While the transition from paternalistic “helping” models to more mutual partnership models is in many ways a helpful and important move for the modern church, it is also misguided, theologically shaky, and ultimately incomplete. The church, especially amidst a religious and political climate that spews venomous rhetoric about “the other,” must offer a thoughtful and radical counter-narrative of what it means to live with and for one another.
And partnership simply does not go far enough.
As a child growing up in the church, if there was one message I heard over and over again, it was that God was in control, and most importantly, God loved us — and we actually had fun.
This was a comforting message and environment. Furthermore, the themes of joy and God’s defeat of evil became even more prominent during my teen years.
But then youth group ended, and I entered the realm of adult Christendom: political causes, doctrinal debates, worship wars, traditional vs. modern bickering, congregational infighting, gossip, church splits, corporate boycotts, moral rage, judgment, and fear.
In recently released Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World, Jonathan Hollingsworth and his mother, Amy Hollingsworth (best-selling author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers) tell the story of college-age Jonathan’s mission trip to the African country of Cameroon. After participating in a short-term mission trip to Honduras, Jonathan felt inspired to serve others in a more profound way. When he connected with a missions organization that promised him a year of exciting opportunities to serve in Africa — and he was able to raise the necessary funding — he seized hold of the opportunity with a vulnerable heart and a zeal for personal sacrifice.
After reading the above description, you might be surprised to learn that Runaway Radical is actually a story of spiritual abuse. But by the time Jonathan prepared to leave for his yearlong trip to Cameroon, his entire family — and his supporters — were groomed for abuse. They were groomed by ideas perpetuated by many people and many organizations, teachings many Christians would follow without much of a second thought. The first idea asserts that everything done in God’s name is good. The second idea works in companion with the first, declaring there is always more you can be doing, more you can be sacrificing, to prove your commitment to your God and to his mission.
When Jonathan traveled to Cameroon, not only did his host prevent him from serving in the ways he had hoped, his mission organization used him and his funding for their own selfish purposes with little regard for his health and well-being. During his time in Cameroon, Jonathan’s organization forbade him from developing relationships with locals whose behavior did not follow their stringent moral code, defined for him who the “real” Christians were, and denied him immediate access to medical care. Jonathan also learned that the leader of the organization lied to him about the status of the the supposed projects of which Jonathan was to be a part.
What began as Jonathan’s eager and well-intentioned trip slowly and painfully morphed into a constricted and disillusioning journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish.
Christian missionary work spans the globe. But Jewish mission trips?
Your average American synagogue is not planning a congregational visit to a poor corner of the world. But a few are starting to, and some rabbis are lobbying for more to follow.
“At a time when synagogues are losing market share and ‘Next Gen’ Jews are deeply ambivalent about how much they are prepared to identify as Jews, I can testify that this kind of service mission is a game changer,” said Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founding rabbi of Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in suburban Bethesda, Md.
Unlike many Christian groups, Jews don’t believe in proselytizing: It’s just not in their religious DNA. But alumni attest that synagogue-sponsored mission trips provide a hands-on way for Jews to fulfill the obligation of “tikkun olam,” Hebrew for “heal the world,” as they strengthen Jewish identities.
Schwarz and 20 congregants returned from a 10-day trip to Haiti in December — the congregation’s third trip in four years to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. There, they partnered with a pastor and used their bodies and their bank accounts to build houses and provide school tuition for Haitian families, many who had been living under tarps since the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Schwarz can point to less than a handful of synagogues that have done similar mission work. One is Temple Beth El in Hollywood, Fla., which has made more than 10 mission trips to Haiti since 2007 and leaves again for the island on Jan. 19.
“The Christians have a tradition of missionary work, and part of it is to Christianize the world. We Jews have no interest in Judaisizing the world,” said Beth El’s Rabbi Allan Tuffs. Nevertheless, “we should be out there.”
