But What Stays the Same?

(Continued from Monday.)

When I consider the forces that have influenced and continue to affect world Christianity, I am reminded that such developments need not always be negative.  While the dangers of illegitimate religious types-of-theology1combination (i.e. so much mixing or religious syncretism that Christianity adopts practices, outlooks, or beliefs which at heart contradict key aspects of the faith) are real, this is not the only narrative at work.  For inasmuch as Christianity can be derailed from its broadly held orthodoxy it can also be powerfully impacted by cultures, customs, and ideas without losing its path.

Translation is the name of the game here.  As the Church is adapted into other languages, styles, places, and people groups, it by necessity is translated into those contexts in myriad ways.  As Christ is apprehended in such places, He is understood as unchanging Truth by means of new language.  Missionaries have engaged in such work for centuries.  They continue to this day.  Sometimes such work can, far from “polluting” the faith, actually illumine some powerful realities others have forgotten.

And yet: the translation inherent in cross-cultural work brings with it a unique set of challenges.  For while such a process can help newcomers understand what Christianity is all about, the very process of translation almost by necessity changes things.  No two languages or cultures are alike, and different languages have words and nuance that are not replicated in others.  Translation is therefore a “best guess” or approximation of meaning.  Because it is inexact, it leaves, adds, and alters meaning.static1.squarespace.com

Can we accept this?  Well, I submit that we have to.  After all, I’m a beneficiary of such translation (language and culture) as I live out my own Christianity.  I, like you, read the Bible in a language and in a culture drastically different from the world from which it derives.  I’ve studied some Greek and Hebrew, certainly.  But I am far from an expert.  Even then, I do not understand it as a native speaker would in that time and place.  As I read the Bible, my context necessarily alters some of its meaning.  While I trust the divergence is so great that I’m at risk of departing from orthodox Christianity, I would be a fool to deny that my language and culture does not affect my faith.

While most believers’ (myself included) day-to-day interactions with Christianity can be discernibly orthodox, there is always the danger that things could diverge too far.  One of the reasons we need Bible scholars, teachers, and preachers is to help us understand more about the teachings of Scripture–both as connected to the language and culture in which they were written and with regard to their present-day implications.  But even they cannot perform this work perfectly without flaw or limitation.

HolyTrinityWhat I’m talking about here goes beyond culture and language.  I believe that humanity itself–regardless of learning–is simply unable to understand certain divine realities as they actually are.  We are limited and God is infinite.  We are bounded and God is transcendent.

Consider the Trinity–a complex doctrine if there ever was one.  Trying to explain it feels a bit silly at times, always careening between denying distinction in the Godhead, asserting some kind of created Jesus/Holy Spirit, and/or developing a doctrine of three gods.  Because we know from Scripture that God is three in some way while still one, we have developed the idea of the Trinity to explain it.  Does our theology describe exactly how God works?  Almost certainly not.  It is our “best guess”.  I think it is a fair one, but even so is limited.

Translation in language and culture–or at a more basic level from the divine to human–is a part of the tension at work in a faith that is both particular (i.e. Jesus) and universal (evangelistically open to all) at the same time. Such translation can pollute, forcing us to ask real questions about whether or not our perceived faith is close to the heart of God.  Even so, an endless and obsessive search for some Platonic form of Christianity to the detriment of the good and faithful ways it is practiced and embodied the world over is, I think, unfortunate.  Many of these ways are–like our articulation of the Trinity–limited and imperfect, but they are nevertheless representative of our “faith seeking understanding”.  As they remain grounded in Scripture and orthodox tradition and aware of the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, they can be powerful aspects of our shared faith.  light_clouds

Difference can mean heresy, but it need not always.  Sometimes it is just difference.

In the end, Church history helps me by aware of the diversity with Christianity, both in terms of its dangers and potential.  It also reminds me that, from Day One, Christianity has been about translation.  This means I need to be comfortable with it, at least at a certain level.  As missiologist Andrew Walls has written, “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity.  Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation…”

Questions About Student Missions Trips (Part II)

pbauteeback_147104aYesterday I shared some of my concerns about student missions.  Over the last 24 hours I’ve received some thoughtful feedback and considered more deeply how we might rethink the way youth ministers work with students in this area.

As a clarification, let me say this: my critiques yesterday were neither a rejection of missions as a concept nor the work and efforts of missionaries on the ground.  Instead, my words were offered as a potential corrective to certain practices or thoughts about missions here in the United States.  A caution to youth pastors, if you will.  After all, missionaries by and large are aware of the dangers and realities of cross-cultural ministry.  They understand the principle of indigeneity and the empowerment of national believers.  Telling them about some of the risks of youth missions is like preaching to the choir.

We youth pastors, though, can have all sorts of heroic, idealistic, and impractical ideas of what missions is about.  Or, at the very least, we might let erroneous ideas persist in the minds of our students.  Such things can lead to the problems I shared yesterday.  My questions, therefore, are meant to lead American youth ministries to reconsider the way they do mission trips.world map

Here, then, are four thoughts to point things forward:

Proposition 1: Providing a Frame.  In order to avoid the problem(s) of cultural insensitivity or unhelpful ideas about the purpose and aims of a missions trip, it makes sense for youth pastors to prepare their teams effectively.  This means more than just learning skits, developing your testimony, or learning how to do basic construction.  It rather involves focused discussion of what the intercultural missions experience is about, what the aims are, and what one hopes to do/learn.

