The prevailing notion of ecclesiastical mission is “hands-on mission in my backyard,” which combines the popular desire to do something locally with our wish for hands-on involvement. This type of high-tough localism may have been a good idea before globalization of the world economy. It may even have been appropriate at one time because, in the past, fewer of the people who touched our lives were far away. In the not-too-distant past you could find the bank owner or the factory manager who had genuine authority over his or her work. But today, high-touch localism as mission theory is anachronistic.
Many anachronisms are wonderful luxuries: homegrown food, candlelight, natural-fiber clothing, wood stoves. But anachronisms can also be dangerous, especially when it comes to helping people or furthering the mission of Jesus Christ. Reality matters.
A typical example is support of the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Much has been done in recent years to sophisticate charity. The Miami Food Bank’s partnership with Publix food markets prevents waste, creates jobs, and feeds the poor more than the canned goods carried to church by well-meaning members—but the question of sustainable economies remains. Why do people not have the jobs needed to feed themselves? What has happened to “good” jobs? In contrast, how much profit do international fast food chains make?
Yet when questions about the availability of jobs is discovered to have non-local, regional, or even global answers, we run into a wall. We can’t make, create, or negotiate the local jobs we need. The power to do so has disappeared.
The problem is not just that a focus on local high-touch missions detracts us from global matters. The real problem with the backyard mission theory is that in a global economy, too few people have a backyard. Main Street and the local economy have disappeared from most communities. And as a result, mission committees often find themselves taking care of the wounded people the river sends down—without checking for problems upstream.
Structural change seems less urgent if the only mission site is local. The same is true of systemic analysis: Why are the homeless shelters and soup kitchens full in Hoboken, New Jersey or Liberty City, Miami? But the answers to these questions lie not in the failure of the local economy so much as in its disappearance into a larger one that creates local poverty.
The first people who are left behind when a local economy is lost are the unprepared locals, and I would never argue that congregations should abandon their care of these people. I would argue, however, that local charity must join hands with global analysis. Whence poverty today? What future trends can we anticipate? How do we link with others to do the groundwork that will humanize the global economy downstream?
The first concrete step local churches can take toward global missions is to rethink the question “Is there a way to do global missions locally?” Questioning how to keep church members involved in their own communities mythologizes poverty by making it appear to be a backyard matter, and in turn fosters an attitude that is as dangerous to the poor as it is to our own members. In reality, poverty’s source is not local—but neither is its solution. The source of poverty lies in larger, complex systems that concentrate power and wealth way beyond the backyard.
While the slogan “Act locally; think globally” conveys an important idea, we must be careful not to distort it—as with federal support for faith-based organizations. Misdirection of this type can enforce localism and undermine structural change that is needed on a much larger scale.
A story will illustrate the nature of this misunderstanding and misdirection. I think of a young and wealthy church member’s family who, on the plane trip home from a visit to a third world country, came up with the idea of selling the family’s vacation condo in order to build a hospital in the country they had just visited.
They wanted to do hands-on missions that made a difference in people’s lives, with no long committee meetings or dealing with boards, staff, search committees, protocols, or other denominational interference. I understood their yearning to make a difference in a simple way.
Understanding the Question
There are a hundred poor countries, and the church builds the fire engine to put out the fires of their poverty. It develops in people the capacity to care enough to do more than “just” band-aids or “just” charity.
A recent cartoon shows what we are up against: “That’s right,” say gorged corporations to the U.S. Congress, “get smaller, weaker. You’ll be more nimble and you won’t get in our way.” Hands-on missions in the backyard is a myth that can perpetuate untruth, and it is important to provide education about its falsehood. We need to be more prepared to combat the Backyard Mythology than corporations are to make money.
We are at the beginning of a global shift in thought and action that could be as significant as the Reformation period. And if we believe that God works through history, not outside it, it is time for mission committees and congregations to listen deeply, because no one less than God is talking.
So, the first priority, before choosing any direction, is to get the questions right: How do we link global missions locally and local missions globally, in ways that are godly and just both at home and far away? What is the destination of our mission? Is the entire globe not our new backyard?