Many churches of all denominations send their people, usually young people (but not always), on “mission trips” to work and witness in a different culture from their own.
Often (but not always) such one- to two-week excursions aim at a place far from home perceived to be “needy” in some sense.
The church people go in vans, for example, pulling trailers loaded down with the mission trippers’ clothes and sleeping bags and “goodies” for the needy people they will live and work among.
Or they go in buses or planes – depending on how far away the “site” is.
Often the “site” is somewhere “up North” if the church is in the deep South; often the “site” is “down South” if the church is in the North.
Often the “site” is Mexico (rarely Canada) – if the church is in the U.S. Some go as far as Asia, Africa or South America.
The usual stated purpose of the mission trip is to carry out “Christian witness” either by some kind of preaching (for example, holding Vacation Bible School for the site’s children) or some kind of social work (for example, fixing up buildings badly in need of repair or doing some kind of medical care).
Often the purpose is both evangelism and social work. Then, when the mission trippers return to their church, they talk about their missionary work to their fellow congregants.
There are whole companies that organize these mission trips for churches. For many churches, these events have become routine and even in some sense sacramental.
But some “real missionaries” have begun in recent years to raise certain objections to them.
They say, for example, that these trips really amount to a kind of “evangelistic tourism.” Some have even condemned them as a kind of cultural voyeurism.
In the eyes of some long-term pastors and missionaries who actually live among the people and strive to be part of their culture (and maybe are that), the mission trippers often have little to no understanding of the people they visit on the mission trip.
In other words, they just “drop in” and “drop out” without becoming deeply embedded in the people’s lives.
Some critics of these mission trips say they are more for the trippers than for the people they visit. A few critics of these mission trips actually claim they do more harm than good.
Without wading into that debate, please allow me to depict what I think a church might do instead of sending their people on a classical one- or two-week mission trip. Here’s an alternative scenario of an entirely different kind of mission trip:
Imagine a church that really wants all their people to know a group of Christians from an entirely different culture, American or not. (There are many cultures within the United States.) And their goal is real transformation – of themselves.
What if they paid for a group of 25 to 50 people from another part of the U.S. or from another country altogether to visit them?
They host them in their own homes, worship with them, let them lead the worship, as they would in their own cultural and religious context; listen to them talk about their view of the host church, its denomination, its cultural environment; ask them to point out areas of the host church’s total way of doing things that might need reconsideration and change; and generally receive from them “witness” and “social work.”
In other words, “mission tripping in reverse.”
What would be the advantages of this? The whole congregation would get to benefit directly rather than only indirectly through the mission trippers’ after the mission trip reports.
What benefit? They would get to meet and, hopefully, be challenged by the others – people of different cultural contexts – showing them what it’s like to be different.
The church members would be on the receiving end of the evangelism and social work. It might, hopefully it would, shatter some of their settled ways of looking at the world, at Christianity, at worship, at others.
I suspect that most American churches that organize and send their people on mission trips never think of themselves as “needy.” Chances are, however, they are very needy in some senses.
A very real need in many, perhaps most, American churches is to be evangelized by other Christians very different culturally, economically from themselves.
They have unconsciously settled complacently into a routine of middle-class American Christianity cocooned by all kinds of cultural habits they take for granted.
Only true outsiders – outsiders to all that – can help them see it and recognize it for what it is: culturally accommodated, mostly suburban, Americanized Christianity.
I suspect that when such American Christians send a group of their people from their church on a mission trip, they go with the attitude that they are doing those “poor other people” a favor.
Often when Southern churches send their youth on mission trips “up North,” they go to relatively affluent areas to help a “church plant” from the South “evangelize” those poor godforsaken pagans “up North” where, as one Southern Baptist pastor I heard preached, “They have a head knowledge of Jesus but don’t have him living in their hearts.”
A famous motivational speaker and writer my wife has worked for had a motto: “Attitude is everything!” In this case, I fear he’s right.
Churches sending people on mission trips often go with the unconscious attitude that “They need us; we are coming to help them.” But what if we need them as much or more than they need us?
Students of world Christianity tell us that the “place” where Christianity is growing fastest is the “global South” – Latin America, Africa, Asia.
They also tell us that Christians there, in those cultures, do things differently. They have developed their own, indigenous forms of Christianity.
Do they need us? Or do we need them? Which need is greater? I’m not asking about financial matters; I’m asking about complacency that I have here earlier identified as the greatest danger to Christianity – especially in America.
If we believe that God is busy in the global South, and there is much evidence for that, then perhaps it is time we, Europeans and North Americans, receive those other Christians among us – to evangelize us and do a kind of social work among us.
We may not need them to fix our roofs or dig wells or bring us Bibles in our own language, but we might very well need them to stir us up, to tell us how, in what ways, we have accommodated our Christianity to our culture of entertainment, consumerism and individualism.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”