I’m a big fan of missions.
I spent a good chunk of my childhood in Liberia, West Africa, as a missionary kid.
I went on several short-term missions trips as a teen, and see no need to apologize for the “wasted resources” such life-changing experiences are sometimes accused of squandering.
I still see refrigerator magnets featuring my impossibly-smiley face with startling regularity (anyone who was raised on fund-raised funds knows what I am talking about).
I am, all in all, a huge fan of cross-cultural engagement, the redemption of cultures, and actively participating in creating an international, multi-cultural gumbo where all the flavors mix and mingle, offering up a delicious aroma that is pleasing to God. I believe that there is something very God-honoring in choosing to live our lives in community with people who seem very different than us, whether they’re on the other side of the tracks, or the other side of the world.
But international missions, short-term and long-term, has its downsides, too. And oftentimes, the things that make it so great are the things that make it so–well–complicated.
And the biggest issue, as I see it, is our perception of “otherness.”
International missionaries are, by definition, going into a culture where they are “other.”
Their speech is different.
Their customs are different.
They may look different.
They eat different food, wear different clothes, read different books, and listen to different music. And even if they don’t, everyone still knows they are–well–different.
So they cut them a little slack.
Not all the time, of course. Sometimes missionaries are treated badly, frozen out, or are victims of discrimination or violence.
But they’re not expected to be “normal.”
There’s a certain freedom that comes with that. In a person’s native culture, they are expected to understand and live by the culture’s social rules–rules that generally don’t have much room for religious zeal and bold evangelistic efforts. Breaking those rules can result in deep, stinging rejection from the people whose approval we most desire.
But when we go to another culture, we are not expected to adhere strictly to their social expectations. A commitment to evangelism may be the least-weird thing about us. Rejection may not cut quite as deep. And the fact that we come from somewhere else makes us intriguing in our own right, providing us with an interested audience.
Who doesn’t love an accent?
I think this is especially prevalent in short-term mission trips. While career missionaries work hard to balance their cultural identities, and have a long-term commitment to the culture they are serving, people who are spending a couple weeks or months in a country don’t have time to even think about assimilating. While they want to do good, and may fall desperately in love with the people, the country, and the culture, the here-today-gone-tomorrow-ness of short-term missions keeps the relational stakes low, no matter how many tears are shed upon departure.
It’s easier to risk awkward conversations when you know the relationship has an expiration date.
But it shouldn’t be. If anything, shouldn’t we be more desperate to share Christ with the people who are closest to us, the ones God has placed us in long-term relationships with?
Here’s why I bring this up. If you’ve ever been on a short-term missions trip, you’ve probably noticed how much easier it is to share the gospel when you’re part of a committed group of Christ-followers, far from your normal turf.
But aren’t we called to do the same thing, right where we live? To meet with others committed to following Jesus, encouraging one another in our walks, and sharing Jesus with the people around us who aren’t living for him?
If we’re willing to do things on short-term missions trips that we’re not willing to do in our own backyard, something is seriously off–either with the way we live “elsewhere,” or the way we live at home.
So what needs to change to make us more consistent?
How can we share more fearlessly? With more cultural sensitivity?
How can we serve more wholeheartedly?
How can we love more unreservedly?
How can we live more fully for God and others, wherever we find ourselves?