Particular emphasis should be given to learning about the culture to which the team is traveling and discussing how such encounters with the global church are so powerful.  The emphasis needs to move from, in other words, “we are going to help those poor helpless people” to “we are going to join together with the Church in this place for the Kingdom of God.”

Two resources that might be helpful in this preparation process are Deep Justice Journeys and Serving With Eyes Wide Open.  By utilizing such a training process, students will hopefully have a better sense of the mission in which they are engaging, why they are really doing it, and what God might do in them and others through it.

serving_with_eyes_wide_open_coverProposition 2: Fencing the Table.  While I know that a number of students sacrifice in order to go on a student missions trip, I also know that the problem of “repeat customers” can run the risk of making it more about the trip than the mission.  Christian tourism is something I want to avoid.  As such, I’d encourage youth pastors to think about limiting the number of times a student can go on a missions trip during their high school years (maybe even letting them go only once).

At the same time, I’d like to make it easier for every student to be able to go at least once.  I believe strongly in the place of intercultural experiences and the opportunity for students to see God at work beyond their normal existence.  As a missionary friend of mine said, it is on these kinds of missions journeys that God can powerfully impact students’ lives and outlook.

Perhaps the answer, then, is providing a way for trips to be cheaper for first-timers and/or making the application process a bit more difficult for those who’d like to go a second or third time.  I realize there are exceptions to every rule, but in order to keep the focus where it needs to be this might be helpful.

Proposition 3: The Consistent Locale:  In some circles, the missions trip “flavor of the year” only increases the risk of the tourism idea taking effect.  Though God can and does use the one-and-done weeklong efforts of groups that change locations every year, I’m increasingly interested in the church partnership model of missions.  This is where an American church–the whole congregation, not just the youth–partners with a local church community and/or missionary team in another culture for the long term.  Missions efforts and trips are therefore about joining together in numerous ways.Hands_In_400-253x162

By not scattering missions efforts across the globe, real connections are formed and growing community and mutual dialogue can take place.  Both sides in the equation can learn more about what God is doing and understand more of the mission of God.  I know that some churches are already living this type of model, and I applaud them for it.  It both provides opportunity for more sustained work and change, and also helps us think of missions in terms of partnership for the Kingdom rather than a top-down type of aid effort.

Proposition 4: The Reverse Missions Trip.  This is my most “outside the box” idea, but I think it has potential.  As I’ve said, so often missions trips paint us (often white) Americans as the heroes and those (often non-white) to whom we travel as those who need to be recipients of our help.  The mission, in other words, only flows in one way.  While this is the situation in a number of cases, I know as well that there is much that Christians around the globe have to offer us.  More, I think, than we might realize.

tile_6x3_140212_PH_0006Why not try this, then: instead of raising money so that we can go there, what if we gathered resources that allowed people from another culture to travel to our hometowns?  Especially if their background intersected with immigrant groups in our communities, they could help our churches with evangelism, outreach, and service to demographics that we might have great difficulty connecting with otherwise.  So too our visitors could teach us more about their lives of faith even as they learn about the way our churches serve God in our daily lives.  They could partner with us in efforts in our communities, and we together would embrace the idea that we’re on mission with God no matter where we are.  Such a trip would be especially powerful if done in conjunction with the idea of a consistent locale.

Obviously, these four brief ideas aren’t complete, and they don’t answer all of my concerns or others you might have.  They are, however, a start.  As with yesterday’s post, I welcome your responses and thoughts as I continue to reflect on how American churches and youth ministries might best engage in missions.

Questions about Student Missions Trips (Part I)

mission-tripMy time as a professor of youth ministries has allowed me a significant amount of space for reflection that was not often available during the busyness of full-time church ministry.  During a conversation over the weekend, I was reminded of one of the topics I’ve been considering over the past few years: missions.

The high school foreign missions trip has tended to be a staple of the youth group experience over the past few decades.  So many of our students have been able to expand the vision of their world, travel to a new place, serve the needs of missionaries and nationals, and leave transformed by the encounters and spiritual experiences they have had.  It is no wonder such trips persist.

I myself am no stranger to missions.  My grandparents served as missionaries for over a decade.  I was 14 during my missions trip, and have been on five since.  As a leader in the Assemblies of God in New Jersey, I helped coordinate and lead missions efforts for our district youth department.  My denomination has historically embraced the call to share the gospel around the world, and I am “on board” with their continuing efforts.  My wife and I support a missionary couple who are serving in Latin America.

