Friday, June 21, 2013

What Are Missionaries Really Doing Out There? On Problems In Missions

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary has written two posts recently about missions. It's good. And sort of brutal.

Jamie is a super interesting blogger. She was a missionary overseas and is now back in the US, and she had a huge readership.  The first time I went to her blog I was curious about the blog name. What does she mean by that? Well, all in all I love her and most of what she writes. She's real and honest and calls out what needs to be calls out. She does swear. She's in your face. Sometimes it might be a bit cynical (which is why I relate).

These posts on missions are hard for me to read because, well, they're brutal and I grew up in this missions culture and I'm entering back into it. She's writing about some of the things that drive me crazy but that I'm struggling to know how to deal with now that I am re-entering this world. I wrestle as I read her writing, and so I'm going to wrestle in writing because if I'm entering this culture I need to address it. This is from her post Deciphering Missions.

It's kinda scary when you think about it, but Christian Missions is an.... industry – with virtually no oversight, no standards of practice, and no hiring requirements. To top it off, it's shrouded in a cloud of overly spiritualized language, easily manipulated to allow people to believe that more good is coming from their missions dollars than is necessarily true.... Applied liberally, this vague and mysterious language can make even the most worthless missionary seem as though they were plucked by God, himself, from their homeland and delivered to the mission field on the back of Balaam's ass for the betterment of the world.

 Yeah. I hesitate to post that quote because, well, that information alone is enough to send people running in fear from supporting or being interested in missions. And yet it can be true. There is money flowing that too often has no oversight, is overly spiritualized, has starry eyed donors with no clue what's really happening on the field, and is reported in newsletters that tell you nothing. And, truth, there are some missionaries that are spiritually immature, culturally insensitive, or rather useless in terms of actually working towards the kingdom of God.

So yeah. Let's just get that out there. It's true sometimes, of some people, of some work. I struggle with talking about it because I am in two worlds. One is a world where "missions" is a part of the American church culture and people have been raised in it, give to it, are excited about it just because it's labeled "missions", etc. The other, however, is a newer, younger type of church world that has many people that didn't grow up in the church. They don't know much about missions and if they do, they are hesitant about it unless they can get there and see and feel the "need" themselves. The churches in these circles don't like to give corporately to missions and individuals are very selective and want to be very personally invested and sure of what they're giving to.

What Jamie says next is the great need in the first group I mention above. And so, if this is you, your church, your world.... listen up.

I'm telling you all of this because there is blatant fraud going on in the world of missions and in the name of Jesus. And that bothers me. If you support a missionary, if you're a church that supports missionaries, if you're interested in becoming a missionary, you should be pushing for clarity and transparency from the Missions world. Most missionaries will be able to answer your questions without resorting to evasive language and obscure ideas. But if they can't? That should be a serious red flag and you should feel emboldened to push back until you clearly understand what they're doing with their time.  

Now, as someone who is entering work overseas, let me step onto the other side. Jamie just said that if a worker (okay, I'm just going to say worker, because I don't like the inconsistency and over spiritualization of the term "missionary" and I believe any good missionary should be a worker for the church) is any good, they will be pushing for transparency and will be able to answer good questions.

So. Let me do some talking. First off, an organization that provides oversight, hiring standards, standards of practice, and accountability is absolutely necessary. We picked the sending organization we picked partly because of these exact things. They didn't just hire us because we're starry eyed adventure seekers. We had to go through physical testing, psychological counseling, doctrinal evaluation, counseling evaluation on our marriage and personal lives, and references within our church, work, and volunteer background. The organization has Board oversight, external financial evaluation, standards of conduct and ministry, annual review of on-the-ground ministry, and a vision and mission that we believe in. This was important to us.

Secondly, Jamie says:
If a missionary says they're “partnering with the local church” or they say they “work alongside a local church”, ask them what that means exactly. It could be anything from “I attend a local church” to “I occasionally drive past a local church on my way to the pharmacy” to “I regularly admonish the pastor of a local church for preaching too long”. Or it could mean they have a real, legit partnership, like, one that's mutual and beneficial. But I would definitely ask. (I would also ask, “If there's a local church, why do they need missionaries?” - but that's a post for another day.)
 Yeah dude. Actually I'd say that if they're not partnering with the local church, that might be a problem. Why don't they work with the local church? What's wrong with the local church? Are you preempting local church leadership because you're an arrogant Westerner that thinks you can do it better? I gotta say, one of the things I am most excited about in what we're doing is that we are going at the request of a school that is run and funded by a local church denomination, and Isaac will be working for an Indonesian active in ministry and leading the school. We are entirely in support of already existent ministry led by Indonesians. Exciting.

“I do discipleship.” is also one of those super broad statements that could mean anything from “I teach about the life of Jesus 4 times a day, 6 days a week”, to “I just live my life in an exotic locale on the church dime, hopeful that someday someone will ask me about my faith."
Truth.... this one makes me squirm, because when people identify my own personal gifting, they always mention discipleship. The vagueness of the term makes me uncomfortable because I think I run the risk of doing little, and using a spiritualized term to make it feel like I'm doing things. To be honest, the last six months have been a push in this area because I am not personally satisfied by the answer, "Kacie will be doing discipleship." Most people are quite satisfied with that answer because hey, we're in the evangelical world and what really matters in their minds is what the husband is doing (don't worry, I don't like it either). But you know, it matters to ME what I'm doing, and I want it to be real, valuable, and accountable for my work.

And so... my plans and preparation are developing, and I am excited. I can answer my donors' questions.
Another one to watch out for? “I host short-term teams.” Yikes!... Just kidding. Some ministries make great use of short-term teams, while others are literally STM mills. So listen carefully, in case “I host short-term teams” really means “I go around looking for [what is oftentimes meaningless] work to let suburbanites get grimy and feel blessed.” Not good. Any time a missionary's primary role caters to short-term missions, get the low down. 
Um yeah. I am very hesitant about short-term trips.  I have to work to really listen and watch as friends and churches and ministries around me form and send them, because the truth is that sometimes there is an appropriate time or place for short-term trips. However, it is a limited place, and I really hate that funding and excitement and vision for ministry seems to be moving towards short-term trips primarily because it is the most feel-good and hands-on type of work for the local American church. It may not at all be the best thing for the local church on the ground, and it might be at the expense of long-term ministry, but hey, it means great pictures during the service and it gets people excited, so we keep doing it. Rah.

All in all, I'm with Jamie. This exaltation of "missions" and "missionaries" and hiding exotic adventures and laziness behind overly spiritualized language IS an issue. Let's address it. I'll take ownership of me and my work. You, church and church members, need to ask hard questions of your missionaries and if their work is useful, applaud them and support them with passion rather than being a cynic.

More to come....

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