The Status of Missions

Enjoying the Summer so is just around the corner!
Every now and then, I like to update on our overall perspective of the work we do with EMI. This is one of those posts, and therefore be warned that it breaks from my preferred rule of being 'picture-heavy' and 'text-light'. Actually, there are no grab a cup of coffee sometime and sit down for a good read, if you're interested ('good' meaning a lot of content, not necessarily 'quality' content!).

Here goes...

What is the goal of today's missions? In decades past, the mindset of the church was pretty much that the needs were so great in some places in the world that anyone who was willing and able should go there to help. Build a house for someone. Hold an orphan. Dig a well. Anything, really, would help in these places because the people were so desperate that any help (well-intentioned help, at least) would no doubt do some good. They need and we have, so we should ‘go’ and give.

But there was also of course a strong spiritual element that was the driving force for these mission efforts too. A heavy emphasis was placed on the need to preach the Gospel and ‘save’ as many people as possible. So naturally, one of the primary measurable outcomes for most mission efforts was how many ‘decisions for Christ’ were tallied. It was a reasonable strategy - if you help people in their area of greatest need (physical poverty), they are more open to hearing the message you have to share. Originally, this resulted in a small (but very influential) number of people/families who would sell everything and move somewhere to live out their years carrying out this mission.

In more recent decades however, this effort also began to include many short-term missionaries who would sign up to travel to these places for a couple of weeks to do some physical labor or fix things that were broken, or to play with kids or care for babies, such that by doing so they would hopefully create an opportunity to ‘share the Gospel’. With this short-term model, the idea of doing mission work became much more doable for people, so many more started wanting to ‘go’.

Really, with this much more doable model, it’s no mystery why the number of American Christians going on missions trips has skyrocketed in the past few decades. It’s an attractive prospect, especially for those with a bit of a travel bug. It allows for a very practical way of acting out your faith, but you don’t have to quit your job, sell your stuff and pack your belongings in a coffin never to be seen again in order to participate.

If you look around at all the trips going out from churches and other groups this Summer, you’d probably say that this is a good description of the status of today's mission efforts. But if you look a little deeper beneath the surface, I think you’ll see that actually, a shift is beginning to occur. Sort of. Maybe better put, there’s an undercurrent of change that I think will soon begin to creep to the surface in the years ahead.

I’ve heard it said a number of times that the USA generally trails European social trends by about 20-25 years, so it makes sense that a window into our future here on this side of the pond might be seen by looking at today’s Europe. Right now, the mission efforts coming out of Europe (primarily England, Holland and Germany) certainly look different from those in the US. At the start, there are far fewer people involved in missions in Europe, and the funding going towards missions is substantially less than the proportional comparison with the US. But beyond these negative impacts of secularization, we would be remiss to not also look at some of the programmatic differences too, many of which we might do well to learn from.

Here in the US, while there are still plenty of mission trips going out that look a lot like some of what I’ve mentioned, there has definitely been a shift in the overall strategic thinking going into missions. Words like ‘appropriate’, and ‘sustainable’, and ‘buy-in’, and ‘discipleship’ are all coming to the foreground. Christians are now beginning to look past the immediate help and drive to get people ‘saved’ that past mission efforts have focused on, and instead are beginning to think more about the long-term effects and impact missions have on the intended recipients. To that end, people who donate to missions are starting to ask deeper and bigger picture questions as well.

“Are the efforts worth the money we’re donating?” “Has any real change been achieved after the years of work?” “What is the best way to approach missions given what has been learned through the years of efforts?” Or on a more practical level, “What happens when the house the mission team built needs repairs?” “When the pump for the well they dug breaks, who fixes it? And who pays for the fix?” And what about those conversions – do we just rely on the Holy Spirit to take over after the team leaves? I’ve heard it said that Africa has been saved 3 times over if you tally up all the mission trip reports – so are some of those conversions not sticking?

Back in Europe, these questions have led to a much different mindset and approach. Unfortunately, the rapidly declining numbers of the European church in recent times have severely undercut the impact these changes in strategic approach might have had on the global mission effort. The small Christian community that does remain, however, is I believe a step ahead of us in their strategic thinking and approach to missions. Before I get accused of being a Europhile, I should point out that the long list of mistakes made in centuries past by Christian Europeans is a big reason why they’re now ahead of us – basically, they started long before we did and have learned many lessons along the way (colonialism, etc.). But they also have a greater sense of the world around them, so these issues often have much more of an air of necessity in Europe than they do here in America (I realize I’m making sweeping generalizations here!).

But nonetheless, the bar is being raised on both sides of the Atlantic for what constitutes ‘good mission’ and what is regarded as ‘ineffective mission’, and I think it’s a really good thing. In fact, if we at EMI weren’t charting a new path ahead in response to what is being learned, I would have left this ministry by now. Speaking very plainly, these changes mostly impact our old model of focusing on short term EMI volunteers and teams.

