Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pretending to be a Missionary

Pretending to be a Missionary.

The young person is stellar and active. The congregation rejoices in having such a gifted young person in their midst. Years of Sunday school classes, Christmas pageants, Palm Sunday processionals, praise worship services and youth group activities roll by. Graduation from high school is celebrated and the young person is off to a prominent university to study, learn and grow. The young person always reconnects with the congregation during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, and now and again during summer time vacations. The congregation learns of the gifted young person’s graduation from the university with an outstanding degree and a minor course of study in Spanish, or Chinese, or African studies. Soon the letters start arriving at the homes of leading church members. The young person is seeking support so they may spend two weeks or twelve months in a far off, foreign land serving as a missionary. These days such short term mission service is typically connected with some para-church mission organization that specializes in such opportunities for young people. Of course, leading church members who have watched this young person grow up in their church are eager to send $100 to support the cause. One of the active Elders pushes such support even higher and asks the session to support the effort. Soon this young person’s noble journey of discovery serving on a short term mission experience is one of the mission causes of their home congregation. The young person’s photograph standing in the midst of a group of children in some far off land is posted on the church’s bulletin board. Everyone is happy supporting this young person as part of the mission work of the congregation. Indeed, this work is appreciated by all.

I tell this story in a sort of generic sense because I know many Presbyterians can fill in the details. This is a story that can be replicated countless times across the congregations in our church. I can easily tell this same story in a very personal sense about our own son who is now 20 years old. Although his life is on track with purposeful plans and direction, he also loves to pretend to be a missionary. Indeed, the church he grew up in is always eager to support his missionary endeavors. Already he has been to Malawi, to Peru doing evangelism to an unreached people, and this month the letters will be sent out seeking support for his scheduled trip to Uganda where he will be involved with a short-term ministry to children. Let us be clear. Our young people and their short term mission experiences, which we love to support in our churches, are not about mission service. These experiences are about the personal, spiritual and emotional development of these young people whom, indeed, we should support and nurture. These experiences, especially in support of young people we know and love in our own congregations, are important and worthy. But we should not confuse these experiences with mission work. Pretending to be a missionary for a week or a year is not the same thing as long-term, sustained, professional mission service. Within the push and pull for resources within our congregations it would be more correct to name our support for our young people doing mission trips as Christian education, rather that mission work.

Here comes the rub. Especially within our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) our commitment to long term, sustained mission service is suffering because of the redirection of our attention and resources toward supporting short-term mission experiences. Indeed we have taken our eye off the prize when it comes to our church’s mission service. It may be convincingly argued that the greatest legacy and the most important heritage in our American Presbyterian tradition is our world mission work. Presbyterians were at the forefront of the world mission movement 150 years ago, and this work defines our worldview and theological foundations more than anything else. In my opinion, this legacy of world mission is so powerful in our church that it is, itself, the source of the new energy to do mission trips and seek out short term mission experiences. But this energy has exploded in some unhealthy ways. In previous generations of Presbyterians this deep calling to be engaged in world mission was expressed through a robust commitment to recruiting, equipping, and sending out long-term professional missionaries on behalf of the whole church. These career missionaries were the servants of our church serving the larger world. We still have in place through our World Mission office a comprehensive infrastructure to support, equip and send out long term missionaries on our behalf. But we have recently allowed this long term commitment to fall off because of our lack of a mature and deep theological understanding of mission.

An analogy is appropriate here. Within the life of our church we have created a very comprehensive infrastructure of pastoral support and evaluation through the work of each Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry. We have a very sophisticated understanding of the relationship between a pastor and a congregation which we test, discern, evaluate and equip. We do not allow any person in the church, or walking in off the street, to preach in our pulpits, celebrate our sacraments or moderate our session meetings. We have a sophisticated, theologically grounded and a highly functioning polity for sanctioning and supporting the relationship of a pastor and congregation. All of our churches expect this of themselves, of their pastors and of our presbyteries. The Presbyterian Church is very good at this kind of theologically grounded polity. In our churches we are deeply committed to the vision of the called, theologically rooted and equipped pastor whose relationship with a congregation is very carefully discerned and evaluated. We must have the same commitment in our world mission work. For a church that has such high expectations for our pastors, why are we not expecting the same thing of our missionaries? But it seems as if we allow anyone to pretend to be a missionary. Indeed they are often sent out with our blessing and financial support, and quite often a very poor grounding in any theology of mission. Why have we allowed our world mission work to be taken over by our obsession with short-term, unequipped, unconnected enthusiasm which often functions without language and cultural training? This enthusiasm is seldom equipped to understand what God may be doing in and through a different culture.

What should we do?

· Renew our commitment to long-term, sustained, professional missionaries who are trained and equipped by the church and sent out on behalf of the whole church. Support Presbyterian world mission.

· Develop a holistic theology of mission which moves beyond the American arrogance which presumes we can fix the world’s problems, and expects everyone in the world to “do church” just like us.

· Encourage and support our young people in their own spiritual development by encouraging mission trips and experiences in different Christian cultures. But this support must be more than financial. We must provide our young people with a robust Christian education that seeks to discern what God is doing in the world, and especially in people, cultures and churches very different from our own. We must, by word and deed, help our children to be global Christians.

· Do not do it alone. Connect people together, connect churches together and strive to create bridges across cultural divides.