Thoughts on Mission Trips

For quite some time since the 1800s or so, the term “missions” has usually meant packing up some belongings and traveling to a far-off exotic destination for charity work. This idea was popularized through the efforts of great missionaries like Hudson Taylor and Lottie Moon. Brave men and women would travel long distances to the far corners of the earth in order to share the gospel. Preaching the good news also meant addressing humanitarian issues, such as promoting education, increasing access to healthcare, strengthening families, and empowering people out of poverty.

In fact, if you remember your Methodist history, funding overseas mission work was part of the origin story of the United Methodist Women! Women in a local congregation in Boston decided to donate funds for missionary families to India.

Now obviously the church has a rich history of international missions. But thinking that “missions” only happens after traveling many hours on an airplane misses the point. There are countless opportunities to spread God’s love, regardless of the location.

At a cultural center outside of Harrismith, South Africa, summer 2009

Personally, I’ve been on several mission trips, from construction projects in central Texas to teaching English at a school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Some of my most formative experiences as a Christian were on these kinds of trips. I’ve also had lots of experience with “local” missions, from several partnerships Concord has developed to working in local jails and state prisons. Here are some thoughts on missions, trips, and things of that nature…

You don’t have to travel halfway across the world to be an apostle.

The word apostle, in a Greek sense, means one who is sent out as an ambassador. As Christian apostles, we are “ambassadors” of God’s kingdom. It doesn’t matter whether you find yourself in a South African orphanage or are passing out sandwiches at Lonoke’s Open Arms shelter, we have countless opportunities to live out Christian missions. Sometimes people struggle with thinking that “true” missions are done either locally or internationally. Why not support efforts on both fronts? There’s plenty to go around, if you ask me!

“Hands on” work isn’t the only need.

“I can’t go on a mission trip this summer.” “I’m too old to do that sort of thing.” “I can’t afford to travel.” “I’m just not good with kids.”

These “objections” to mission work miss a major point about the matter. You don’t necessarily have to literally go on a trip or have “face time” with clients to live out your duty as an apostle. Trips and local projects need people to help fund them. What if God was calling you to support a missionary, organization, or trip? “Hands on” participants need people to pray for them. What if you committed to support your friend spiritually in this way? Even if your schedule or ability prevents you from hosting a VBS on a summer mission trip, we all have the opportunity to share stories and hopefully connect others with mission needs. What if by sharing a story about someone involved in missions, you helped that person discover their own God-given calling?

One of the ZOE youth showing off his pizzeria business

Our world is becoming increasingly connected.

The food and products I can buy off the shelf at a store in Arkansas are often made or handled by people hundreds or even thousands of miles away. This phenomenon is known as globalization, where we are much more connected in an economic sense than in the past. Likewise, international missions still matter greatly, and I believe the church has the duty to support others who are seemingly far away from us.

For example, I saw this firsthand while serving a church in Houston and visiting to Guatemala with ZOE, an empowerment organization focused on youth development. While in the rural Guatemalan highlands, we heard countless tragic stories about how youth had been impacted by gangs and cartels who trafficked drugs like cocaine. This issue hundreds of miles away from us across several international borders was directly connected to problems in our home city. Drug addiction was directly connected to violence in central America. Our church leadership saw social problems had many causes and ripple effects. The church actively worked to help impoverished Guatemalan youth through ZOE, as well as supporting several local drug recovery programs.

Never do mission work out of pride.

A fancy word for this issue is “paternalism” where someone seeks to provide assistance for his or her own personal gain. Classic examples of this include posting photos to social media to gain the praise of other people, posing with impoverished orphans. Or perhaps that might be boasting about volunteering or making sure that you are “seen” at a particular event. Sometimes we treat the poor as accessories and view ourselves as a savior figure. Instead of being superman or woman, why not help others focus on God? A better approach is to view the hungry, homeless, impoverished, or needy person as a genuine brother or sister. Focus your energy on assisting others instead of tooting your own horn.

Be willing to learn.

As with prideful paternalism, sometimes when we help others we have an elitist attitude about ourselves. Surely we Christian volunteers are the smart ones, and we will impart our knowledge on others! Sometimes people even treat those being served as second-class or inferior. Many times we think we know the best way to do things. In reality, the people we serve ought to have the most prominent voice as we seek to address problems. What are an individual’s or community’s hopes, goals, and dreams? How do they want to improve? More often than not, I find myself learning more from serving people rather than doing all the teaching myself.

Our sermon yesterday explored the conclusion of Acts. Paul literally wanted to go to Spain to spread the good news of Christianity. It is debatable whether he actually made it. One thing is certain, though… Paul would share the message with anyone who would listen, regardless of his location or circumstance. What a powerful example for us to follow today!

Pastor’s Bookshelf: Three Views on Human Sexuality

The United Methodist Church is set to meet again later this year to discuss the future of our denomination. Nothing is official yet, despite what you might hear. The key issue is human sexuality and a possible church split, specifically over the question of LGBT weddings and ordinations. Current church doctrine could be described as “traditional” where homosexuality is “incompatible” with Christian teaching.

