to feed the poor? Suppose our husbands, fathers and sons bought a few less golf clubs, fishing rods and SUV’s? Suppose that money was spent on building houses for the homeless? Suppose Christians really believed that every time we feed the hungry, clothed the naked, and housed the destitute we were doing the same for Christ? Would our concept of what a short-term missionary is change as well? You bet it would.

But we have strayed. This is not a gripe about materialism in the church as worthwhile as that topic might be, but about the useless nature of mission trips. So, more to the point, suppose the youth in your church didn't do a mission trip this summer? Instead of a mission trip suppose they worked full-time at the local grocery store, fast food outlet and gave 75% of the income they earned to a charity or better yet to full-time professional missionaries. Suppose when their non-Christian friends asked them "What happened to all the money you earned this summer? Like where is your new car, man? Why don't you have a really cool new pair of over engineered, outrageously expensive, fashionably ugly, make your feet look like you just arrived from another planet populated by color-blind space aliens, running shoes to show off?" What if our children were able to answer: "I fed the hungry, clothed the naked and gave comfort to the poor and contributed to the evangelism of the lost. I did this because Jesus commands us to love those less fortunate than me. Because you know, there are some thing's more important than being able to have new car or wearing the latest sneakers." What a powerful witness! Somehow I think most of us would rather have Christianized adventure vacation. It is easier to stoke our spirituality than to really sacrifice for the gospel. I also think that it is easier to ask Christian acquaintances for cash for a mission trip than to work all summer and give the earnings to charity. Not to mention a mission trip is more glamorous.

Suppose instead of flying to Hong Kong to paint and do carpentry work for my school, the short-term team had driven across town and painted the house of an elderly couple. Suppose they had spent time repairing a church in the poor section of their hometown? Suppose instead of flying to nine-countries in five weeks the drama team donated money to buy textbooks for a seminary in Thailand? Which is going to have a greater impact for the gospel? I believe that people, unless they are professional missionaries, should start evangelizing from their "Jerusalem" which is their family, their neighborhood, their town, and their nation.

The roar of anger from many of those reading this has already reached me. “But, but, but, I went on a mission trip and God worked in my life and I learned so much and came to know God’s will for my life and saw so much and it was soooooo helpful to my spiritual life, how can you say it was sinful?� I can say it because, Biblically speaking, your personal spiritual growth is not the point of missions. Paul, Silas, Barnabas, Peter, Phillip and any of the other apostles who were the first missionaries did not engage in missions to become better Christians. They engaged in missions to further the cause of Christ. This is not to say that missionaries do not gain spiritually from the work they do. Just that Christians are supposed to grow spiritually whether they are missionaries or not. If you are not growing spiritually a mission trip probably will not help even if you feel better for doing it. Missionaries are not more spiritual than other Christians or if they are it is only because they are more obedient to the will of God. If you need to go on a mission trip to enhance your spirituality then perhaps you need to look at why your normal spiritual life is so dry.

Do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not saying that we should send fewer missionaries. In fact, I'm saying just the opposite, but the missionaries we send should be adequately trained and have knowledge of their cultural deficiencies. If you do not think you will have problems adjusting and ministering to people in another culture then think again. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of previous generations when western missionaries, as Jean Fritz talks about in her Newberry Award winning book "Homesick" spent time teaching Chinese women American manners.

How different from how the early church that sent out its first missionaries, Paul and Barnabas. Not only were they both mature Christians but Paul was trained as a Rabbi. Even John Mark was called to be a long-term missionary! He was supposed to be there for the whole trip and not go home early. The fact that he did not do this caused a great deal of contention between the early missionaries. Paul, Barnabas, Luke and the others were qualified professionals. Granted Peter and John and that bunch started out as untrained working class mono-cultural smucks but they received three-years of intense, personal discipleship training from God, face to face!

