Friday, September 17, 2010

The Death of Mission Trips and Rise of Accompaniment Experiences (Brian E. Konkol)

In June of 2010, Troy Jackson wrote an article titled: "Time to Declare a Mission Trip Moratorium". Among other things, Jackson – who serves as senior pastor of University Christian Church (Cincinnati, Ohio), examined North American international mission trip ventures, and how time, talents, and financial resources were – in his opinion – better served in alternative capacities. In summary, he wrote:

Instead of investing in mission trips for privileged Americans, channel that money to spur on economic development so those who are being sent back to their countries of origin have some real opportunities for a better life when they return.

As a North American who resides in the southern hemisphere and serves alongside companion churches, I agree wholeheartedly with Jackson in the sense that too many so-called “mission trips” function as “Christian Tourism” or “Extreme Christian Adventure”. While local mission trip hosts struggle to benefit in the long-term, North American visitors return to their comfortable homes and congregations to great fanfare and fulfillment. As Jackson rightly stated, such mission trips often reinforce Western domination and imperialism and also contribute toward dependency and manipulation of indigenous people across the southern hemisphere. In addition to my own countless mistakes over the years (…I am white, North American, male, and most of all – totally imperfect, so I am hardly on the side of angels), I have firsthand experiences of North American groups from a variety of Christian denominations who visit as members of such “mission trips”. While most have positive intentions, I would argue that – for a variety of reasons – far too many do more harm than good.

I fully agree that we should eliminate all “mission trips” that reinforce imperial relationships of domination and dependency, as too many North Americans utilize the “banking system” of global partnership, in the sense that their self-appointed role is to “deposit” Christian faith and “advanced” knowledge and/or technology into the “empty accounts” of disadvantaged companions. In addition, there are others who have little interest in actually forming relationships or engaging with local hosts, for they would rather “do a job”, achieve a sense of personal accomplishment, or simply be entertained and treat local hosts like tour-guides or hospitality operators. In various ways, such attitudes and behaviors on behalf of those who claim to visit companions in the name of Jesus are incredibly arrogant and destructive. When North Americans see their roles solely as “actor”, and refuse to acknowledge themselves as recipients of mission (“being acted upon”) through their indigenous hosts, the “mission trip” goal has more to do with consumerist adventure seeking or short-term relief of North American prosperity guilt than faithfully promoting life in its fullness for all people around the world.

With the above being said, the time has come to radically reconsider mission trip ventures, their purpose, and overall consequences for guests and hosts. For example: What is the purpose or rationale of mission trips? How does the Bible guide us (…or push us off-balance!) through such important questions? How can theological voices from the southern hemisphere be utilized? How do we examine missionary history, learn from it, and allow such critical lessons to shape our efforts into the future? How does our current situation in a globalized post-colonial world impact such reflections? How do mission trips contribute to (or impede) the overall mission of God?

With the above questions in mind, it is tempting to eliminate the mission trip process altogether (if the road is destined to include unavoidable and painful potholes, then why travel down it!). However, while an elimination of foreign mission trip activity (short-term and long-term) is appealing for some, a more faithful (and realistic) response is to form a prophetic transformation of global mission trip participation (short-term and long-term) that resists imperial domination and more faithfully promotes reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment. In other words, instead of mission trip activity in its current and common form, we should encourage “accompaniment experiences” that embody the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s concept of “accompaniment”.

In 1999, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Division for Global Mission adopted “accompaniment” in its planning document Global Mission in the 21st Century: A Vision of Evangelical Faithfulness in God’s Mission. Accompaniment, viewed as “walking together in solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality”, calls upon North American churches and global companions to: 1) Affirm the diversity of viewpoints that exist among companion churches, 2) Encourage companion churches to question and analyze the priorities and practices of one another, 3) Be transparent and engage in honest and sincere dialogue, 4) Move beyond traditional relationships of the past between North to South and South to South, 5) Involve churches and agencies affected by decisions in decision-making processes, and 6) Acknowledge that churches in both the South and North will be in solidarity with one another in their weaknesses, struggles, and mission.

