Who is Serving Whom: A Dilemma for Short Term Mission?

What could be better than to give your gap-year or your annual holidays to serve people who are poorer than you are? Every year, thousands of Brits go on short-term mission trips and return home with great stories of the places they’ve been, the things they’ve done and the people they have met.

However, viewed from the other side, from the point of view of those receiving these well-intentioned Brits, things might look very different.

This excellent article looks at some of the pitfalls of what it calls voluntourism; it isn’t specifically about Christian mission trips, but many of the situations are similar.

As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs. There is a cost associated with such an endeavor. A 2010 report by the Human Sciences Research Council, based in Pretoria, South Africa, analyzed the thriving AIDS orphan tourism business in South Africa.

Under this program, well-to-do tourists sign up to build schools, clean and restore riverbanks, ring birds and act as caregivers to AIDS orphans for a few weeks. This led to the creation of a profitable industry catering to volunteer tourists. The orphans’ conditions are effectively transformed into a boutique package in which “saving” them yields profits from tourists. The foreigners’ ability to pay for the privilege of volunteering crowds out local workers.

Africa is traditionally a favorite destination for those searching for saviordom, but the harms of voluntourism are not limited to that continent. On the Indonesian island of Bali, for example, a burgeoning orphanage industry exists to cater to voluntourists who want to help children. Children leave home and move to an orphanage because tourists, who visit the island a couple of times a year, are willing to pay for their education.

These children essentially work as orphans because their parents cannot afford to send them to school. Instead of helping parents cater to the needs of their children, the tourist demand for orphans to sponsor creates an industry that works to make children available for foreigners who wish to help. When the external help dries up, these pretend orphans are forced to beg on the streets for food and money in order to attract orphan tourism.

However, despite the real downsides to these sorts of schemes, the article doesn’t argue that volunteering should stop.

Despite its flaws, the educational aspect of voluntourism’s cross-cultural exchange must be saved, made better instead of being rejected completely.

This then links to another excellent article which gives suggestions on how to make the best of a short-term volunteering trip.

Reading these two articles together is a good exercise for anyone who is involved in short-term mission trips, either as an organiser or participant. There are serious issues involved when relatively rich and inexperienced people want to ‘make a difference’ in situations which are usually far more complex and nuanced than they realise. Equally, this should not stop us from doing so – it should just push us to do things better. Another excellent resource is the Global Connections’ Best Practice for Short Term Mission. That last link also gives a list of organisations who are certified as following best practice. If you are considering getting involved in a short-term team, this list is the best place to start.

The Five-Percent

The “world languages” of Europe determine to a great extent how theology is done and which questions are posed. With ninety-five percent of the world’s population having access to at least a portion of Scripture translated in a language they understand the five-percent minority remains significantly neglected. This five percent includes over three hundred million people and more than two-thirds of the worlds languages. From a linguistic perspective, these minority-language speakers are the poor. Not only are they generally poor socially, economically and politically, but they are oppressed religiously by the confines of theological reflection that is in languages not their own. Bible translation in these minority languages becomes a means of liberation for these people. “The spectacle of a translated Bible, proceeding as divine oracle in the accents of native speech, being at the same time novel and patriotic, empowered victim and marginal populations”.

James Maxey (2010) Bible Translation as Contextualisation: The Role of Orality, Missiology 38:173 (with a closing quote from Lamin Sanneh).

If you are concerned about the five-percent, then take a look here to see what you can do to help them.

Peter, Jesus and the Apostles’ Creed

You know how it is when two familiar things are put next to each other and as a result you see both of them in a new light.

This happened to me on Sunday, when one of the readings was Peter’s sermon to Cornelius in Acts 10 which was swiftly followed by saying the Apostles’ Creed. Let me explain.

In Acts 10: 34-43, Peter sets out the story of Jesus. He starts with God empowering Jesus following his baptism by John, talks about Jesus’ miracles and good works. There is a brief mention of Jesus’ which is swiftly followed by a proclamation of his resurrection. In this brief passage, Peter is at some pains to underline the fact that there were witnesses to Jesus ministry and his resurrection.

The Apostles’ Creed describes Jesus life in this way:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

The Creed stresses the virgin birth, which Peter hardly mentions, and then goes straight on to Jesus death and resurrection, with no mention of an intervening ministry (something I’ve commented on previously).

Obviously, Peter and the writer(s) of the Apostles’ Creed were writing to different audiences and seeking to achieve different aims and so chose to emphasise different aspects of Jesus’ life.

This then begs the question of what should could be left out and what must be included in a retelling of Jesus’ life for 21st Century Britain. Any thoughts?

No! I don’t Want to Receive Prayer!

I admit it, I’m a bit of a language snob.

