Sexy missions

I received an email recently from a dear friend who shares our passion for loving justice and mercy among America’s urban poor. In her email concerning a new initiative that Doug and I may play a part in, she says this: “We, so far, have not succeeded that way because gang kids and other urban affairs simply aren’t on anybody’s agenda. Africa has made the cut with the new evangelicals, but the American inner city, not.”

I found her words blunt and sobering and true.

A lot of churches and individuals “dip into” the inner-city thing, but few become true champions for change. I have seen time and time again how churches will ultimately opt for the “mission trip” experience/mentality, choosing South America and Africa or maybe Asia to ignite their members’ passion for ministry, and largely abandon any serious focus on neighbors who may live only fifteen miles away. As another friend said recently: “We’re big on the ‘sexy’ missions opportunities around here…”

One of the sad parts of my trip back to North Park in April (other than encounters with taxi-cabs), was seeing how the focus on that campus has shifted so dramatically away from direct involvement in loving their urban neighbors. When I was around, most every student was involved in some fashion with a volunteer opportunity to directly serve the Albany Park community. Today it seems that there are a very few committed students who give themselves to a dwindling number of service opportunities. Meanwhile, the cover of the most recent Alumni magazine touts the high number of students engaging children and families in distant lands through one and two-week mission trips.

I work for a global sending agency for missions throughout the world, and in no way do I desire to see less passion and interest for our neighbors in Africa, Asia and the like. In my own experience, traveling and seeing God’s work among people He loves in very different cultures and contexts than my own was transformative in my faith journey. But as a good friend who recently traveled to Africa as a medical missionary told me: that experience overseas changes the me that lives here; if my life does not somehow reorient and respond differently to the needs in my own backyard, then I am largely a hypocrite.

I wonder what others have to think about this…


  1. This might be my first time commenting here…but I’ve read for a while and I love your words.

    As one who has been hesitant to reach out to the people and neighborhoods around me, may I offer my perspective?

    It’s hard to go to your neighbors because they don’t want you. My experience in foreign short-term missions is that the people welcome you. They want help. They need it. My limited experience doing the same in the urban US is that it’s a lot harder–people don’t want to hear you, or they take what you’re offering but are clearly only doing it because they don’t have another way to get what you’re offering.

    I don’t offer this as an excuse, but as an explanation. In fact, I notice in the Gospels that Jesus faced similar issues. I don’t know if others feel this way, but I know that if this issue was addressed and taught on, I would be a lot more comfortable ministering to the needy at home.

  2. Sarah,

    It’s great to have you comment!

    As I read your thoughts, I was reminded of the fairly recent controversy (of sorts) over Oprah’s comments about why she is investing so much time and money in a school for girls in Africa instead of doing something like that here in the Sates. She spoke of the significant difference in appreciation of the gifts (in her case, access to education) overseas.

    I think it is always easier to give and receive to and from those who are not closest to us–I know that has felt true for me in my experience!

  3. Some brief (and very incomplete) thoughts on the post and Sarah’s response:

    In my experience, people go on short term missions for many reasons. Only some of them are interested in changing their lives as a result of the experience.

    Maybe the problem is the whole emphasis on short term, bite sized missions. From my experience they don’t work well in mobilizing folks to the long term mission field or encouraging people to live differently when they return. People that go for a year or two live new at home a lot more often.

    The response that poor communities give to missionaries (or relocators) often depends on how hopeful those communities are and what kind of history the missionaries have with the poor community they enter.

    A poor community isn’t a poor community isn’t a poor community.

    Some are made up mostly of more hopeful people looking to change their lives.

    Poor urban immigrant communities, as an example, are often more hopeful places where people are assertive about the possibility of change for the better. Immigrants–by definition–take big risks to better their lives and they often appreciate the opportunities they have.

    Poor urban communities made up of folks in multi-generational urban poverty who have–in general–lost a lot of their hope for change are much harder places for missos and relocators to minister.

