Mission Isn't For Amateurs: How Untrained Enthusiasts Can Do More Harm Than Good
A week or so ago, a storm was kicked up on the internet when a church group from the USA posted a video online about its mission work in Uganda, only to have many Ugandans reply that it was offensive. You can find the full story here (it's also worth looking at this and this).
In the five minute, 13 second video, seven young white women are dressed in gomesi — the traditional and esteemed long dresses of the Baganda, a central Uganda ethnic group. The women dance to Justin Timberlake's 'SexyBack' while a singer delivers a new set of lyrics. The theme is "I'm bringing missions back .... I'm out to serve God, it's my pact."
As one commentator said: "The stars of the video are the white women. We barely see any of the community members they claim to serve. When we do, they are voiceless, nameless and shown in stereotypical poses — for example, women bouncing young children on their backs. Which – it should be noted – is a purely practical way for African mothers to comfort, love and take care of their children while simultaneously working. It's hardly comical, as the video makes it seem.
"The message in this video is that we are inferior. And the goofy portrayals of our customs, such as dancing around on a truck in highly respected traditional dress, strip us of our dignity.
"From our perspective – shared by many Africans who've criticized the video on social media – the video is based on the idea that "the African" is to be pitied and saved and has no sophistication to solve the challenges facing our continent."
You can read the full story and get a lot of reaction from different parts of the world by following the links above. Meanwhile, I want to focus on one tangential issue: training for mission.
Let's be honest, missionaries have always made cultural mistakes and probably always will, though most are not daft enough to broadcast their faux pas on YouTube. However, those mistakes can be minimised by appropriate preparation and cross-cultural orientation. In the past, prospective missionaries would spend a year or more at college learning (among other things) about different cultures and how to avoid unnecessary offence. Following on from college, the mission agency itself would spend time orienting the new missionaries to life in their particular field of service. However, the shift to short-term mission work means that prospective missionaries receive far less orientation than their predecessors. The simple fact is that many missionary careers today are shorter than the time it used to take to prepare people for overseas service.
This video and the offence it has caused are the inevitable outcome of this trend.
I don't want to knock short-term mission trips, too much. When we lived in Africa, we were really blessed and encouraged by a number of short-termers who came and worked alongside us. However, there has to be a way of ensuring that visiting missionaries are sensitive to the local culture and don't needlessly offend the people they are supposed to be serving. If there is no time for adequate orientation before the teams travel to wherever they are going, then there needs to be good, well-informed, mentoring on the ground. It isn't rocket science.
In passing, it is worth noting that five years ago, there were three residential colleges in the UK which focused primarily on training missionaries for cross-cultural work. Today, only one of those colleges (All Nations Christian College) still offers a full-time residential option.
It could be that you think that I'm being overly negative: if young people want to go on mission trips and serve the Lord in exotic places we should encourage them and not squash their enthusiasm by insisting on training and orientation before they go. My response to that would be to ask how willing you would be to have an untrained (but very enthusiastic) African teenager, who doesn't speak English and knows next to nothing about British culture, running your youth group for a month, or preaching in your church this Sunday.
If it isn't good enough for us, why do we think it is good enough for the rest of the world?
Eddie Arthur is director of strategic initiatives for Global Connections, a network of UK agencies, churches, colleges and support services that seeks to serve, equip and develop churches in their mission.