The Joke of Modern American Missions—too harsh?
Mission trip season is upon us. The American church presently dispatches tens of thousands of church attenders around the globe to build homes, clean up garbage, hand out water bottles, maybe play with some little black kids, and possibly tell a few folks about Jesus. The American mission trip has become quite the cottage industry. Don’t forget your motivational t-shirt. You’ll need it at church next weekend as evidence of your commitment. Regrettably, Jesus would have no idea what we were doing.
I find no biblical mandate for the modern American ‘mission’ trip. If you’ve been in church more than a day, you know what I’m talking about. Assemble a team of well-meaning church members, often youth, dispatch them to somewhere, the more down-trodden the better, perform acts of service, sprinkle in some Jesus, and return with a story.
I’ll caveat that missions for a specific purpose possess merit. Dr. David Sills runs the Reaching and Teaching International Ministry that dispatches teachers to foreign countries to train local pastors and teachers in the ministry of the word. Often, the first believer in an area is designated the pastor though he may possess less biblical knowledge than your typical VBS student. Dr. Sills’ organization executes these missions very effectively. There are others.
I think of my own church’s relationship with Heart of Christ Ministries in Caja de Agua, Lima, Peru. Our church sponsors many of their children and sent numerous teams to teach and interact with the children they sponsor. We have an enduring relationship with the man on the ground, TJ Lindsey. Two years ago, our folks funded a new roof for his church building. Every day, hundreds Peruvian children get taught the life-changing truth of Jesus Christ beneath this roof. I wonder if the roof might be more valuable than all our trips combined.
Not that these trips are bad, they just aren’t best. They are not the biblical model though they accomplish good and do no harm…perhaps. My fear is that modern western ‘missions’ reinforce two dangerous assertions, particularly with our youth, that do damage to the actual mission:
1. Missions is a part-time activity.
“Now entering the mission field”—this is the sign that greets departing attenders at my parent’s church. Spot on. The Methodists get some things correct!
If I am “on mission”, the unfortunate implication is that I can somehow be “off mission” and we see exactly this. We’ll marshal a few motivated or coerced teenagers, dispatch them to another location for a few days of moderate labor under the guise of a well-intentioned youth worker, and return full of fire and passion. Two days later and the teenagers are right back smoking weed with their hands upon one another. Why not, they’re off mission.
It’s not as if God saves for no reason. Paul tells us that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand.” (Ephesians 2:10) God calls every believer to a mission, to good works that He ordained from before the foundations of the Universe. Peter affirms the priesthood of the believer, that all believers are part of the “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5) The priesthood of every believer is a core Christian doctrine.
Our primary place of mission is wherever we happen to be. We are to use the gifts God granted us (1 Peter 4:10) right where we are. (1 Corinthians 7:20) This is our mission.
Why do I need to leave the state to tell someone about Jesus? Have I taught my children?
Why do I need to go to a foreign country? Have I ministered to my neighbors?
Modern western ‘missions’ reinforce the notion that missions is something we do, rather than a life we live. As such, an American believer will spend thousands of dollars to travel to a distant land for a few short days when next door, maybe in his own home, live those who are desperate and infinitely more available to hear about Christ, to see faith lived.
2. Grace is cheap.
Christ calls the believer to “deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me [Christ].” (Luke 9:23) I’ve heard this preached many ways. Your cross is your mother-in-law, or your job, or your something, whatever it is in your life that makes you unhappy. In the 1st century context, there is no question as to what Jesus was referring. He literally meant, take up your cross, as in, be prepared for crucifixion: death, martyrdom, suffering. Indeed, this was the fate of a countless multitude as the rapidly expanding church was watered well by the blood of the martyrs.
Jesus calls us to sacrifice, to give of ourselves willingly up to and including our lives if necessary. Jesus calls the believer to hold nothing back, to find all that he needs in Him, forsaking all things of the world.
How many in the western church truly sacrifice on behalf of the name? American ‘missions’ affords the believer the opportunity to dabble in Kingdom work while still maintaining an appropriate lifestyle. America possesses the resources to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The reason we don’t…is that we don’t.
That would involve sacrifice. Few Americans willingly sacrifice, and I’m talking about true sacrifice, for the mission. For the sake of transparency, I have no less than five flat-screen televisions in my home and we by no means live a lavish lifestyle.
We have trained a generation of American church attenders that they can straddle the fence. They can have it both ways. I don’t have to adjust my lifestyle and for a small fee, easily affordable if we’re honest, I can get in the game for a few plays. Never mind that it’s garbage time of a meaningless regular season match-up. I never had to pay the price that so many pay to get into the real game.
God bless the men and women who say, “Here am I, send me,” (Isaiah 6) and then respond in obedience when issued the call to a faraway land. Certainly God has dispatched many to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth. I just don’t think they say, “Here am I, send me…for no more than a week.”
If God is calling you to a sort-term mission trip, by all means go. I pray that the Lord would use you in a mighty way, but ask some questions. Is there a long term strategy? What does this accomplish? Would we be better served in sending instead money to the man on the ground? What missionary or local pastor or local worker couldn’t use an extra $10k, instead of using it to fly in a group of well-wishers only to have them disappear just as quickly as they arrived?
I’ve been there. Ami and I led teams of youth to the mountains of West Virginia and the plains of Kansas, to do some work and proclaim Christ and Him crucified, some. Yet, I always wondered, “to what end?” Did any resident of Greensburg notice the ten teenagers moving a little debris and sweeping a bit. Amid the destruction of their very existence, did it even matter? I’ve reassured myself that the teenagers were affected, seeds were planted, but which seeds? The little bit of dirt on the student’s hands washed right off.
The Bible presents a more sobering take on missions:
- Disciple your children, maybe adopt, filling your quiver for the battle. (Psalm 127)
- Plant churches and send/support church planters. (Acts 13-28)
- Send money. (Acts 11:29-30)
Throngs of Millennials flee the Church and perhaps it is due to the pervasive frivolity. ‘Missions’ relegates the Church to little more than a competing social activity. It imposes no demands nor does it satiate the deepest cravings of the regenerate heart. True believers, indwelled of the Holy Spirit, desire to be useful but find no vindication in shallow overtures to a broken world.
Meanwhile, the Enemy plays for blood while the western church plays tiddlywinks.
Philosophically, this strategy guarantees an uncommitted force and in the face of increasing persecution, a dwindling force. My prayer is that the Church would come to terms with the stakes and quit making a game of the faith. Lives hang in the balance.
Author - Founder
Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).
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