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Five hidden superpowers of congregational mission leaders

The two-fold crisis we face

U.S. Christians have a worldwide reputation for generosity when compared with other groups in this country and globally. According to a 2021 Philanthropy Roundtable article, the average American gives twice as much to charitable causes as the average Canadian and seven times more than the average European. What’s more, charitable giving in the U.S. is closely related to church membership and attendance: the more often a person attends church services, the more they are likely to give to both religious and secular causes.

But charitable giving is not the same thing as participating in God’s mission. The generosity of American congregations – whether mainline Protestant, Catholic or evangelical – has birthed organizations that have mushroomed into mammoth mission industries. Each year, Americans give more than $3 billion to support a sponsored child and spend something between $3.5 billion and $5 billion to participate in short-term mission trips. The demand for meal-packaging programs – an increasingly common activity on college campuses and summer camps – has spawned dozens of organizations with annual receipts of millions of dollars. While these mission industries function efficiently to produce high donor satisfaction, it is surprising to see how few external evaluations have been conducted as to the impact or appropriateness of the programs. Deeper analysis of these mission industries suggests they are shaped more around donor satisfaction than the needs and potential of the people they seek to serve. Why this gap? The answer lies in current cultural trends and in the historical legacy of Christian mission.

Research that Balajiedlang Khyllep and I did at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s World Mission Initiative revealed that U.S. mainline Protestants, Catholics and evangelicals understand and engage in mission in significantly similar ways. Two-thirds of the 639 mainline Protestant, Catholic and evangelical congregational mission leaders we surveyed in 2019 affirmed that a purpose of mission is to advance “abundant life, reconciliation, social justice and eco-justice.” Half (48%) engaged in mission trips and large percentages engaged in child sponsorship (42%), support for orphanages (32%) or meal packaging programs (51%) to achieve this shared purpose of mission.

But when you carefully examine the list of highly popular mission activities, a curious contradiction emerges: these activities are highly inefficient and are quite expensive for the impacts they produce. These activities are often unsustainable and frequently fall short of best practice standards for how to care for children, strengthen families or develop communities. Orphanages, for example, have been widely discredited in the U.S. and Europe because children simply do not thrive in institutional environments. Yet orphanages – and these other mission industries – continue to grow because U.S. Christians continue to send them billions of dollars a year. According to numerous congregational mission leaders we interviewed, these mission activities are supported in many local churches because they stimulate participation and contributions.

We interviewed one mission director of a large mainline Protestant congregation described her role as more closely akin to that of a “social director on a cruise ship” than that of a mission leader: “I spend more time entertaining mission enthusiasts than challenging or teaching them and am evaluated [by the congregation’s senior leadership] by how much the members enjoy their mission activities, rather than how effective our mission work is.” Our research and interviews with these congregational mission leaders surfaced a phenomenon we call “selfie mission” — when donor satisfaction replaces respectful service to neighbor as a primary criterion for our mission decision-making.

How did donor satisfaction come to shape our mission engagement? When you’re swimming in a riptide, you don’t realize you’re being pulled off course. Getting enough youth to sign up for the mission trip, meeting mission fundraising goals and generating excitement around mission projects and partners can, over time, silently replace the call to follow God into human relationships to work for justice and peace — especially if a congregation doesn’t have a practice of evaluating its work. We begin to travel to easier, more attractive destinations rather than the places where we have a history of relationships or where the impact – on the host community and on our congregation – could be greatest. We begin to fund programs that provide the most attractive reports rather than those that support a local initiative with the proper amount of funding at the right time. Pulled by the riptide, we begin to think the purpose of mission is for our own people’s transformation.

But if “selfie mission” is a relatively recent phenomenon, the second aspect of the crisis facing our congregations has a much longer history. When we look back to the historical period between the late 15th and early 20th century, it is impossible to ignore the powerful synergy that developed between the European missionary movement and European colonialism. Pope Alexander VI’s Doctrine of Discovery in the 15th century provided the theological justification the European colonial armies needed to claim sovereignty over distant lands and force their people to extract and produce the precious metals, crops and raw materials needed for Europe’s burgeoning economies. The human cost of the colonial nations’ campaign to seize wealth in the Western Hemisphere was staggering. As Gustavo Gutiérrez notes in Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ, it triggered a demographic implosion that is estimated to have killed between 14 and 54 million Indigenous people. It also enslaved more than 12.5 million Africans, according to the SlaveVoyages Project. As a result, the church’s understanding of Christian mission was profoundly distorted.

