What is Mission? II

Or, Why the Short-Term Mission “Trip” Needs To Cease—Forever
January 9, 2019

Is it time to call the youth group and let them know that their summer travel is abandoned? Is it time to cancel those reservations and let the parishioners know that their money is lost? Maybe.

For many, “mission” will mean local charitable outreach and support of overseas projects and partnerships. Such concern for international and cross-cultural mission may well eventually lead to short-term mission “trips.” Because of the vision of the previous article (“What is Mission? [I]”) this reflection will argue that the language and framing of “trips” may well stand in the way of healthy thought and practice on Christian mission.

The work of Brian M. Howell, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience provides a particularly helpful study and shapes the present argument.

A short-term mission “trip” is a response to a missional crisis. Given the brutality of two world wars a crisis of mission confidence was evident within the churches of the global North and within the churches and partners that received “charity” from the North. Missionary vocations fell and eventually the short-term missionary rose up.

By the 1960s the phrase, “Short Term Mission” was in wide usage and viewed as useful in recruiting agents for “real” missionary work. This would eventually change so that those involved in these “trips” would be seen and would see themselves as “missionaries.” Today the idea and practice of short-term mission “trips” are well embedded in the psyche of many believers from most church traditions. Indeed, in 2008 the number of U.S Americans over the age of eighteen taking part in international mission “trips” was estimated at 1.6 million people a year (Howell, 27, see 71-81).

Often, those involved in short-term mission “trips” are at pains to prove that it is real mission. The most common way to do this is through the adoption of a preconceived way of telling the story of the “trip.” Those who go on short-term mission “trips” often speak of responding to God’s call, employing gifts, serving others and sharing the Gospel. The “trip” is real mission because it appeals to vocation, service, partnership, and evangelism. The preconceived and (often implicitly) learned narrative framework is vital to proving the missiological potency of the “trip.” Such a narrative form does not only provide a way of talking about the “trip” but often shapes the experience of the “trip” itself. Before going on the “trip” the participant will have received categories to frame the experience. They will already know there will be disturbing experiences, that sacrifices will be made, that life will be changed, that what is really important will be seen, that unity across cultural and linguistic boundaries will be discovered, and that God will be at work. The problem of the “trip” is that these well established expectations often displace the opportunity that might, in other circumstances, allow participants to engage with poverty, inequality, and cultural difference. The personalized narrative of the short-term mission “trip” precludes larger and more important theological, historical, structural, and cultural analysis. Instead of facing the issues of power relations historically, culturally,

economically and structurally the “trip” is one framed within a trajectory of one-way personal growth from call to transformation (Howell, 21-24, 129-137).

This kind of short-term mission “trip” needs to be disbanded now. For in the effort to make it mission the danger is that it becomes less than mission. It needs to die because in the very effort to make the “trip” mission, the “trip” through its narrative frame, may very well preclude participation in the mission of God. In sum, three responses are needed to the short-term mission “trip” as a reaction to crises, as a one way personalized experience, and as narrative framed experience.

First, in place of a short-termism as reaction to crises we need a focus on relationship over project. The relationship to mission too often prompted by the “trip” model is one between individuals and individual projects independent of deeper and relational engagement with, for example, theological, historical, cultural and power issues. This works needs to begin before any cross-cultural encounter as preparation and as the first step from “trips” to a model that discerns the mission of God. That discernment is reflection on cross-cultural encounter through the lens not of project but relationship. If relationships are prioritized, the ongoing work of integration emerges. For participants will not construct a cross-cultural encounter as one mission among a plurality of “missions” but seek integration of such encounters as a means of deeper participation in the one mission of God. Cross-cultural encounters are not, then, discrete events but are integrated into the ongoing formation of believers.

Second, in place of a preconceived narrative framework, we need emphasis and teaching on what we mean by the mission of God. This I began to lay out in the previous article not least by underlining the danger of an overemphasis on the agency of humans in any teaching on Christian mission. The “trip” model framing a “mission experience” in terms of individual development embeds such an overemphasis. The remedy to a pre-scripted “trip” is robust work and reflection on mission as the work of God.

Third, in place of an individualized (therapeutic?) experience we need an understanding of the mission of God that is shaped by the person and work of Christ. For the mission of God, instead of being centered on the therapeutic development of individuals through individual agency, is God’s work in Christ in re-creating creatures and creation. That is to say, a stress on the mission of God is not to speak in abstractions or generalizations. It is to speak of the Gospel of Christ and the defining function of Jesus for mission and for participating in mission.

Robert S. Heaney Ph.D, D.Phil, is Director of the Center for Anglican Communion Studies, Virginia Theological Seminary.

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