jonathan stone's blog

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shallow service or deep justice?

Kara Powell raised the question at Shift if whether or not short term missions trips were truly effective. This hit home to me since I am a short term missionary! She threw out some ideas and some statistics that suggested that our efforts in short term missions trips may not only lack true impact, but might also be counter productive in certain ways. Thus, she suggests that these short term efforts, even good ones, might be considered shallow service. She goes on to suggest that a more helpful focus might be in what she calls deep justice, which she defines as ‘righting wrongs.’

I’m still wrestling with her take on short term missions trips. Having lived abroad as a missionary I have ‘received’ short term teams myself. And I have seen both shortcomings and significant impact. Nonetheless, I think her nomenclature has the potential to be extremely helpful. And for our tradition, I believe that we have neglected these issues of deep justice.

Skye Jethani says this in light of her session, “Our churches tend to approach service as an event—buying gifts for poor kids at Christmas, feeding the homeless, going to Mexico to build a house. Again, these are worthwhile things. But justice isn’t an event, it’s a lifestyle. She defined justice as simply “righting wrongs.” Toward this end students at her church are engaging issues like sex trafficking, HIV/Aids, and modern-day slavery.”

I am planning on teasing out this week some specific issues along these lines. I think that we have lost our priorities on certain issues. Some things are ‘hot button’ topics that generate some very strong responses, perhaps too strong (abortion?). Other issues illicit almost no response at all (water wars in Africa?). Anyway, I’ll be hitting some of these this week. But in the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions or thoughts about this, I would be much obliged.

11 comments on “shallow service or deep justice?

  1. brutha_bran
    April 13, 2008

    Being that I’m always here when the short term missionaries return, I’ve never heard the results of these short term trips other than “we built houses or a church in Mexico.”
    From my perspective, there are huge results in the lives of the short term missionary teams.. Especially when it’s a youth trip. It gives them a more global perspective, and allows them to get closer to God through serving others.. I know several people who have been called to missions through these trips..

  2. Steve Wright
    April 14, 2008

    Compassion that doesn’t lead to justice is just pity. I say keep doing short term mission work but find the injustice and then bring that info back and do something about it locally. I’m not sure what that would look like but hey, you need to start somewhere.

  3. m.d. mcmullin
    April 14, 2008

    This will be an interesting topic. I have lead teams on short-term mission trips (Ireland twice, Ecuador once) and have come away feeling that both myself and the team benefited more than those we visited.

    Those trips were life changing for many of those students.

    Besides bigger issues like clean drinking water in Africa or child prostitution in Thailand (which makes me really angry), what does it say that we care about those things but not the children that live next door or who sit in Sunday School with our kids.

    There is plenty of injustice in our churches and neighborhoods. Maybe one issue to explore is short-term trips around the world vs. missional living in our own cities.

  4. m.d. mcmullin
    April 14, 2008

    I wasn’t suggesting that we ignore bigger issues around the globe (like the roving bands of children in Uganda trying to avoid being forced into militia).

    Simply saying that injustice is not a foreign issue far away from where we live.

  5. The Boyds
    April 14, 2008

    There is injustice in our own denomination. We don’t even need to look beyond our own house. Our quest for justice should begin here.

    We take on big issues yet God is also concerned with what we ignore in our own yard.

  6. Leonce Crump II
    April 14, 2008

    When we return to the states after a short term missions trip, we can not resolve to leave the things we saw and felt while we were there…

    If we go there just for the “notch” in our Christian belt we have wasted our time and often wounded the people we say we went to help…

    Fred Garmin and PFCL are doing a great job of not only shifting culture and making life better in Cambodia, but they are coming back to the U.S. and strategically contemplating ways to continue meeting the deeper needs of the people there…

    The short term teams they bring over every few month’s or so are commissioned to be a link in the chain, contributing to the long term affects that they are hoping to have on the country of Cambodia…

  7. Hunter
    April 14, 2008

    Well, this is all so very thought provoking. I really don’t know what i think yet. I am interested to hear more information on this like the stats, and what the stats point to as “impact”.

