Today's post is by Rev. Lisa Beth White. Rev. White is founder of Sister of Hope Ministries and a United Methodist clergyperson serving in Western North Carolina. This post is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.
What is it about short-term mission trips that so many people go on them over and over again? Are they fulfilling their own individual desires for a spiritual pilgrimage, or is there more to it? Robert Haynes suggests that there has been a shift within UMVIM trips away from mission and toward pilgrimage experience, but I argue that the phenomenon of short-term mission in the UMC is a practice of the faith for lay people that reveals their theological work.
Short Term Mission as Christian Practice
By “practice of the faith” I mean what people do in living out their faith. Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass state that “Christian practices are things people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world.”
Short-term mission is one way that United Methodist lay people seek to address human needs together in response to God’s presence in their own lives and in the lives of others in the world. The decision to participate in the practice of short-term mission is their way of responding to God’s gracious activity in their own lives and one way in which they can embody God’s grace and love for others. In my research with UMVIM participants, the foundation for their decision to go and serve in mission was their conviction that they needed to find a way to show God’s grace to others, whether this work was in their own community or in a community several hours away.
Four Components of Practices
Theologians Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass describe four key components of Christian practices that are helpful in understanding the short-term mission movement. First, practices resist the separation of thinking from acting. This component helps us to understand one reason why it is difficult for lay people to articulate their theological foundations for short-term mission. Short-term mission is often described as love in action. Unless people are asked to discuss their experience in short-term mission and allowed time to engage their own questions, they tend to not separate out the action of being in mission from their thinking about mission.
A second component of Christian practices is that they are social and belong to groups of people across generations. Short-term mission in in the UMC is a group activity. When asked how they first became involved in the practice of short-term mission, people in my research most often say that they had a conversation with a family member or friend. Several people reported that they talked with their teenaged or college student children who invited them to join the next mission trip. Others reported including their grandchildren on mission trips.
A third component of Christian practices is that they are rooted in the past but continually adapting to changing circumstances. This is particularly evident in the case of the practice of short-term mission. The rise of the practice of UMVIM coincides with the rise of increased access to affordable air travel and new ways of communication. Lay people have the ability to be in contact with Christians in other places in the world in ways that were not possible a few decades ago, and they can with ease step outside the traditional guidance of mission boards and agencies. The practice of being in mission has adapted to changed circumstances, but in the case of the UMC the means of providing mission education has not yet adapted to new realities.
A final component of Christian practices is that they “articulate wisdom that is in the keeping of practitioners who do not think of themselves as theologians.” This point became abundantly clear in my research interviews, when nearly every person interviewed dismissed the idea that they had anything to contribute to a theology of mission. The overriding view was that theology was something done at seminaries by trained professionals, and yet according to the United Methodist statement on “Our Theological Task”, the work of theological reflection “requires the participation of all who are in our Church, lay and ordained, because the mission of the Church is to be carried out by everyone who is called to discipleship.”
Practice and Theological Reflection
UMVIM is an important way to discover the wisdom and mission theology of lay people in the UMC. Rather than a pilgrimage experience in which a person seeks a religious experience outside of the home, those practicing short-term mission are seeking to live out their faith and to reflect theologically on God’s work both at home and around the world. Our Theological Task states that United Methodists are to “incorporate the promises and demands of the gospel into their daily lives”, and it is through the experience of a short-term mission trip that challenges and deepens discipleship that practitioners are made more aware of the demands of the gospel in their daily lives wherever they may go.
Dr. Haynes is correct when he states that “theologies shape motivations and motivations shape actions,” and this is essential to understanding short-term mission as a practice of faith and a venue for theological reflection. Theologies inform the things we do as Christians, and the things we do as we live out our faith also inform our theologies. Beliefs shape practice, and practice provides space for deeper understanding of beliefs. Beliefs about how God reaches out in mission to the world shape how and why lay people practice short-term mission, and the experience of short-term mission further shapes how people understand God at work in the world and in their hearts. This is not a one-way path but a cycle of mutual influence.
What has been needed for many years is a sustained focus on mission education for all age groups in the United Methodist church. Although Global Ministries and UMW have published many fine statements and texts on theology of mission, these are not reaching the majority of practitioners of short-term mission in the denomination. It is time for curriculum and teaching methods to adapt so that UMVIM practitioners can access materials and tools for reflection on their experience in mission.
Once we understand the theological foundations of lay practitioners of mission as a source of wisdom within the church, it becomes clear that their experience and theological contributions are important for the church. UMVIM practitioners are people of compassion who seek to show the love of God for a hurting world. At a time when headlines about the United Methodist Church are about deep divisions, UMVIM practitioners quietly go about the work of mission, helping their neighbors near and far.
If they were equipped to speak with confidence about their experiences and their understanding of God at work in the world, they would be a broad witness for the church. Their conversations with friends at home would inspire others to look for the needs in their communities, to find ways to bridge the gaps, and to talk about God’s grace with each other. Here are people who are already witnessing to the love and grace of Christ. Equipping and encouraging this group could provide opportunities for renewal and revitalization.
The church must be in mission. Lay people are finding ways to be in mission because of their faith. It is time to adapt and equip them to continue to be the church, participating in God’s mission in, to, and for the world.