I generally don’t get very exercised about spelling and punctuation (as you may have noticed). This is partly because I’m slightly dyslexic and correct spelling and the use of commas are a mystery to me. However, I do delight in well formed sentences and correct plurals of Latin words and I don’t like the way some people talk about prayer.

However, for once, this isn’t my language snobbery, it is a serious theological point.

Take the common phrase, “Prayer Changes Things“. Does it? Well, the discipline of regular prayer, may well change the prayer-er, but it really doesn’t change anything else. God, in response to our prayers, may well change some things; but he is the one who makes the changes, not us and not our prayers.

Over the last few years, I’ve started to hear the phrase “Would you like to receive prayer?“; another phrase that I’m uneasy with. I can receive insults, compliments, chocolate, baffled looks and many other things, but I can’t receive prayer. We pray to God; He receives our prayers. We can pray for or on behalf of someone, but those prayers are addressed to God.

You might want to suggest that I’m just being picky; a stereotypical grumpy old man, but I would disagree.

Both of these common phrases exclude God from the picture and I think this is a problem from two angles. Firstly, the fact that God listens to our prayers and acts in response to them is one of the most profound mysteries of the Christian faith. Anything which sidelines this and allows us to take it for granted is, at best, unhelpful. Secondly, both phrases make it seem as though prayer in and of itself is effective. This can easily encourage us to focus on the form and act of prayer, rather than on the the gracious loving God who is listening to them.

The language we use both shapes  and reflects our thinking and our attitudes and there are some areas in life where we should be particularly careful about the way in which we express ourselves.

By the way, if you would like to pray for us, we’d be delighted! You can sign up to receive our news on the sidebar.

Mission and Holy Week

So, you want to be a missionary?

There can be glory in being a missionary. People sometimes want to put you on a pedestal and you might be tempted to let them. You can write exciting prayer letters and people will be amazed at what you have achieved.

But we follow in the steps of one who rode on a donkey, not on the finest Arab stallion. 

There is money involved in being a missionary. You might have to raise funds for your own work or perhaps for some project that you are associated with. Perhaps you tell people that without money, God’s work cannot go ahead.

But we follow in the steps of one who overturned the tables of the money changers and called for his Father’s house to be a place of prayer.

There can be power in being a missionary. You may have a nice title and, if you come from the rich part of the world, people may well defer to you and treat you like an expert – and you might believe that you deserve that.

But we follow in the steps of one who stopped down to wash and dry the dirty feet of his disciples – even the one whom he knew would betray him. 

There Is No Such Thing as A Free Blog

It is almost ten years since I wrote the first post on Kouya.net. It started off as a way of sharing our work with Wycliffe Bible Translators, but it has evolved into one of the few regular blogs which discusses cutting edge mission thinking.

Since the early days we have published over 2,000 posts, that’s more than one every two days. Some of these posts have been informative and thought provoking, others have been funny and a good few have tried to be funny, but have failed completely.

While it doesn’t cost a fortune to host and run this blog, it doesn’t come for free. We try and defray some of the costs by using the Amazon affiliates scheme and with the occasional foray into advertising. However, sums we make doing this are significantly more modest than the cost of running the blog.

I knew absolutely nothing about blogging and blogging software when we first started and I don’t know a great deal more ten years on. However, kouyanet does need a good spring clean and some attention from people who actually know what they are doing. This is going to add considerably to this year’s running costs.

You know what’s coming…

If you have found kouyanet to be a useful resource and if you would like to see it continue, would you consider making a one-off gift towards our costs? If you have a PayPal account, there is a donation button at the top of the right hand sidebar; otherwise you could make a donation via Wycliffe.

You could always decide to support us on a regular basis if you wished!

Thank you in advance.

Sending, Mission, The Trinity and Us

There is nothing quite so simultaneously frustrating and encouraging as reading a paper or article that says things that you have been teaching for years, but says them much more clearly than you ever could.

I had a strong case of these mixed emotions when I read Graham Tomlin‘s excellent paper Mission, Evangelism and The Nature of God. Because you will need to subscribe to academia.edu in order to read the paper, I’ll attempt to give a brief outline below.

Tomlin kicks off by retreading familiar ground pointing out that though the term mission does not occur frequently in most English Bible translations, its root lies in the notion of sending, which does occur a great deal.

In John’s gospel, there are three movements of ‘sending’. The first is the sending of the Son. Repeatedly, Jesus refers to the Father as the one who sent him. God is “the one who sent me” (1.33), he is himself “the one whom God has sent” (3.34). He describes his task as to “ do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work,” (4.34) and  so on…

The second movement of sending is the sending of the Holy Spirit. John 14.26 speaks of the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”

He then briefly explores the notions of sending, begetting and proceeding  in Trinitarian theology (which is a lot more interesting than it sounds). This allows him to root mission in the eternal life of the Trinity.