    There is no doubt that a missions trip impacts the missionaries whether it is short or long term. However, i have often wondered what the people think that we went to minister to? I know that on the trip both the missionaries and the indigenous usually find a significant connection, and in my mind that alone is worth the trip.

    On the other side i do strongly believe that we not only need to be more globally minded, but we also should be globally active. Furthermore, the entire idea of righting wrongs is something that we don’t really focus on in the church, our homes, or the world. If we did, the righting of wrongs would happen at every level including the global issues.

  8. Claire
    April 14, 2008

    When I was in middle and high school, my youth pastor organized a summer program called cross & towel (picking up the cross of Christ and the towel of foot washing). It was weekly, which brought an attitude of service as a life routine, rather than singular event. We were even able to work with certain people or organizations multiple times, building relationship.
    Having recently (haha) been a youth with the short-term summer missions mentality, I would suggest that taking a youth group to serve and be Christ’s hands, simply for the benefit of the kids themselves, sort of defeats the purpose of a mercy mission. My view toward less privileged people and service was greatly changed by trips I was able to be involved in, but emphasis was always, thankfully, placed on the people on the receiving end of our work. I think there’s a possibility that a heart for service could be distorted. Serving for two weeks to coming back with warm fuzzies isn’t the same as serving out of obedience and passion.

  9. darrellbjr
    April 15, 2008

    As a short term missionary evangelist I’ve definitely grown because of my experiences off the big island…but after only a few weeks in one location it is hard to know how lasting the impact was on those whom I ministered to.

    Beyond evangelism and service, the only opportunity I’ve had for the aspects of justice is that of an observer. I can talk about AIDS/HIV in Africa. I can talk about the kids living in the dumps in South America. Boy I can talk about aspects of racism/tribalism from all over. But I’ve never been there long enough to do more than observe and listen.

    On the evangelistic front, too many go out to get the numbers. They go home and report the numbers. Someone else comes through to get numbers. They go home and report the same numbers…its a vicious cycle.

    The last missions trip I took was spent not only evangelizing but also equipping. Being able to help prepare the indigenous pastors to disciple and continue engaging their communities after the events made me feel like my time was better spent than just evangelizing alone. In many locations these pastors were ready to deepen the impact of the short term missionary.

    At the same time I struggled with how to report on the larger events of this trip. A great number of conversions but only equipping a small number of pastors to lead them forward made me feel frustrated. As a result, I didn’t even report on the largest “numbers” of my career since there was no way to be sure of the extent of these commitments.

    I guess I am coming to the conclusion that as a short term missionary I either need to put more time into equipping or else partner with those ministries which are already well equipped.

    Of course also being a full time American pastor kind of makes me look at things a little different I suppose. I know what I would want in a short term ministry team or evangelist coming to minister in my neighborhood, and I think our intl. outreaches deserve the same.

  10. Anonymous
    April 15, 2008

    I would agree with Skye that service tends to be viewed by many churches as an event. While not exactly what you are talking about, servant evangelism is a good example of this. A church will gear up for an event and do things that are nice, but not really all that necessary–passing out water on street corners, cleaning restrooms at gas stations, etc. Then they meet up back at the church afterwards and pat themselves on the back for the great thing they have done. Then they often go back to their regular schedule, rather than looking for ways to serve the needy on an ongoing basis. Instead of doing a periodic event, hey should seek to instill in their members an attitude of service. Sometimes, I think short-term service almost seems to be more about the ones serving–and making them feel good about themselves–than about those being served.

    Further, I don’t like the idea of youth groups going on missions trips. A better way to teach them to serve would be to see it lived out on a daily basis in the lives of their fathers, rather than see it as a once or twice a year trip led by an unrelated adult–a trip which often has as much fun and recreation for the youth as it does acts of service.

  11. Jonathan Stone
    April 15, 2008

    Many thanks guys and gal! These are some great comments! I see there is some interest in talking a little more about STM trips. I just went another direction with a ‘deep justice’ issue, but will definitely come back to post and hear your thoughts on STM’s!

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