Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
A day ago, a friend of mine, Rev. Jeremy Smith, shared on his Facebook page the following interaction with someone:
"Recently I had a conversation with a man who used to be a missions director for an independent church. He left his position over disagreement over the mission of the church. He said to me: 'My church no longer does mission trips, they send people on pilgrimages. We used to do mission trips for communal transformation. Now we do pilgrimages for individual transformation. We will end up with more self-aware people who have had their mountaintop experiences, but at the expense of fewer valleys filled in with service and mission.'"
Rev. Smith then posed these questions about that interaction: "Is this true? Are people choosing to go on pilgrimages instead of missions? And what does that mean for our mission identity if more churches do?"
I'd like to share an expanded version of my response to this interaction and the questions that Rev. Smith poses about it.
I want to address this scenario from the Wesleyan premise that the point of Christianity (including both works of piety, which might include pilgrimage, and works of mercy, which might include short-term mission trips) is to help people grow
in holiness, and by this term is meant love for God and for other humans.
Furthermore, I think it is an important Wesleyan assumption that growing in love of other humans cannot be accomplished without interacting with actual other people. It is impossible to grow in love of others in an entirely abstract way. Real love must be embodied. I have been convinced by Dr. David Field that this is the best understanding of John Wesley's oft-cited comment about "social holiness" and "social religion."
Given these Wesleyan premises, there are lots of reasons we could critique short term mission trips as commonly practiced as embodying a deficient understanding of love or failing to actually help those going on them to grow in love of the Other.
Books such as When Helping Hurts have pointed out how short-term mission trips often actually end up harming instead of helping those with less financial resources, especially when conducted in ways that objectify, stereotype, demean, or force into dependency those on the "receiving" end of mission. Obviously, this is a problematic understanding of love.
Furthermore, recent research has shown that there are often no long-term religious or theological effects to the experience of going on a short-term mission trip for the Americans and especially American youth that participate. This would suggest a failure of short-term missions as a way to grow in love and therefore holiness.
But I think there are also many reasons to question whether replacing short-term mission trips with pilgrimages
does any more to help people grow in love of others and in particular others who are different from them.
Especially when those pilgrimages are focused on "individual transformation," it is likely that they are merely reinforcing a Western individualism that has problematic interactions with the gospel and replicating current capitalist focus on experiences as a trendy form of personal consumption.
While I don't know exactly what type of pilgrimages the person talking to Rev. Smith was referencing, it is likely that these pilgrimages occur in cultural contexts other than the church's home context. Yet the notion of pilgrimage for the sake of "individual transformation" does not seem to me to lend itself to extensive interaction with locals for the sake of increasing one's understanding of them and growing in love for and compassion towards them. I could be wrong, but I also know the stereotypes of how Americans behave while tourists, and it's easy for pilgrimage to become a form of religious tourism that objectifies, stereotypes, and demeans those in host countries.
Certainly, it's possible that people can form close relationships with other pilgrims and that these relationships can be mutually transformative (the movie The Way is a nice depiction of this), but that's still usually best accomplished by opening oneself up to strangers, not traveling with a group of your friends and acquaintances. Thus, I'm not convinced that sending church groups on pilgrimages is actually a good way to help church members grow in love for others.
Growth in love of God is perhaps an even more important part of growing in holiness, and some might counter that such pilgrimages are about exactly that. Yet it is worth noting that most of the works of piety Wesley commended as means to grow in the love of God still had a communal bent to them - taking communion as part of corporate worship and group study of the Bible, for instance. Thus, as Wesleyans, we should be leery of the notion that focusing on one's self should be a primary means to grow closer to God. Pilgrimage may produce a "mountain-top experience," but does that experience translate into a closer walk with God when back down on the plain?
I think better than either short term mission or pilgrimage is to ask how we as Christian communities may go about forging relationships with others who are different from us so that we may all mutually better understand the good news of God's universal love for us and others and come to more fully embody that love in our own lives.
It is possible to do short-term mission trips or pilgrimages in a way that foregrounds such relationship-building and mutuality. But there are also other good models of what this sort of international travel and connection can look like. A model like the work of Sister Parish that focuses on solidarity, mutual understanding, and mutual learning is one such example. But whatever model a church chooses, it is important to think theologically about the purpose of the trip.