They say distance makes the heart grow fonder and I think it’s the same with the needs of the world. You see, there’s something about distance that seems to simplify problems. The unpleasant details are less distinguishable 10000 kilometres away. The sewage in the streets doesn’t smell from here, their cultural ‘baggage’ is easily overlooked and that complex political issue surely has a simple solution they just can’t see. In mission we call this ‘romanticization,’ and it’s a problem.
When it comes to cross-cultural mission there’s one phrase that surfaces over and over: “Let’s change the world!” The seductive allure of this phrase is intoxicating. Who doesn’t love the idea that we might bring much-needed peace, love and prosperity to some distant place? Oh the glory! The prestige! We’ll be heroes! Or will we?
AN EXAMPLE FROM YOUR BACKYARD
It was in the aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch that I become keenly aware of the concept of misdirected empathy. My wife and I became responsible for handling the overwhelming response from a particular global mission community. Emails flooded in from individuals and mission teams around the world, many insisting on sending teams to “help with recovery.” While this was initially a beautiful and heart-felt gesture, it quickly became evident that the sentiment was out of alignment with the need.
In the early stages of response and recovery there were plenty of basic, manual labour needs, shovelling liquefaction chief among them. This is the kind of thing you can hurl unskilled bodies at with some sense of accomplishment. As the recovery progressed the needs changed, and we became stumped on how to help connect well-meaning yet generally unskilled short-term workers to practical needs. The simple jobs had been completed and the needs moved into the category of skilled labourers, grief and trauma counsellors and a handful of activists – jobs that couldn’t be filled by short-term volunteers.
These situations highlighted the great need for mission teams to not just be willing and available, but also keenly aware of the local context and needs, and able to contribute valuable skills and expertise. Not only that, but quite often the solution to even the most fundamental of situations requires years of faithful and dedicated commitment – something short-term teams can’t offer. Rome wasn’t built in a day and, likewise, change takes time, effort and faithful presence.
Just as the needs in Christchurch were specific, detailed and complex, so is the nature of all brokenness in our world. Whether its poverty, human trafficking or child abuse, our response must start with compassion and understanding, then move to commitment and action. There is no quickfix when it comes to the work of the Kingdom.
So next time we look across the sea and start feeling our hearts flutter for a specific glossy issue, let’s stop and ask ourselves a few questions.Have I taken the time to properly understand the situation? Have I spoken with locals to learn about the complex nuances of the problem? Am I willing to make a long-term commitment to this place or issue? What skills are required to address this need? What are some of the possible unintended consequences of my intervention?
And while you’re asking questions, consider your own community. Has the seductive nature of exotic problems paralysed you to the hard work of bringing life, light and change to your own world – the one in which you live, work and play? Until we can learn to live the mission of Jesus in our own local context we may want to put our romantic dreams of crosscultural heroism aside. Change must start with us, right where we are, before it can spread to the rest of the world.
Originally from America, Noah, Kate and their daughter live in Christchurch where they support grass-roots missional engagement here and around the world. (Image by Terry Philpott.)
For discussion Why do we have a tendency to see distant problems through simplistic lenses?
Whether you’re going on a short-term trip or not, is there a local issue your group could get involved with? Or have you considered a ‘short-term trip’ within your own country or city?
Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of the Intermission magazine will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. To signup to receive the Intermission in the post, email email@example.com. Intermission articles can also be found online at nzcms.org.nz/intermission.