Friday, June 02, 2006

When is a Mission Trip Not a Mission Trip?

I have been troubled for some time over the misuse of the phrase "mission trip". It seems to me, that missions has come to mean virtually anything today that Christians do in service of God and others. So it was with interest that I ran across the following article by Jim Reapsome on page 7 of the Winter 2005 edition (Vol. 17, No. 3) of The Evangelical Missiological Society's "Occasional Bulletin." Read it over and tell me what you think. I think that this veteran missiologist (he served as editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly from 1964-1997 and of World Pulse from 1982-1997) has some significant points to make.

Words matter. They tend to shape our thinking and practice. A proper understanding of what "missions" is will largely determine how we carry out the Great Commission in the years to come.

When is a Mission Trip Not a Mission Trip?

Eight senior adults volunteered to go overseas for two weeks to do some repair and maintenance work at a conference center. The Sunday before their departure they stood with their pastor who prayed for them and commissioned them for their missionary assignment. They completed their work satisfactorily and everyone rejoiced at their safe return.

Their experience was far from unique. Thousands of like-minded U. S. Christians have done similar mission trips. The appeal of this kind of missionary service is widespread, not only for seniors, but also for junior high school students and everyone else in between. We lump them altogether as short-term missionaries.

By so doing, we risk blurring the line between biblical missionary service and works of labor and compassion that every Christian should do as part of his normal Christ honoring lifestyle. Help my neighbor build his deck? Sure. Why not? Take a sick friend to her doctor's appointment? Of course. We do these things in our own communities as a matter of course, but no one calls them missions trips. Why then do we call the same kind of work overseas a mission trip? Because we usually do it for missionaries in a cross cultural context. The flight to Bolivia makes it a mission trip because we left home and loved ones to do some work in a culture radically different from our own.

But are those sufficient reasons to qualify painting, building, digging, and repairing as "mission" work? I don't think so. Such activities are valid expressions of our love and commitment to world missions, but in the strict sense, they do not qualify as missionary work. If they do, then everything we do for someone is missionary work. If everything is missionary work, then nothing is missionary work. Why not call them exactly what they are? Work missions, building and repair missions, housekeeping missions, temporary replacement missions, or whatever. The distinction is vitally important if we are to keep gospel proclamation, evangelism, church planting, and discipleship at the heart of what we are supposed to do.

I heard a devoted man talk for half an hour about how excited he was to be part of a team that had gone to Mexico for a week to put the roof on a church. I listened for some clues about what else they had done by way of ministry. Nothing. They could not speak to anyone. They did not hand out Spanish tracts or Bibles. They did not give their testimonies using interpreters.

Did I deny the value of their work? Not at all. Where they an inspiration to the pastor and his people? Of course. Did they do missionary work? I don't think so. Good work, yes; missionary work, no. Theirs was a work mission, not a mission trip.

I hope that I am not straining gnats and swallowing camels. It's important for sending churches and schools to be clear about what they are doing. Some teams can go to Mexico to put a roof on a church: others can go and do soccer evangelism, literature outreach, camp ministries, children‘s work, and so on-with the proper qualifications and training. The latter, it seems to me, are doing missionary work.

The eight seniors believed they were doing a noble service for the cause of Christ-and they were. The conference center needed and benefited from their skills and hard work. They were sent off with their church's blessing and prayers. However, not one of them thought they were doing missionary work. They did the kind of good deeds required of all believers by Jesus and the apostles. They took a step that more seniors should take-a step out of their U. S. comfort zones for the sake of Christ overseas. They learned more about the people being taught and trained at the conference center. The building was improved and their lives were enriched. Hard workers? Yes. Compassionate Christians? Yes. Missionary work? No. Let's keep the biblical and historic definitions clear, so that no one can think that after building a church roof, or whatever, his or her work has fulfilled the extraordinary dimensions of the Great Commission.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with the article. Without going into a large diatribe, consider this: when a father works to bring in an income in order to provide food on the table, he doesn't do so just for the sake of his wife and children. He also is providing food on the table for HIMSELF. The article takes the arrogant view point that the only people being "provided for" are those for whom the work is being done. That is simply not true.

Glenn Penner said...

I cannot disagree with you more. Missions is not done for selfish reasons. It is always done for the sake of others. This is not arrogance; this is simply the fact of the true nature of missions, itself.