In the first post in this series I described the dramatically changing landscape of world missions and began naming nine critical realities facing world missions today. They are ranked in importance, with an accent on implications for the church in the U.S. Following is part two – critical realities #6, #5, and #4.
#6 Tidal shift toward decentralized, short-term U.S. Christian mission
One of the greatest shifts in the U.S. mission field in the last 20 years is congregations organizing their own hands-on experience of short-term overseas mission.
- From an estimated 125,000 in 1989, now every year around 2 million 13-17-year olds in the U.S. go on short-term trips, and nearly 30 percent of them have had such experiences.
- More money is spent by churches in short-term missions than in long-term missions – a figure sociologist Robert Wuthnow estimates at $2.4 billion per year.
Hunter Farrell, former Presbyterian Church (USA) world mission director sees positives in this trend, including more U.S. churchgoers wanting to give of their time and resources to the cause of mission. But Farrell continues:
“One negative result of this tidal shift toward decentralized mission is that it appears that most mission decision-makers are not trained for their work, don’t speak even one foreign language, and are not informed by mission history or advances in intercultural communication, or the body of missiological knowledge—a situation which condemns them to repeat the painful mistakes of the past.”
“Whereas a poorly conceived charity project can be implemented in a matter of days with little reference to the surrounding community, the more complex elements of God’s mission—the evangelism that occurs from the intimate sharing of lives and is facilitated by language and cultural proficiency or the justice work that comes from the deep analysis of the root causes of injustice and the methodical organizing, alliance-building, and campaign planning required for such complex interventions or the years of shared life that the mission of accompaniment entails. These deeper elements of God’s mission require a ‘long obedience in the same direction’ … and not the collapsed time-line of a summer vacation mission project.”
The speed of air travel can create the illusion of cross-cultural speed. But our bodies being on strange ground over time still matters for our transformation and for Christian credibility. When my parents began as missionaries in South Korea, our family spent four consecutive years in Korea before returning to the U.S. for home leave. At the airport an older Korean colleague had some words for my father as he departed. “If you come back, maybe we will begin to listen to you.” The challenge for the rise of short-term missions is whether the terms of cross-cultural Christian wisdom and credibility have changed.
#5 Different take on world mission in a younger generation of U.S. Christians
Let me share two telling vignettes. First, a friend at a major evangelical Christian organization who said, “We send many young people to serve in poor communities. And often they come back more committed to justice but less committed to Jesus.” Second, another friend who teaches a class on missions at a seminary, who said many students in the class question why Christians are even doing missions.
In his book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch expresses the same impression I have: “These days I do not often meet Christians so passionate about evangelism that they question the need for doing justice. I am much more likely to meet Christians so passionate about justice that they question the need for evangelism… In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not.”
In his Christian Century review of the important new book Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World But Changed America, Robert Westbrook speaks of the vibrant twentieth-century mainline missionary project which collapsed internally due to returning missionaries “who attacked the paternalist presumptions of missionary preaching, expressed deep respect for the cultures and religions of the non-Western world, and placed humanitarian service above evangelization.” While certain critiques were certainly needed, a problem resulted: “Ecumenical Protestants found it increasingly difficult thereafter … to say what exactly Christianity brought to the missionary table that could not be found just as well in secular humanitarianism.”
The complexities held within that description transfer well to a younger generation of Americans engaged in global service today. Over the next 20 years they will have a dramatic impact on U.S.-based mission in the world.
#4 Marginalized Minorities
While for the first time white Christians are a minority in the U.S., and while numbers of ethnic minority Christians in the U.S. are growing, U.S. Christian international mission agencies are not reflecting this growth in diversity.
Anecdotal experience suggests this is not as true in U.S.-based ministries. Attend the annual Christian Community Development Association conference, and the room of 3,000-plus people is filled with people of color. Throughout the U.S. ethnic minorities are deeply involved in a wide range of local ministry. But attend any Lausanne Movement conference and it is difficult to find ethnic-minority Americans. There is a distressing lack of data on U.S. ethnic minority staff working in major Christian agencies like World Vision, Compassion International, World Relief, and International Justice Mission. My own 5-year experience with the Mennonite Central Committee is awareness of only a handful of ethnic-minority American staff serving on the international field.
Ten to fifteen years ago important books like Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity (2008) and Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2000) did critical work analyzing problems facing white Christian agencies on U.S. ground. It is time for similar research on the international Christian mission field.