It is becoming really common these days for believers to take part in mission trips. After raising a serious amount of money, a group of believers will take off for some faraway place where they will fellowship with local believers (often through an interpreter), test out the national food (with the assurance that a real meal awaits at the hotel), and build something. They come home with a nice tan, great stories and a deeper awareness of the realities of life.
Interestingly, I have had serious discussions with Kenyan Christians who wanted to explore the possibility of making a mission trip to Canada so that they could help Canadians engage in ministry. From their perspective, such a mission trip would be a great thing–based on what they see in the media, we need a lot of help in North America carrying out the mission of the church. Of course, the North American church would have to pay for their trip since Kenya is poor and Canada is rich.
There is a major debate about the value of such trips which I will not engage at this point. I do want to use this trend to point out a significant irony concerning the mission of the church: the further away the mission focus is geographically and culturally, the easier it is to get people to support it financially and physically. I think the key problem is that real ministry, where ever it happens, is messy and difficult and filled with frustration and confusion and potential for real pain. Real ministry also generally requires serious long term commitment of money and time–and there is no guarantee that it will succeed. I can think of many ministry situations over the years where I have given a lot of my money, time and effort and got very little in terms of tangible results: the alcoholic returns to alcohol; the couple breaks up; the near-convert decides to become Buddhist; the potential pastor becomes a professional dirt-biker.
On the other hand, doing ministry for a week or two far away is much less messy and demanding. We get to see and participate in what is clearly a messy, needy situation. We get to involve ourselves deeply and intimately in the mess and solution–and then, after a week or two, we get to shower and head for home (although occasionally, we have to reverse those two events). Our involvement in the messy situation far away after that is somewhat voluntary and involves prayer, some fund raising and maybe some publicity.
I am aware that this sounds cynical–and probably is. But cynicism or not, it is difficult to get churches and believers to commit to sustained ministry in the messes that exist close to us. We are often more concerned with the starving in Africa than we are with the kids who go to school hungry at our local schools. And that makes sense: feeding the starving far away involves giving money while dealing with the hungry school kids may involve us in the lives of real people with real problems that need much more than just our financial contributions.
Kids going to school hungry is the result of a complex and difficult set of realities that will involve us with poverty, poor choices, politics, addictions, and on and on. It will take sustained energy of many people over long periods of time and bring us into contact with people that we might prefer to avoid. It may open us to manipulation and to being exploited. It may result in us being ripped off, either as churches or individuals or both. And, after putting in all the effort and time and whatever, nothing may change.
But that is the reality of ministry–and it is the reality that we need to be involved in. I heartily endorse feeding the starving in Africa. I am somewhat in favour of mission trips. And I am deeply concerned with the ministry we do just outside our church building. For most of us, this will be our real mission and our real ministry. And if we let our fears and frustrations get in the way, we will miss the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit to make a real difference. The mess is real, the pitfalls are ever present, the results aren’t predictable or assured–but it is part of what we are called to do.
May the peace of God be with you.