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The Ethics of Mission

January 23, 2012

I've written already about how we're looking forward to learning many lessons from our upcoming experiences in Malawi. So it's pretty obvious that we expect to benefit from our trip in a variety of ways. But is this enough? If we call this a mission trip, isn't it essential that we do something worthwhile for others in Jesus' name? On the one hand, in light of the many profound challenges facing folks in Malawi, it would be naive (even arrogant) to overplay the significance of what we can offer as a family over the course of four short weeks. I sure don't want to stride into an unfamiliar situation with a, "we've got all the answers" attitude. But when does a mission trip devolve into little more than exotic tourism? Or what about the possibility that asserting ourselves into the lives of those we'll encounter in Malawi could actually do harm on some level? Hmmm. Scary stuff.

 

We're going to be considering some of these questions in the coming days but maybe you've got some wisdom to share. Feel free to comment. To get the ball rolling, here are some ideas that come "top of mind"

 

1. Short term is a special challenge - short term mission trips have become pretty normalized in our church culture. But short term can be a bit of a catch 22 when it comes to mission ... the brevity of the experience limits the potential to truly understand and engage your surroundings. It's hard to bring a witness to Jesus if you're still finding your bearings. On the other hand, jumping in and relying on your instincts can lead to a lot of painful missteps that could bring harm even to those you intend to help.

 

2. The importance of good questions and open ears - it seems to me that good practice in mission begins with lots of questions and lots of listening. I'm fond of saying that if you want to love your neighbour, you won't start by telling him how you're going to do it. "How can I help you?" is a powerful question if it's asked honestly. Sometimes Christians can be prone to skipping this step. We're trying to do a lot of asking and listening right now as our email inbox fills up with lots of notes between ourselves and our friends in Malawi. It can feel a bit awkward and frustrating at times but we're getting there. I've written earlier about how we expect to learn a lot more once we're on the ground in Malawi but of course if we're going to bring something of true value to Malawi it's important to have as clear a perspective as possible before we start our trip.

 

3. Keeping an eye on the future - Put simply, short term is never enough. Even a well organized short term trip could be hard to justify in terms of its immediate benefits. Of course this is especially true with longer distance (i.e. higher cost) trips like this one. While the first step in our journey may only last for one month, we have to be open to much more in the future if we're truly engaging this whole experience as mission. As I've written about before, one long-term outcome of this trip that really excites Julie and me is the potential positive impact on our kids (and other kids who may join us). But that's not really what I'm thinking about here. As we head to Malawi this time, we are very open to the possibility that this is only the beginning of something that will unfold for many years to come. It's very possible (maybe even likely) that the small contribution that God has planned for us to make will take us a long time to complete.

 

So there are some early thoughts on "the ethics of mission". We don't want to engage this experience as little more than exotic tourism. With an attitude of genuine humility and respect for others, we want to offer something that is truly helpful and honouring to Jesus. Turns out that may not be as easy as most would assume. Good intentions are not enough. But we're up for the challenge. I'll post more on this topic later.

 

 

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