Let’s imagine I rang up my local builder, telling him about a team of youth coming to NZ from Asia to build houses. He’d have a few questions: Why are they coming? They’re moved by the Auckland housing crisis. Are they qualified tradespeople? Nope. Do they have any building skills? Not that I know of. How long are they coming for? Just two weeks to knock up a few houses and then leave… Oh, and they’ve asked if we can provide a 12-seater van, accommodation and food. Plus a trip up the Sky Tower.
Why’s that sound bizarre? Because there’s no such thing as a ‘short-term builder,’ or a ‘short-term dentist,’ or a ‘short-term counsellor.’ We know those are skills that take years to develop, skills you don’t magically acquire by jumping on a plane for a 2 week trip. Yet, we often act as if the only requirement for someone on a short-term team is that they like the idea of going on a trip! And what’s worse: these trips seem to be shaping the way many of us understand this thing we call mission.
'Short-term mission trips' have become more and more centre stage of churches’ involvement in ‘mission.’ That’s not bad in and of itself, but what if these short-term trips are forming our understanding of what mission is? If mission can be ‘short’ and a ‘trip,’ and these words are how we often talk about mission, it shouldn’t surprise us when it becomes the way we start thinking about the totality of mission.
In fact, experts in a variety of areas show how the language we use shapes our culture – it shapes how we understand the world and how we live. That means common phrases like ‘short-term mission trip’ – rather than God’s word – end up shaping our understanding of anything to do with mission! Mission becomes something with a start date… and an end date. It’s something you can finish. It’s something you do for a while during a special season of your life, and then set aside when you return to ‘normal life.’
I’m not saying short-term trips are invalid. It’s just they need to be understood as a very small part of a MUCH bigger picture. It’s like showing a microscopic image of a flower and saying it’s a garden. Not untrue, but not the whole story. It’s not that mission-trips aren’t mission, but what’s the big picture? What’s the ‘garden of mission’ of which these trips are a part?
THE BIGGER QUESTIONS
Perhaps we need to ask other hard questions about the ways we use the word ‘mission.’ How often do our sermons or Bible studies focus on the theme of mission? Should mission be an ‘optional track’ at most Bible colleges? Why are churches needing to have ‘mission-Sundays’? And dare I ask: why do we have to commit to a ‘Decade of Mission’? Does the need for such things show us something about how we view mission: that it’s an optional extra, not something central for the life of each and every follower of Jesus?
Alan Hirsch comments that to say ‘missional church’ is like saying ‘female woman.’ The phrase ‘missional church’ shouldn’t exist, because we should all know that central to following Jesus is following him in his mission! But here we are, needing to awkwardly remind ourselves that to be Christian – to be the church – is to be missional. This all means that ‘short-term mission’ has to happen within a much larger conversation about mission.
SHORT-TERM MISSION TRIPS: A PATHWAY?
Alongside this question of the ‘big-picture,’ we need to consider the pathways we’re creating. If short-term trips are a key pathway to get people engaged in God’s overarching mission, we need to ask: a pathway to what? One of the ongoing struggles for ‘short-termers’ is knowing what engagement in NZ looks like for them post-trip. Can we be bold enough to dream of it being more than a 5-minute power-point slideshow on a Sunday morning? What about a local mission project? What about a longer discipleship programme that includes (but doesn’t only consist of!) an overseas Encounter?
Let’s be a people committed to the Bigness of God’s mission and pursue all things mission with equal passion: short and long term, global and local, ministry and workplace, discipleship and evangelism and social action. Let’s make sure the way we talk about short-term mission is communicating a holistic understanding and practice of mission.
Take time to carefully consider the question: what is God’s big-picture mission revealed throughout the Bible?
Have we been distracted by our ‘flowers’ and forgotten the ‘garden’?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Intermission articles can also be found online at nzcms.org.nz/intermission.
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