Purpose and Postcards: American Churches Abroad

By Robert Wuthnow

(an excerpt from Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, published by the University of California Press, 2009. With publisher’s permission.)

In recent decades U.S. Christianity has significantly extended its activities abroad and is quietly redefining itself at home.

Spending by American churches on overseas ministries has risen to nearly $4 billion annually, an increase of almost 50 percent after inflation in a single decade. The number of full-time missionaries serving abroad has increased steadily over the same period and is significantly larger than a half century ago when the missionary movement was at its presumed all-time high.

During the past two decades, nearly every international faith-based relief and development agency has expanded dramatically, and the supporters of these organizations have become more actively engaged in foreign policy initiatives. By all indications, the number of Americans who do short-term volunteer work abroad as church builders, evangelists, religious teachers, technical advisors, and relief workers has also risen to a record high. A majority of U.S. congregations are currently involved in overseas ministries – through special offerings for humanitarian causes, supporting missionaries, hosting foreign speakers, forming committees, and sending out volunteers.

As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, Christianity in the U.S. is becoming transcultural, responding to the realities of globalization by engaging in activities that span borders. Transcultural congregations give priority to programs that honor their commitments at home but also seek to be engaged in the lives of others around the world. Church leaders increasingly stress having a vision that transcends the interests of those who gather for worship each week at the local church building. They contend that a congregation that focuses only on itself becomes insular. They want their members to understand that the Christian gospel is for all of humanity, and they encourage members to become informed about and engaged with the full range of conditions in which Christian teachings apply, whether this involves evangelization, feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, serving as peacemakers, caring for children, or showing hospitality to the stranger.

Theology of Dislocation

Transcultural Christianity poses new challenges that are only now coming into view. In the past, congregations worked best when they provided a safe, home-like community. The experience of home is nurtured through worship and fellowship, through the mundane intimacies of living in a familiar place and interacting with friends and neighbors. Theologically, a home-like congregation incarnates the mysterious indwelling of God.

In the best-case scenario, transculturalism dislocates this sense of security. Being not at home results in the troubling awareness that the security of home is fragile, not shared by those who have no homes, and even dependent on arrangements of power and exploitation that are inconsistent with the spirit of divine love. Living transculturally is thus to acknowledge the precariousness of being and the possibility of hope. The divine indwelling that manifests itself at home radiates outward.

U.S. churches are currently attempting to strike an appropriate balance between the local and the global in a wide variety of ways, many of which are broadening the horizons of their members. A non-denominational megachurch in southern California sends teams of technical advisors to help start microbusinesses in Kenya. A Baptist church in suburban Atlanta takes in a refugee family from Honduras and helps its members learn English. A Methodist youth group in Oklahoma spends a week in Guatemala painting an orphanage. A Roman Catholic parish in Philadelphia takes up a special offering to help its sister parish in Lithuania.

Gospel Tourism

By all indications, short-term mission trips have become quite popular. Nobody knows exactly when amateur volunteers started thinking of themselves as short-term missionaries, but studies of the phenomenon generally locate its origins in the 1950s and 1960s and suggest that it experienced a dramatic increase in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s.

The growing popularity of short-term mission trips has generated considerable debate among church leaders themselves. On the one hand, proponents argue that short-term volunteers greatly expand the work of Christianity in other countries by bringing extra hands to teach Bible classes and repair buildings or supplying technical advice to indigenous microbusinesses and medical assistance at health clinics. Proponents also envision these trips as ways to motivate long-term giving to mission programs and to recruit full-time missionaries.

On the other hand, critics contend that short-term volunteers are often poorly trained or organized and are essentially a drain on the busy schedules of full-time workers and on the scarce resources of those who provide hospitality. Gospel tourism, the pejorative term some critics use, can be a substitute for more serious engagement. As one leader observes, “I’m not sure that going to Cancun to witness on the beach for a few days is what our church should be supporting.” Whichever view is correct, short-term missions are an increasingly important transcultural bridge between churches in the U.S. and communities in other countries. They bring Americans into contact with other cultures and expose people elsewhere to American customs and values.

A woman who decided after several mission trips to enter full-time ministry remembers feeling a “mission high” as she helped people and saw smiles on their faces.

Like other kinds of voluntary service, mission trips seem to have the strongest effects when they are accompanied by adequate preparation and subsequent time for discussion and reflection. A woman who decided after several mission trips to enter full-time ministry remembers feeling a “mission high” as she helped people and saw smiles on their faces. That emotion provided motivation temporarily, but when she returned home she felt depressed because of the suffering she had seen and because her job in software sales seemed completely meaningless. A man who went on a mission trip to India had a similar experience, describing himself after his return as burdened with a kind of “heaviness.”

Global Citizenship

For both, the natural impulse was to deny their feelings and get back into their familiar routine as quickly as possible. Having a church group to talk with helped. Eventually, though, the momentary call they had felt to serve others became a permanent part of their identity. To heighten the chances of such beneficial effect, congregations and sponsoring agencies are increasingly adopting uniform standards, encouraging prospective participants to enroll in cross-cultural classes, offering debriefing sessions, and forming oversight committees.

The potential weaknesses of short-term mission trips include not only the actual cost but also the time and energy they require. Although a growing number of international agencies appear to be encouraging these trips, some leaders worry that efforts are being devoted to ameliorative projects at the expense of mobilizing around government policies that could also make a difference. Pastors worry that the trips sometimes become ends in themselves instead of springboards for wider service.

The fact that people who have served in other countries view the world and themselves differently is in itself not surprising (people who travel as tourists often say the same thing). What is interesting is how the world now seems to those who have seen it at its worst. For some, it does become flat, homogeneous, as one man notes in remarking about the common bond he has come to feel with people in vastly different circumstances. For most, it is rather the distinctiveness and meaning of America that comes into focus in a new way.

One churchgoer’s remark about the U.S. not being the “real world” illustrates one of the most common ways in which perspectives shift as American Christians become engaged in ministries abroad. He means not only that the privileges Americans enjoy are not common to much of humanity but also that life in the U.S. is in many ways superficial. Television and consumerism give us a false sense of reality.

Some ministers say there is danger in people getting addicted to the adventure and missing sight of the larger picture.

“All the commercialism and materialism,” sighs a woman who recently spent seven weeks in Mozambique, “the screaming message from every advertisement and all the commercials on TV – I just look at all that and it becomes very frustrating.” Being in another part of the world provides a measure of critical distance.

Being transcultural, then, is not so much to have lived in two places or even of having realized that one’s home is not as secure as it once seemed. Nor does transcultural Christianity mean that a person from the U.S. incorporates an African interpretation of the Trinity into his or her theology or a Latin American appreciation of the Holy Spirit.

Instead, for those most directly involved, the globalization of American Christianity is relativizing how they think about America. With privilege comes responsibility. Living in the U.S. is not a right that somehow has been earned, either by oneself or by the nation’s heroes and good practices, but a divine gift. It reinforces the sense that whatever one does must have purpose, even if the accomplishments that derive from that purpose are small.

Robert Wuthnow is chair of the department of sociology at Princeton University. Included among his books are Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats (Oxford University Press, 2010), After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 2007), and American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short (Princeton University Press, 2006).