Wednesday, July 28, 2010

    Co-Mission: An Alternative Approach to Mission with Youth

    What is the difference between "mission" and "co-mission?"  I recently discovered the answer to that question in conversation with a missionary to Haiti.

    For many of us, the youth mission trip season will be winding down in the next few weeks as students get ready to go back to school and start band and sports practices.  My own congregation has seen a steady flow of youth groups almost every week of this summer who have come to our church to stay in our Urban Mission Inn while they volunteer in inner city St. Louis.  One group was blessed to be able to hear from Patrick Bentrott, a missionary to Haiti through Global Ministries, who was visiting St. Louis for a week.

    Patrick gave us a great overview of the history of Haiti and the history of missionary involvement in Haiti then and now.  I certainly was aware that the old understanding of mission work involved Christians going into a foreign lands and attempting to convert the populace (whether they wanted it or not), working independently of indigenous entities, while also attempting to impose their (usually European) culture and values on the locals.  This kind of evangelism is the reason, for example, that Christian missionaries are still not welcome in China today.  But it surprised me to hear that this approach to mission is still alive and well, in Haiti and other places.  Apparently, it is still very common for Christan groups to walk into other countries and set the agenda for their mission work, completely independent of the desires of the native persons living in those regions.  

    As an alternative to this approach, Patrick advocated for what he calls "co-mission." In this model, foreign missionaries help in areas where they have been invited and where local faith-based organizations, led by indigenous persons, have indentified the needs of the people.  Foreign missionaries then come in and partner with these local groups, allowing the locals to help set the agenda and priorities for the work of the missionary.  Such an approach acknowledges that God is already at work all over the world, rather than the missionary believing she or he is "bringing God to the masses." 

    How might this co-mission approach work with our youth ministries?  Certainly, some of us are already involved in international mission trips that are organized and led by indigenous persons in the places where we travel to serve.  But, what about locally?  How might we use this approach to serve in our own backyards?  In the case of the Urban Mission Inn ministry at my own church, the work that our visiting volunteers do is always planned in partnership with on-the-ground community organizations who have a long history in the inner city and know what real needs exist.  We work through these groups, rather than deciding on our own what the needs are and just sending folks out to do what we think should be done in our neighborhoods. 

    Another good example of a local version of "co-mission" can be found here at Benjer McVeigh's blog. Rather than taking an international mission trip this summer, Benjer's church partnered with their city to identify and work on homes in the community in need of repair (be sure to read the linked article to get the full story).  Instead of starting by asking, "What do we want to do as a mission project for our city?" they went to the city leaders who already knew where the greatest needs were and offered to partner with the city in meeting those needs.

    This co-mission approach is a far cry from a youth ministry I used to serve which began its summer mission trip plans by first asking "Where do we want to travel this summer?" and "What kind of work do we want to do when we get there?"  The co-mission approach is a way of taking the focus off our own wants and desires as missionaries and instead being flexible enough to see where God's Spirit might be leading us in mission together.

    -- Brian


    dev said...

    I agree. I think we have an opportunity to model the discernment process with youth in planning mission trips in this way. What is it we want to do? Serve? How do we find out who we can serve, what is needed, and if we are able to do so without being an additional burden? In this way we are teaching our youth to internalize what it means to serve one another. We help them remember that the mission is God's and so we should always include God in the discernment. It is also nice to anticipate what we might receive in these interactions, then share afterward how we actually experienced God in the work.
    Peace, Dev

    Benjer said...

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Brian (and the kind words!). To go a little deeper on our church's approach to missions, we have two basic principles we try to follow, whether it's local or international short-term trips/projects: 1) We simply try to follow what God is already doing in whatever particular area in which we feel called to serve; and 2) we work, where possible, not only with leaders in the local church and area, but under their authority and as their servants. I think that's simply a different way of saying what you've already said, but these two principles help us when we build new relationships via short-term mission trips (such as Haiti). I've learned much about this from our senior leadership and missions pastor, but I've still got a long ways to go.