Every three years, missions leaders among Churches of Christ stage an event called the Global Missions Conference. In size and scope it is a poor cousin to the International Conference On Missions hosted annually by the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. The smaller scale, in my opinion, is more because of greater resistance to central organizations rather than a lesser commitment to missions in Churches of Christ. A comparison of missions history between the two fellowships, however, would be a great dissertation topic for someone.
The Global Missions Conference was held October 16-18 at the Goodman Oaks Church of Christ in Southhaven, Mississippi, a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. I have not heard an official number of attendees yet, but I would guess it might be near 1000, although I suspect that many local people did not register.
I had the privilege of organizing the Short-Term Missions track for this conference, which consisted of four separate one-hour classes conducted over two days. My concept was to develop a practical topic for each session, then invite highly experienced workers in those areas to form a panel to discuss each particular topic, first among themselves and then with those who were present.
I was quite pleased with the classes, which were all well attended, so I thought I would summarize the content and share it with you as well.
Session One: The Changing Look of Short-Term Mission (Panel Members: Ken Graves–Harding University Director of Global Outreach, Dr. Bob Carpenter–Oklahoma Christian University Professor of Missions, Dr. Gary Green–Abilene Christian University Director of World Wide Witness, and Ben Langford–Oklahoma Christian University Director of Center for Global Missions.)
Without exception, all of the panel members agreed that the emphasis in short-term missions had shifted in the last two decades from evangelism to humanitarian aid/social justice. Some of them saw this shift more as cultural, while others understood it to be a theological shift. The cultural proponents held that the post-modern shift to tolerance as the highest virtue creates an environment where people are no longer willing to “judge” other people’s views, much less feel the need to “correct” them.
Those who argued for a theological shift were divided–which made for a great panel discussion. One argued that students no longer believe in Hell or Judgment Day, so there is no motivation for evangelism. (As moderator, I kept my opinions to myself and just facilitated, but this is my blog, so I’m going to insert myself here to say that I see both the cultural and theological arguments as virtually the same–and in my experience, the portrayal of the current generation of college students especially is absolutely true–sadly!)
One of the panel members, however, argued that the shift from evangelism to social justice activities was nothing to worry about, that, in fact, when we teach a poor farmer how to irrigate that we are participating in God’s plan to save the whole Creation. You’ll recognize this argument perhaps as one that younger preachers typically have juxtaposed against a type of evangelism that was only interested in the soul of a person and not the whole person. I’ve thought a lot about these comments since the conference and will share some of those thoughts with you soon–but they need to ripen a little.
Being academicians, the panel members quoted some disconcerting research that made the following claims:
- short-term missions do not make a significant difference in the lives of participants
- short-term missions do not produce long-term workers
- short-term missions are not cost-effective ways of doing missions.
As I listened to them quote these results as facts, I could no longer keep quiet because not only did these results go against my whole lifetime of experience, but also against some other very good research with which I was familiar, but which was a little older than what they were quoting.
For instance, the research among young people in Churches of Christ that Dr. Carley Dodd and others published in 1995 as The Gospel According to Generation X: The Culture of Adolescent Belief found a significant correlation between a summer mission experience and the retention of faith after leaving high school. Another good example of contradictory statistics is the research published by Dr. Craig Altrock as the result of his dissertation work at Harding School of Theology as The Shaping of God’s People: One Story of How God is Shaping the North American Church Through Short-Term Missions (2007). His study of Let’s Start Talking workers , not only recent but many from years past, confirmed what we in this ministry all know anecdotally, that those who had good short-term experiences were changed significantly, both in their spiritual formation and in their spiritual activity (if one cares to create false dichotomies!)
I think I can offer a possible explanation for why current research may suggest different results from slightly older studies. First, as the whole panel has confirmed, when we examine short-term missions as a category now, we are only looking at service-oriented experiences. For a whole generation of our fellowship, the word missions refers only to caring for physical or social needs of peoples, not seeking and saving the lost.
Painting houses and digging wells, even healing the sick and loving on orphans, while most certainly the purest of Christian ministry, but if absent of the Word, could all be done by good Muslims or good Agnostics. These kinds of activities in and of themselves do not complete the Great Commission. And, if this is true, then why should we expect short-term mission activities that focus on these services to produce the same kinds of impact and results that short-term missions focused on telling the Story of Jesus have had?
And that was just the first panel! I’ll finish the report on the other three panels in the next post.