And yet: as I have been thinking about the way we do missions with youth, I’m worried.  Some of it has to do with post-colonial questions.  Some of it has to do with finances.  Still more has to do with what Andy Root has referred to as “the mission trip as global tourism.”  And then, of course, I’m worried that in some sense the missions trip may be perpetuating a lie or–even worse–a somewhat concerning truth.5-Reasons-Every-Teen.2

I’ll ask some questions today, and invite responses.  Some of these queries are born from reflection and others from experience.  They are not representative of every missions trip, but they do point to some structural issues that I think we ought to address as they appear.  No doubt there will be disagreement, and that’s OK.  I welcome discussion on the topic.  Tomorrow I’ll share some of my thoughts about what we might do moving forward.  I still believe in missions, in other words.  I just want to make sure the way it all works at the youth ministry level represents our best and most faithful efforts.  Most of my concerns, then, are not with missions itself, but rather the way we might think about and enact it.

Problem #1: The White Man’s Burden and the World Church.  There was a time, in ages past, when nearly the entirety of the non-Western world was non-Christian.  There was little Christian presence in certain areas and the name of Jesus was a foreign one.  In many ways, these days are gone.  While there are places on our globe that are significantly un-Christian (think, for instance, parts of the Middle East), there are fewer and fewer places around the world that have no Christian presence.  Christians impelled by God’s Spirit the world over have helped make this a reality.

But here’s the thing: as Christianity becomes more and more indigenized, it makes less sense to keep relying solely on the (often white) missionary for evangelistic work.  Instead, their efforts of the Church should be to empower the (mostly non-white) indigenous believers to minister in their own context.  This is an axiom in most missionary circles.  Yet the way missions is presented at the youth ministry level can perpetuate the old and somewhat discredited idea that “we” are going to help “those people” (whether spiritually or with regard to infrastructure, education, etc.).   Ouruganda2 efforts at missions can therefore oversell what we do at the expense of what God is already doing.  I believe in a Church that exists all over the world and a Spirit who works in all believers.  Surely, then, the mission of God is not a one-way street?

Problem #2: The Inequities of Money and Missions.  While there are missions trips of all shapes and sizes, the “sexiest” among them tend to be the international ones.  This often means airplanes and accommodations, and this translates into money.  Depending on the locale of the trip, this can mean a lot of money.  When we’re asking for potentially multiple thousands of dollars from students, churches, and families in order to take part in projects like this, are we comfortable with the price tag?  In other words: is our money best spent this way?  These are good questions.

To be sure, the presence of American teens ready and willing to help missionaries and nationals on the ground can be a big “shot in the arm” for their efforts there and provide an effective albeit temporary means of assistance.  I wonder, though, whether the cost(s) associated with such help aren’t sometimes just too high.  Further, if getting together the money for such trips might exclude certain students or families for socio-economic reasons, are we not creating some kind of missions/spiritual hierarchy by doing so?

Problem #3:  Missions and Tourism.  In many ways this problem flows from the previous one.  In my time as state missions trip leader, I would be asked “where are we going next year, Pastor Josh?” An innocent and excited question, surely, but one which speaks to the larger implications of missions as tourist adventure.  After all, every missions trip tended to involve a fun shopping/tourist/relaxation day for our students.  youth group mission trip 2010-7

Students who can afford to go on missions trips year after year can and do.  They’re engaging in service, surely, but they can also be buying into a kind of mentality that values experience and excitement above all else (not to mention the fact that the “repeat customer” phenomena favors those with more money).  This is dangerous.

Problem #4: The Mission Trip as Either Fib or Fancy  I wonder whether the way we sometimes sell missions to adolescents isn’t a bit deceptive.  And even when we’re being honest, I not sure the reasons we provide should justify all we do.  First, the fib.  In some circles, missions is promoted to students as them “making a real difference” in the world by means of evangelism and relief.  They’re going over there to rescue/save/etc.  And to be sure, a work project they’re involved in can help others.  A soul that accepts the gospel as presented by a team of students makes a difference.  These are realities.  But: students are only there a week or two.  In the grand scheme of things they’re not making a monumental difference.  The resources and time they are spending to go overseas might be just as well utilized making a difference in their backyards.  The real work of missions is done by those–nationals and outsiders alike–who are continually on the ground.

The fib, of course is recognized by many youth pastors, who instead own up to the main reason we take students on these trips: for the transformative experience it has on their lives.  Broadening their horizons, having them encounter other cultures, engaging them in spiritual work and reflection; all of these are part and parcel of the missions trip experience.  Students’ lives are changed on these trips, callings are day-2-guat-jkr-1discerned, and God’s voice is truly heard.  I rejoice in this.  But only a few get to experience it.  And it costs a lot of money to do so.  Further, using such trips for the effect they have on students’ lives–the ends, in other words–deeply devalues the people, lives, and situations around the world that constitute the means by which we achieve these goals.  Stated bluntly, if missions trips are about changing our students’ lives we are just using those to whom we ostensibly are going to serve.  And this seems problematic.

So there you have it.  Some thoughts and questions.  I’ve admittedly taken a rather dim view of a certain approach to missions here, and I realize that there are good responses to each of the concerns I’ve raised.  Even so, I think that if we’re not willing to consider the dangers inherent the way(s) that we can think about the student missions trip, we could be causing some real problems.

I believe in students.  I believe in missionaries.  I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit and the mission of God all around the world.  It is because of these things that I ask questions, and ask how we might improve.

I look forward to your comments and thoughts.