Mission is humility, learning and partnership

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a bit of time at an event put on by a team from the US. It was a fascinating experience on lots of levels, the team and I come from very different cultures and styles of church and yet we are all guests in a third culture.

The team set out to do some good things. Leading sessions to encourage and develop pastors and lead some evangelistic evening celebration events. They shared the messages they believed the Holy Spirit prompted them to deliver and people responded. In many ways you might consider it a success but dig a bit deeper and things are not so clear cut. So here are a few comments and observations based on their visit and others that I’ve seen.

  1. It’s not just our words that communicate. After the end of the morning sessions the team retreated to their hotel and air conditioning, while the rest of us stayed and ate lunch together. Are we not good enough for you? Is our food not acceptable to you? Don’t you think we too are also sweaty and hot?
  2. Our words don’t communicate what we think they do. For example an illustration and personal story involving significant highly skilled medical intervention doesn’t communicate the grace of God so much as you are a rich foreigner who can pay for it.
  3. Power and money talk loudly. When you tell the local people to respond to the message and come to the front, but invite those of us who were also foreigners to respond if we wanted to; you were unwittingly acknowledging power differentials. The locals did as they were told, out of respect rather than as a “real move of the spirit”. Likewise people who benefit from your financial gifts feel they have to play along to keep receiving your support.
  4. Just because you work with someone local doesn’t mean you are working in partnership, especially if helping you is how they earn a living because it is their job to ensure you feel you were a success and that your continued financial involvement is necessary. Try to work with a local team.
  5. You come to teach but not to listen and learn. As a result you bring ‘answers’ but they are not to the ‘questions’ people here are asking. It’s like bringing a mac instruction book to an android developer’s conference.
  6. Taking lots of close up photos of people being prayed for, videos of people responding suggest that this is more for the supporters back home than the folk here. Not only does it make people feel used but taken out of context the photos might give an entirely false picture of what happened here (of success, of numbers, of the impact you made).

I’m aware that I have been guilty of all of these things and I’m sure I continue to do things that are inappropriate. But let me suggest three keys to doing this better.

  • We do not come with answers; we come to share (it’s a relationship), to give (what we have) and receive (what they have); we come as visitors to another culture.
  • Self-awareness. Money, power and control are key aspects of the way western churches often do mission. That’s not going to change tomorrow so let’s at least try to be responsible with it. Let’s share, serve and support.
  • We can all learn something about mission before we come and keep learning while we are here. We can learn from the critiques of short term mission so we don’t fall into all the traps; we can think about the issues in ‘When helping hurts’ or other books about poverty and development. We are not in the cultural export business (no matter how brilliant we think ours is) but we come to join in with what God is doing here.
  • If we want to work in a silo by ourselves we should STAY AT HOME. We should come to work alongside others (both local churches and other missions). Not just doing it our way but working in partnership and working for God’s glory not our own. Jesus came to love and to serve – be like Jesus – after all we come to share him.

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