Given what's been learned, this model had to be adjusted, with a much heavier importance now placed on the longer term impact that on-the-ground, life-on-life relationships and long-term partnerships can have. And while our short term teams are still an effective means to a certain end, we have significantly altered and narrowed the ‘end’ goal of those trips, using them for what they are most helpful in achieving: helping ministries strategize for the future, master planning and surveying their land, and giving them the concept-level designs they need to move forward to the next step in building their ministry. A natural byproduct of these changes is that the bar for EMI being willing to help on a project has been raised, such that we want to see that the ministries we're working with are looking at the changing world of missions too and seeing what changes they might need to make.

To me, this 'climate change' for missions is exciting because it is a result of a natural maturing process I think God always brings us through regardless of what it is we're doing. This is of course true in our personal lives, but I think it's also true in the life of the Global Church throughout history, where if we listen with humility and follow His leading, we’ll be able to see our shortcomings and be able to work towards becoming more and more effective in whatever it is He calls us to do in this life. As soon as we start to think we have things all figured out, I think we've taken the first step towards becoming obsolete.

Decades ago, there was a great need for awareness in missions, so the most effective way to achieve that was for more people to go see it for themselves. But now that so many have gone and are aware, the need is lessening for more to go, and instead it’s time to think more about maximizing the impact of those who do still need to go, but to consolidate the resources to make sure the most needed and effective efforts are supported. So what does that look like for EMI?

Actually, this conversation is one that began over a decade ago when we launched our first field office. But in more recent times, we’ve been digging deep on this subject here at EMI for the past 3-4 years. Though EMI has been around for 34 years now, the direction we’re heading is not the same as it used to be. We have walked and are walking the path I’m talking about, and as I’ve alluded to above, we’re shifting away from the model of ‘mobilizing’ more and more people towards the model of 'planting' more and more people overseas for the long-term.

But beyond that, we’re also shedding our tendency to act out of a ‘West to the rest’ mentality (whether intended or not), and instead inviting the people we’re serving into the organization – not just to partner with us (though that’s certainly still a valid goal too), but rather to actually join with us and become a part of the ‘helping’ side of the equation too. Again, the goal is long-term success, and that takes buy-in, so what better way to achieve buy-in that to equip and empower the recipients to also become the givers?

We also realize that just sending anyone to do anything isn’t quite as effective as sending people with specific skills/education/experience to offer, both in practice and in mentorship. So whether you’re a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, or yes, an engineer, the more training and experience you have to offer the more effective and beneficial the help you give will be. The developing world is rapidly developing, and there are millions of competent and capable people in these places who merely lack opportunity to practice their trade. If we can go over and provide that opportunity, we might just empower people to help themselves – something that many would argue is the most sustainable and impactful way there is to help others.

Adjustments are also being made to the spiritual side of missions too. I think this probably gets into a topic that could be discussed by people a lot more educated on the topic than me. But the focus on ‘conversion’ is being shifted towards the idea of discipleship. The desire to ‘get people across the finish line’ is being viewed through a different lens that values growth along the way. The concept of people making a life altering decision in a short period of time based on relationships built over a few days has proven to not be the most effective path to long term change in the lives of people.

Instead, if we view a person’s spiritual journey as being a sort of line of continuum (think of that number line hanging on the wall back in 1st grade ), the goal has become more about moving people from wherever they are up one or two notches on the line – so if they already profess to have faith, it’s about helping them grow to a deeper understanding in that faith. And if they don’t yet have faith, perhaps we can show them a glimpse of what a faith-filled life looks like to move them up a notch on the line too.

 And let’s not forget, we too need to be aware that we are on that continuum as well, and we should be looking at ways in which our mission work can help us grow up our own spiritual number line. Actually, as it relates to missions, we should come as co-learners, and not assume that others are the only or even primary beneficiary of the mission experience. In fact, if the projections are correct, in the next 15 years the majority of the Christian church will be located in the ‘Global South’. Imagine what missions will look like when teams from the African or Latin American church start arriving in Europe and America? Well guess what, it’s already happening!

A good way to sum up the future direction of missions as I see it is this (and it’s not original): ‘all people to all people’. We have to begin to see ourselves as having needs too, and seeing the value that those we’re trying to give a hand up to can add to our lives and knowledge and faith. Once we who are ‘going’ have that kind of humility, I think real and lasting impact will begin to be realized by the global mission effort – both for them and for us (and yes, for Europe too, since they’re my secret favorites).

If you made it to the end of this, I'm impressed!


Becky Howe said…
Great post, Brad! I remember you talking about EMI making some changes that you were excited about, but we never got a chance to dig into it. So thanks for sharing! I hope you and the family are doing well :)

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