Missional Engagement: A Process

(Want to remind everyone so much of the writing we do at Hopeful Realism belongs in the thinking-out-loud category. Perhaps my posts especially …)

“Those people … bless their heart. Poor things. And, bless your heart. That’s so nice of you to go help them.”

We come to our first paradigm or framework or approach to Mission.

The sound-byte above might seem over-stated. It is. I’ve made it sound worse than it is for heuristic purposes. But, as Mandy and I prepared to spend three months in Haiti in 2008, thoughts very much like this were expressed. Sincere, well-meaning and well-intentioned people thought “those people” needed “help” or “the Gospel” or something, and we were the ones to take it.

In this framework, mission is fundamentally a demonstration of pity. Short-term mission trips, when executed thoughtlessly, can serve to cement this paradigm solidly in hearts and minds.

At best, this thought pattern is an inkling, or even an awakening, of genuine Christian compassion. At worst, it’s a toxic notion that re-enforces all kinds of wrong ideas about participation in the Mission of God.

A lot is assumed and implied in the “Bless their heart. Bless your heart” framework. I thought of at least eight issues (I know there are more here than I can think of at the moment).

  1. “Those people” are primarily objects of our charity. They are recipients of our good graces. They stand by, awaiting our kindness.
  2. “Those people” are played against “us.” There is an assumed categorical distinction. Though all evidence indicates a distinction between “us” and “them,” we must seriously lean against such thinking.
  3. Ultimately, people in other places are to be pitied. No one likes to be pitied, by the way.
  4. Somehow, participation in the mission of God is exceptional Christian work, reserved for a special class.
  5. The ones who go are heroic.
  6. Involvement in the Mission of God is optional. Participating in the alleviation of suffering in our broken world is optional.
  7. One can detect an assumption that lives lived in comfortable places do not contribute to suffering in difficult places. This is simply not true. The connections may lie in a tangled, uncontrollable web, but the connections are there.
  8. Real difficulties and struggle in the world can be solved by Christian niceties.

Obviously, the folks who think along these lines do not have these eight ideas—as a whole or in part—up-and-running. At least, I sincerely hope not.

Again, I’ll focus on the positive. This kind of thinking is an inkling of Christian compassion. It’s an awakening. In fact, it’s often the first step toward missional engagement.

We can be mad at people who think like this. We can be frustrated. We can make brothers and sisters feel like pompous, clueless, snobby and thoughtless Christians. But, in my experience, most Christians are simply unaware. I’ve been there, too. Worse, in my missional thinking, I still sometimes sense this attitude lurking in the corners of my heart and mind. I haven’t arrived. I’ve less than arrived.

Though our ministries need a prophetic edge, they also need a pastoral heart.

As pastors and leaders, we must push people further. Force them to think about these eight assumptions (and others).

How do we do this?

I’m not exactly sure. Expose the assumptions. Sometimes just pointing this stuff out is a helpful way forward. Ask hard questions. Refuse to allow certain takeaway lessons from short-term experiences. Literally refuse. Train. Educate in every part of the church’s life. I certainly believe appropriate thinking about mission must be a whole-church, concerted effort.

Don’t be mad. Push, prompt, lead and shepherd.  

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Joel Busby
I live in Birmingham, AL and serve at University Christian Fellowship, the college ministry of Mountain Brook Community Church. I just finished an M.Div at Beeson Divinity School. I also help lead a ministry project in Haiti. More than these things, my greatest source of joy is my wife, Mandy and our new little boy, Henry. My blogging/thinking interests lie in the realm of practical theology. Very interested in how the truths of our faith become lived and embodied in the ordinary moments of life.

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