It’s all good. But is it the best?

We recently hosted a couple in our home who had completed 13 years teaching in a small Bible School in Africa. They were now visiting Australia for the first time.

They had returned to their country of origin to pursue ministry options in their ‘retirement’. After about a year the Bible School back in Africa asked them if they would return for a semester of teaching. After prayerful consideration they declined the opportunity. It just didn’t sit well with my friends who thought that such a ‘fly in and fly out’ arrangement would ultimately send the wrong message about relational integrity, taking the time to walk with and understand the challenges of the host community and its culture and even a betrayal of what some might call ‘incarnational’ ministry. 

Even though they had lived there for 13 years.

His decision and the reasons for it gave me great pause. 

I have, by sharp contrast, often ‘flown in and flown out’ at the invitation of host churches and communities; to lead missions, sometimes for a few weeks, several days or just a weekend, sometimes with mission teams or just on my own. His concern that six months would send the wrong message about his commitment to them left me speechless about my six day sojourns.

The organization I work for has had, and continues to have, a deep and abiding commitment to effective Biblical and theological education, as well as aid and development ministry across Africa and other parts of the world. I have argued in the past that there is value as well as danger in mission/ministry tourism (see ‘I’m all for mission coated holidays’).

I have comforted others and myself with the mantra that it’s all good. 

But I am confronted with the question, ‘Is it the best?’ And what is the best?

Long Term v Short Term

Nobody would argue that short term engagement is more beneficial than long term, or even on a level footing. At least, I haven’t heard anyone try to. But the argument that short term is better than nothing gets a good thrashing at every turn. And it is. And it’s even better than that. Short term often tests the waters and can turn into long term. Short term is an encouragement to friends who have committed for the long haul.

Short term is always welcomed, no matter how short it is. This is due to a number of factors. 

Firstly, hospitality. We Christians in upper-middle class communities in the West (we with the resources to do this ministry tourism thing) aren’t as good at hospitality as many of our potential hosts in more resource-challenged parts of the world. 

Secondly, encouragement. Our brothers and sisters in Christ serve the Lord in some very difficult places on the planet, starved for fellowship and severely strapped for resources. They are ravenous for anything we can give them in friendship, training and resources. They won’t baulk at any offer, no matter how meagre, even when our short term engagement can stretch the scarcity of their resources beyond their limits. 

Thirdly, cargo. Generations of unhelpful strategies of aid and development delivery have created cultures of dependance and the false promises of material prosperity (Cargo Cultism, Rice Christianity and Gift-bearing Wise Men syndromes). Perhaps the seductiveness of false prosperity gospels have something to do with this. Even if we decry the evils of prosperity theology with our lips, do the levels of wealth our lifestyles flaunt, even in our fly in and out forays, betray our outrage?

Partnership v Paternalism

One of the greatest dangers of ‘short term’ is the subtle paternalism that can develop. We just don’t have the time to listen, to share, to understand the language, the thinking patterns, the struggles, the nuances of context and culture. 

This lack of time and lack of life-sharing combined with an urgency for outcomes to justify our ministry tourism can’t help but breed an attitude of having all the answers, and offering quick-fixes. Our ‘expertism’ may even be pacifying pangs of guilt because we are in, out and back to our limitless resources and endless discussions about the latest and greatest diet fad and luxury cruise deal. Also, our pontification about the causes of systemic poverty may be blinding us to the fact that our expectations of what we want out of life may be contributing to the problem.

We must eschew every instinct towards paternalism and pursue genuine partnership with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. This is true whether we are an individual, local church, or even if we are a missionary society or aid and development agency. We must invest in and empower indigenous leadership and this will involve the sacrifice of time and resources. We must get beyond the thinking that it’s all good to asking the hard question of what is best.

Sacrifice v Self-Interest

The longer we live the Christian life and the deeper we look into our own hearts we are confronted with the realization that all our ministry efforts are tainted with self-interest. Chronic forms of ministry self-interest will be expressed in a need to be needed, recognised and significant. Organisations who need our money may subtly pander to this self-interest by appealing to our desire to make a difference with the mantra, ‘you can make a difference!’

This danger will always be lurking in the deep shadows of our souls but may show itself shamelessly when short-term mission tourism is chosen over long-term commitment. 

False gospels won’t be fixed by short, sharp forays into foreign places. The Son of God didn’t leave his Father’s side for a short break.

Is there the will in the West to win the world for Jesus? Do I have a heart that burns for the glory of the gospel of God? 

Will I invest my life strategically and sacrificially in the proclamation of this glorious gospel and in the protection of people at risk?

Will I do what is good or do what is best?