My dream for the church: Missions and Mars



We asked our bloggers to share their biggest dreams for the church. Here’s what they imagine.

 We can put a man on the moon, but the church still has a food pantry.

I recently watched the first season of “Mars” from the National Geographic channel. (No season 2 spoilers please!) It follows a hypothetical mission to Mars in the 2030s while sneaking in some documentary education from actual space exploration up through 2016, and for a sci-fi fan like me, it’s a very bingeworthy show now that it’s on Netflix.

What most impacted me from watching the show is the passion and imaginative energy that go into the human effort to reach and colonize Mars. It’s captivating: the fictional crew are willing to give their lives to live on an inhospitable planet millions of miles from Earth. Their supporters back home do everything in their power to keep the program going despite seemingly overwhelming challenges.

As a Christian, though, seeing the passion and energy that both real and fictional people have for Mars makes me wonder where that passion and energy are when it comes to more humanitarian efforts here on Earth.

In the documentary portion of the show, Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, says, “For us to accept claims that we can no longer do such things is to accept the idea that we have become less than the kind of people we used to be.” Zubrin was once interviewed by the Senate Science Committee, and gave the following testimony: “Mars is where the science is, Mars is where the challenge is, and Mars is where the future is. …We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing. People who watched it happened are still around and still remember a time when we did things like this. And if anybody had told me that I would be 64 and we wouldn’t be on Mars, I would have thought they were crazy.”

Zubrin is not alone in his thinking: Elon Musk’s efforts to develop his company SpaceX prove that there is passion to colonize Mars. Through SpaceX, thousands of people have created billions of dollars’ worth of equipment, all with that end goal in mind. It’s a billionaire’s dream playground, but it’s more than that too. There’s good research to do that can only be done on Mars and on the way to Mars. And, as Stephen Hawking famously said, the survival of our species is at stake: “I am convinced that humans need to leave earth and make a new home on another planet. To stay risks annihilation … for humans to survive, I believe we must have the preparations in place within 100 years.” Whether from climate change, nuclear war, epidemics or asteroid strikes, many believe that having all humans on one planet is putting all of our eggs into one basket on a galactic scale.

These are convincing arguments, at least to me. But I also believe that the most common criticism of the push towards Mars is valid: we have no business spending billions of dollars on rockets and satellites and robots when people here on earth don’t have enough food, water, shelter, clothing and medicine. My hope for the church is that we would muster as much passion and energy as there is behind colonizing Mars on projects that serve those who don’t have enough here one earth.

To be fair, a great deal of money and energy is spent on humanitarian efforts. Among the 36 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (not including China, India, Indonesia and others), about $4.5 trillion, or 8% of GDP, was spent on social services to work on solving these problems, the most expensive of which is providing adequate medical care. The U.S. alone spends $1.8 trillion on social services, $1.5 of which is spent on health care. In contrast, SpaceX operated on $.001 trillion ($1 billion) of funding in its first 10 years of operation. So it doesn’t seem like scrapping our dreams of a Mars colony would make a difference.

And yet, according to many people, we’re just a little way from ending hunger, poverty and other crises. (Estimates of how much money it would take to end poverty in the U.S. range from $200 billion to $600 billion, and one author estimates the cost of ending extreme poverty worldwide range at $222 billion). It’s estimated that eliminating hunger and homelessness in the US would cost $45 billion, and an increase in U.S. government social spending of less than 2.5%. (Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, estimates we need $25 billion to end hunger in America. An official at the Department for Housing and Urban Development estimates that eliminating homelessness in the U.S. would cost $20 billion.) A drop in the bucket. (Speaking of drops, it would only take $150 billion per year to provide clean drinking water to the entire planet.)

Could churches unite together and raise this money and solve these two problems? Perhaps. (Presbyterians are, of course, already at work on these issues! See the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Presbyterian Network to End Homelessness.)

But my imagination goes wild thinking about what it would be like if we actually spent that $45 billion to eliminate hunger and homelessness — and then what if we spent a couple trillion more, worldwide, to eliminate these problems everywhere? What if billionaires competed with each other to solve bigger and bigger humanitarian problems? What if the church could inspire the public to be as enraptured by aid workers as they were by astronauts in the 60s? What if our national pride and identity wasn’t founded on the size of our military or the makeup of our government, but at how effective we were at providing for each person living in our country?

It seems like it would take so little effort, relatively speaking, to make such a big difference in so many lives. The limit, it’s always seemed to me, is our focus. We care more about many other problems that are, in many ways, so much smaller. If we could just refocus our efforts, and our finances, we could care for people as Jesus hopes we will.

The problem is that solving big problems like hunger and homelessness is never as easy as writing a $50 billion check. It’s never as easy as telling a billionaire to stop what they’re doing and solve our problems for us. (On the other hand, if you’re a billionaire and you’d like to write a $50 billion check to end hunger and homelessness, let’s meet for coffee sometime. Soon.) And wanting to write a big check misses a huge point: these are people we’re talking about. They’re not problems to be solved, obstacles standing in the way of our ability to do what Jesus tells us to — treat them as we would want to treat Jesus himself.  I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)

Reality is always more complex than we imagine. And the truth is, we need sources of inspiration and imaginative energy like the effort to colonize Mars to give people hope in the future. We need arts: film, poetry, books, plays, and everything in between and beyond. We need public outdoor spaces that give people room to play and relax. We need all of these things and more because they lend meaning to our lives, because God put us on this planet to do more than survive, but to enjoy what we’ve been given. We will always spend money on seemingly nonessential things. The challenge to care for others cannot be met simply by destroying things that seem to not serve practical purposes.

But how wonderful would it be to allow our imaginations to be captured by the idea of a world where hunger, thirst, homelessness, disease and crime would be eliminated! What if we prized our relationships with each other over the profits we could make or the products we could have? I will dream of that day. I’ll dream of the day when we land on Mars, and the day when no one has to worry about where they’ll find their next meal.

ALEX BECKER is the associate pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Malvern, Pennsylvania. When he’s not blogging, hanging around the church or doing whatever it is pastors do, he enjoys spending time with his wife, taking long walks on the beach (or anywhere, really), reading books and blogs and backs of cereal boxes, and playing with his zoo of dogs and cats.