Among other things, the above-mentioned objectives seek to spark substantial improvements in long-standing power imbalances between companion churches in the northern and southern hemispheres. In light of historical interactions between “givers” in the north (those who act) and “receivers” in the south (those who are acted upon), a desire to “balance the scales” through mutuality and solidarity is well-intentioned and highly beneficial for Christians in the global south and north. Whereas North American churches who participate in traditional mission trip ventures too often (unknowingly) reinforce relationships of control and post-colonial enslavement, those which embody accompaniment seek to provide relief, development, and “conversion” of the unjust connections which currently shape the global village into those which more faithfully reflect the life-giving nature of the Gospel. In other words, global mission is not intended to “bring God” from the north to the south, but rather, it is for those in the south and north to “follow God” together as fellow participants in God’s mission who have been justified by grace through faith. As a result, we should eliminate traditional forms of mission trips and promote accompaniment experiences.

While too many have misused global companionship and mission activity through the Christian Church, by no means should we discontinue international endeavors and completely retreat into North American seclusion, for such isolation would lead to increased global ignorance, massive spiritual poverty, and continuation of broken and oppressive global connections between North Americans and much of the developing world. When opportunities for global accompaniment take place, long-standing boundaries are crossed, and such experiences have potential for long-term impact through cooperative efforts into relief, development, and advocacy. And so, for North Americans to more faithfully learn their role within the increasingly connected global village, and for continued growth in faith and theological understanding, it is important to follow Jesus’ call to “follow”, and thus engage in an “accompaniment experience” through conversation, listening, learning, mutual service, sharing and critique of cultures, confession, forgiveness, exchange of gifts, and receiving the Good News alongside companions as a result of such interactions. Ultimately, in order to serve alongside poor and marginalized members of the global village and convert connections from domination to dignity, ongoing opportunities for global interpersonal “conversation” (long term and short term) must continue.

In addition to reforming the ways in which North Americans accompany companions around the world, it is equally important to seek “mission in reverse”. As global mission is no longer perceived as a one-way highway from the north toward the south, Christian churches must contribute to programs which allow for those from the southern hemisphere to experience the North American context, and also encourage an increase of “south to south” relationships. As foreign visitors often possess brilliant observational abilities, they often critique aspects of North American life and Western-orientated Christian faith that most local residents and believers take for granted. As a result, a great deal of learning on both sides of the relationship takes place, thus the foreign visitor and North American host greatly benefit. And so, while it is important to experience accompaniment in foreign lands, it is equally critical to be accompanied by foreign guests on native soil. With a growing perception of spiritual poverty and global ignorance in North America, as well as foreign trade policies which continue to hinder basic human rights, the idea of missionaries from the global south traveling into the north is a present reality that should only increase over time.

When accompaniment experiences take place in numerous directions and in various circumstances across the globe, North Americans no longer see themselves solely as “givers” and “teachers”, but as “receivers” and “learners” who humbly experience God’s love in a new and profound way as a result of their interactions alongside global companions. In addition, global companions in the south no longer see themselves as disadvantaged and/or needy, but are set free to recognize their assets and how such gifts can be used at home and abroad. As I reflect upon the past years and my own experiences of accompaniment, I thank God for the privilege of witnessing such interactions between guests and hosts, when reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment take place through Christ-like tensions of “doing” and “being”, “action” and “reflection” , and of course – Law and Gospel. If such powerful and life-changing accompaniment experiences replace traditional mission trips and are replicated through prayerful deliberation and intentional consultation alongside global companions, the potential for short-term and long-term benefits on all sides of the relationship are possible, and those who promote the elimination of international faith-based ventures will be shown a hope-inspiring alternative for future participation in God’s global mission.