How consumerism infects cross-cultural mission - 3 signs you might have the virus

I remember a few years ago when the first supermarket opened in Phnom Penh.

Lucky Supermarket was big, bold and brightly-lit. The aisles were filled with all kinds of wonderful Western products. Wide-eyed Cambodian families would wander up and down the aisles pushing an empty cart, in complete amazement at a hundred different types of deodorant.

Who knew we needed to wear deodorant? 

Welcome to the modern world, people! - where your primary identity is to be a "Consumer" of products and services. We live to consume. We work, in order to have enough money to consume. What we cannot consume right now, we store - in storage units. 

We are Consumers. 

This is the Lucky Supermarket and Walmart age, where we have become accustomed to being able to pick and choose from a wide range of options - that we didn't even know we needed. Convenience and price are the twin pillars of this system.

Even our faith has become infected with this virus of consumerism.

Looking for a church to join? Go ahead and drive past a dozen options to the one with the best lights, preaching and music. Don't like it anymore? Bothered by annoying people in the church? Just switch churches. Can't be bothered with the hassle of it all? Live-stream a message. Ultimate convenience and low cost.

Coming soon to a screen near you - Netflix Church.

Even the way we do cross-cultural mission has become infected with the virus of consumerism. And like the Walmart products we prefer, lower cost is better. And convenience is paramount.

Cross-cultural mission no longer involves arduous months on board a ship, like the one my grandparents took to India. Now we can come and go within a week, and squeeze in a couple of days of shopping and sunbathing, thanks to cheap flight deals from Air Asia.

So, what's the big deal man? Why not embrace the low-cost convenience of modern cross-cultural missions? After all, 3 hours eating pretzels on a plane is infinitely preferable to to 3 months on a boat - right?! 

But seriously - major issues arise when we allow the values of consumerism to infect our pursuit of mission.

Simply put, convenience and "bang for your buck" are NOT Kingdom values. They are economic values. They are the priorities of the Empire. And they relentlessly undermine what God is wanting to do in the world. 

So, in case you're wondering, here are 3 signs your church or misson might be infected with the virus of consumerism...

But the virus feels SO goooood...

But the virus feels SO goooood...

Sign #1 - Short term has replaced long term

How can we fulfil our calling to mission, and not miss out on a happy life and career at home as well? How can we have our missions cake and eat it too?

Easy! Short term "mission" trips. In 2016, we can take our pick from the missions brochure of destinations and opportunities. And to make it all very convenient, mission organizations have even taken to advertising on our favourite Christian websites. 

Let's be honest. The majority of churches no longer send long term missionaries at all. None. At. All.

Instead, they send a revolving door of short term mission trippers. Excitement remains high. And the church gets a buzz of new energy. Everyone wins (except the poor recipients) but no-one pays much of a cost.

Missions that fits in my spare time? Sign me up!

Missions that fits in my spare time? Sign me up!

But what happens when all we engage in is short term mission?  I've addressed this issue in more depth here, but a couple of quick points:

Relationships remain shallow because the heart language of the people is never learnt. We cannot connect deeply. There is little sense of mutuality or true vulnerability. So, our relationships are never truly transformational. 

Because we never suffer with the people, we inadvertently model a low-cost, "hit-and-run" way of engaging in mission, that spreads into other parts of the world - just like our Lucky Supermarket chains. 

Finally, and perhaps most sadly, we are never truly transformed into the fulltime missionaries God made every single one of us to be - because we have reduced mission to a 2 week summer trip -  another box to tick in our pursuit of "life-changing experiences".

The antidote to this Short-termitis, is to recognize that the place of short term engagement is in the context of a life-long vocation to bring Good news to the poor. Short term trips are not primarily for doing mission, they are for gaining vision, glimpsing God's heart for the poor, awakening our souls and learning more.

Which brings me to the next symptom...

Sign #2 - Learning has gone out the window

When convenience and "bang for the buck" are driving factors, there is little reason to engage in mission as learners. After all, we probably won't return. Our commitment to the local people is not a sacrificial relationship where we tie our wellbeing to theirs.

Luckily, there are only two groups negatively affected by our lack of commitment to learning - ourselves and everyone else.

When we fail to learn the language and culture deeply - we are easily deluded about what the real needs and solutions are in a local community. We view everything through the glasses (paradigm) we brought from home. And we return home quickly, just as clueless - thinking we learned something significant.

For example, how many times have I heard a short-term visitor say these words, "The local people are SO happy, even though they are so poor - they smile all the time. Those welfare-bludgers back home don't know how good they have it!"

Total, and utter rubbish. It would have been better for that person NOT to have come at all, rather than fall into the cliche of romanticizing the poor overseas while demonizing the poor on their own doorstep.

So by not taking the time to learn deeply, we miss out on being changed by God ourselves.

The antidote? It's actually simple, and yet incredibly difficult. The answer is to invest a lot of time and effort towards deep, prayerful learning. This investment towards understanding is the very first, most basic step towards change. Yet not many are willing to pay the cost. Are you?

Sign #3 - Return on investment is our primary measurement

Money, money, money. 

Because our main way of thinking and behaving is economically driven, it's not surprising that we have fallen into the trap of allowing economic measures of success in mission to become central.

How much kindness can I buy for $3.50?

How much kindness can I buy for $3.50?

Return on investment becomes the ultimate measure. How many wells can we have dug for our money? How many school rooms can we build? How many children can we sponsor?

The problem with these economic measurements is not that those things are bad. It's that we fail to measure all kinds of important Kingdom things.

When was the last time your missions committee measured kindness, companionship, spirituality or patience? Justice, mercy, humiliity, joy or love? 

These are the values of the Kingdom. And they simply cannot be measured using our Walmart tape measures.

So, we tend to overlook them. We tend to bypass them in search of the tangible. It's not that we believe they are not important, it's just that our priorities easily get swayed by our consumerist mindset.

For further reading on this topic check out Scott Bessenecker's groundbreaking book, Overturning Tables.

So, what can be done? How can we lance the boil of consumerism on the backside of our missions teams? Do they even want us lancing boils on their backsides?

Consumerism will not just magically disappear from its central place in our society. It needs to be replaced by something. The answer lies in a sacrificial return to the values and life of Jesus - not just in cross-cultural mission, but in every part of our lives.

This is the same Jesus who asked us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him (Mt 16:24). There is nothing convenient about carrying a cross. It is an instrument of death... Death to convenience. Death to comfort. Death to affluence. Death to easy answers and low-cost solutions. And death to flag-waving triumphalism.

Cross-cultural mission is HIGH-cost and often low return.

It is a willingness to love our neighbours to the point of moving in with them. Here and overseas.

It is a call to pour ourselves out on their behalf, even if they get our couch dirty and they overstay their welcome. Here and overseas.

It is an invitation to embrace the poor and their children, even if we fall sick to the same diseases and experience the same oppression. Here and overseas.

It will not be completed in 2 weeks. It will more likely take 2 decades.

And it may just cost you everything.

And that's about as far from a Lucky Supermarket experience as you can get.