Ta vie peut faire la difference. “Your life could make the difference.”
That was the tagline of MB Mission’s ACTION program in France this summer. A collaboration with the evangelical Mennonite churches in Alsace, ACTION France brings together French-speaking participants from churches in North America and Europe to grow in faith as they learn and serve together. I was one of them.
It’s an inspiring slogan, but I wonder if it doesn’t give the wrong impression about what short-term mission trips actually accomplish. Certainly, God uses our obedience to build his kingdom when we risk great things for him. But perhaps the kingdom is built as much in the lives of his servants as in the locales where we serve.
Short-term mission takes a fair bit of criticism – some of it deserved – for culturally myopic groups who tromp through foreign countries, making huge demands on their hosts while performing some ineffective or unnecessary work. Fortunately, MB Mission works hard to avert those horrors.
Upon acceptance to ACTION, I received The Next Mile: Goer Guide by Brian Heerwagen. The 116-page book not only teaches how to prepare for and have a fruitful trip, but also how to extend the benefit of that journey beyond the flight home – both in the life of the participant and the sending congregation.
All MB Mission’s short-term programs dedicate significant time to preparation and debrief. ACTION France includes a full week of orientation and debrief at the beginning and conclusion, leaving merely three weeks for active ministry in the middle. We had sessions on prayer and global perspectives and reconciliation both before and after our weeks of “mission” to help ready us for our experiences.
There was great value in serving side-by-side with local churches and existing ministries. My goal was to encourage the French churches, and I believe they were. What the trip truly accomplished, though, wasn’t a task. It taught me the humility of helplessness. Whereas in English, I have linguistic mastery, in French, I have the competence of a little child. I had to learn to offer grace to myself, and find value in simply being and inhabiting the identity of a child of God, irrespective of what I could do.
The stories of impact we shared focused more on what we were learning about God and ourselves than how we saw God transforming others.
The straight scoop
That’s no reason to stop going, but it begs the question whether our language might better reflect the reality.
“Let’s drop the ‘mission trip’ lingo,” Jennifer Murch suggested in a column on short-termers posted on the Mennonite World Review blog. During her three years’ Mennonite Central Committee service in Guatemala, Murch benefitted from gaining local perspectives on both the good and bad of short-term groups.
The good ones, she writes, “are upfront about their reason for travelling: to experience, understand and appreciate.” The locals these people serve alongside know the difference.
“Let’s call these groups for what they are: learning groups,” she challenges. To avoid the mistakes of the past, could we rename these journeys according to their effects?
Chapter after chapter in Goer Guide focuses on the attitude and experiences of the trip participant. The goal is to equip participants with a perspective that will enable them to serve well as they learn from new people and a new place. It seems inescapable that short-term mission is really about the person who goes.
It’s not what you do that turns your mission trip into a success but what you allow God to do in you. If the first equipping tool is setting up proper expectations, could we adjust our language to do that? “Learning and service” is just as full of sacrifice, risk-taking, interdependence, prayer and sharing as “mission” – and it’s much clearer.
Within MB circles, some have begun to use this language. Cross-cultural tours facilitated by staff from Canadian Mennonite University, Mennonite Economic Development Associates and Mennonite Central Committee are called “learning tours,” equipping participants with right expectations from the moment they sign up.
Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask., has for more than a decade called its week-long off-campus ministry a “service and learning module,” rather than a mission trip. This shifts the emphasis from what the participant will do in the new setting to what God will do in and through the goer.
Let’s continue to support young people – and those of more advanced ages too! – on cross-cultural ministry experiences that serve established churches and mission partners. But what if we embarked with the humble expectation that “this trip could make a difference in your life”?
It did in mine.