The (mis)perceptions of a short-term missionary

Many of us find it hard to imagine life in another country. Americans often assume that other places, especially Muslim countries, are more dangerous than the good old United States. When other Christians learn where my family lived, the most common question I receive is “Did you feel safe there?” »

My first response, if I can’t help it, is to laugh. Because I’ve heard the exact same question many times from international friends curious about life in the United States: “Do you feel safe there?” »

While my American Christian friends imagine the Muslim world as a playground for terrorists, people in other countries can easily see the United States as a haven for armed psychopaths who shoot up schools and ravage city streets. . As a Kurdish woman once told me: “I would be too afraid to visit your country.

Of course, as someone who has lived in both worlds – in the global Middle East and the American Midwest – I can testify that both perspectives are largely wrong. Understanding a place and its people requires more than news clips or short visits. This is one reason I take first impressions of short-termers with a grain of salt.

“I can feel the darkness”

I have made short term ministerial trips to several continents. Although not always the case, they easily promote a kind of professional tourism offering alternative experiences similar to visiting Epcot’s World Showcase. These journeys generally do not correspond to real life, nor do the observations of their cross-cultural participants.

Whether in Buddhist, Catholic, or Muslim countries, I have heard essentially the same remarks from short-term missionaries: “I can feel the darkness here. Surrounded by loss, they are stricken with craving. They feel a deep spiritual force, a dark power that is tangible and almost terrifying.

Now, I’m not here to question every person’s spiritual feelings. But it’s possible they’re just experiencing cultural dislocation and confusion that leads to internal malaise. When we are in a foreign place where we don’t understand much, our bodies are easily disoriented, producing feelings of helplessness and anxiety – a ‘darkness’ that many are unaccustomed to in their home country. .

If we assume that the rest of the world is so dark and depraved, we may not be looking closely enough at the spiritual state of our home country.

Also, if it is dark forces and spiritual lack that these short-term missionaries are noticing, it could be telling if they have never felt the same loss in Peoria or Portland. More than likely, they feel these things abroad because they are sensitive to them, not because such darkness is absent elsewhere. In fact, if we assume that the rest of the world is so dark and depraved, we may not be looking closely enough at the spiritual state of our home nation.

“Believers Are So Unified”

Another common phrase I’ve heard from short-termers is more positive: “The believers here are so united! Christians in America, tired of petty disagreements and denominational squabbles, arrive in other countries ready to celebrate the joy and fellowship they find in local churches. When they show up on Sunday morning, all they see are smiling faces, worshipers singing, and believers fellowshipping around the Word and the Table.

Of course, there is a deep irony here. Because any non-English speaker visiting an English-speaking church in America would likely witness the same things. It’s only when you know the language and the people, are aware of their struggles, and see what’s going on during the week (or what Christians post on social media) that you get an idea of the reality and maturity of their faith.

The challenges of Christian life and community are the same everywhere. Now, my children will tell you that Christian fellowship was sweeter for them living in a predominantly Muslim context. And I am inclined to somewhat agree. But their observation also proves my point, for our children were often unaware of congregational gossip and lies, division and mistrust, spiritual apathy and sometimes apostasy.

The challenges of Christian life and community are the same everywhere.

Any American Christian who traveled to visit our house church in Central Asia on any given weekend would have come away inspired by the power of the gospel. She would have celebrated a gathering of conscripts in the midst of a Muslim nation. However, what she would not have was a real sense of how difficult certain Sundays were for this same church to demonstrate any semblance of joy, unity, or hope.

reality check

Short trips are said to be an effective tool for recruiting future missionaries. It’s probably true. But my concern is that these cultural intruders are basing their assumptions – and their future plans – on reality. If they are going to cross the seas simply because the people are so needy or because the Christians are so wonderful, they may be surprised when they show up and find out otherwise.

But what does that have to do with the rest of us? Is this just an opportunity to criticize short trips? No, I think they have a purpose and a place in the mission. I also think these lessons have something for all of us – a kind of reality check for daily life and ministry.

We should recognize that just as confusion breeds fear, familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps some of us should come into worship this week with eyes to behold the miracle that is the Christian church. We are inclined to see the worst in us. But the Bride of Christ is beautiful. And whatever joy and fellowship we share is truly a sight worth celebrating, one that catches the watchful eye of angels.

Some of us should come into worship this week with eyes to behold the miracle that is the Christian church.

Perhaps we too should walk through those same church doors with our eyes open to the pervasive evil that surrounds us. No matter where we live, we are surrounded by darkness and loss, principalities and powers, wickedness and the works of Satan. If we are moved by the needs of nations, we should also be stimulated by those of our neighborhoods. This is where many of us will find ministry opportunities that will last a lifetime.

Editor’s note:

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