You’re Not Called To Short Term Mission Work Overseas. Here’s Why.

Imagine a Christian couple in their late twenties from Nicaragua who dream of coming to the United States to do pastoral training ministry. They’ve heard about the many lonely, overworked people, including pastors, whose lives they hope to make a difference in. They want to serve those who are lost in the competition and poverty of consumeristic society. And though they’ve received no formal theological education and only speak basic English, their desire to go to the United States is strong. So they begin fundraising through friends, family, and their local church. They follow their dream and show up in Houston to network with church leaders and meet people. Soon, they begin offering training to pastors and people who want to become pastors.

A highly motivated but unprepared couple from a Majority World nation comes to the United States to help. It sounds a bit ludicrous, right?

Here is a second scenario, a real one, involving an acquaintance, Mike, who grew up in Houston. He does pastoral training work in various Latin American countries. Though he isn’t a pastor and hasn’t been to seminary or received any theological education, this is the work he feels called to do. So that’s what he does. He fundraises and takes trips to Mexico and Central America to train pastors. No one questions his lack of preparation and formation.

Why is it seen as God’s work for Mike to engage in the sacred work of pastoral formation in the Majority World and absolutely absurd for the opposite to happen?

Is Mike’s work in alignment with missio Dei, the mission of God in the world?

Does it empower marginalized people?

Does it square with God’s dream for human flourishing?

Does it prophetically interrogate the sins of neocolonialism and ethnocentrism?

In many ways, those are questions for Mike to discern in the accountability of community. But they are also relevant to each of us.

The intention to do good in the world is an essential part of calling. When we look at many helping occupations, they all start with a person’s intentions toward that particular type of work in the world. But is someone’s good intentions sufficient for them to put on scrubs, pick up a scalpel, and perform surgery on a sick person?

Is someone’s deep longing to fight for just laws and policies enough for them to show up in the courtroom as legal counsel and argue a case?

Is a person’s desire to teach consent for them to begin their tenure track position at a university?

Is someone’s deep passion for urban design clearance for them to begin building majestic skyscrapers based on their beautiful vision?

These examples sound silly— because they are.

You don’t just show up to your calling.

It takes years of preparation, education, training, and formation. So why is it that if we are called to serving people across cultures that desire and good intentions are license to raise support, buy a plane ticket, and show up? Why is it so different when the conversation turns to “helping the poor” and all sorts of mission work overseas? Why can we just show up to that calling?

Wrestling with how we assign less value to the poor in terms of excellence in preparation, education, and formation is an important part of an authentic call to serve.

The call to serve in places of poverty is real. The divine draw we feel to compassionately engage issues of justice is authentic. But the calling isn’t about the going away to “try to help the poor.” It’s deeper than that. It’s more capacious and complex than that. The call to mission (to participate in God’s mission of shalom and the restoration of all things) is first a call to formation, education, and training. Only secondarily is it an invitation into the world.

Some valid questions may emerge from readers at this point: But what of my church trip each year to Haiti? What about trips when we go help people, when our group goes to paint a church or build house for someone in need? To that I’d say: short term mission (STM) is not a calling. STM is something people do. It is an American cultural phenomenon, a four billion dollar yearly industry. The service learning trips aren’t “mission” in the classic sense of of the word, participating in God’s mission toward reconciliation, the restoration of all things, the coming of shalom. Most mission trips are more accurately service learning trips or voluntourism, which means that there isn’t necessarily a calling involved. It’s just something churches do, again, as a cultural expression of American Christianity.

Mission trips can be great for the people going. They can offer amazing experiences for North Americans through exposing youth and adults to the inhuman conditions of poverty. But being exposed to poverty in order to have a certain type of experience isn’t mission. It’s a kind of consumer experience. There isn’t necessarily anything inherently wrong with it (except when it disempowers marginalized people and perpetuates the shame-poverty cycle). But no one is called to short term mission in the way it is popularly carried out—unless voluntourism or service learning is an aspect of someone’s calling. Even then, we still have to engage the need for robusr education, preparation, and formation.

Each one of us has been called into God’s mission for repairing the world. That vocation, whatever particular form it takes, is sacred and holy indeed, and much larger than we can imagine, certainly way bigger than a ten day trip where we show up to try to help.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts about calling and mission.

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