“Isn’t it amazing what God is doing through the church in__________________, under such difficult circumstances?”
It is a common practice for churches in America to send teams and delegations to visit churches and ministries in other parts of the world. I recently returned from such a trip. I was a part of the second group our church sent to Colombia. The purpose of our trip was to visit the churches we support and strengthen relationships. I found it to be rewarding and taxing at the same time.
The most rewarding part was meeting brothers and sisters that share the same faith as me, are passionate about the same things, and are trying to minister faithfully In their context. In a real way, the work of ministry is universal. We ask the same questions, tend to the same needs, struggle with similar obstacles, and rely on the same God to will and work in and through us.
One of the most taxing parts was the challenge of evaluating their ministries. While the Colombian context is different than ours in Illinois, a part of our task was assessing the churches. It’s part of being good stewards of the resources of our home church. It’s also necessary as we determine the best way to walk as partners and friends to the churches in Colombia. Yet, it often felt like comparing apples to oranges.
If the challenge of evaluation was not enough, over time and through conversation, I realized we had a larger problem. That problem was, and is, the prejudice involved in creating romantic visions of their work.
What do I mean by that? A romantic vision is one that sees the good, ignores the bad, and is blind to the ugly. It seems to be a function of white-guilt, or Western guilt, or liberal-guilt, if you will. We are aware that, from a material standpoint – which, lets be honest, until you have food, shelter, safe water, basic healthcare, basic education and job opportunities, not much else matters – we have it better than those we are visiting. We feel bad about the conditions of their lives, their communities, their churches, etc. We don’t want to consider the possibility that our way of life in America contributes to their way of life in Colombia, so we compensate. We go over the top in seeing their churches as vibrant, powerful, with gifted leaders and grand, God-given visions. The question is, is that reality or are we seeing what we need to see to get out of there with our way of life in tact? [The issue is complicated by the reality that if you are indeed doing that, you probably won’t be able to see that you are doing that because if you do see that you are doing that the whole thing begins to unravel which is what you are trying to protect yourself from to begin with.]
How can you tell if you creating romantic visions? When evaluating any ministry, ask this question: If this were my church, would I see it the same way? Another variation of the question is: If this exact church were in your town, is that where you would go? When you ask that question, you will find yourself beginning to make excuses. It’s subtle, but it’s there. You start using different criteria for evaluation.
In Colombia, I saw ministries that were just like a church in my town. This church in my town met in a house, had a small number of faithful members, did ministry with children and ran a food pantry (a feeding ministry). They did this faithfully for decades. When they closed their doors I don’t remember anyone saying “That’s too bad. They did such great work.” Nobody lauded them for their faith and perseverance. No one patted them on the back for their holistic approach to ministry. Most people said,”That was probably a wise decision. They were really struggling.”
We saw churches just like that in Colombia. They were doing the same things. But seeing that same church in Colombia brought a different response. Why? Because, whether we realize it or not, we have lower expectations for them. This isn’t conscious, but it’s present and it’s prejudice.
We rave about Colombian churches with 30 members and 20 kids that do ministry on a shoestring budget, in a too-small building, in a terrible part of town. The only problem is that we neglect those same kinds of ministries and churches in our terrible parts of town. We chastise our versions of those churches for not being self-sustaining yet. We wonder how long we will have to ‘keep them afloat’ with our money. I’ve been in far too many discussions where these were the concerns and criticisms of churches here that are like the ones I saw in Colombia. Here, we expect more. There, we expect less. That’s prejudice.
The bigger issue in all of this is that romantic visions, rooted in prejudice and guilt, are simply not that helpful. They are not helpful to the churches being visited. They are not helpful to the visiting churches. And they are not helpful to the people involved. What’s helpful are real relationships. Meeting people, engaging people and remaining friends with those who you have an affinity with. Giving and receiving the gifts of hospitality. Worshipping together, praying together, and laughing together. Being present without the need to do anything other than being present. Being present without the need to compare. Eating good food and telling good stories. Being honest about what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. It’s in the midst of all of these things that we can learn from one another and grow in our faith.