Having just gotten home from guiding another The Global Immersion Project Learning Community deep into the lives of the unheralded heroes in the Holy Land to learn from their often untold stories, I am processing emotions, thoughts, and reflections that will soon bud into a renewed set of practices at home and abroad. I have now been to Israel/Palestine quite a few times, and it would be easy to think the experience becomes mechanical or normal or whatever. Well, for me, that simply hasn’t been the case. We encourage our participants to enter the experience in the posture of a learner rather than a hero. I try to do the same, and in doing so, am continually convicted, challenged, and inspired by our remarkable friends and peacemakers embedded within this conflict.
Here are 7 learnings that have risen to the surface since landing back on home soil:
It’s sometimes cliché for Christians to warn about the dangers of idolizing wealth and money, but the negative impact it can have on our faith is more subtle than we often realize. Here are a few ways it covertly manipulates our spirituality:
1. We Use It To Measure Our Faith (and the Faith of Others):
In a culture obsessed with wealth, success, fame, and comfort, Christians often use wealth as a way to estimate their own spirituality. We assume God’s blessings translate into material possessions and riches, and we profusely thank God for jobs, promotions, paychecks, and brand new toys, but then cry out in panic when these same things disappear.
Commonly referred to as “the prosperity gospel,” individuals — and churches — are susceptible to the misguided belief that financial strength equates to spiritual maturity — it doesn’t.
Most would say they don’t believe in the prosperity gospel, yet there are still some worrisome signs within mainstream Christianity. For example, mission trips often go to third-world countries to do practical service projects and work, but the assumption is also that these places are also spiritually desolate — but why do we think that?
We assume that poverty stricken areas are less Christian than wealthy areas — they aren’t. Why do Bible colleges have inner-city ministry degree but not suburban-ministry degrees? Why don’t we send missionaries to Scandinavia and other ritzy European countries — some of the most secular places in the entire world — but continually focus on poor regions? Maybe it’s because we subconsciously continue to associate money with spirituality.
For me, action had become a way to look good and gain respect — but it obscured the more important inner work. It anesthetized the throbbing nerves of my aching interiority. And I needed it because my insides were bleeding so bad and hurting so raw from so many years of neglect that if I allowed myself to get off the action pill, it might just all catch up with me. An addiction to avoidance sanctioned by the church. Radical ruptures, indeed.
What I have asked myself in the days since those passionate experiences have left deafness and dryness in their wake is about the hard work of the Kingdom that has nothing to do with revolutionary activism. What about the work that is only done in the privacy of the human heart? Where are the voices encouraging people that they indeed can hear God speak within them — and that that is the Voice for which they ought to be straining? In all my followings, I rarely encountered a Christian leader who dared to enact Augustine's famous words and turn the Truth loose, trusting that it will defend itself.
Editor’s Note: As we continue reporting on the important topic of sexual abuse and violence, Sojourners has opened up the Sexual Violence and the Church blog series for submissions. This piece is one such submission. If you are interested in submitting a post for the series, please email the Web Editor HERE.
I know now, what I wish I knew then. Only after speaking up, did I learn how common stories like mine are to women across the globe. I know the warning signs and have a clearer picture of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. I long for each of us to wrestle with the truth that we are never to blame — no matter how we dress, what we look like, or how much we’ve had to drink.
We never, ever deserve to have our bodies treated as objects of shame.
I used to lead and organize inner-city mission trips. Churches, youth groups, non-profit organizations, and well-intentioned philanthropists would excitedly arrive within the diverse and fast-paced world of Chicago and enthusiastically dive into whatever tasks we gave them. The work they volunteered for made a huge difference in people’s lives, but more importantly, it dramatically challenged — and changed — their own way of thinking about urban ministry.
For years “The City” has been the pet project of Christians throughout America. Billions of mission trips have been made to homeless shelters, food pantries, and poor neighborhoods, all in an effort to “clean up,” “rehabilitate” and “evangelize” in Christ’s name. Unfortunately, the inner-city isn’t as stereotypical as we want it to be, and our missionary zeal can often cause more harm than good.
Here is the most common myth that Christians mistakenly apply to urban areas: The Inner-City is Morally Bankrupt.