In the first three centuries after Christ’s ascension, Christianity had been generally transmitted “up” the social ladder, passing from marginalized people to the ruling classes. In the colonial era, the directional flow shifted to a top-down model: state-sanctioned priests and missionaries blessed the colonial troops who subdued and converted by force the people of color they encountered. This uncritical blurring of the line between missionary and colonial agent led the church to imagine Christian mission as actions taken by the powerful on behalf of the needy — a deeply flawed notion that continues to derail the church’s intentions as it attempts to serve the world that God so loves.

This is the formidable challenge before us: the ways that many of our congregations understand and engage in mission is built on a “selfie mission” model predicated on donor satisfaction and a colonial view of mission with its distorted understanding of power. What can congregational mission leaders do to start a reformation of their congregation’s engagement
in mission?

Unmasking the change maker

Despite the major challenges facing us, there is a reason to be optimistic about the U.S. churches’ engagement in mission: you. Many of those reading this article are congregational mission leaders: a youth or women’s leader, an elder, deacon, pastor or a mission committee member who wants to connect your congregation more deeply with its neighborhood, city and world. In a former era, it was mission professionals (denominational executives, Catholic missionary order superiors, mission agency directors and missionaries) who were the primary decision-makers, allocating funds and deploying personnel and shaping their churches’ understanding and engagement in mission. Today, it is you: congregational mission leaders who, because of the tables at which they sit and the decision-makers whom they influence, have often-hidden, God-given “superpowers” that enable them to change the course of their congregation’s engagement in mission. This is the purpose of the book I’ve written with Balajiedlang Khyllep: Freeing Congregational Mission: A Practical Vision for Companionship, Cultural Humility and Co-Development. The book, along with the online community we’re forming with congregational mission leaders at
freeingmission.com, provides the strategies and tools leaders need to start the reformation.

Five hidden superpowers

Many congregational mission leaders have admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the daunting task of beginning a change process of this depth. We have found that many leaders are unaware of their own “superpowers” — strategies and tools they already have at their disposal that can shift the direction of their congregation’s mission program. Here are five
of them:

The power of a question

A superpower every congregational mission leader possesses is the ability to raise a question. Sometimes our best intentions don’t translate well across lines of economic and cultural difference. I had not thought much about the unintended consequences of child sponsorship programs when a Peruvian mother’s question stopped me in my tracks: “Would you want a foreign adult writing regularly to your seven-year-old daughter?” “Of course not,” I knew immediately. So why are most child sponsorship programs structured to ignore the very people God has placed around a child to nurture them — their parents and extended family? This simple question forced me to think more critically about a mission industry that raises more than $4 billion each year.

What are some examples of seminal questions that can change a congregation’s consideration of how to engage well in mission: “Whose voices have we not heard?” “Who else should be part of this decision?” “What might some of the negative consequences of our action be?” By raising a question as simple as the one embedded within the Golden Rule (“I wonder how it would feel if someone did this action to us?”), you have the power to push your congregation to look beyond good intentions to the impacts of its actions.

Break the binary dynamic

A cursory review of the ways many congregations portray mission on their websites reveals consistent, unspoken categories: donors and recipients, givers and takers, the benevolent and the needy. The underlying colonial assumptions of our mission history create the patterns whereby donors are frequently portrayed as generous Euro-American Christians and the needy recipients of mission are often portrayed as persons of color. This binary framing of mission is as theologically flawed and racist as the portraits of white Jesus placed in churches around the world. God’s mission is not a “help desk” where the powerful provide goods and services to the needy, but rather a round table where rich and poor, marginalized and privileged, people of different backgrounds and racial, religious and gender identities are invited to gather together, offering their strengths and also their needs.

