Unexpected Global Lessons
In 2007 the Christian Vision Project asked, What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world? CVP editorial director Andy Crouch has been exploring this question with mission leaders not just in the pages of Christianity Today and its sister magazines, but with the help of a documentary film crew, producing a curriculum on short-term missions that will be released in October 2008. Here he describes what some churches are learning, and unlearning, as they rethink the meaning of mission trips.
A few years ago I was in a church service where a team of energetic young adults was reporting on their short-term international mission trip. Like most such groups, this one had plenty of cross-cultural experiences to report. "The food was so spicy," one wide-eyed young woman said, drawing laughter from the congregation. "It was terribly hot and humidwe had such a hard time getting to sleep," another team member said. Amid much hilarity, the team leader described their consternation when they arrived at a remote village only to discover that the Christians there were expecting them to lead a worship serviceon the spot.
They had been stretched, they said, way beyond their "comfort zones." They had also returned full of praise for God and love for one another and their new brothers and sisters. "We received so much more than we gave," one team member said. All wonderful, true sentiments that I had heard dozens of times from returning short-term missionaries.
The only difference was that I was in Nairobi, Kenya, every member of the team had been born and raised in Africa, and they had just returned from India.
That morning I had to unlearn several of my ideas about global mission. That this short-term team even existed (as part of their church's partnership with several churches in India) was dramatic evidence of the "multidirectional" nature of mission in the 21st century. The travelers' testimonies reminded me that North Americans are not the only ones making pilgrimages of mission around the world.
But the African students' report on the difficulties of serving cross-culturally also challenged a subtle assumption of mine: that crossing cultures was somehow uniquely difficult for Westerners. To be sure, these Africans had grown up in a society where tribal identities still shape daily life, and most of them spoke at least one language alongside Englishso they were well ahead of most white American Christians in their cross-cultural awareness. Also, they would have arrived in India with none of the assumed privilege (and potential resentment) that clings to many Western visitors to a former colonial outpost. Still, in many ways crossing borders was as unfamiliar and difficult for them as it was, and is, for me.
If you define "mission" as crossing cultural boundaries for the sake of the gospel, the global church is engaged in mission on a scale that would have been unimaginable to previous Christian generations. Ever since the journeys of Paul and his friends, missionaries have hitched rides on the infrastructures of commerce and military power. What is different today is the sheer scale and speed of human mobility.
Travel and telecommunications have become less expensive and more efficient by several orders of magnitude. Globalized economies reward and demand travel. Millions buy one-way tickets to new lands with hopes of better lives, but an increasingly affluent slice of the world's population can afford to travel round trip. Likewise, Christian mission's center of gravity is shifting from the few who set off for a far country with no plans to return, to the many whose return tickets are tucked safely inside their knapsacks.