Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lisa Beth White: Reading the complexity of short term mission in Together Towards Life

Today's post is by regular contributor Rev. Lisa Beth White, doctoral student at Boston University School of Theology.

In a previous post here on UM & Global, the question was raised about U.S. Christians helping to solve problems they have helped to cause.  This is a question that deserves some thought and consideration.  Although the article mentions the work of UMCOR, I believe the question also points to the complexity of short term mission.

United Methodist short term mission participants are often deeply committed to living out their faith and to showing the love of neighbor in tangible ways.  Revealing that the ways in which our U.S. culture and habits of consumption contribute to the very problems our short term mission work seeks to solve is difficult for short term mission participants.  Volunteers who spend their vacation time and money in service have very little training in the complexities of cross-cultural encounters or in critical theological reflection.  Critiques such as “solving problems you have helped to cause” can sound personal and far harsher than intended.

The critique points to structural sin, in which we as individuals benefit from economic, political or social systems in which others are trapped in cycles of poverty.  The Social Creed found in the United Methodist Book of Discipline (2012) can be used as a starting point for revealing the ways in which our individual actions function in structural sin and systems of oppression, but this statement alone is nearly 40 pages long and quite complex.  Short term mission team training often does not include the time needed for engaging such a lengthy document with critical theological reflection on one’s own practice of mission.

The World Council of Churches document Together Towards Life begins to articulate another complexity found in short term mission as well.  In paragraph 76 it states that “increasingly popular short-term ‘mission trips’ can help to build partnerships between churches in different parts of the world but in some cases place an intolerable burden on poor local churches or disregard the existing churches altogether”.  Short term mission has the potential to build relationships between Christians across borders in ways that were not possible before the availability of air travel, the internet and smart phones.

However, as indicated above, short term mission practiced without engaging structures of sin and oppression carry the potential of simply reinforcing boundaries between Christians.  When short term mission is conducted in ways that diminish the agency of host churches – or at worst, disregards the local churches where short term mission teams travel – then the practice of short term mission serves to benefit those who travel rather those who receive.  In this way, the purpose of short term mission is subverted, and can no longer be considered mission.

However, the short term mission participants that I have encountered in my research would be surprised and mortified to learn that their mission work contributed to a problem rather than solving it.  I see in this complex problem of short term mission the possibility of living more fully into the Together Towards Life call to “live out the faith and hope of the community of God’s people” (paragraph 78).  U.S. short term mission participants express their desire to be faithful to Christ in their short term mission work.  Many use the terminology of being the “hands and feet of Christ” to people who need help.

Together Towards Life states that “[t]hrough service the church participates in God’s mission, following the way of its Servant Lord” (paragraph 78).  The challenge is to help short term mission participants learn how to manifest “the power of service over the power of domination” through learning their own participation in those structures of domination.  Short term mission trips have the potential for education and transformation of U.S. Christians, but only if time and attention are given to thoughtful and careful revelation of the ways in which we contribute to the problems we seek to solve.

International short term mission has potential for both the power of service and the power of domination.  I believe that U.S. short term mission participants desire to live into the potential of building relationships and partnerships.  They have the capacity to critically reflect on their participation in God’s mission.

Church leadership can walk with short term mission participants through the hard work of revealing structures and systems of oppression, reflecting theologically on their mission work, and examining whether they are truly working with host churches to build partnerships.  In this way, short term mission can address the critique of “solving problems they helped to cause” and at the same time meet the challenge to “find ways of exercising spiritual gifts which build up the whole church in every part” (Together Towards Life, paragraph 76).

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