    When strong racial, ethnic and historical divisions exist between missionaries and the community they enter you’ll obviously have a much more difficult situation on your hands.

    Many American inner cities are characterized by long term, multi-generational poverty and by significant racial, cultural, economic and historical divisions that make it hard for Euro-Ams (and increasingly Asian-Ams?) to connect effectively when they relocate and try to minister to local folks. As Sarah put it so well, sometimes “They don’t want you.”

    In a strange way, many urban squatter slums in Africa and other parts of the world are more hopeful places that can also be more open to cross-cultural urban missos from other parts of the world because there is sometimes less baggage.

    Most missions try to send missionaries who will have the smoothest path to connecting with their new home cultures. Latin Americans, for example, get a much better reception these days in the Islamic world than North Americans do.

    Not sure choosing a mission field on the basis of the chance for success and a positive reception is always a good thing, but maybe that’s part of why some folks, like Oprah, are more attracted to overseas work.

  4. I think there’s truth to the comments above, but perhaps the generational poverty and the “They don’t want you” mindset is partly due to the lack of shoulder-to-shoulder presence of the church over long years. We can’t just swoop in from the comfortable ‘burbs and save them. I think it’s going to take several generations of people being the church, like Erika and her husband, to change that.

  5. You articulate EXACTLY the tension we have here as well. There is a desperate need for missional engagement in our inner cities, but we don’t want it to come at the expense of the global missions. They must BOTH be a priority. This is one reason why our DTS runs its training for three month in the inner city and two months in Africa. It helps connect the two, especially since we live in a community of largely African immigrants.

    I have posted on this topic a few times, as has Andrew Jones, so I am really glad to hear your take on it. Thanks!


  6. I know I’m posting this a little late in the game–my Internet use is limited right now–so I hope someone reads it 😉

    What would be the best way to take a group of people on a short-term trip to the inner city?

    I think the medium (short-term trip) could be better, but it could be worse, and it seems workable. My question more centers on what they would do there and how to bring them in while creating the least offense to those living there as possible.

    I know very little about this and only recently started thinking about it, so I’m interested in anything anyone might add.

  7. Thanks, Sarah!

    I have seen the Center for Student Mission (CSM) do this effectively and with integrity. When I was the director of our tutoring program here, we would have weekly guest groups come in to help and minister alongside our staff and volunteers. Their ages ranged from high school to college, and their volunteer time with us was only one piece of what CSM did with them throughout the week.

    For longer short-term experiences, I have seen InterVarsity do a really great job through their summer missions programs, particularly through LAUP (Los Angeles Urban Project). My friend Kevin Blue directs LAUP, and it is an extraordinary experience for the college students who come and live in our city for seven weeks.

    Lastly, our sister church in Pasadena does something I think is really cool: every year, a group comes down for a week that they call “Vacation to L.A.”. They come as families, singles, youth, whoever, and they do work projects and after-school camps, and live with us in our homes. It is a delightful, life-changing time for many, and a great service to our community. This year they are going to paint the home of a single woman who uses a wheelchair who attends our church.

    Anyway, that’s what comes first to mind…

  8. Hi,

    When we lived in Turkey working among Muslims, one of the things we had to do was leave the country every three months and go to Greece and get new visa’s. Once we were in Greece we couldn’t wait to get back to “Muslim” Turkey because the Turkish people were more open to Jesus that the Greeks. We said it would be so much harder sharing the gospel and living in Greece than Turkey. But at that time the emotional kudos were going to the people in the “Muslim” world not Europe. Every person I knew who lived in Turkey thought it would be much harder to live in Greece than Turkey.

    You are in the same situation that anyone who is not in the “Place” where it is happening. I am from the States but live in northern England, in a lovely city working among university students. Bless you as you pour out your life for those around you and thank you for sharing your thoughts. Bless you.


  9. Thanks, Tim. It is great to hear your reflection coming from such a different context yet bearing such similarities. Thank you for your encouragement, and may those same blessing be extended to you and yours!

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