Are We Losing The Word “Missions”?

We all know what a missionary is, right?

Well, maybe. The word has sort of fallen into disfavour over the last few decades, much like the word “crusade” has thankfully fallen out of the lexicon of most of our churches.

There were good reasons for dropping “crusade” as a term for evangelistic outreach. I mean, really. Using the term given to the great sin of the Mediæval church in taking up arms to extend the notion of Christendom by slaughtering Jews and Muslims down to the women and children to refer to a public event-centred push to invite people to follow Christ? Yeah, that really works. Besides, the whole event-centred model isn’t nearly as prominent as it used to be. The culture has shifted, and people don’t respond to it as well.

Missionary, similarly, has fallen into disfavour. Most of the places that most need to hear the Good News about Jesus are places where you can’t use the word “missionary” to describe what you do. Even a suggestion online that Fred Bloggs may be “serving the Lord as a missionary” in some countries may be enough to get workers kicked out and churches closed.

Besides, there’s a lot of what current missionaries do that doesn’t match our traditional images from the colonial era when the missionary was all too often another arm of colonial government.

With “missions”, the situation is a little different. It’s not that we’ve dropped the word from our lexicon, but it’s become so broad and all-encompassing that we may be in danger of losing it. Also, we’re replacing it with “missionality”, a word which my wife hates and I have some mixed feelings about.

There are a number of factors in play here. Firstly, there’s the simple fact that people want to get away from the nasty old colonial image. Pith-helmeted moustachioed white men trekking through the jungle to bring civilisation to the savages is not really anything many people want to be associated with, and in any case it’s worlds apart from the urban Christian worker in Tokyo or Amsterdam, or Nairobi for that matter. Very few spend most of their time doing what we might call “traditional missionary activities” such as leading or planting churches, preaching, running Bible studies or translating the Bible.

Not that any of these are bad. The unfinished task of translation in particular remains a great need calling for people with very particular skill sets. But the bulk of “missionary work” isn’t comprised of those things, and we’ve mostly realised that.  It may be part of why we’ve moved away from using “missions” to describe it.

The world around us is getting increasingly hostile to the idea of “interfering with the lifestyles” of various “untouched” tribal peoples around the world, too. The Evil White Missionary coming in to make all the locals into good little white people is a common secularist stereotype. Instead, it is reasoned, we should leave them alone to continue in their beliefs in harmony with nature. No-one mentions that by doing so, we’re leaving them as easy prey for unscrupulous business interests such as powerful logging companies or whatever, who are often all too willing to turn them into slave labour or exterminate their traditional way of life. But we’re left with a sour taste in our mouths on the whole missionary enterprise, what with trying to realistically face up to the legacies of colonialism and the destruction of local traditions and ways of life that have occurred under the aegis of missions. Sorting through all that tangled mess is going to be uncomfortable. Maybe we’d best just avoid it.

Then, too, modern missionaries are increasingly not white and not Western, and mission fields are increasingly not non-white and non-Western. South Koreans are everywhere. Brazil and India are rising as sending nations. Western Europe is a major mission field. The whole picture is changing, so that the popular image of the pith-helmeted jungle explorer is increasingly irrelevant.

A second factor is the growth of the short-term missions paradigm. This may be more of an American phenomenon than a British one, but I’ve been out of the country of my birth long enough now that I honestly have little idea about the current situation in Britain. Certainly I don’t remember missions being so totally associated with the short-term there.

I spent several years working with YWAM. YWAM was one of the organisations that pioneered the whole idea of short-term missions, back in the ’60s when “missionary” was understood to be a lifetime calling and missions organisations wanted you to have a seminary education and at least 3-5 years’ successful pastoral experience in your home country before they would consider sending you out to where you sensed God calling you. Back then, the idea that you maybe didn’t need a seminary education to serve God overseas was new and radical.

How times change. These days, it seems like every church has its annual “mission trip” to Mexico, or a Native American reservation, or further afield to Asia or Africa. Large sections of the local church pile into a bus or plane and travel to the place they will be “ministering” in, bringing shoes or school supplies or financial aid to help build a church building in Bongo Bongo.

Now, I won’t say that none of this is profitable. At the very least, it gives poor globally-ignorant Americans an opportunity to see that other parts of the world really aren’t like America. And going to a village in Africa that doesn’t have clean water and digging a well helps everyone concerned.

