Americans & missions (Wuthnow)

Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow (CT interview with David Neff):

. . . Since 2000, for instance, 12 percent of active churchgoers reported having gone overseas on a short-term mission while in their teen years. That is up from 5 percent in the 1990s, 4 percent in the 1980s, and only 2 percent before that. Currently, this represents about 100,000 congregations (or one-third of all congregations) every year sending teams that average about 18 members.

The rise in short-term missions accompanies a rise in giving to transnational ministry. U.S. church donations to both humanitarian and evangelistic transnational ministry now total about $4 billion annually. We see a similar rise in direct connections to congregations in the developing world, as modern travel and communications technology allow congregations to bypass denominational channels. . .

. . . The number of long-term missionaries has grown, the number of medium-term missionaries has grown, and the best guess is the number of short-term mission volunteers has grown. . .

“Some African countries, like Ghana or Rwanda or Kenya, are almost saturated with churches and ngos trying to help.”

Other points:

  • Congregation-to-congregation relationships are gaining more traction than old denominational connections.
  • Economic and educational development, technology, ease of travel, etc. has made it easier for Americans to connect more directly with “indigenous” churches.
  • The rise of foreign immigrants in America churches are fostering more cross-cultural and international relationships.
  • What congregations are learning:
    • There is no one-size-fits-all model. They’re learning to tailor their programs to local needs by listening better.
    • They are just one of many organizations, and so they have to carve out a niche.
    • Short-term mission trips are a mixed blessing. Do them, but you may want to say the reason we’re doing them is that they help us more than they help the host congregation. Or, we’re going to do it even though we know that it’s expensive and not very efficient, because it is a spiritual uplift to the people who go.

On Thomas Freedman, The World is Flat: “With Friedman, you miss what’s happening at the bottom of a lot of societies.”

Another thing to remember is the cultural and power differences, power in the sense of both political weight and economic influence. If an African church welcomes visitors from the United States and says, "We are so glad to have you here," yes, they’re sincere, but they also know that they’re welcoming people from America, who add some prestige and some finances. That may become a paternalistic relationship that goes sour for both sides, or it may turn out to be mutually edifying. It simply has to be done with eyes open and some understanding of the cultural, economic, and political differences.

CT: Wuthnow interview with David Neff

Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches
by Robert Wuthnow
University of California Press, May 2009
360 pp., $26.95

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