Saturday, July 06, 2013

Re-Writing our Words

Words oftentimes can bring more confusion than clarity. A single word can offer different meanings, or have different spellings, or different cultural baggage. And then there are times when we choose the wrong words, which leads to embarrassing faux pas (such as the time I announced I was my professor's progeny rather than prodigy).

It's this latest conundrum within the church that causes me to wish we could re-write our vocabulary in order to clarify and correct what we really mean.

1. Follow vs. Believe
Unless you are Davy Jones, you should not be seeking believers. Rather, you (and God and the church) needs followers. It may seem to be a minor difference in word choice but the implications are greater than we realize. A believer is someone who knows all about God and the Bible, believes all the things the Bible says and can even regurgitate spiritual truths. But they may still live according to their own rules and plans because they've never become a follower. It doesn't matter what you believe but who you follow. One involves knowledge, the other requires a humbling submission.

2. Cultural Exchange vs. Mission Trip
The day after I graduated from high school I hopped a plane for Russia. There, I spent a month with a teen mission organization performing dramas throughout St. Petersburg as we shared the gospel with people in the city. I honestly can't say a single person became a follower of Jesus through the performances, nor did I have a chance to converse with anyone on a deep spiritual level. We weren't there to build relationships. We were there to entertain and experience Russia. We called it a mission trip but in reality it was a cultural experience.

I think such trips are great for opening our eyes to other cultures and beliefs, whether we travel overseas or downtown to the inner-city. It remind us of how God's plan extends beyond our neighborhood/city/state/nation. But I don't think these trips are truly about doing missions that bring lasting change to another culture. Those types of trips and relationships are built through long-term involvement with people, as in a church sending a team to the same city year after year to build a deep partnership. Or when a church installs a team (or even a branch of the church) inside the inner-city to have a day-to-day influence rather than sending a group of kids to an inner-city for a week and think any change has been achieved. These popcorn type trips are not about missions or relationships or changing the location, but are cultural experiences that oftentimes change the participants most. Cultural exchanges are great and have their importance, but let's call them what they are.

3. Public Relations vs. Outreach
A sea of purple infiltrates a crowd as goods are handed out and smiles offered. Purple-clad volunteers distribute brochures, bracelets, postcards, etc touting their business. Everything is stamped with the church's name and address. At the end of the day, high-fives are exchanged and backs patted for another great outreach.

Um....what was shared? Who or what was promoted? Did anyone actually talk about Jesus, tell anyone about God's love, or at the very least have an actual conversation beyond niceties?

Such events are great and perhaps needed for the church to let neighbors know they are there in the community, but let's call them what they are. They are not outreach events; they are PR events. Outreach events, at least as most people in the church understand them, involve promoting Jesus and reaching out to offer hope, acceptance and God's love. The moment you replace Jesus' name with the church's, or when you begin bragging about your church and the change it has made in your life vs. talking about Jesus and the change He has made, when you can recite every program your church offers but can't talk about the latest thing God has impressed on your heart, you have moved from promoting God to promoting your church.

1 comment:

Jill Adams said...

Brit - I love that you wrote this, and I agree. It's taken me several days to pinpoint what about this phenomenon makes me feel angry, and that people are somehow being cheated. Today on my commute, a herd of about 40 13-18 year olds from Manitoba wearing french braids and cross t-shirts crammed into the bus on their way to do a mission in my work neighborhood. It's an isolated neighborhood on the water, formerly a shipping/packing waterfront "town", and post-industry, is now a mottled mix of projects, old school immigrants, dirty bodegas, and bougie gentrifiers and storefront art galleries. I was thinking about your post, and feeling a weird mix of wistfulness and rage toward the phenomenon of these kids on the bus, and it finally hit me what frustrates me.

You are right. I am a different human being than I would have been, had I not gone on mission trips as a teen. I learned about service, and empathy, and other cultures, and I felt a burning need to make sure my time and energy mattered in improving lives. And then after living in a place where people go on mission, I also came out the other side not on the evangelical track where I started. Mostly because in the day to day, I was forced to see a wide variety of different kinds of people successfully taking care of the world and each other, and me, with no single unifying theology behind it. And I have learned infinitely from all of these types of people about living a good and meaningful life.

I know this is no argument for people with a single dogged faith, and I respect that. I've also strayed from my point, which is: the part that makes me angry about not being able to call a cultural exchange what it is, seems to come from pride. Pride of place, and pride in what many (in my experience) feel is a superior way of being. If I live in the best country, and the best town, and go to the best church, and have a superior faith, then what do I stand to learn from a cultural exchange? What could I possibly receive that would be worthwhile? So it gets masked as something that it's not.

This seems especially true when it's domestic "inner city" missions -- urban folks don't even offer a new language or interesting textiles, and in my experience are mostly seen as a vast canvas on which to paint the saving message, with no effort or attempt to understand their lives. To talk about systemic poverty, or skepticism toward the government/police/medical institutions, or what it really feels like to live in a not-always-safe area, or how a privileged suburban area might be contributing to problems in the inner city.

I have no problem with cultural exchange. What I do take issue with is the idea of people as projects, and that the motivation is not just about hope and faith, but is often subconsciously about a sort of new-breed cultural imperialism and peering at the zoo animals through the bars. We ALL have something to learn -- and not just about our sins, but about how our ways of being differ from others on the fronts where we may think we're fine.

Thanks again for writing this and prodding me to think. <3