Today’s blog post is on how people on all sides reason about the issue differently. Here is an outline on three possible views regarding things like homosexuality, marriage, and the like. Even if you are thoroughly convinced of your viewpoint, I encourage you to try and understand where someone else might be coming from. After several years of study, here are what I believe are the strongest arguments for traditionalism, progressivism, and centrism. Countless books have been written on each approach, so I’ll do my best to keep it concise!

Traditionalist View- The UMC ought to stay the same. LGBT individuals ought to be welcome, but we should not change church teaching on the matter.

Church tradition has been consistent in upholding the covenant of marriage as between one man and one woman. This ideal was outlined in Genesis 2 with the creation of Adam and Eve. Even though many stories of scripture deviate from this norm (polygamy, enslavement, abuse, etc.) the overall message of scripture points to a “traditional” view of marriage. If anything, “problematic” depictions of marriage from the Old Testament point to the fact that people are sinful and in need of some uncompromising standard! We ought to strive for that Godly ideal of a husband and wife mutually loving one another. Overall, scripture has a consistent message, beginning with Genesis, and continuing through the writings of Paul, who wrote against the practice of homosexuality. Theologically speaking, marriage between one man and one woman also affirms God’s intent for procreation, partnership, and raising children. Though many people are called to be single, or marriage couples might face issues such as infertility or decide not to have children, the fact of the matter is that broadly speaking, men and women were created for one another as a part of God’s plan.

Christians ought to never judge other people. But that does not diminish the fact that we are called to discern between right and wrong. There are clear standards for us to follow, and we have a serious obligation to uphold this view of marriage. LGBT persons are to be welcomed in the church, but cannot be pastors or married by UMC clergy.

Rev. Rob Rebfroe puts it this way: “[The UMC’s] view on sexuality is a compassionate, biblical and beautifully nuanced statement. It affirms the worth of every person, declares sexuality to be a gracious gift of God, protects the rights of those who might be mistreated because of their sexuality, and states what the Bible affirms – not all sexual practices, heterosexual or homosexual, are acceptable in the sight of God.”

Even though the surrounding culture might change, that must not distort the beliefs and practices of the church. The church must continue to be faithful to our God-given calling.

Progressive View- The UMC ought to change and be affirming. We must celebrate LGBT individuals through things like church leadership, weddings, and ordination.

Church tradition has been opposed to this change, but the Holy Spirit is doing something new and unique in our day and age. The modern church is in the midst of an “Acts 15” moment where God may be moving followers to remove barriers preventing others from joining Christian fellowship. In the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, the apostles decided that gentiles did not have to follow old traditions and customs. In the same way, if a Christian identifies as a lesbian, she does not have to follow previous practices dictated in biblical law. God’s family is growing, and so we ought to fully include LGBT brothers and sisters.

Scripture is bound in its own historical context. Just as we do not follow every custom from the Old or New Testament, homosexuality falls into this category, too. Old Testament passages are difficult to apply for today, since many stories like Sodom and Gomorrah actually deal with other issues like hospitality, instead of same-sex acts (for example, Ezekiel 16 talks about how the cities “were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy”). In the New Testament, Paul is likely referring to pagan practices when he forbids homosexual behavior. Temple prostitution was quite common in the world of the new church, so these were commandments to abstain from deviant sexual behavior involving exploitation, pedophilia, or prostitution. In contrast to today’s world, two loving adults of the same gender in a committed, covenantal relationship can actually affirm God’s ideal for marriage. The “gift” of Christian marriage ought to be extended to them as well.

Rev. Kari Tolppanen puts it this way: “The gay marriage issue divides Christians. In the same way, the issues of circumcision and food laws divided Christians in the apostolic era. Paul and his co-workers believed that circumcision of the heart had replaced circumcision of the flesh and that Christians did not need to observe the food regulations of the law of Moses, but the majority of the Jerusalemite Christians disagreed with Paul (Acts 21:17-36). Paul instructed Christians to accept different opinions and interpretations on those issues (Rom. 14 and 15). I hope the same kind of open-mindedness prevails in the discussion on same-sex marriage.”

God is remarkably adaptive, reaching people exactly where they are at any given point in human history. God used ancient customs all throughout scripture to reveal Godself. God is also using our current cultural setting to reach new people as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people gain more visibility in our world. In order for the church to be faithful today, Christians must openly accept and celebrate those in this community.

Centrist/Moderate View- The UMC ought to adapt and realize that this issue is simply not worth fighting or splitting over. People can arrive at different conclusions and still be faithful disciples.

No matter how hard we argue, we will not convince the other side to adopt our beliefs. This is a highly personal issue, with many in the church feeling like they or their family members and close friends are excluded, or that their personal beliefs are not taken seriously by the other side.

Scripture is filled with many instances of people disagreeing with one another, yet being charitable in their disputes. Paul wrote of different teachers in Philippians 1, and how some were apparently preaching out of rivalry, selfishness, and envy. This did not matter, according to Paul, because the end result was that Christ was still being preached! In the same way, it should not matter if a pastor or church nowadays disagrees over LGBT issues, so long as they are preaching that God came to save us and give us new life through Jesus Christ. That core message ought to be at the heart of church practice.

Practically speaking, the LGBT debate is a “secondary” sort of issue—similar to other issues of Christian disagreement, such as worship preference or style. It is important to have opinions on these differing viewpoints, but it should not cause so much division that the church gets stuck in the same old debates. In the same way, the question over whether a gay couple can get married in a Methodist church should not be worth fighting over. Disciples can disagree with one another while at the same time live faithful lives.

Rev. Adam Hamilton once put it this way: “Anyone who has ever stood in the center knows it is hardly safe.  You’re likely to be criticized by both ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals.’  But in an increasingly polarized world, the center may just be the most radical, extreme, and faithful place to stand if you are seeking to follow Jesus Christ.”

While the traditionalists and progressives argue that the entire church ought to adhere to their beliefs, this issue is not worth dividing the church over. In other words, LGBT issues present a gray area where compromise is necessary. Some churches ought to decide to be traditionalist, while others ought to decide to be progressive. Doing so allows us to be truly united in ministry, keeping the mission of the church at the forefront.

There are many strengths to each side. I’ve heard it said that the traditionalists truly have a high view of scripture. The progressives are very focused on the movement of the Holy Spirit. And the moderates embody the belief of “live and let live.”

Each also have their weaknesses, too. People claim the traditionalists overlook problems like abuse and suicide in the LGBT community. People argue that the progressives have a weak view of scripture and simply change positions depending on culture wars. And people also say that the moderates are playing politics and trying to keep folks happy, when in reality it is a much more important issue.

So regardless of whatever you personally believe, it is important to think critically about this matter. I think we fight with one another without getting to know what the other side actually believes. If anything, when we examine contrary viewpoints, we enhance our own understanding of what we personally believe.

Faith Foundations

Acts 15 is a fascinating story about how to handle complex disagreements. Of course, we know the “end” of the episode, where gentiles were welcomed into the faith and were not necessarily required to follow past traditions. But there were still some very compelling arguments on the “other side.” We still somewhat have this debate nowadays, too, with arguing over how to apply the biblical text. Is the bible the only thing we must consider for our faith?

In the Hebrew bible, there were clear instructions and traditions for the Israelites to follow. Circumcision was just one of many practices that I highlighted in my sermon. But other rules, regulations, provisions, and laws might come to mind. Consider the 10 commandments of Exodus. These were obviously part of a rich tradition of following God. Other laws include doing righteousness, not creating idols, remembering the oppressed, teaching one’s children about God’s commandments… the list goes on and on. Many traditions are incredibly good, and we ought to still hold onto them!

So with this in mind, it does make sense that some people in the early church believed that the gentiles ought to adopt every single Jewish practice of old. It was clearly and consistently outlined in the scriptures they had studied as devoted Jews.

The Jerusalem Council leads us to consider what kind of foundation we have for our faith. For some, scripture itself was the only allowable guide. Abram was circumcised in scripture, so they argued that gentiles in the time of Acts ought to be, too.

Paul encourages us to think more broadly about the issue at hand. Yes, holy writings are important, but there are several other parts of our “faith foundation.” For starters, God is concerned about justice and righteous living. In fact, many of the prophets of the Old Testament revealed this message to Israel, arguing that they had forgotten to truly follow God’s laws. Most notably in Amos 5:21-24…

21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

    your assemblies are a stench to me.

22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

    I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

    I will have no regard for them.

23 Away with the noise of your songs!

    I will not listen to the music of your harps.

24 But let justice roll on like a river,

    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 5 is such a fascinating passage. God actually condemns religious services, as they were presumably empty and without meaning! Yet throughout scripture, there were so many rules about how to worship God and have these very services. I’m sure some of Amos’ audience would have been confused (“Well, what do you mean, God? We worship you in the temple every week! Shouldn’t this be enough?”). Instead, God clearly wanted something “deeper” than the surface-level teaching contained in the law. God sought justice and righteousness from God’s people. Likewise, in addition to the literal teachings of scripture, we must also include things like life application, integrity, justice, and compassion in our “faith foundation.” We need all these things to fully follow God.

Sometimes Christians struggle with being so rigid about the bible. Perhaps you’ve encountered someone (or even struggled with it yourself) who was very knowledgable about the contents of the bible, yet mistreated others. People have even used the bible to justify or overlook issues like domestic violence, citing vague terms like “submission” and “obedience.” Perhaps most infamously, many in past centuries used scripture to support unjust institutions like slavery.

Sometimes we struggle with thinking that the bible is the only thing there is to consider. We think knowing facts are what will save us. But words on a page don’t amount to much. God wants us to actually live them out with our words and actions. Hopefully, the Holy Spirit guides and counsels us on what to do. Hebrews 4:12a puts it this way: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.”

Scripture is clearly important for our faith. I cannot emphasize this enough. We learn about God and his work throughout all of human history. But our “faith foundation” must also include the Holy Spirit, too. Just like Paul preached in Acts 15, God’s Spirit might be moving us to new things. If we aren’t living out the broad teachings of scripture and listening to the Spirit, we will miss out on what God is doing.