Theologically speaking, mission begins with the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit from the Father. It starts with the Trinitarian life of God before it ever involves the creation, let alone the human part of that creation. We have discovered a doctrine of mission and so far, humanity has not even come into the picture. There is at the very heart of God this movement outwards, the eternal begetting of the Son, and the eternal procession of the Spirit which issues in the sending of Son and Spirit into the world. This is not a secondary activity of God but is part of his very being, and it further enables us to say in the fullest sense that God is truly Love.

From here, Tomlin demonstrates that it is the Trinity which allows us to talk about God being love in an eternal sense. If God were not Trinity, he could not love until he had created an object for his love. This is something that I’ve mentioned on this blog from time to time and which anyone who has heard me lecture on mission will be well aware of.

It is this love which leads to God’s mission:

Love of course, is closely associated to mission. The movement outwards that we see in the eternal begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit is his love; it is also carried on into the sending of the Son and Spirit into the world. It is part of the same impulse, an expression of the divine nature. That “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes inhim shall not perish but have eternal life” is not a secondary activity of God, a subsequent thought or action that he resolves to put into place once the world has gone wrong: it is an expression of the very nature and inner being of God himself…

From here, we move onto the way in which God sends the church out into the world.

There is however a third movement of ‘sending’ in John’s gospel, one which is different from, but related to the other two: the sending of the church. As Jesus speaks to his Father, he prays: “as you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (17.18), and at the end of the gospel heannounces to his disciples: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (20.21).

The next step is to show the way in which the sending of the church is distinct to the way in which the the Son and Spirit are sent into the world, before setting out the nature of the mission of the church.

Why then is the church sent into the world, according to John’s gospel? The simple answer is to bear witness to this missionary God who sends Son and Spirit, reaching out to his creation, rescuing and winning it back to himself.

This paragraph is extremely important. Our mission is to bear witness to God’s work, not to do it for him. Far too much missionary publicity and literature misses this point and seems to imply that God needs us to do some things because he can’t do them himself. Tomlin continues.

Now it is important to understand precisely the role of the church here. The church is not a ‘continuation of the Incarnation’ or called in any way to complete the unfinished work of Christ. In the most important sense, the work of Christ is complete (John 19.3). In another sense, Christ’s work is unfinished, in that the world is not yet fully redeemed, but that is the work of God through Christ in the Spirit. The church’s  task is to bear witness to the God who created the world through Christ(1.3), redeemed the world through Christ (3.17), and who will bring it to completion through the Spirit.

He then goes on to suggest three ways in which the church can bear witness to this creator, redeemer God; Uniting (building communities), Demonstrating (doing work like Jesus’ work) and Telling (proclaiming the Good News). To my mind, this last section is the weakest one in the paper. It’s not that I can argue with the importance of Uniting, Demonstrating and Telling, I’ve argued for all of these quite recently – and often on the basis of similar thoughts as Tomlin’s.

However, I believe that by digging straight into the ‘what should we do’ sort of question, Tomlin has missed a prophetic, counter-cultural message within the passages he has examined. I would argue that John 20:21 talks about the manner in which the Father sent Jesus, not so much about the things which Jesus came to do. I wrote about this years ago:

God sent Jesus in humility, to serve and finally to sacrifice himself. Likewise, we should expect humility, service and sacrifice to be part of our lives as He sends us out. This sits very uneasily with some of the quasi-military rhetoric about marching and capturing and so on which is part of the current church scene. Our call is to be humble servants, not conquering heroes (and churches need to be prepared to support humble servants and not expect every prayer letter to be full of success stories).

If you want to see more of my thinking on this, you could read my ebook on the Great Commission; the links are in the sidebar.

Despite my slight quibble with the application, this is a superb paper. I just wish I had written it.

Caught Live: Peatbog Faeries

Photo 11-04-2014 20 18 13

There are some people who don’t like Scottish folk music, I know that is hard to believe, but it is true. Even more strange, there are some who don’t like the idea of Scottish folk music coupled to a driving bass section and amazing electronic keyboards. Such people are just wrong!

Last night was the third time we’ve seen the Peatbog Faeries live and they just keep on getting better.

Peter Morisson is an amazing pipes and whistle player and Ross Couper is as good a fiddle player as I’ve ever heard in my life. Together they play some of the fastest and most blistering dance music you will ever hear. When you back them with a band who can move from trance, via reggae to South African rhythms, you get a musical fusion which is absolutely superb. A word also needs to be said about Tom Salter, who is a truly remarkable guitarist; most of the time he plays rhythm, but when he gets a chance to shine (such as on the amazing Room 215) he is absolutely stunning (though a truly terrible dancer).

