“Religion in our time has been captured by a tourist mindset.” (Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction).
I love to travel. There are few things I enjoy more than picking somewhere to go, figuring out the most interesting places to experience, and then getting on a plane and diving in. And yet as much as I love traveling, I also admit that I’ve only visited a few places that changed me. The place that comes quickly to mind is South Africa. In 2007, I was pastoring a church in Little Rock, Arkansas. Our newly hired Minister of Mission and I were talking about how we could create a different kind of mindset and awareness in our congregation that helped people recognize God’s work in the world. “We need to get people out of their comfort zones, and preferably in conversation with global Christianity,” he told me. We agreed that was a step our congregation needed to make, and then he looked at me and he said “For this to work, you’re going to have be all in. Our congregation won’t buy in unless the Senior Pastor buys in” (meddlesome Mission Ministers…the crosses we have to bear).
But that is not the end of the story. A couple of years later, we were getting ready to send our third team to South Africa when my friend and colleague said to me over lunch one day, “it’s time for you to go back, otherwise people are going to start to get the idea that mission work is tourism. We need to model a deeper commitment.”
This article is not about avoiding mission tourism. That’s important and you should do that, but I’ve got a different focus here. This is about ministry tourism. Ministry tourism is what happens when, tired, or bored or beat down from the ongoing work of ministry, we start looking around for something that we think will bring us or our congregation life and joy without realizing that what we’re really after isn’t transformation but a quick fix.
The temptation is understandable. Some of the most enjoyable trips I’ve ever taken happened because I desperately needed a break and getting away helped me do that. I cannot imagine there’s anyone reading this article who doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Ministry is amazing but it’s also really hard, probably as hard as it’s ever been in most of our lifetimes. And so, we cast about in search of something, anything that will bring a little bit of light and life.
If that’s you I’m describing, please don’t hear me beating you up for that. Is there a book on a new topic that you want to read, a professional development opportunity that’s different than anything you’ve ever tried, a ministry initiative that you’ve seen another congregation try that you’d like to try where you are? All of those can be life-giving, but if all we do is make a momentary journey into novelty, the life we are given will almost certainly be short-lived.
Novelty in our travels and in our ministry is often enjoyable but superficiality often comes along for the ride. Nicholas Carr, the former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, wrote a provocative book about the impact that the internet and social media are having on our brains. He said “What the [new technology] seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
“When was the last time you went deep as minister?”
The topic of this edition of the CHC digest is “Best Practices for Ministers.” Often, when I had conversations about best practices for ministry with pastoral colleagues, I was trying to figure out the fastest, easiest way to solve a problem or improve a process. I was treating ministry like I perform google searches–get in, look around for what I want, cut/paste and move on. I’d zip across the surface of an idea or a topic or a ministry practice. I might even learn a thing or two, but it was not transformative.
There is a way to think about best practices, however, that takes into account the timeliness of new experiences, fresh questions, and present challenges, while avoiding the trap of superficiality. My suggestion is to be very intentional about where you want to go diving. For instance, in our congregation in Little Rock we were not just trying to send people on trips, we were trying to create a missional mindset. We wanted to find ways to reconstruct how we thought about things like evangelism, justice, and cross-cultural relationships. And so for several years, I wasn’t just helping take teams to South Africa, I was reading missiology (in conversation with other ministers), and I was part of a staff team that was dreaming up contextual forms of outreach and evangelism as well as social justice and advocacy. Honestly, I didn’t always know how the time and effort I was putting in would bear fruit, I just had an intuitive sense that the deeper I went, the more I would learn that would shape me as a minister and benefit the congregation that I served.
So what about you? Where should you dive? In most cases, you’ll discover that the best place for you to dive is into some combination of your enduring passions, your most persistent questions, and your congregation’s present needs. A pastor at a congregation I worked with in Virginia was passionate about cross-cultural relationships and advocacy for immigrants and refugees. At the very same time, her congregation was experiencing both numerical and financial decline. All that led her to take a class on social entrepreneurship. She had an intuitive sense that she needed to find some conversation partners and ways of thinking that would help her thinking deeply and differently and equip her to do the same within her congregation. After a couple of years, her congregation opened a craft market that served as a way for refugees and immigrants to make money. A few years after that, her congregation invited two local non-profit organizations (whose work focuses on the same population served by the craft market) to begin sharing their building. Those organizations provide a moderate amount of rental income, but more importantly they’ve brought a network of relationships with them that are having an impact on the relationships the congregation is building in the community. Still, after almost a decade that pastor continues to be hungry to read and learn. She still has a surplus of passion and a few unanswered questions, so she’s still diving in.
So here’s my advice for you, don’t go looking for a topic or a practice where you’ll be willing to settle for being a tourist. Look for a place where you want to be awhile, to dive deep. Those are the places where transformational ministry occur.