Round Trip, Christianity Today International’s new documentary-style DVD and curriculum about the lessons and adventures of short-term missions trips, can be boiled down to these three maxims:
1. Humankind is made in the image of God.
2. We have a lot in common that we may not be aware of.
3. There are things that others can teach me.
In expounding upon these themes, Round Trip offers Christian leaders and laypeople vital wisdom and guidance on a ministry ritual that is becoming an increasingly standard part of contemporary church life.
Round Trip includes the typical information that likely can be found in a variety of training manuals for short-term mission candidates. But unlike many of those programs, this documentary and handbook bring an intimate, real-life narrative to the exciting but often uncomfortable experience of traveling to another country to share the gospel.
Using a series of five video and workbook sessions, the Round Trip curriculum attempts to realistically portray the cultural implications of contemporary mission trips. This may seem insignificant to some, as many believe the “gospel is the gospel” and culture is neutral. But as the documentary portion of this study course reveals, Christianity is a robust faith that is lived out in a variety of ways. The gospel is not culturally bound, but it is strong enough in truth and power to be presented in an assortment of ways within various cultures.
The twist in Round Trip is that it examines both American Christians — from a predominately white suburban church — who travel to Nairobi, Kenya, as well as Kenyan Christians who travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The juxtaposition of the Kenyan and American Christians is compelling.
Both groups do not know what to expect from their travels, but the difference between the American perspective of going to serve “the least of these” and the Kenyan perspective of joining hands to serve together is striking. The Americans begin with an “us and them” approach, while the Kenyans begin and end with simply “us.”
The American Christians generalize the needs of Kenya and reduce it to a tarnished and needy nation, but there is also much apprehension in their voices when they speak of visiting the “slums.” Paradoxically, there is no mention of the good works already occurring in Kenya nor the ecumenical fellowship they will have with Kenyan Christians. For the Americans, this is a project; it is a time to temporarily stop everyday life and pursue justice, service, and “missions.” The underlying American emphasis is on going to Africa to find opportunities to serve.
In Nairobi, the African Christians encourage one another to give back after receiving much from the West. They praise efforts of Americans and others who have cared for their physical needs when Africans were not able to; however, in their minds, what must be pursued now is community with their American brethren — a fellowship of equals. The African believers wish to reveal to the American believers what God is doing in Africa, and also participate in what God is doing in the U.S.
At times, however, the Kenyans harbor stereotypes and insensitivities of their own. In their minds, America and American Christianity can be reduced to a single monolithic culture. As they journey through the United States, this preconception is periodically challenged, and at times it inhibits a productive fellowship between them and their American hosts. It’s interesting to observe that American Christians aren’t the only ones whose culture occasionally hinders their ability to see the culture of others.
“I think seeing the Kenyan team’s story helps clarify that cross-cultural experiences are both hard and rewarding for everyone,” says Christianity Today‘s Andy Crouch, the documentary’s executive producer. “It’s not just ‘ugly Americans’ who are puzzled or disoriented by being in a new culture. Crossing cultures always requires us to depend on God in new ways, no matter which culture we are coming from.”
The film and the leader’s guide are filled with helpful tips and commentary from a variety of mission organizations, international pastors, American ethnic minorities, American ministry leaders, and others who have a grasp on the impact that culture has on how we view the world and how the gospel is accepted. Some advice is simple yet essential — get vaccinations, bring a limited number of outfits, and make sure that you have the correct documents for international travel.
Other advice deals with more complex issues, such as recognizing the socioeconomic and cultural baggage one is bringing to another country. In a poignant scene, the filmmakers show an American Christian who, in her own desire to love, gives out toys, trinkets, and bracelets to children at a Nairobi orphanage. Children react as if they were entranced by the pied piper. They rush after their benefactor and are seen, however innocently, developing a sense of dependency on white Americans and their gifts. As the curriculum authors break this down, they examine how the nuance between serving and patronizing is not easily discerned and warn of the dangers when empowerment and community is replaced by dependency and a one-way distortion of love.
One of the most complex scenes of cultural collision is an interaction between the pastor of the predominately white American church and the Kenyan missionaries. The Kenyans feel that their style of music and worship is not being valued by the North Carolinian white congregation. The white pastor suggests that this is “America,” that things are different here and folks simply don’t worship the same way. Clearly the white pastor’s blanketing of Christian worship as something that must be a certain way in America is shortsighted, but the film also demonstrates how the Kenyan Christians, in their zest for charismatic worship, initially fail to validate the worship style of the predominately white American Christians. To them, “American” worship was dull and unspiritual rather than a contemplative, prayerful expression of one’s faith.
It is tempting, as many American Christians have done, to portray foreign missions as the pinnacle of Christian engagement. Too often, we stereotype less-developed nations as spiritually inferior places that “need us.”
Says Crouch, “That’s why we decided to produce Round Trip — to provide a training resource for a new kind of short-term missions. The new round-trip missions are as much about receiving as giving. They are as much about learning as teaching. They are as much about what happens after we get home as what happens during the time we are there, and as much about lasting friendships as snapshots of brief meetings.”
This is where Round Trip is especially helpful. For most American evangelicals it has been normal for us to see ourselves as the center of the Christian universe. But if that was ever true, it certainly isn’t any longer. The latest demographics of global Christianity, which have been extensively reported by scholars such as Philip Jenkins, Soong-Chan Rah, and Mark Noll, reveal that the center of global Christianity is no longer Europe and North America, but Africa and Latin America.
A mature global south has emerged and “missions” has become a reciprocal act. In this new reality, all peoples of the Christian faith, regardless of denomination, ethnicity or nationality, must realize that none of us has a corner on the gospel or its cultural expression. We all have much to give and much to learn.
Still, while the overall effect of Round Trip rightly critiques American evangelicalism’s culturally narrow view of Christianity, it also shows the simple yet profound beauty of the short-term mission experience. Despite our cultural limitations and prejudices, when we take time away from our daily routine, stepping out on faith to intensely pursue justice, service, and evangelism, we are participating in a noble and holy venture.
If you or your church is considering a short-term international service trip, you’ll find the Round Trip documentary and curriculum to be a handy and provocative resource to watch, read, and discuss.
For more information about the Round Trip DVD and curriculum, visit RoundTripMissions.com. Photos courtesy of Fourth Line Films.