By Erica Koser
In ministry, I am passionate about two things: social justice and youth ministry. As I journey toward commissioning as a deacon, I find that these two passions continue to define my call to ministry and have pushed me to ask some important questions about how we serve others and how we attempt to be in mission with others. What is our driving motivation? Are we offering compassion but forgetting to continue on toward justice? Are our acts of compassion firmly rooted in a life of discipleship?
In my ministry as youth director, one of the cornerstones is the short-term mission trip. I start receiving glossy fliers in my mailbox about this time of year, encouraging me to gather my youth and jet off to a tropical locale to serve others while having the adventure of a lifetime. The brochures are full of pictures of happy teens beaming at the camera and holding paint brushes, next to headlines that proclaim that these youth are changing the world.
Oh, were it that simple! What the brochures don’t show is the impact that our invasion may be having on the local community.
An old proverb says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” An issue with many short-term mission trips is that we spend most of our time handing out fish. Week after week a new group brings fish—sometimes brightly colored fish, sometimes fish presented with a song and dance—but it’s always fish. The people receiving the fish smile and thank the givers of the fish only to turn and throw the fish in to the trash because nobody took the time to discover that the community can’t use fish. Robert Lupton, in his book Toxic Charity (HarperOne, 2012), lists these misperceptions of many mission trips:
“Contrary to popular belief, most mission trips and service projects do not:
- Empower those being served
- Engender healthy cross cultural relationships
- Improve local quality of life
- Relieve poverty
- Change the lives of participants
- Increase support for long-term mission work
Contrary to popular belief, most mission trips and service projects do:
- Weaken those being served
- Foster dishonest relationships
- Erode recipients work ethic
- Deepen dependency”
A short-term memory
Handing out fish can challenge us in the moment, but later, after we have washed the fishy smell from our hands, it is too easy to resume life as we know it, and the time, the money, and the effort we have spent on our short-term mission trip doesn’t have the effect on the community or on the youth that we desired.
As deacons called to a ministry of word and service, I think we are uniquely equipped to shift this paradigm and find ways that we ground our acts of compassion in a life of true discipleship.
I studied this issue intently as I wrote my graduate thesis. How do we engage in mission in such a way that we go out and make disciples in the world while also deepening our own discipleship? How do we live out John Wesley’s three General Rules to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God (as Bishop Rueben Job words it)? I have found that if we shift to an attitude of accompaniment and ground it firmly in the cornerstones of covenant discipleship, we can facilitate and nurture the kind of discipleship we are called to in the great commission.
This past year I began using the cornerstones of covenant discipleship with our confirmation class. As the youth became more comfortable with working their way around the Jerusalem cross each week, sharing their acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion, they began to see how each strand wove together to deepen their understanding of discipleship. Compassion could not happen without also looking towards justice and understanding how mission and service were thin without practices of worship and devotion. They began to see that as they accompanied each other, they learned from one another as well as challenged each other. The seeds that were planted in the youth room were ready to be harvested and re-sown on the short-term mission trip.
For the past three summers, our youth group has traveled to Harvest Farm in Colorado. Harvest Farm is an addiction recovery farm on the plains of Northern Colorado. They serve a population of men who have been homeless or incarcerated and have lived a life of addiction. The men come to the farm to work the land, learn about the unconditional love of God, and begin to see a different way to live. And while it may seem an odd place to bring a group of youth for a mission experience, it has been a place that has changed us all for the better. This year, the youth arrived with a clearer picture of mission. They were not there to simply hand out fish. They were there to stand in the water with the other and to fish together. The water we stood in took the shape of dairy barns and pastures, corn fields and goat pens. The youth worked alongside the men, listening to their stories and sharing some of their own. Issues of homelessness and addiction began to take on names and faces—and acts of compassion led to ways to address injustices.
As we have returned home, we have continued to accompany the men from the farm. We have exchanged letters, held each other in prayer, and shared the ways in which we saw God at work during our week together. Our trip certainly wouldn’t have made a glossy brochure but God’s work often isn’t glamorous.
As deacons we are called to take the church out into the world, and in so doing we are called to ask the hard questions. Who are we serving? How are we serving? Is the work we are doing weaving together the threads of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion? There is a rich tapestry waiting to be woven as we accompany the other as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.
Erica Koser is a certified candidate for ordained ministry (deacon track) in the Minnesota Annual Conference. She is director of children, youth, and family ministry at Centenary United Methodist Church in Mankato, Minnesota.