Thursday, December 17, 2009
Marketing and Mission
But there is one area that seems to have eluded the ethical scrutiny of the church. Churches from the left to the right, high and low, share the same blind spot. Perhaps it’s because the practice is so pervasive or because the claims seem so spiritual. But if the FTC were to shine the spotlight on the marketing of missions, the expose would be, well, perhaps not damning but certainly embarrassing. Take a look at most any promotional package for a mission trip and you will get the distinct impression that lost, starving, forsaken people have their last hope riding on the willingness of Christians from the US to come and rescue them. The pictures are heart-rending — a close-up of a child’s sad face, a tin-roof shack beside an open sewage ditch, an old woman struggling under a load of firewood sticks. The emotional call goes out for the “healed, trained, empowered and Spirit filled teens to be missionaries to the world.” Such experiences promise to touch lives, change the world, and have a dramatic, life-changing impact on those who will sacrifice their comfort to go. For a week!I could not agree more - in fact I am even more cynical about it than that. As it goes on to say:
Can we be honest? Mission trips and service projects are important. For lots of reasons. But the truth of the matter is that dropping into a strange culture for a week or even two creates far more work for the local leadership than it’s worth, except for the money and gifts we leave. And those gifts more often than not do more long-term harm than good. As one local leader told me: “They’re turning our people into beggars.” Much of the work we do is make-work — painting a church, digging a foundation, leading a summer Bible school — all work that could and should be done by locals. “Our men need the work,” a seminary president once told me as we discussed the impact of US mission trippers in her impoverished country.
I am not saying that mission trips don’t have value. They do. Great value. They open up new worlds, new perspectives, new insights. They expose us to fascinating cultures, connect us with new friends, allow us to experience God at work in surprising ways, inspire us, break our hearts, build camaraderie among traveling companions. Any one of these benefits might well justify the time and expense. But isn’t it time we admit to ourselves that mission trips are essentially for our benefit, not for the benefit of the ones our marketing material portray? Would it not be more forthright if we called our junkets “insight trips” or “exchange programs”? Or how about Kingdom adventures? Do we really need to justify our journeying to exotic lands under the pretense of missionary work? Religious tourism would have much more integrity if we simply admitted that we’re off to explore God’s amazing work in the world.How about if we just called them what they are - CAMP! But instead of paying a few hundred dollars to travel to some cabin in the nearby woods, we are paying thousands to go to the Dominican or wherever. Why has this situation developed?
I would say for a couple of reasons, first of all, young people are far less willing to handle the less than developed conditions of your average church champ unless it has a hint of the exotic to it. It's one thing to do without a blow dryer in the Dominican and another thing altogether to do without it a few hundred miles from home when we saw a perfectly good motel as we turned off the highway. Similarly, when you have to raise money from the congregation for these adventures, you need a hook. Shiny little Caribbean faces attract quite a bit more money than a week in the woods.
And so, as this piece politely points out, we exaggerate just "a tiny little bit."
And frankly I care less out that than I do that it sucks dollars away from real, needed mission work. The counter argument would be that the money would go to sending kids to camp if we went back and missions would suffer more than they do now. And therein lies the real rub.
The thing that bothers me most about all this is that it is the church catering to our lesser tendencies instead of calling us to be better. Jesus Christ came died, and was resurrected so that we could be better people. Among the improvements is generosity.
Instead we develop marketing plans to compensate for the lack thereof.