Tuesday, March 27, 2012

the problem with the short term lay mission trip


At this link please find an article, which references another article, and ultimately a video which started the whole discussion.  The video has sparked widely diverging opinions.  Unfortunately some of it has sunk to immature accusations.  I myself find nothing particularly hateful about the video.  In fact, I rather enjoyed it.  This is quite regardless of whether I would have done a similar video in the same style.  For it is the central point the gentleman makes that is important, not how he makes it.  That point is not, as some falsely infer, to condemn all who go on these short term "mission" trips; the point, rather, is to attack a certain mindset.  It is a mindset not always found in its fullest, boldest, most consistent form; that is, some are guilty of it in lesser degrees, and some in more degrees, than others.  Nevertheless, it is a faulty sort of spirituality which is, in its essence, all too common today.  I do not blame those guilty of this way of thinking of mission trips (especially the youth) as much as I blame the culture of the modern Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (the LCMS is not alone in this, but is my chief concern here). 

Modern Lutheran church life encourages an unhealthy approach to volunteer work by using language like "mission" and "missionary," which implies that God has actually called and literally sent the youth to do the work they will do for ten days or a fortnight, language which confuses this volunteer work with the ministry of the Gospel.  Missionary work is halieutic in nature; that is, the missionary cannot say that he'd rather be fishing because fishing is precisely what he is doing.  Those who help, in a variety of ways, in these mission fields, are doing valuable work of love, but they are not doing missionary work.

The Church encourages and promotes an unhealthy approach to this work by its tendency to shine a spotlight on it.  In some cases the student volunteers become minor celebrities, and go on virtual speaking tours (like some of the seminarians who led several parish "Bible studies" a few years back to talk about the clean up work they did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina).  Going off to a foreign mission field, if done for the right reasons, used to be a noble way to be forgotten and and to diminish, so that Christ may be promoted (as the holy Forerunner sought to decrease so that Christ may increase).  Today, however, it too easily earns praise and attention, in many cases despite the intentions of the young Lutheran who may have, for his part, done nothing but pure selfless work.  Our Lord tells us, in the sixth chapter of Matthew, to do alms, but to do them in such a way so as not to blow a trumpet, so that the left hand is not even aware of what the right hand is doing. 

The work that is done on these trips is good, helpful, and appreciated.  If it distracts in any way, to any degree, or for whatever motivation, from one's local calling, from the love that can be shared with those God has placed around us, or from the work of Christ for each of us and for His Church, then such has become spiritually harmful to our youth, and to the Church in general, despite how it may feel.  The junior relative of the "mission" trip, I hasten to add, is the "servant event," and thus poses a similar potential for misleading our youth if not handled judiciously and carefully.  Both can easily become modern extensions of the medieval pilgrimage impulse, in which the Christian finds some level of spiritual fulfillment by going off, to a far country.  It is our Lord, let us always keep in mind, who went off to a far country, and spent His inheritance prodigally on us.  Wherever we are in this world is our place of receiving good gifts from Him.

I would ask those offended by the video to watch it again, and try to absorb and meditate upon its message.


Daniel Baker said...

The problem is just as prevalent on this side of the Mississippi. I remember in high school how gimmicky the "mission trip" presentation chapels (led by the male students who went on them) used to be. It always came across as a rite of passage/fun experience. The work being done was venerable, to be sure, but it gave the impression that mission activity is "rewarding" or "fun" - almost trying to sell it to the student body. Christ promises neither; almost the opposite, in fact. And it was anything but discreet, much less hidden from the left hand. Thanks for raising these points, Deacon.

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

Very good point, Daniel. "Fun," "rewarding," "fulfilling," these are false and illusory promises. It is Christ Who is our reward and our portion in this word and the next.

Rev Keith Reeder said...

Well said, Deacon. I'm reminded of an article (or ad?) that ran in the Reporter a few years ago: "Missionaries needed -- no theological training required".