By Rev. Dr. Robert Haynes
From the earliest days of my pastoral service my leaders and mentors encouraged me to lead and develop short-term mission (STM) trips. They assured me that these trips would provide life-changing opportunities for those in my ministries. In addition, the people in the communities we would serve would receive the benefits of medical care, children’s ministry activities, or the construction of a new facility. This seemed like an easy decision to make.
However, few significant, lasting changes were made. The deeper I went into the practice, I began to wonder just who exactly the STM trip was to benefit.
My new book, Consuming Mission, is a product of asking what happens on a STM trip, who serves whom, what are the expectations of STMers on their trip, and what theologies shape and inform their activities.
Written for pastors, mission leaders, seminary students, and professors, Consuming Mission is an illuminating ethnography of current STM participants and is representative of the wide age ranges and demographic backgrounds from which STMers come. Since STM is a grassroots movement, hearing directly from the STM participants to understand their theologies and motivations for service is key to understanding the current practice and how to shape it for the future. It is the product of in-depth interviews with United Methodist STM leaders and practitioners from four different states and four different annual conferences.
A biblical motivation for mission is foundational to Wesleyan Methodist theology. Therefore, I asked team members and team leaders about their biblical motivations for STM.
Surprisingly, this was one of the most difficult questions for participants to answer. Participants often hesitated to answer and apologized for not being more familiar with the Bible when trying to recall a verse or story. Answers to this line of questioning varied and were among the most difficult to elicit during our discussions. Some pointed to verses where Jesus’ followers are command to “go” and to “serve.” Many team members and leaders referenced Scriptural principles that pointed to aid and comfort for the STM participants themselves. However, generally speaking, scriptural references in regard to service in the name of mission were slow to come from the interview participants.
Additionally, none of the teams in the interview pool reported using a cohesive Bible study or mission text to help shape their pre-trip planning or in-country service. Most recalled using Bible verses as a part of the pre-trip meeting devotionals, but these devotionals were but a small part of the meetings, which were usually consumed by logistical planning.
When there is a vacuum of biblical and theological missional training, something will fill that vacuum of motivation. For most STMers, the vacuum was filled by the desire for an “experience.”
Consuming Mission gives an in-depth examination of the role “experience” plays in the American consumer culture and missions. Many economists say that we are living in an “experience economy” which is driven by the high value placed upon things like experiential encounters, vacations, and everyday activities. Consider the high prices commanded at theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios. Diners pay a premium price for meals in restaurants with walls covered in music or movie memorabilia. Tour companies are offering vacations to increasingly exotic places in an effort to satisfy the yearning of their customers who want to top last year’s adventure vacation.
The influence of a desire for an experience is pervasive in the interviews with STMers in Consuming Mission. Such an influence can be seen, for example, in some of the responses when I posed a common question around STM, “Why not just send the money?” Many with whom I spoke rejected the idea for fear of missing out on the “experience” for themselves.
The experience they were seeking for themselves was frequently seen as the chance to grow in their own faith. Many people expected to be influenced by their mission hosts and the perception of a superior faith on the part of those hosts. When talking about their STM activities, participants often describe their time, money, sacrifice, and service, applied in the name of mission, as a way to purchase an experience akin to personal growth commonly sought by pilgrims.
Historically, a pilgrimage is an event when people travel to another place where they understood God to have worked before, could work again, and they expected God to work in their lives while they were there. They expected to come home different than when they left. They expected to be transformed by the experience.
Consuming Mission illustrates that many people are using STM to do just that: to use acts of service, done in the name of mission, for self-edification that functions as a pilgrimage. In STM, the cathedrals and shrines of historical Christian pilgrimage perceived as sites of the miraculous are replaced with what is perceived as substandard housing and malnourished children.
Many ministries have developed STM programs with the primary goal of consuming an experience for the implicit, and sometimes explicit, benefit of the participants. Yet, this is not a motivation for mission service demonstrated in the biblical text nor in Wesleyan theology. Rather, a cruciform attitude towards service, exemplified by Christ and taught in Wesleyan missional theology, displaces self-fulfillment as a motivator for activities done in the name of Christian mission.
To address such issues in this approach to mission, we must move beyond simply trying to correct a few “best practices” and move deeper to their underlying causes. Developing appropriate mission theology is important because theologies shape motivations and motivations shape practices. If we want to make a long-lasting change to the practices, the theologies that shape them must be further developed. Through the careful engagement with biblical mission theology, I point out the ways in which the missio Deishould be the “consuming mission.”
At its best, STM seeks to address many real-world issues. However, STM is failing to realize its potential due to a lack of robust theological reflection by its leaders and participants. The STM movement can, and should, function as an instrument of the missio Dei to strengthen the church around the world. When the practice moves away from pilgrimage towards a more robust practice of mission, it can begin to embrace such possibilities.
I am not suggesting that people stop traveling, stop serving, or stop learning. Quite the opposite. An increased awareness of the work of God around the world can only lead to good things. A life-changing pilgrimage should be applauded. Coming to a deeper understanding of the cultures of other nations leads to a better worldview.
Yet, tensions remain. Deep problems arise when those who participate in practices deemed “mission” do so with the primary aim of bettering themselves or experiencing something new and exciting. Unhealthy practices in the name of mission (e.g. ethnocentrism, paternalism, and developed dependencies) come forth.
Consuming Mission takes steps to confront such traits in STM and calls upon mission leaders to reshape this ubiquitous practice to more faithfully reflect a biblical missional engagement in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition.
Post originally appeared on UM&Global on 06 February 2019.
Dr. Haynes is the Director of Education and Leadership for World Methodist Evangelism and the author of Consuming Mission: Towards a Theology of Short-Term Mission and Pilgrimage. He is an ordained member in The United Methodist Church. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about, or to order, Consuming Mission, visit www.ConsumingMission.com.