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Rethinking foreign missions

The other night I was reading through my old journal from a few years ago, specifically the entries from a missions trip my sister and I went on. In the summer of ’05, we joined a group of college kids on a trip to Southeast Asia to share Christ and teach English to middle schoolers.

Reading those pages brought back a flood of memories of the weird juxtapositions that defined that trip for me. Being so far from home had me alternating between barely-contained excitement and acute homesickness. The landscape was simultaneously beautiful and ugly; from a single vantage point you could see a lush green mountainside and a stream of sewage running down the street. Being surrounded by a language I didn’t understand was exhilarating at times and unbelievably frustrating at others. Most significant though, was the juxtaposition I saw in the local followers of Christ: unshakable joy in hard circumstances.

Seeing Christianity lived out in such a different (read: difficult and dangerous) context had an effect on me. How humbling it was to realize how easy I had it, that I didn’t have to worry about the government breaking into my house and arresting me, or doing worse, for being a Christian. That I didn’t have to live in constant fear for my family’s safety, that I had everything I needed (and then some) to live a comfortable life. And yet, despite their hardships, those Asian believers probably had the most sincere faith and love for Jesus that I’ve ever seen. I took stock of their simple joy and contentment in knowing Jesus, realizing then I had more to learn from them than I had to teach. Truth be told, I think that trip benefited me more than the people we came to serve.

But isn’t the point of going on a missions trip to help those in need, not learn something for yourself?

About a year after the trip, I read a book by K.P. Yohannan, the founder of a wonderful organization called Gospel for Asia, in which he discusses how the foreign mission field has changed over the past half-century. His book is essentially a defense of the native missionary movement, stating that since the Gospel has now been planted by Westerners in many of the world’s most remote cultures, the time has come to mobilize native missionaries to spread the Gospel to their own people. He recounts the effectiveness that natives in his home country of India have in reaching their people, compared with short term Western missionaries who aren’t familiar with the language or culture.

Upon reading this, a lot of things about my trip became clear. I kept remembering a particular day when we read a condensed “Creation to the Cross” story to our class of 7th graders with the help of a native Christian woman. As she translated the story into the local language, I noticed that she had a connection with the kids that I didn’t have. She spoke their dialect, ate their food, knew what music they liked, shared their life experiences. After reading K.P.’s book, it all began to make sense.

It seems that there’s an emerging shift in the way Western Christians are thinking about short term missions, which is really exciting to me. I came across a thought-provoking article the other day (by way of another great article) that resonated with what I had experienced in Asia: that short term missions trips usually benefit those who go more than the people already there, and that we North American Christians have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in the third world.

Rather than regurgitate the ideas presented in those two articles, I’ll wrap things up with an excerpt from one, in hopes that if you’re a Christian with a heart for foreign missions, you’ll read them both. It’ll be worth it, I promise!

I believe North American Christians need to start taking seriously our responsibility to the  people of the third world – and visiting another country can be an appropriate place to begin. But we need to ask each other: What is the purpose of the trip? Are we going through the motions of helping the poor so we can congratulate ourselves afterwards? Or are we seeking to understand the lives of third world people – to recognize and support their strengths and to try to understand the problems they face and our role in them? Are we ethnocentrically treating the people of the third world as tragic objects to be rescued – or as equals to walk with and learn from?

– Jo Ann Van Engen, “Short Term Missions: Are They Worth the Cost?”

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Filed under: Books, Current issues, Faith, Travel,

2 Responses

  1. msatheeshkumar says:

    Trip to South-East Asia??? May I know the country you visited then??? Bcoz the poor standards of living you mentioned are closely related to my home country,India. The people here are still struggling for food.Well, on the bright side the world is flying sky high. What our people need is Love and Empathy from the administrators and fellow citizens. I’m very much happy to see people like you….despite being a foreigner caring for fellow humans.Its Excellent…

  2. msatheeshkumar says:

    Oh I see….it wud be a secret. But its horrible to hear that Government of a nation doesn’t allow christianity. Definitely it’ll not be India because India is a secular country and here all religions are accepted.And no such restrictions.Infact, I like the religious principles of christianity. Social service and Love towards fellow individuals is what I like most in Christians.

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