To be quite blunt, even the cults know how it is important for missionaries to be able to develop an understanding of the culture in which they work. That is one reason why the Mormons send their youth out for TWO YEARS. (I know this because I asked a Mormon.) What an absolute crying shame it is that cultic groups like the Mormons are better at sending short-term missionaries who are better able to develop cultural sensitivity than orthodox Christians! Is it really any wonder that Mormons often times seem to get better results? Maybe the reason that cults appear to do a better job of evangelism is not “the power of Satan working in opposition to the Gospel� but that the cults take the time needed to understand the cultures they are working in. Who should have a higher level of respect for cultures cults or Christians? Christians! Who acts like they do cults or Christians? Cults!

If we want our children to be short-term missionaries' maybe we should enroll them in a two-year program. Alternately we could spend more time evangelizing Mormons and then let them develop our missionary training programs. After all, most Mormons are Americans, so most North American Christians should have a pretty good handle on the culture that Mormons live in. Excuse me I forgot, American Christians listen only to “Gospel Radio, Christian music, watch only Christian TV programs and don’t generally mix with non-Christians maybe North American Christians really do not understand the culture where they live. But, again I digress and that is another area where the curmudgeon in me may speak up later.

So, in the end I still have to ask "Mission Trips, who needs them?" Well my answer, as a curmudgeon, is that if we continue to send out untrained, immature Christians with limited cultural understanding of the places they are visiting, do not allow them to stay long enough to gain the skills and knowledge they need to minister to the local population and have them do jobs that could be done more thoroughly by giving the cost of the airfare to groups already in this area then maybe nobody. Well at least nobody that I have met.

But, not to despair! If you think that God is calling you into a short-term mission then I suggest you answer the following questions that constitute the: Official Curmudgeon’s Practical Guide to Mission Trip Readiness Quiz.

1. Are you being asked to come by a person or group already in that location because you have special skills of a professional, technical, educational or theological nature that they need temporary help with? Yes = 50 No = 0
2. Are you engaged in local missionary activity in your local community?
Yes = 1 No = -100
3. Do you speak the local language of where you are going, or do you speak the language of the person or group you will be working for?
(If you answered no to question #1 omit the “group you will be working for part of this question).
Yes = 5 No = -50
4. Can you name at least five things about the culture you are going to that are different from yours, which are not widely known?
Yes = 5 No = -5
5. You do not think that people who wash their hair less than once a day or who take less than 6 to 10 baths or showers a week are “gross, filthy, dirty or smell bad�?
Yes = 5 No = -5
6. Have you ever had close personal contact for a period of months with a person from the culture you are going to?
Yes = 1 No = 0
7. Can you name at least three major differences between the most common religion in the area you are going to and Christianity? (They do not believe in Jesus does not count.)
Yes = 5 No = 0
8. Are you comfortable with radically different table manner than those in your family? (For example, would share a meal with people who ate off banana leaves and used their fingers as both serving spoons eating utensils?)
Yes = 1 No = 0
9. Are you willing to do laundry or clean house or other mundane or boring things that let full time missionaries do their jobs better?
Yes = 1 No = 0
10. Have you ever used an outdoor toilet that had been used by many other people (A chemical toilet or “Port-a-potty does not count, think Out-house.)
Yes = 1 No = 0
11. Would you use an out door toilet if it smelled really bad?
Yes = 2 No = 0
12. You are not squeamish when confronted with bad smells or when viewing dead animals are you?
Yes = 5 No = -5
10 Do you understand why each of the questions above might be relevant to short-term missions in many places?
Yes = 3 No = - 50

If you scored 20 or more on these questions you are probably ready to be a short-term missionary in at least one other culture. If not stay home.


Anonymous said...

An excellent article and a good warning to think of the effect of our choices on others. I will give a copy for their edification to my Baptist Pastor, to my son who is also a Baptist Pastor, and to another son who taught speaking English for a school year in China. (he didn't do too bad with the culture as he was able to get three of his students saved without getting caught even though they watched him continually. They were dying to catch him at something so that they could justify not paying him his full salary.) May the Lord bless your efforts for him in Hong Kong.

Fai Mao said...

Thank you for the kind words.

Your son is not exactly who I'm taking verbal pot-shots at. If he was there with a group like ELIC or one of the other mission agencies.

The issue with me is the independant types who have no understanding of the culture.

Where was your son stationed in China?