My name is Rachel Charles, co-founder of 5 Small Loaves. This is the first article in a series that will address the short-term missions model that typically come to the Navajo reservation from American churches. I do not speak as one with expertise on missions but as one who is living in a cross-cultural setting and has observed thousands of outside missionaries pass through.
I have been living on the Navajo reservation for a decade now. My family moved here to become learners of my husband’s Navajo culture and to see how God wanted to lead us. As we have lived and learned about this culture, I have also been observing the many outsiders that come here, the tourists and the mission teams. I observe because I also am an outsider myself and I understand my American culture. I also observe because living on the Navajo reservation has changed me. I have been intertwined into a foreign culture that must constantly interact with the dominant American culture. Unjust history and vast cultural differences cannot be simply swept under the rug of assimilation; it is too complex. And so I have watched, and now I want to speak to those who are coming. But in particular, I want to speak to my brothers and sisters in the churches and on the mission teams.
In my observations of the current model of American missions, I find a striking contrast to the model that Jesus laid out in the gospels. Our methods look nothing like his. And the more I observe modern missions in action, the more I see the wisdom to Jesus’ model.
He sent them out in pairs
In Mark 6:7, Jesus instructs his disciples to go out two by two. That thought by itself sounds intimidating. But then he continues on with even more disconcerting instructions: take nothing for the journey and stay in people’s homes. Jesus’ alarming methods probably explain why we Americans don’t follow his advice exactly. We instinctively tend toward comfort and safety. If Jesus had sent all 12 disciples together, that would sound more palatable in our minds. There’s safety in numbers. It’s safer to find one place that can house an entire team together than to split them up into the homes of strangers. We think we will have a greater impact with more team members. And on and on our justifications go.
Over the years, my family has witnessed van loads of mission teams sweeping into our area on the Navajo reservation, one after another every spring and summer. These teams usually number from 25 to over 100 people, which is incredibly large considering our rural environment. They teach Vacation Bible School, lead Sunday worship, fix up dilapidated homes, distribute items of charity, tour various local sites, and sleep all together at a single location, usually a church. There’s a little bit of interaction with local people, but most of the team’s interactions are amongst themselves. The size of their group has created a safe and familiar zone that usually only the most mature and intentional individuals are willing to occasionally depart from. It resembles a swarm of bees moving from place to place and overwhelming the local population.
Because typical mission teams tend to be so large, the focus quickly becomes controlling their own crowd rather than serving the people they came to help. Their size requires a strict agenda in order to keep everyone happy, productive, and fed. Quite often these teams are full of teenagers with a few adults to supervise. But often this young age-range does not have the maturity to interact meaningfully with their unfamiliar environment. Therefore, the adults have to concentrate their energies onto the kids like they are on a field trip. And the kids, being kids, are simply focused on each other, oftentimes being very loud and boisterous. This makes for quite a loud impact when they visit a quiet culture like that of the Navajo. And it begs the honest question: is this truly a mission or simply an exercise for the youth? If it is primarily for the youth, I urge these mission teams to consider what impact this self-centered activity may have on the local population they are trying to serve.
After all that I have witnessed in mission teams and in the life of local churches on the Navajo reservation, I truly believe that these cross-cultural training exercises, disguised as mission trips, are not as benign as we tend to think they are. Unintentionally, every wave of youth activity, service project, and mission team perpetuates a distorted view of Christianity and missions. Those on the receiving end of these types of missions can tend to believe these lies:
- We are the mission field.
- We cannot do this for ourselves.
- We are always the recipients of charity.
- To do missions, one needs a large group, lots of resources/riches, vans, music, and to teach, build or give something away.
Just because some team members might benefit from learning a few cross-cultural lessons, this may not outweigh the high cost of the impact on the local community, especially when it is done in the name of Jesus and his church.
So how should missions be done?
I really do believe that Jesus was on to something when he sent out his disciples in groups of two and with nothing. Two people with no resources are not going to be inward focused for long. They will not be distracted with chit-chat between themselves but will instead be focused on their mission and their faith. They will actively be looking for where the Spirit of God is already at work. They will engage deeply with the people they are going to because their survival depends on it! They will build lasting relationships that they can then return to and continue to build upon. And in exchange they will leave people with a model of missions that anyone in any financial circumstance can replicate.
I know this probably leads to a concern. A mission team leader might say, “But, many on my team are not mature enough to go out like the model given by Jesus. At least in a group they can get some cross-cultural exposure that can be useful later in life when they are ready for a ‘real’ mission.” But if that is your approach, then who are you really serving and at whose expense? If team members lack maturity to truly go out in faith, humility, and be mission-minded, then leaders need to pay attention to these warning flags. Otherwise, there is a risk of subjecting people who desperately need to experience the healing power of the gospel to a very flawed version of Christianity. And frankly, the Navajo and many other people groups around the world have had to put up with that for far too long.
Missions need to be relationally focused. No matter where you go, it takes time to build trust, and it takes time to learn the culture. It may take years to develop these things, which requires humility, consistency, and returning. There also needs to be awareness of what other churches/missions have been doing in the area and whether or not it is even a good idea to come again in the same way. No one is perfect, but let’s not keep making the same mistakes.
Jesus gave us a model for how to do missions. So why are we deviating from it? If it’s out of fear, then we need to go back in prayer and confess our fears. If it’s because we want to have the most amount of impact in one trip (i.e. our value for efficiency and cost-effectiveness), then we have to acknowledge that God’s economy is vastly different than ours.
The question is: will we trust Him as we go out with the instructions that He gave us?
For more on the series of Mission Models That Empower, see the following links: