The Standard American Diet—SAD— is about eating things that don’t offer any nutritional value, things that look like food but aren’t really food at all. All the processed stuff that goes into our bodies, the preservatives and the trans-fats, like Fruit Loops, Slim Jims, and my all-time favorite, McDonald’s french fries and chicken Mcnuggets—which the fast food behemoth just publicly announced are now being made of real, actual chicken meat. Now that leaves me wondering about what the Mcnuggets were made of before…
Similarly, the typical North American diet of cross-cultural mission is a fast food style, in and out type of approach—a paradigm that has its foundations in our culture that is driven by results and outcomes and obsessed with achievement and accomplishment. Generally speaking, mission is very task oriented. At its worst, it becomes a mode of Western imperialism on a small scale. Many projects in the Majority World started by North Americans mirror our culture far more than the gospel. And to be clear, Christians aren’t the only ones implicated in this, either. The hordes of people traveling overseas for “voluntourism” and secular service work are not any wiser in their ways. The ubiquitous use of the phrase “giving back” sheds light on how much we use the poor as objects of our compassion, as a means to reduce our guilt. The psychological payoff is enormous. We go “help” and paint houses and dig wells and build schools and in doing so set ourselves free while unwittingly propagating neo-imperial patterns that do nothing to catalyze real transformation in communities that are economically marginalized. We go in, work on a project for a few days or weeks or months and leave feeling good about what we did and excited to share the photos we took with our new “friends” with our loved ones back home. But nothing really changes. We continue to tell ourselves the same stories about how happy the poor people we served were and how much they smiled. But we continue to see “them” as helpless and in need of “us” to help them, serve them, rescue them. In the end, everything stays the same: the marginalized are still marginalized and we persist in telling ourselves the same narratives about who they are—the ones who need help—and who we are—the ones who can rescue.
But at its healthiest, mission is about something else entirely. At its best, it can result in mutual transformation, both in the lives of the economically poor being served and the economically wealthy traveling to do service work. Perhaps we can be catalysts for bona fide transformation and ameliorating poverty, but not unless the narrative shifts. Not unless the SAD American diet of mission shifts into something more sustainable and more holistic. We don’t get fit and healthy overnight. It takes time, effort, guidance, hard work, and persistence. It’s slow and painful and it’s the project of a lifetime. The same can be said for service work overseas. We need to slow down. We need to reflect on the stories we are telling ourselves about the people and communities we visit. We need to stop trying so hard to accomplish and achieve and “make a difference” and begin to enter the difficult inner journey of engaging our assumptions, biases and beliefs. Without crawling about in the cave of the unconscious and bringing our shadow toward the light, we’ll forfeit the hope of leaving our inner colonialist behind and actually participating cross-culturally in ways that are good for us and those we want to see flourish.
We don’t have to keep stuffing our faces with the Standard American Diet of mission. Real food is there for the taking. But like the organic meat and produce in the grocery stores, there is a premium to be paid. It costs us something to dive into the dark abyss of our souls and be honest about what is there, to be real about what payoffs we get from doing mission work. About where we have hurt ourselves and others in the process of trying to do good by consuming the SAD of mission that leaves everyone hungry and unwell.
But that high price we pay will be worth every cent, because it will escort us into a space where the sustenance of honesty awaits, where we receive the nourishment of a plain look at the reality of our inner world. This is the process of leaving the fake chicken nuggets behind for the nutritive, sustaining food of life, of saying goodbye to the McMission drive-through window and encountering a more authentic, vulnerable, and just way of entering into economically marginalized communities.