Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dependence and Missions... A Good Thing?

If you are involved with short-term missions, one of the issues you will deal with is dependance.

American short-term participants worry that we may be creating a system when we serve “over there” whereby the national, or other church, will come to depend on us.

For some reason we are troubled by that. Frankly, I’ve always thought that was the way it should be. The church over there should depend on us, because that church is part of the body of Christ to which we all belong. Sounds like straight Pauline teaching to me.

I have been reading "Experiences in Theology, Ways and Forms of Christian Theology" by Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann is one of the great theologians of the 20th Century and worked alongside Hans Küng, also of Germany for many years.

In his chapter on Latin American Liberation Theology, he talks a little economics. He states that “the theory of economic dependance says that between equally strong economic entities, independencies [independence] develop[s], but between entities of unequal strength, dependencies will develop."

Let’s think about that.

What he is saying is that when there is not equality economically, dependence will be the natural result.

But what about in a ministry context? Can we apply the same principle to ministry, and relationships? Maybe we can.

Let me explain, and as I do, know that I will be using my broad brush.

Typically, when US churches go to other countries to serve, someone in the group gets an invitation to preach in the host church. One of the reasons for this is a heartfelt need to be good hosts to those who have travelled many miles to serve.

But it can also be more than that. There is a genuine belief that it is good for God’s people to hear other voices from the pulpit, so getting a chance to learn how someone else comes to a text can be a real blessing. Or it just may be that the local pastor wants a break from preaching.

Whatever the reason, the sight of Americans preaching in foreign lands is a frequent sight.

This reality was brought home to me recently in a conversation I had with Paul Borthwick, noted short-term missiologist. He said that in his travels, he too has seen this many times. Paul however, went one step further. He asked why, when people from the churches “over there” visit our churches, they are not accorded the same honor.

What a great question for us to consider.

I asked a mission pastor at a large Atlanta church if a pastor from one of their partner churches was to visit his church, would he be offered the opportunity to preach. Looking shocked, he said of course not, his pastor was famous and was not going to be opening up his pulpit to just anyone!

This leads to another issue raised by a pastor with whom I work in Mexico. He wanted to know why when an American church invites people from a Mexican church to visit, it is expected that the Senior Pastor will come for that visit. Yet it is very unlikely that the American Senior Pastor will be visiting the mission sites where his church regularly serves.

These examples bring me back to Moltmann’s economic point, which I will now try to relate to ministry.

Do we perceive, when we go to other countries, that those typically small churches are just as valuable to the Kingdom as ours? Do our words and deeds in our dealings with those churches give witness to a belief that their church is on equal footing with ours?

If not, could it be that there is within the relationship a belief, however subtle, that the American church, her pastors, her methods, her theology, and even her money, are just a little better?

If so, then using Moltmann’s point, perhaps the reason we see dependance in short-term mission has less to do with them, and more to do with us. If we see the relationship as unequal, and behave in a way that perpetuates that inequality, even unknowingly, can there be any result other than dependence?

I stated that I want the church “over there” to depend on us. I also want us to depend on them, in a symbiotic interdependent relationship where each of our churches tries to live out Paul’s teachings in Corinthians 12 together, as the body of Christ. One hundred percent dependent on the other.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

When Short-Term Mission Gets Messy

You’ve bought your airline tickets and you’ve been reading up on where you’re going. You have been earnestly praying, and now you’re ready to get on the plane. After a long flight you finally arrive at your destination, only to find that everything is not as you had planned, or expected.

Close, but no cigar.

You were told there would be hot water, and now it is only cold. You were promised a real bed only to find out that all you are getting is a couple of cushions on the floor instead of that the plush platform you were dreaming about.

Perhaps the expected bus for your transportation turned out to be an overcrowded jeepney, or you learned late in the game that your favorite {insert country name here} food was not going to be on the menu.

And now you’re upset. You’re wondering why everything was not as you expected, ready when you got there, or all prepared for your arrival. You sent your money, so what’s the problem?

If there is one area where short-term mission frustrates participants this is it. We expect our hosts, whether they are American, or nationals, to have control of every aspect of our short-term mission experiences.

From the moment many of us are picked up at the airport until we are safely back home in the arms of loved ones, it is as if the primary job of the local missionaries is to be focused on our welfare, often at the expense of the local congregation.

Let me give you an example.

I recently hosted a team of men in the southern Mexico State of Oaxaca. On our last day of scheduled work, the area where we were serving experienced a huge rainstorm. Apart from the rain, our local hosts were late getting back to take care of the men because they were with our other team of doctors serving in another area and were overwhelmed with patients. They wanted to stay as late as possible to care for those who needed help.

As a result of that rainstorm, we lost a day of work, had to change our transportation plan, and got soaked to the bone. We then ended up eating a haphazard dinner late in the evening standing around in a dismayed group. Definitely not a picture of organization

I bring all of this up because when you serve with others, in their churches, in other countries, to be effective, you must cede a share of control. And when you cede that control, things like efficiency and order, at least as we see them, sometimes seem to go out the window.

The problem for many of us from the United States is that we struggle with this. Not being in control, and submitting to the leadership of people from other countries can be incredibly difficult. Especially when decisions are made that differ from the ones we might have made. Yet, if we are to serve with the attitude that Paul calls us to in Philippians, that of humble submission, considering others better than ourselves, what choice do we have?

Are the decisions locals make always the ones we would choose? No. Are they ones that will always be the best at that moment? Again, no. But, they just may be the best decisions for the long term health of the ministry, and the relationship between the local body and the visiting short-term team.

That day in Oaxaca was a frustrating day not only for the American team, but for the locals as well. They knew the day had ended badly. The local pastor, with whom I have worked for almost ten years said this was one of the toughest days he had ever experienced in ministry.

It was a day that was beyond our control. As I believe all short-term mission should be. Because I believe if we are to serve alongside foreign ministries, ultimate control of the mission must rest with locals, not with us.

And sometimes that can be messy.