But is it missions?

What is actually being done here? Looking at some of the things churches do, I wonder if we aren’t creating a culture of dependency or just doing something meaningless that makes us feel good. Native Americans on the Rosebud reservation (as a purely random example) don’t need white tourists pretending to help by bringing donations from their rich white brothers. They need boots on the ground permanently, someone who will actually treat them as equals rather than children and help them to wrestle with questions of identity, lack of opportunity, lack of infrastructure, depression and alcoholism.

The other problem with short-term missions is on the other end of things. We’re losing the idea of missions as a career. I don’t know how many people I talked to when I was trying to raise support to be sent out permanently as a missionary that would find out about our calling and say something like “You’re a missionary? That’s great! When will your trip be?

No, you don’t understand. I’m talking about moving there and setting down roots. But we think that because we take an annual trip to Mexico to bring school supplies to the poor children down there that we’re doing our bit for missions. Why should we support someone that we’re never going to see? We’re already doing missions, aren’t we?

A two-week trip is mostly little more than an exposure trip. It should supplement, not replace, long-term work. Hosting short-termers takes a lot of work that sometimes takes away from other activities the local workers could be doing, and what are you going to do with 20+ foreign young people who don’t speak the language, have no idea that foreign cultures really exist and are more interested oIn where the nearest wifi hotspot is than in the actual work they are supposedly there to do? I’ve been on both sides of the short-term equation, both being on teams and hosting them, and in my experience I’d say their usefulness is limited. “Limited” is not the same as “no use at all”, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all we sometimes want to make them.

The other major factor in play in the death of the word “missions” is the idea of “missionality” and the broadening of the idea of what constitutes missions.

I have to confess to some mixed feelings about the word “missional”. On the one hand, I think my wife is mistaken to label it a meaningless non-word; it does serve a real purpose in succinctly expressing the idea of the Missio Dei: that God is on a mission and our job as His people is to join Him in it. “Thinking missionally” about something emphasises that we have a real job to do as believers in advancing the Kingdom of God, and that that job doesn’t get to be put in a box for a select few only.

On the other hand, though, there is a real difference between ministering in your own country and culture and language and ministering in a foreign country and culture and language, and we’re in danger of losing that.

With the rise of “missionality”, everything is missions. Volunteering at the local homeless shelter is missions. Donating to a food bank is missions. Inviting people in the apartment complex across the street to come to your church’s Easter celebration is missions. Baking a cake for your neighbour’s birthday is missions.

I can see the point. There can be a sort of unhelpful mystique among Christians about “mission work”, like it’s somehow better or more holy than living for Jesus where you are in your everyday job. It isn’t more holy or more special, but it is different. There’s a certain skill set or temperament involved in being able to carry on your regular life with your family in an entirely foreign situation, among people of another culture who really don’t have the same assumptions as people you grew up with, in another language with a different alphabet. Facing misunderstandings from at home in their service country and abroad in their sending country. It’s not something everybody can do well, and we ought to honour those whom God has called to this life. It’s not more holy or more special, but it is a calling, and those to whom the calling has come really do need and deserve our support.

If everything is missions, then everyone is a missionary, and there’s no difference between buying school supplies for deprived local children and translating the Bible into Karakalpak. So we can spend the church’s missions budget entirely within the local area and not only see immediate benefit from what we’re doing but save money because we don’t need a separate budget for local outreach.

Uhm, I have a problem with that. While volunteering at a local homeless shelter is certainly worthy and would normally be counted as ministry, I’m not sure that in and of itself it counts as missions. Inviting people to my church’s Easter celebration is certainly outreach, but I’d hesitate to call it missions. We’re missing something.

There’s a cross-cultural dimension to missions that it seems we’re not getting. And it’s not that we need to immediately cease all local ministry as the church, either. It should be both-and, not either-or. Jerusalem (our immediate locality), Judea (our home country), Samaria (neighbouring countries) and the ends of the earth. Some people will spend their entire lives ministering in their own locality. And that’s good. We need more people to really get behind the idea of doing what the Father is doing wherever they are. But some people will be specifically called by God to the ends of the earth. And we need that, too.

So while I generally approve of the idea behind “missionality”, I can’t help feeling like we’re losing something.


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