By the sound of the new tracks they played, the next Peatbog’s album will be more rock-orientated than the last couple, but that’s not bad thing. I can hardly wait to hear it. My only slight complaint was that the band played very little of their slower stuff. They are a brilliant group to dance to – none better – but they can also produce slow music which conjours up their native Hebrides in a remarkable fashion. I’d love to have heard Fishing at Orbost, for example.

Still, this is a small complaint. It was a great night and any gig which ends with Folk Police can’t be all bad!

This post and last night’s gig were sponsored by Dave and Lina! Thanks for the Christmas present. 

Church Mission Noticeboard Checklist

One of the nice things about my job is that I get to visit lots of different churches. Generally, I aim to turn up well in advance of the meeting or service that I am attending and this gives me an opportunity to have a look around the church. If I were an architect, I’d no doubt use my time to study the building itself and if I were a health and safety person, I’d look for the prominently displayed certificate, but I’m a missionary and the first thing I gravitate to is the church mission noticeboard.

Most churches have some sort of noticeboard which they use to promote interest in the mission activities they support. The way these noticeboards are laid out follows a general pattern, there is usually a world map showing where people work, photographs of the workers and copies of prayer letters to inspire people to take an interest. Sometimes the boards are artistic, other times they are purely functional and sometimes they are desperately out of date (especially the photographs!).

However, I’d like to make three suggestions of things that I think should be obligatory on every Church mission notice board.

  1. Evidence of some interest in overseas/cross-cultural mission. It isn’t enough to have church members working in other parts of the UK doing good things with other churches, youth, the poor or whatever. These things are all good, but we have a call to go to the whole world, not just to our own country.
  2. Interest in promoting the Bible. If we take the Bible seriously as a revealed text from God, we will want to promote it’s translation, distribution and use. There are hundreds of millions of people who don’t have a single word of Scripture available to them in their mother tongue. Yes, I would like people to support Wycliffe, but the most important thing is that we support the spread of God’s Word.
  3. An indication that the church is doing something to take the message of Christ to people who have not yet heard about him. I talk a lot here about the spread of the Church around the world, but there are still billions of people who have no opportunity to hear about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Meanwhile 85% of Christian workers worldwide are working to sustain the Church, rather than to reach outside of its boundaries. This is something which should motivate every church in the country!

There are all sorts of things which fall under the rubric of mission; care for the poor, providing water, fighting injustice and so on; these are all good and necessary. However, if a church is not involved in spreading the Gospel beyond these shores, especially in places where people have not heard about Jesus and is not doing something to promote the spread and use of the Bible, it is not fulfilling its calling as a community of Christians.

By the way, this doesn’t necessarily mean sending or supporting missionaries; there are many ways in which a church can get involved in work across the globe.

Have a look at your church noticeboard this weekend and see how it lines up against my suggestions. You might want to have a word with someone, if it doesn’t.

I am aware that some churches are too small to get meaningfully involved in a range of mission activities, but even then I suggest that they should prioritise one of the three areas I’ve mentioned above, rather than some of the other, more fashionable, causes. 

Whose God: Whose Theology?

“… until recent years, systematic theology has at its best tolerated interpretations of Christology from outside the mainstream academic quarters, that is, mostly Euro-American and predominantly male theologians. Toleration has meant paying lip service to the role of “exotic” interpretations of Christ stemming from the soil of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and non-dominant cultures in the Global North. At the same time, these interpretations have been marginalized, put in separate volumes and essays – apart from the “serious” dogmatic and systematic works.” (p.70)

Service, Justice, Proclamation and Balance

BurkinaladyA couple of days ago, I tweeted this:

This seemed straightforward enough to me, but a wee while later I received the following response:

if you read Luke 4, 18-19 I am not sure where the big difference lies.

I found this statement rather frustrating. Partly because the verses cited (much less the wide sweep of Scripture) don’t support the point my correspondent was making, but mainly because it reflects what seems to me to be messy thinking about the Church’s mission.

Let me be clear, I believe that mission involves both social action and proclamation of the message of Christ. I’ve blogged on the Five Marks of Mission, which spell this out and I’ve gone into some length as to why I believe in the social development side of the work that my organisation does. You can’t proclaim the message of Christ without serving people, but service without proclamation is equally short-sighted. So, if works of service, struggling for justice and proclamation are all important, why distinguish between them? Why not just agree with my twitter correspondent that there isn’t a big difference?

The point is balance. In my experience in mission, evangelicals have rarely held the different aspects of mission in an appropriate tension. There was a time when any sort of works of service were dismissed as ‘social Gospel’ and the only sort of mission that was regarded as legitimate was proclamation. Today, I fear that we have gone in the opposite direction and prioritised service and justice ministries at the expense of telling people about the Good News of Jesus. We need to distinguish between the two so that we look at what we are doing and to ensure that our mission has an appropriate balance.

I’ll return to this theme in the next day or two.