[This also appears at jacobsbrook.wordpress.com]
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:22-23)
I just returned from a week with a mission team in Alaska. In 2014 we sent four teams to work with Alaskan Natives on Prince of Wales Island. These are short-term mission teams. The first was to complete the doors on a carving shed we built last year. The second and third were to harvest food for distribution by the church to the villages. The fourth team is there now to provide a free dental clinic. A final fifth team will arrive in September to participate in the building of a Bell Tower in the village of Klawock. Each team has a very specific mission. Each team is there at the invitation of the people of Southeast Alaska – the villages, our missionaries serving there full-time and the church.
We build our mission deployments around three guiding principles:
- We will only go where we have been invited and with a specific scope for how we will serve.
- We serve the vision of the national church and the missionaries serving full-time in the field. We seek every opportunity to bless them. We will be an encouragement and never a burden.
- We will celebrate every interaction with indigenous people as an opportunity to represent our host church/missionaries in love and in unity with one another.
It is not unusual to encounter people who challenge the effectiveness of short-term missions. They have seen, heard or experienced mission tourism; personal growth trips that fly under the banner of missions and claim to help poor and needy people. The American “missionaries” are told they are going to save people who are helpless to help themselves. In American individualist fashion, the trip is more about a personal experience than any lasting witness. It might be thought fairly harmless and even educational except that such tourism treats the indigenous people little different than wildlife in a safari, exploiting and objectifying them. Such mission teams are a burden to the missionaries. Or worse, they are recurring business models that depend upon the continuing desperate conditions in order to provide the experience the well-meaning American is paying for.
Yes, mission tourism exists, but it fails to capture the true heart of mission. And it cannot nullify the value of short-term missions that are focused on genuine serving. Like Paul’s time in Rome, there needs to be recognition of the strength of the collective effort of indigenous church and foreign missionaries. It is an opportunity to demonstrate a unity of love that will be fruitful as much in the testimony of love as in the actual service performed.
“For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (Romans 1:11-12)
The most powerful witness of the church is our love for one another, demonstrated by unity and mutual submission in serving the common good. That is encouraging. That is witness.