Missions is not about you – Part 1

Missions is not about you.

To some of you, that may sound a little harsh. And for others, you may completely agree. Whatever the case, I had an opportunity this past weekend to speak at a conference on the topic of God’s mission, particularly as it relates to work overseas. In preparation, I pulled together some thoughts on the motivation behind international mission work and thought it fitting to post those here. The topic is just too big to discuss in one post, so I will use this first point to look at what missions is not about. Next time, we will look at what it is about.

Recently, I wrote a post on the rampant consumerism that has made its mark on the Christian subculture here in the United States, and I feel that our approach to the great commission, like so many others things we do, is now tainted by this ill. When we approach church in order to see what we can get out of it, then we will do the same with its mission. I will be the first to admit that I was (and often still am) guilty of this.

When I was 14 years old, I got news of my first “missions trip,” as we call them. It was a 2-week trip to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. I can remember the discussion about the trip being centered more on the fact that it was in the Caribbean than any form of gospel proclamation. Furthermore, I had never really been anywhere at that point in my life. The whole idea sounded exciting. And, while my family was too poor for us to hop on a plane and go to the Bahamas, I could get to the Caribbean this way, and then I, too, would have stories of an adventure.

And for me, that is precisely what it was… an adventure.

But the mission of God is not about you. Too often, when we look deep, the reason our churches are so infatuated with the idea of short-term mission trips is because of the benefit to the people going. “It’ll do more for you than it will them,” is frequently the reasoning used to talk people into going. And when they get back, “I was blessed more than the people we went to see!” is the refrain.

Now, do not mishear my sentiment. I am not saying that great commission work does not change one’s heart. Certainly, if you are a true believer, rolling up your sleeves and being part of the mission is life-changing. Yet, if we really listen to ourselves, we notice that our purpose for going is riddled with selfishness. It is about making ourselves feel better, or patting ourselves on the back, or going to some exotic place.

The great commission is not missions tourism. It is not an adventure. This is not your chance to see the world. Missions is not about you, and if I have not offended you yet, this next point may do the trick.

Missions is also not about them.

Yes, they are there, and yes, they are dying and going to hell. Furthermore, they live in poverty you cannot imagine until you walk their streets and sit in their huts. Their world is one you cannot grasp until you have rejoiced with them at the birth of a child and held their hand to comfort them at the loss of one. They are sick, starving, and, from your perspective, have nothing to live for. Many live in slavery. But missions is not about them.

I struggle to find words that make my point clear on this issue. God loves them. God loves them so much he chose to create them. God loves them so much he sent his son to die for them. God hates poverty, oppression, slavery, and sickness, and God loves the widow, the orphan, the downtrodden and the lost.

And so should you.

Yet, so often what we call love for them is really nothing more than pity. We look around us and see all of our nice stuff, our warm home, our fridge full of food, and our unlimited potential to be and do whatever we want,  and we feel sorry for those whom we deem less fortunate. Now, mix that with a dose of our cultural understanding of the gospel and we get a recipe for a common motivation behind missions. In some sense, it is nothing more than baptized charity work.

What is worse, it is always done with condescension. We, the haves, reach down to the have-nots with all our blessings. We, who come from a land that is not messed up (in our mind) come down to their lowly spot in life and show them the way to get out of their pit. In this model, we feel we have the answer, and these poor people and their backward culture just need our help.

But that is far from the gospel.

For starters, we are just as fallen as they are. Furthermore, I, nor you, have anything of our own. All that we have and all that we are flow from the gracious gifts of God himself. We have earned nothing. Perhaps you think you have. Perhaps you are rather proud of yourself for earning a promotion in your career with all of your hard work, or maybe you feel rather accomplished that you have an advanced degree and some letters behind your name. But take a moment to consider who gave you the strength to walk, the intelligence to think, and the health to live. Neither you nor I have earned anything. All things in your life, all things, are gracious gifts from God.

I cannot proudly be the answer to anyone’s problem. The best I can offer is the good news of a good savior. No, pity is not the motivation behind the great commission. Missions is not about them.

So, the question remains: What is missions about?

Stay tuned.

Keelan

Keelan Cook (@keelancook) is working on a PhD in Biblical Studies at Southeastern and works in the Center for Great Commission Studies. He spent time as a church planter in West Africa with the IMB and doing ethno-graphic research in Washington, DC with NAMB. Keelan is currently one of the pastors at Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC.

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