One superpower that congregational mission leaders have is the ability to break the binary frame of traditional mission. For example, Pittsburgh Presbytery had established a partnership with the Synod of Blantyre (Malawi) that provided for the mutual exchange of more than 500 people. Even more noteworthy is the fact that roughly equal numbers of Pittsburghers and Malawians have traveled — a testimony to the partnership’s commitment to mutual, more equitable, relationships. But the partnership’s leaders Silas Ncozana, Bill Paul and Dave Carver dreamed of a relationship that moved beyond the binary dynamic: as a result, the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church joined the partnership, breaking down the giver/recipient expectation and creating a roundtable where needs and gifts are shared.

In a different context, high school youth from Allen Park Presbyterian Church in Michigan partnered with an urban Peruvian Catholic youth group and with rural Peruvian youth to participate in an environmental health campaign in a polluted rural community. Rather than one group “doing for” the other, all of the partners joined together to assess needs and abilities and contribute to the common effort. Rather than leading a short-term mission trip to minister to your traditional partners in a “poor” community, consider working with them to empower their efforts to support the most vulnerable in
their community.

Reframe mission as relationship

Even though we intrinsically know that God’s mission is first and foremost about being in relationship, colonial and selfie mission assumptions often cause us to focus almost exclusively on doing. Ashley Goad, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Shreveport in Los Angeles, noticed that her congregation approached mission trips as a transaction rather than as an invitation to mutual transformation based on relationship. By leading the congregation to establish a concisely-worded purpose statement as a plumb line for their mission work, Goad and her leadership team reframed their work to distinguish between transaction and accompaniment, enabling the congregation to understand mission not as a project to be funded, but as people to be loved: “Our vision as a global mission ministry team is to come alongside leaders who are making a difference in their communities and empower them to live into their callings to make disciples.” These deep-level changes take time, and Goad perceived that a shift of this depth wouldn’t happen in a year. She prepared her leaders for a five-year effort and evaluated their efforts on that longer timeframe.

Bring data to the table

More than a fourth of the 664 PC(USA) congregations we surveyed in 2014 were providing support for orphanages and many sent mission teams to visit children in these orphanages. Child welfare experts agree that children do not thrive in institutional settings, which is why orphanages have been almost completely phased out across North America and Europe. Yet they are a growing industry across the Global South. Why? Experts such as Kathryn E. VanDoore have documented that more than 80% of the “orphans” cared for in orphanages across the Majority World are, in fact, “paper orphans” who have been institutionalized despite having one or both parents alive. Many mission committees are unaware that their dollars may be contributing to a growth industry where our demand for meaningful mission experiences in the Majority World can keep orphanages in business, rather than providing the support a family lacks to be able to feed, clothe and nurture their child.

Subverting mission trips

Mission scholars’ pointed critiques of the widely popular short-term mission trips (STM) have been as numerous as they have been ineffective. Calvin University professor Kurt ver Beek found that mission trips don’t positively impact participants’ giving to mission, don’t significantly impact the host community, and don’t increase the likelihood participants will go into long-term mission service. Perhaps most shocking: without adequate orientation and reflection, short-term mission experiences tend to actually increase ethnocentrism. Despite these troubling criticisms, U.S. congregations continue to spend billions of dollars each year on STM. Why?

The answer we have heard from congregational mission leaders is that STM has been transformational to their people. Other authors such as Brian M. Howell and Don C. Richter have noted STM’s structural similarity with a religious pilgrimage. We propose holding on to STM to create a space you can use for the deep-level personal transformation and use it to weave deep, mutual relationships between your people and another community. But first we have to “subvert” it, using its form as a vehicle of Christian tourism and rewiring it to become a place where hosts and participants experience the liminal space of being on the road together in God’s mission. By prayerfully and intentionally framing the trip, preparing your people for intercultural friendship-building, committing to daily reflection on the lived experiences and applying the STM experience in a systematic way back home, leaders can actually sow seeds of personal transformation among their congregation’s leaders in a way that creates a circle of allies for your effort to launch the needed reformation in your congregation’s mission program.

One congregational mission leader described “selfie mission” and the colonial era’s enduring impact on his people’s mission work as “a riptide that pushes us off-course without us even realizing it.” The five superpowers described above provide leaders with concrete ways to get their congregation re-centered on mission in the way of Jesus. But this task is bigger than any one leader can handle alone, which is why we’ve written Freeing Congregational Mission and created the accompanying community freeingmission.com. Join us and discover more of your superpowers and reflect critically on the mission of God.

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